Strategic Horizons: U.S. Military Is Not Ready for the Age of Megacities

Strategic Horizons: U.S. Military Is Not Ready for the Age of Megacities
Photo: Ariel view of Mogadishu, Somalia, Dec. 1, 1992 (Department of Defense photo by Tech. Sgt. Perry Heimer).
Many security analysts and futurists agree that in the coming decades the prevalent form of conflict will not take place in remote rural areas like in Afghanistan but in the massive, highly connected megacities that are already experiencing most of the world’s population and economic growth. In his recent book “Out of the Mountains,” David Kilcullen, one of the most astute thinkers on the changing nature of security, argues that all aspects of human life in the future will be “crowded, urban, networked and coastal.” Megacities will be the locus of economic energy and cultural creativity in the future, but they will also be the source of much of the world’s insecurity. Some megacities will be, in Kilcullen’s words, “feral,” like Mogadishu today; others will have pockets of stability and order surrounded by slum belts with little or no government control. State security services will struggle to deal with multidimensional instability intermixing crime and political conflict, whether based on ethnicity, race, religion, class or pure patronage. He predicts frequent irregular and unconventional warfare, stabilization operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief with “rare but dangerous instances” of state-on-state conflict. To be effective in this sort of environment, security forces will need to blend police, infantry and military special forces. They must have the capability for highly granular intelligence collection and knowledge management and for rapid networking, partnership building and innovation. Technology, while helpful, will not be a panacea. Drones and satellites, Kilcullen notes, can see any house in an urban area from the outside but cannot know who lives in it or what is moving underneath it. The security forces for megacities, in other words, will need to be very different from today’s fast-moving, high-tech militaries that rely as much as possible on long-range precision strikes—in other words, different from the type of military the U.S. has now and plans to keep for decades. Put bluntly, the architects of American security have not begun to adjust to the coming age of megacities. Today’s U.S. armed forces are designed for conflict with a clear delineation between war and peace, a clear notion of who the enemy is and with high-tech, identifiable armed forces that have high-signature heat and electronic emissions. U.S. forces can, if necessary, do other things like fighting the networked insurgent movements in Iraqi cities, but they are not optimized for those operations. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in “Duty,” his recent memoirs, the Department of Defense was designed for “planning, equipping and training for future major wars with other nation-states,” not asymmetric or irregular challenges. The United States could, in theory, simply opt out of complex conflict in future megacities and limit itself to what its military is already good at: short episodes of state-on-state warfare where America’s technological edge pays off. There are some very smart security analysts advocating exactly this, arguing that helping to manage global security is far from what the Founding Fathers intended and, ultimately, negative for the United States. If, on the other hand, the United States does intend to play a major role in promoting stability and helping to prevent conflict and wants to do so as effectively as possible, it must radically redesign its security forces to optimize them for building resiliency in megacities or supporting partner security forces attempting to do so. A U.S. security force optimized for conflict in megacities would have two design principles. One would be to seek maximum effect with the minimum footprint. The United States is unlikely to send large numbers of security forces to megacities except perhaps for very short-term disaster relief. The second design principle would be having the ability to augment the resiliency of part or all of a megacity without killing the larger system. Kilcullen advises thinking of cities as organic entities. They may develop malignancies, but they also are, in a sense, living things with some ability to grow and heal—and to die. An urban security organization would need to be able to undertake limited footprint operations in this environment to limit, contain or remove malignant organizations and forces without killing the city itself when American policymakers decide doing so is in the national interest. Today, the United States does not have an organization optimized for expeditionary urban security. American leaders could create one to supplement the traditional military by taking the parts of the existing security organizations that can be effective at this sort of activity and combining them. Parts would come from the Department of Defense, particularly the Special Operations Command, and others from the intelligence community, the Department of Justice, the State Department and the Agency for International Development as well as other appropriate agencies. The organization developed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to capture or kill high-value targets during the Iraq insurgency, which included components from the conventional U.S. military, military special operations forces and the intelligence community, could provide a template for the pointed end of this urban force. But an urban security organization would also need multidimensional interoperability, allowing it to cooperate with a wide range of state security forces and nonstate organizations. Technology would be important, but it would be small, easily replaceable technology that functioned inside of buildings and other parts of a megacity, designed more for information collection and knowledge management, force protection and enduring presence than simply for striking identified targets. Creating an organization optimized to be effective at helping to build resiliency in megacities would be extraordinarily difficult, particularly during a time of tight budgets and a growing sentiment among Americans that they would prefer to disengage as much as possible from involvement in the global security system. But the danger is in finding that America needs an urban expeditionary force but does not have one. The results could be disastrous if America’s political leaders resist calls for disengagement and use the current U.S. military to help stabilize megacities even though it is not designed for it. Iraq was a preview of the costs of using a military designed for fast-moving warfare against enemy militaries to stabilize urban areas threatened by nonstate forces. This is what future conflict will look like. If Kilcullen and other futurists are correct, for Americans to say they will not do that again may be to opt for global disengagement. If, instead, the United States chooses to sustain engagement, it must prepare for an era of megacities. Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday.

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