The (Im)Possibility of War in the Mega-City By Ty Bomba

Back in 2014, then US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno set off what amounted to a metaphoric explosion of activity within the military-analytical community. He did so when he authorized the online publication and distribution of a 28-page pdf titled “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future.”

The study, co-authored by six of his staffers, pointed up a problem that had critical tactical, operational and strategic aspects. That is, after defining “mega-cities” as urban locales with 10 million or more inhabitants – there are 20 of them today with another 25 likely to have grown into existence by 2025 – they authors lamented the fact the US military in general, and the army in particular, had no doctrine for how to wage war in such places.

The standard formula for attacking a hostile city of smaller size – surround it, and then take the area inside the pocket sector by sector – won’t work in these huge conurbations because they’re simply won’t be enough troops on hand to isolate such vast spaces. The document (still available online by searching on its title) went on to list problem after problem, never intending to offer any solutions but, rather, simply to pose all the relevant questions that had been identified.

Since then, numerous writers – both from within and outside the US military – have offered more. For example, in 2017 one writer, under the auspices of West Point’s Modern War Institute, proposed an exact order of battle for a combined-arms battalion specifically constituted to fight in megacities. (That’s also still available online by searching under its title: “It’s Time to Create a Megacities Combat Unit.”)

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross commissioned a study on the subject, titled “Future War in Cities: Urbanization’s Challenge to Strategic Studies in the 21st Century.” Its focus is on the “development of military methods of operating in cities using appropriate rules of engagement that embrace international humanitarian law” (and, we might add, good luck with that).

As it turns out, an older study, one done at the US Army War College way back in 2001 and titled “Urban Operations: Tactical Realities and Strategic Ambiguities,” may already have shown the practical impossibility of any sustained US military involvement in fighting a ground battle for a mega-city. It used a combination of historical case studies and training exercise analyses, and its grim conclusions ran as follows.

A typical rifle company of up to about 200 combatants can be expected to seize a similarly defended city block after about 12 hours of combat. Total casualties among the attackers – personnel missing, killed and seriously wounded – would average 30 to 45 percent during that time, depending on the competency and ferocity of the defense. At the end of it, the survivors in the attack force would need to be temporarily withdrawn from the frontline for rest and regrouping.

At most, by straining mightily, the US Army might be able to concentrate some 180 assault companies, along with another 60 or so from the Marine Corps, to use in a fight for any one mega-city. Each army or USMC division averages 27 such companies, while an armor division could form a dozen or so. Thus the entire infantry force of the active duty US Army and Marines could be expected to be effectively burned out after about 20 days of steady mega-city combat, with total casualties suffered while doing so at about 15,000 to 22,000.

Even after all that, the conclusion offered was an overall victor in such a battle would likely only emerge through attrition, or when the suffering had reached a point where small margins of difference between the opposing forces’ staying power (morale) became the deciding factor.

Given the phenomena of “casualty aversion” that’s overtaken Western societies since the end of the Cold War – that is, a general unwillingness by electorates to sustain any government prosecuting a war longer than one election cycle or bloodier than a relative handful of total deaths – and it can be seen it’s effectively impossible for us a society to engage in that kind of war.

The only exception would be if the stakes involved were readily perceived by a majority the electorate as truly and fully existential at the national level. In turn, to get to that level, you have to posit near science fictional scenarios, such as the Chinese landing en masse along the US west coast or armies of Jihadis surging into Europe’s cities. Short of such epochal hypotheticals, one is hard pressed to name any mega-city anywhere on Earth the control of which would be important enough for a US administration, or that of any other Western democracy, to be willing to sacrifice so much to get it.

Mega-city wars will therefore likely remain the domains of criminal gang turf fights and civil wars fought among groups with nowhere else to go. Until such time as aerial and ground drones and autonomous robots are further perfected, no Western democracy can make war effectively in mega-cities.

The current issue of the on-paper edition of CounterFact Magazine (no. 9) has as its main topic “War in the Mega-City.” It offers both a longer article on this subject and an in-depth wargame that can be played solo or against an opponent. Those interested in that kind of deeper exploration, should go here:

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