Every year, more and more of the world’s population moves into cities. The number of megacities is growing exponentially. Both of these global patterns and their inevitable consequences for military operations are well documented. Yet we still do not have units that are even remotely prepared to operate in megacities. If we want to find success on the urban battlefields the US Army will inevitably find itself fighting on in the future, that needs to change.
Throughout history, military forces either sought to avoid or simply had no need to engage in urban combat. Most military doctrine, and the strategic theory it is built upon, encourages land forces to bypass, lay siege to, or—if required—isolate and slowly clear cities from the outside in. The great armies of the world have historically fought for cities rather than in cities, a distinction with a significant difference. In cases where military forces had no choice but to operate within cities, the environment, almost without exception, proved very costly in both military and civilian casualties. Today, many armies have accepted that global population growth and urbanization trends will increasingly force military operations into crowded cities, and military forces must therefore be capable of conducting the full range of operations in large, dense urban areas. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently remarked that the Army “has been designed, manned, trained and equipped for the last 241 years to operate primarily in rural areas.” But that is about to change. Milley continued:
In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. . . . We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organized like that right now.
But despite the clear recognition that armed forces will increasingly be required to fight in urban areas, no army has committed to train, organize, and equip forces specifically to operate in cities. It is time for the US Army to do just that.
A 2016 United Nations report estimated 54.5 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 2030, that percentage is projected to rise to 60 percent. As a result of this rural-to-urban migration, cities themselves are growing. In 2016, there were 512 cities with at least one million inhabitants globally. By 2030, a projected 662 cities will have at least one million residents. And the number of “megacities” in the world—those with ten million residents or more—is projected to grow from thirty-one to forty-one in the same period.
In 2014, the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) chose megacities to be the organizing theme for its yearlong research projects. Concept teams looked at the unique characteristics and challenges of a megacity, future maneuver and mobility concepts, Army force design considerations, personnel talent management, and other topics, assessing the requirements for operating in megacities. The conclusions of the SSG research are clear: megacities are unavoidable, they are potentially the most challenging environment the Army has ever faced, and the Army is unprepared to operate in them. The SSG also recommended that the Army, charged with the mandate of preparing forces for sustained operations on land, take the lead in training, organizing, and equipping forces for megacities.
As William Adamson noted in his 2015 Parameters article, “Megacities and the US Army,” the research conducted by the SSG was not the first to take a long and hard look at the challenges of large urban areas. Adamson highlighted a 2000 Government Accounting Office report, which noted that “despite a growing unease that the urban environment is a known vulnerability of US forces, DoD has not made a major commitment to dramatically improve urban capabilities.” Shortly after this, the 2001 Defense Planning Guidance commissioned a study and eighteen-month project that resulted in the Joint Urban Operations (JUO) Master Plan 2012–2017.
Interest in the megacities problem did not stop after the SSG study. The Army’s 2014 Unified Quest wargames included megacities scenarios in its study of future operational environments. The US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Mad Scientist project continues to look at technological solutions to the challenges posed by megacities. Multiple organizations and agencies continue to assess the Army’s capabilities gaps through the standard Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel Facilities, and Policy (DOTMLPF-P) framework.
But despite all of this study, no change has been made to the Army of today to prepare for tomorrow’s operations in megacities—a tomorrow that could be here very soon.
One ongoing military study of megacities is the NATO Urbanization Project. Initiated in 2014, it is a conceptual study of potential crisis situations in urban systems, consequences of urbanization, and the impact on NATO military operations. The project includes seventeen NATO nations, sixteen NATO Centers of Excellence, and representatives of academia and industry.
In the project’s most recent experiment, the NATO team conducted a wargame to determine the capabilities needed to achieve the goals of three likely missions in 2035: response to mass migration, natural disaster, and inner-city turmoil. Within these missions, the wargame specified that a brigade conduct three operations in a megacity—joint forcible entry, major combat, and subsequent stability operations—without unacceptable levels of military or civilian casualties. On top of identifying capabilities gaps in mobility, command and control, and intelligence, the study found that normal employment concepts and force packages for a brigade were wholly inadequate. In future experiments, game participants will be given 5,000 personnel (the high end of a conventional brigade’s manpower) and asked to design a force specifically for the urban environment.
Training, manning, and equipping a 5,000-soldier force to specialize in urban operations would be a novel concept; no military force in the world has attempted this endeavor despite the well-documented challenges of military operations in dense urban terrain.
The US Army purposely avoids specialization. The Army’s Brigade Combat Team (BCT) structure of light infantry, mechanized infantry, and armored formations are specifically designed for global deployment to conduct any and all missions. While these “general purpose forces” may be designed for major combat operations against near-peer adversaries, they are expected to be able to adapt their force structure to any enemy in any environment.
There are a few exceptions—like the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, designed for “large-scale joint forcible entry operations while simultaneously executing surgical special operations raids across the globe.” But the “general purpose” rule holds true for the bulk of Army units. For example, even BCTs that are given special peacetime missions, like those that serve as the opposing force at one of the Army’s three combat training centers or testing modernization concepts and equipment, are required to maintain readiness for wartime missions just like any other unit in the Army. But the degree of specialized training, manning, and equipment required to effectively fight in megacities is incompatible with the “general purpose” approach.
Of course, urban warfare is not exclusively a future phenomenon. Much has been learned from urban battles in recent history: the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–95); the Battle of Mogadishu (1993); Russian operations in Grozny (1994–95 and 1999–2000); US operations in Baghdad (2003) and Fallujah (2004); Lebanese operations in Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon (2007); and the Second Battle of Donetsk (2014–15). But the broad lessons of these cases have yet to truly inform Army training for urban combat, which for most units consists mainly of tactical training (e.g., room clearing drills with four-man teams). The Army would be much better served by the creation of an entire unit dedicated to preparing to operate in dense urban environments, particularly megacities.
The lessons from recent cases of urban warfare and the many studies on the unique requirements posed by operating in a megacity can be used to design such a unit today. Starting from scratch, a unit could be built based on the specific requirements we know a megacity would call for. The unit leadership would need extreme flexibility and authority in manning, staffing, and equipping. The first attempt will inevitably not be right. But it will be a starting point from which to examine remaining unanswered questions: What are the necessary skills of an urban warrior? What is the right mix of enablers and cross-trained soldiers? What are the best movement and maneuver techniques? If megacities represent a unique unit of analysis, how will that inform this new unit’s mission planning?
We know we will be fighting in megacities and that it will pose major new challenges. Successfully meeting these challenges requires bold action—and requires it now. A new unit would serve as the primary learning organization for the Army and the vanguard of development of planning and doctrine for fighting in megacities.
Both recent studies and global trends forecast the unavoidable deployment of military forces to achieve national objectives in megacities. Given this, committing 5,000 soldiers to man, train, and equip a unit designed specifically to prepare for such a deployment would be a bold insurance plan, and the right choice.
Image credit: Hugh Derr
Who on earth in America (except maybe President Bannon) thinks the U.S. military should be sent into megacities — getting them all killed — and leaving everybody in worse situations than before? This is utterly insane. The only reason for these kinds of proposals is for more money for the U.S. Army.
What we should do and what we have to do are often two different things.
Before the beginning of World War II no army was well prepared for urban combat. As is the case here it was considered that it would slow down mobile warfare and mean heavier casualties for both sides and civilians. The German army had basic tactics for forming Ad Hoc Assault units in combination with pioneers to clear towns which were created just in case but did not even consider using tanks in urban terrain. The only other force in the world prepared for combat in urban terrain was the USMC, but this was limited to fighting in villages as those found in the Caribbean and Pacific. And then SUPRISE!!!! Cherbourg, Stalingrad, Caen, Falaise, Anzio, Saipan, Berlin and a whole lot of others.
Therefor we must prepare for urban combat, as we have no idea what combat against a major power will look like in the modern day, and irregular forces have already been fighting in urban terrain just as shown. I wouldn’t exactly expect a war between NATO and China, India, Russia or whatever, but as soon as a system which renders nuclear missiles useless is created the threat of war is far more likely.
These ideas were written up under President Soros.
With no offense intended perhaps it could be said that the Enemy doesn’t give us a vote. If they decide to “hold the city” I would imagine that it’s fair to say that they aren’t going to canvass us for our approval. Out of all of the things that they may not get to choose this isn’t one of them—they are the decider.
The first thing they’re going to throw out is that “Unacceptable” Casualties requirement. The only choices they may have is which side suffers them. Also why aren’t siege tactics being considered? Most megacities would only last a day or two cut off from the rest of the world.
I would say that they would have considered siege tactics as it has been the go to solution for this problem for more then two millennia. However modern military history has shown that despite this, urban battles have still been necessary and that when sieges have been used they have had less then uniform success such as in Leningrad during WWII. Now I am not saying you are wrong and siege warfare is probably going to come back into focus in the next few decades. However I think we have seen in this and the last decade that militaries will be forced face to operate in urban environments. To answer your question more directly, I assume the army doesn’t feel confident that they can always completely surround and cut off a multi-kilometre urban sprawl. Furthermore the most common counter to a siege is to stockpile basic supplies needed to survive long enough to hold out (Whether this is doable with multi-million inhabitant cities I don’t know) and leading to a protracted siege that can be as costly as a urban war.
The premise is that we may/or are likely to be compelled, for national/strategic interests, to conduct operations in a megacity, be they: humanitarian (epidemic, natural disaster, human security etc.), military (state/non-state actors), terror threats, or even diplomatic/financial (failed state/failed megacity). One cannot lay siege to tens of millions of non-combatants without creating global effects (financial, diplomatic, economic etc.), as well as creating many millions of refugees flooding into neighboring regions/states/cities. It has been postulated that the flows (data, people, transportation, services, goods etc.) in and out of a megacity cannot be interrupted for more than 5 days without creating s significant regional disruption. Many megacities lie within larger connected hubs of as many as 100 million people, so minimizing disruption is a necessity. If we accept that we will have to operate in these complex environments, then it behooves us to study how to do so most effectively.
Are we changing from the MDB bus and getting on the Mega-City Brigade (MCB) bus. Hey, a new acronym, I get an AAM.
Please–before we start arguing about the makeup of an brigade optimized for urban operations, can we make a swag about how many we would need in your average megacity (I am thinking quite a few); and rationalize why we would expend the effort to create another specialized brigade vs providing our BCTs GOOD urban training–maybe a better place to start IMHO. Theoretically, we have already designed our BCTs to operate in urban areas; and many would say that we have built up quite a bit of experience in operating them over the last decade (at least within stability operation). By definition if we make special urban brigade(s) then it will either be suboptimized for operations outside of the urban area or it will be multi-environment capable e.g. MORE expensive. Serious work needs to be done-we can’t just create a new unit for every task, condition, and standard.
Major Spencer is a military genius without equal!!!
I think it’s worth noting that SSG III continued the research of SSG II and offered, in partnership with several collaborating organizations, a few different proposed operating concepts for extending the operation reach and capacity of land force units forced to operate in dense urban areas.
I say “forced” because I think we all acknowledge that ground-based urban operations are often the least preferred technique. That said, the Army cannot simply say, “we don’t do that.” Yet this remains a recurring response to the question of megacities: don’t go – followed closely by “nuke ’em.” I would humbly offer that if these are the only two options megacities are not a an Army problem. If, however, the options must fall somewhere between “don’t go” and “nuke ’em” the Army must be prepared to do something meaningful in these spaces.
SSG III’s research focused on ways to augment our forces – as opposed to simply throwing more people at the problem. We realized pretty early on in our research that we will never have enough personnel to out number the problems posed by a 10 million person city. The time for innovation is now and I would encourage our military leaders to stop ignoring the megacity in the room because it’s a problem they don’t want to have.
As in “elephant-in-the-room”, eh Rick. Enjoy your comment. We’re you there for the seminar, Sir?
The bio of the author lists him as a scholar, and in the article he discusses academics who are included in this NATO urbanization project evaluating mega cities. I find this rather amusing because any true scholar or someone considered to be in the academia world would know that war and military intervention of any kind is wrong. especially when it comes to the homeland. These ‘scholars’ would rather deploy more violence and have control over your every move than work toward peace and work toward a world where there is no poverty, where everyone is given the essential goods and services and the right to their own freewill to pursue the dreams they desire. But as we all know, peace isn’t profitable and our dreams of a fruitful life aren’t in the plans of the lunatics who run the world. They want it all for themselves and none of it for us.
So. Would things be a different if it were stated as – conduct military operations in a megacity? Maybe I’m not up on doctrine; but, it used to be that combat was a ‘spot’ on the range of military operations. I suppose the expected outcome is that assistance and security operations in urban areas preclude radicalization and the creation of ungoverned spaces. A reactive approach would be isolation after the fact, maybe a siege. The proposed preactive approach recommends we consider building the ability, capabilities, to reverse security threats in very large, complex urban areas – beginning now. Slightly restating what’s been said before, what we want is irrelevant what we have chosen is at hand. If our national (security) policies are built off of global engagement, every security surprise is bad, then … .
I fully agree with MAJ Spencer’s analysis and recommendation. The problem is the bureaucracy that is the U.S. Army.
I had the distinct honor to serve with MAJ John Spencer at the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group when Cohort II addressed the issue of megacities. MAJ Spencer is spot on. However, the institution that is the Department of Defense is the problem, not the solution, no matter what the current Chief of Staff may say.
B. H. Liddell Hart famously stated: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.” A megacity Brigade Combat Team (BCT) is a new idea; the Army still has yet to get a lot old old ideas out before this initiative could begin.
A large part of the problem is the Brigade Combat Team itself. The BCT is the coin of the realm for the U.S. Army. It is how the Army measures capability and readiness. GEN Daniel Allyn, U.S. Army vice chief of staff, has told House Armed Services Committee members at a Tuesday hearing the service branch needs funds that will match authorized increase in end-strength levels to address training and equipping gaps.
The Army said Wednesday it found that only 50 percent of division headquarters, nearly 33 percent of the brigade combat teams and 25 percent of combat aviation brigades meet combat readiness requirements to fight within a 30-day period.
The service branch added that three out of 58 brigade combat teams can be immediately deployed in the event of a crisis.
The Army likes standardization. The BCTs are fairly standardized units of action with some distinctions. Some BCTs are heavy; some are light. Most are not ready, trained and available to fight as per GEN Allyn’s testimony. Even though the need is clear, the fundamental issue is that BCTs are designed to do essentially the same thing, and that is to fight as a STANDARD combat unit. With the current state of affairs of BCTS writ large, there will be no appetite to create something unique/different/special until the health of all BCTs is fixed. No one knows when that objective will be reached. Also, a significant number of BCTs belong to the National Guard. None of these BCTS has much of a chance to be designated as THE megacities BCT because they are not first to fight. Active Duty BCTS are first to fight and the Army will simply not designate an existing Active Duty BCT along the lines MAJ Spencer proposes.
Today, we have a Army that is still trying to find itself after the Long War, ie, the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During Cohort II, we also studied the concept of Strategic Landpower, a bumper sticker at the time due to “pivot” to the Pacific area. Where is this “new” idea of Strategic Landpower? During Cohort II, I wrote an independent paper on another bumper sticker entitled “Regionally Aligned Forces: “Unanswered Questions and Unforeseen Opportunities.” What is the status of Regionally Aligned Forces today? Both Strategic Landpower and Regionally Aligned Forces have faded to black and are virtually nothing but past buzzwords. Maybe they are considered old ideas that have been purged from the Army lexicon.
MAJ Spencer has presented a significant new idea for the Army to consider, but I fear this is just one more initiative researched and presented by one of the Army’s best and brightest. But it has no champion. It has tepid support two years after the Strategic Studies Group presented it. With the current state readiness of the Army’s BCTs, there is little chance a megacities Brigade Combat Team will ever be realized. I will be the first to apologize if it is.
If megacities are not nuclear targets, why are we maintaining nuclear weapons? I realize it’s hard to talk about that level of action with a straight face anymore, but really, if 10 million-plus citizens cannot or will not throw out an occupying army on their own, what business/hope do we have in the city with a brigade? In other words, if 10 million-plus citizens are not repelling an occupation, they must be providing critical support to the enemy. Why shouldn’t they be targeted for destruction?