Coming to a megacity near you
In the coming decades, militaries in the Indo-Pacific will engage in operations in cities with populations of more than 10 million people. These complex missions will potentially invoke all operating domains and services at once to keep the advantage over threats whether natural or man-made. That is the emerging reality in the region, according to Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding general of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).
“It will be impossible to avoid combat in large cities and megacities in the future,” Gen. Townsend said during his presentation via satellite to the sixth annual Land Forces of the Pacific (LANPAC) symposium and exposition held May 22-24, 2018, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The conference brought together more than 1,600 participants from armies and the defense industry sector, including military leaders from 26 Indo-Pacific nations, to discuss future challenges.
Under the multi-domain operations concept, the U.S. military and its allies and partners will operate in and work effectively across all domains — land, air, maritime, cyber and space — and with all service components — army, air force, navy, marines and coast guard — to deter and outmaneuver increasingly capable potential adversaries and effectively manage other security concerns.
By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in big cities, according to the United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The number of megacities will increase from 33 to 43 and the number of large cities with populations between 5 million and 10 million from 45 to 63. As it is, more than half of the world’s megacities are in the Indo-Pacific. The world’s largest, Tokyo, has an agglomeration of 37 million inhabitants, followed by New Delhi with 29 million, and Shanghai with 26 million, according to 2018 U.N. data. Mumbai, Beijing and Dhaka each has close to 20 million inhabitants.
“The complexities that go on in this scale are unimaginable,” retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a senior fellow with the Association of the U.S. Army, said at LANPAC.
Further complicating the dynamics of the region is that many of its leading nations sit on the ring of fire, an expansive basin in the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanic action regularly occur, and they often stare down natural disasters with greater frequency than other parts of the world. The region incurred about 57 percent of the global death toll from natural disasters or more than 2 million deaths since 1970, mainly from earthquakes, storms and floods, according to a recent United Nations analysis, the “Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2017 – Leave No One Behind.”
The complexities revolve around not just how to fight in the megacity environment but how to conduct noncombat campaigns in it. That is why the U.S. Army expanded the multi-domain battle concept to reflect that many future operations that employ the evolving doctrine will entail providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief and other forms of noncombat assistance and services.
Supercharged urban vulnerability
Megacities are distinguished by more than their sheer size of 10 million inhabitants or more. A megacity is defined as “an urban area of extraordinary population size, geographic spread, physical and social complexity, and similarly exceptional characteristics, to include influence with at least international and broader regional scope,” Dr. Russell Glenn, director, plans and policy for intelligence at U.S. TRADOC, explained at LANPAC.
Megacities are different, “because the influence they have far exceeds other cities in a country or in the region,” Glenn said.
Consider Tokyo. The city not only has the largest urban population in the world but also the greatest influence within the country of Japan. Tokyo’s urban area spreads out 3,925 square kilometers and holds 30 percent of the country’s population, 37 million people, or roughly 8,790 people per square kilometer. The city produces nearly 35 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product. Tokyo’s GDP is larger than that of Spain and about the same size as that of Texas. Half of the major companies and 84 percent of foreign companies operating in Japan are based there.
If Tokyo were compromised, much of the nation’s economy, and the region’s economy, could be affected as well. Imagine the logistical challenges involved if Japan merely needed to evacuate the city. Finding lodging for more than 37 million people overnight would be a daunting task.
“So, when we look at having to operate in megacities, whether it be in times of war or because of a natural disaster or other event, the logistics command and control elements that are going to be inherent are anything but straightforward and simple,” Glenn said. “The challenge of megacities is unlike what we’ve had to deal with in history in the past.”
In previous conflicts, such as World War II or the Korean and Vietnam wars, forces never operated on anything close to this scale. Seoul, for example, was a city of 1 million during the Korean War. Today, it possesses an urban expanse of more than 25 million if the surrounding metropolitan region is factored.
The reach of megacities is only going to expand and intensify. “Urbanization began in the industrial age, was accelerated by the industrial age and now is being hyper-accelerated in the information age for many of the same reasons and a bunch of different reasons,” said Dubik, also a former commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.
Fighting in megacities will be especially challenging, experts warned at LANPAC.
“Urban combat, especially in a megacity, is going to be extraordinarily violent and extraordinarily destructive for both the security forces on either side of us and our adversaries and the people who remain there,” Townsend said.
The nine-month-long operation in Mosul, Iraq, from October 2016 to July 2017 launched by the Iraqi government and its allies to liberate the city and region from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) offered a glimpse of what’s to come.
“Our sensors are degraded in the urban environment, the range of sensors are degraded, the range of our weapons is degraded, the effects of our weapons are degraded,” Townsend said.
“As powerful as our mission command systems are, they are all challenged by the environment — the complex terrain that is a city … modern city,” Townsend said. “You can’t go more than one floor deep without losing [communication] with everybody who’s up on the surface. … So, this whole notion of conveying commanders’ intent, and empowering subordinates … to achieve that commanders’ intent, and trusting them to do that is exactly how we’ll have to fight in even small cities.
“Our armies, the coalition forces, if we would have fought the battle of Mosul, we would have done it faster and with less destruction and probably fewer casualties, but even so, Mosul would have been a very hard problem for us as well,” Townsend said.
Mosul is small compared to the world’s emerging megacities. At the time the fighting started, Mosul’s population hovered at about 1.5 million. Less than 150,000 troops participated in the battle, and about 15,000 casualties were incurred.
“The enemy has watched Mosul, ISIS has watched it, the heightened threats of the world have, nation states have watched it. I think they are going to deliberately go to the cities to dig into fight because it takes away a lot of our technological advantages,” Townsend said. “We’re going to see battle in megacities, and there is little way to avoid it.”
“Urban terrain is a great equalizer when facing determined combatants,” Lt. Gen. Michael Bills, Joint Forces Korea chief of staff, said at LANPAC. “The megacity magnifies power of defender and diminishes the attacker’s advantage in firepower and mobility.”
Consider the challenges of defending today’s Seoul, for example, where there are hundreds of kilometers of subways and hundreds of subway stations and shopping malls built underneath the city. Although there have been some technological advances in communications systems, such as hockey-puck-sized repeaters for use in tunnels, contemporary construction will constrain activities, Bills said.
For these reasons, multi-domain operations will be critical for missions in megacities, U.S. senior leaders said at LANPAC.
Multi-domain operations offer military leadership a larger array of options to resolve emerging threats. The new doctrine strives to integrate capabilities from various services and partner militaries from other nations to defeat adversaries. For example, a given nation such as Australia could detect a threat, South Korea could track it, and Japan could eliminate it.
The U.S. Army first put its multi-domain operations concept into action in mid-July 2018 during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. Twenty-five nations, 46 ships, five submarines, and about 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel participated in RIMPAC 2018 from June 27 to August 2 in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California.
During RIMPAC’s multi-domain operation Sinking Exercise (SINKEX), the U.S. Joint Forces together with service personnel from Japan and Australia conducted a series of coordinated precision strikes by land, sea and air that linked all the services across the domains. They targeted and sank the USS Racine, a decommissioned naval vessel, into the Pacific Ocean.
The multinational forces hit the amphibious ship with long-range artillery, air and sub-based attacks and shore-based missiles in real time, according to media accounts. For example, Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces fired Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles that travel at high-subsonic speeds with range of over 100 nautical miles.
“Multi-Domain Operation relies on multi-domain targeting,” explained Col. Christopher Wendland, commander of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade, which participated in the SINKEX. The brigade forms the basis of the Multi-Domain Task Force, which was established to test the multi-domain doctrine in the field.
“Our goal is to create joint interoperability to be able to deter our adversaries across all domains,” Wendland said.
This requires coordination to synthesize information from all the domains to identify and strike targets at the right time.
Multi-domain operations seek to overcome near-peer adversary denial of access threats by integrating and synchronizing capabilities such as unmanned surveillance assets, aviation, long-range artillery, air defense, electronic warfare, cyber and space assets.
Retired Col. Christopher Garver, then spokesman for U.S. Army Pacific, said that multi-domain operations build on combined arms efforts of the past and add cyber and space domains.
“What the Soldier on the ground will see in the future is more direct access at the lower levels into all five domains,” Garver said.
Challenges of large urban systems
Historically, U.S. forces have sought to surround, isolate or avoid large cities. Now, however, they must learn how to fight in and around megacities. Although it was still possible to surround Mosul, it’s impossible to surround a city with a population of more than 10 million, Bills said.
“You can’t surround a megacity, you can’t avoid a megacity, if you want to impact centers of gravity in the future of human terrain, you have to enter and operate inside of this city.”
Beyond their sheer size, megacities present other challenges. While a military’s actions can be isolated in a rural setting, they tend to have more of a domino or ripple effect in a city.
“Every act you do in a city reverberates,” Townsend said.
Military leaders must also factor the impact of an action in a megacity on the region.
“A megacity is itself a system comprised of many, many subsystems but also part of a much larger system that can extend worldwide,” Glenn explains.
There are formal and informal sources of power and imbedded threats.
“Social structure may be more important than the physical. … Decisive terrain may not be ground or may not even be in the urban area.”
For these reasons, “Megacities will likely have greater strategic advantage beyond military advantage,” Bills said.
Moreover, crisis and conflict interrupt the normal flow of a large city and create a new flow. Understanding the unique flow of a city will be among the top challenges for military leaders. Civil concerns such as providing good governance and environmental concerns such as protecting water and power supplies will also limit activities.
Megacities not only change block by block but day by day. “The urban landscape changes so rapidly,” Townsend said. In Mosul, for example, “Our C2 systems, our targeting systems … became outdated quickly because the urban landscape was changing faster than we could update our imagery.”
Urban sprawl is also continuously changing the dynamic during times of peace. “A landing zone becomes a shopping mall or a parking lot overnight,” Bills said.
Information, cyber and electronics operations will be key in multi-domain operations in megacities. The magnitude of information and analysis required to maintain situational awareness alone is daunting. Fluency in languages and cultures will also be important for managing operations and responses.
“We don’t have the luxury of being months and years in the megacity, so we need to turn to citizenry to determine what is normal to restore after a disaster,” Bills said.
Continuing to build relationships, share information and working to understand the intricacies of partnerships will be key for success, senior leaders said. By taking “advantage of those military and civilian [relationships], only then can we fully understand the environment that we’re working in,” Glenn explained.
Changing demographics means disasters and conflicts are likely to be in megacities in the future and especially in the Indo-Pacific, given the region is already conducive to both. Moreover, operations in megacities will put demands on all domains across all services and challenge alliances, the senior leaders said.
“There are adversaries there that are going to conflict our partnerships in the region, and we have to continue to work on our common understanding of these challenges and our interoperability,” Townsend told LANPAC participants, who hailed from nations ranging from Australia and New Zealand to the Philippines and Indonesia to Japan and South Korea to Mongolia, Nepal and Taiwan to Fiji and Vanuatu.
“We will need your help as we evolve this concept that we are calling multi-domain operations. We will need your help, and as we look at combat in megacities, we will need your help for that,” Townsend told the military leaders. “For combat in megacities, you can count on the U.S. as a partner, and we are looking to improve our interoperability.” ο