ByВ Janine Davidson

The trends outlinedВ in this blogВ and in theВ McKinsey reportВ should not go un-noticed by military leaders and planners.В  Given that war is and has always been a fundamentally human endeavor, the fact that the vast majority of humanity will be living in complex mega-cities means that fighting, for better or worse, will be in urban environments, most of which will be located on coastlines.

Urbanization, especially when combined with other emerging trends such as climate change (asВ Will Rogers points out), resource scarcity (especially water), poverty, and radicalization will pose great challenges to governments.В  Thinking of theВ city as a system, as proposed by David Kilcullen, is useful for city planners, city managers and military planners.В  City planners and managers should be focused on promoting resilience, as the ability to withstand shocks, flex, absorb, and regenerate will be the trademarks of successful cities of the future.

Still, cities will face extreme shocks and crises, no matter how resilient they may seem.  And, as the U.S. military’s long forgotten 1996 Joint Operating Concept for Military Support to Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) pointed out, “Once such difficult conditions emerge, the drivers of instability and conflict tend to reinforce one another, creating a degenerating cycle in which conditions continue to deteriorate, and the feelings of insecurity and the grievances of the local population intensify.”  The authors of that JOC conceptualized the stability operations environment as a complex system under stress and recognized that the longer a system was exposed to chronic stresses such as crime, gang violence, or insurgency, or the greater the magnitude of the shock from a natural disaster or war, the more the system risked collapse.  Preventing or reversing this potential spiral was the defining task of SSTR.  The JOC authors struggled with how to approach this phenomenon using a systems approach and left much unanswered, but their “system under stress” model is a useful frame on which to build as we attempt to cope with the inevitable challenges of urbanization and contemplate what military operations in such environments might be like.

Prevention and Resilience

Across the U.S.G. there is an emerging emphasis on prevention and resilience.  On the civilian side, this is reflected in new U.S. development programs such as the Global Climate Change Initiative, the Global Health Initiative and Global Food Security.  In his 2012 “Annual Letter,” USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, emphasized the need to shift the focus from “relief to resilience – from responding after emergencies to preparing communities in advance.” Feed the Future, for example, calls for a shift from emergency food relief to helping build local capacity that can promote food security and help prevent famines.  Likewise, the Obama administration built on President Bush’s most successful second-term USAID initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), by developing a plan for the next five years that transitions from an emergency focus, enhances partnerships with other AIDS programs, builds local government capacity and focuses on sustainability, prevention, and resilience.

Similarly, as DoD’s recent Budget Priorities document suggests, the U.S. military seeks to “reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations,” by strengthening the ability of local and regional security forces to respond to their own crises.  In a perfect world, such security enhancement efforts would be integrated with development efforts and those of other countries, non-government aid organizations, and the private sector for a more holistic approach to helping societies prepare for the stresses associated with rapid urbanization, resource scarcity, and climate change.  But of course we do not live in that world; and while outside assistance from the U.S. and others may help, the fact is that many of our global cities will face extreme crises due to natural, man-made, or a combination of these shocks.  And when this happens, inevitably, the U.S. military will be called in to assist.

Lessons for the Future

While military planners must not get stuck in the past continually “fighting the last war,” they must also recognize where lessons can be learned.  To prepare for the complex urban environments of the future, we might start by analyzing and “red teaming” a couple of the more challenging recent cases to consider what lessons future enemies have been gleaning and how such lessons might be applied in the complex urban fights of the future.  The following cases present a cross-sectional array of lessons, for both our enemies and ourselves:

1. The Shock of Mumbai:В  In November, 2008, a well-trained and well-armed Pakistani terrorists group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched a sophisticated raid on the most populous city in the world, the coastal mega-city of Mumbai, India.В  After commandeering fishing vessels in the middle of night, 10 commando-terrorists landed on two separate points in the heart of the city and began to systematically execute civilians in eleven pre-determined highly populated target locations.В  They had used Google earth to plan the attacks on each target, and their actions were coordinated via a Pakistan-based command center using cell phones and VOIP.В  Their leaders leveraged television news and social media, such as Twitter, to monitor the actions in real time.В  The attack continued for three days as the local police struggled to respond through the complex maze of their own city streets and the babble of reports coming in.В  Special Indian counter-terrorism and para-military forces, including the National Security Guards, the Rapid Action Force, and Marine Commandos were needed to engage the terrorists as local police forces were simply out-gunned.

The Mumbai attackers leveraged the very complexity of the city as well as its coastal location to launch a highly sophisticated and terrifying attack that was simply beyond the capability and capacity of the local law enforcement to prevent or to respond.В  Until the lines were cut, the terrorists were able to track the movements of security forces on television news while barricaded with hostages in one of the hotels.В  Foreign forces, had they been called in to assist, might have brought more sophisticated weaponry or communications equipment, but would have had to cope with limited maneuverability among hordes of traffic and people on unfamiliar streets, and may have arrived too late to the game anyway.

2. Mexico Under Stress:  Where the Mumbai raids reflect the shock that can be applied to a complex urban system by a very small group of terrorists, the war against the drug cartels across Mexico demonstrates how the chronic violence of organized crime can stress a system nearly to a breaking point.  For violent criminals in places like Mexico a mixture of urban and rural environments can be leveraged to conduct operations.  But what is perhaps more important to grasp is how such illicit non-state and transnational actors are able to actively exploit the cultural and institutional pre-dispositions of traditional governments that prefer to bifurcate “crime” from “war,” and thus law enforcement tasks from those of the military.

In Mexico, one might conclude that the police have been “defeated” through infiltration of the ranks, corruption, and intimidation.  The answer has been for the Mexican government to call in its military to bring stability, law, and order to the cities most overwhelmed by violence and crime.  Of course, the militaries are not well trained in such para-military or police-like work, are usually unfamiliar with the local environments, and thus have had little success in reversing this degenerative spiral.  Should other governments be invited to intervene, they would face a similar conundrum on whether to send police or military units to assist.

The lesson for the “bad guys” of the future is to find ways to operate in this gap between crime and war.  Similarly, pirates off the coast of Somalia understand clearly that due to the international regimes regarding crime and war, they will neither be targeted like an enemy naval vessel and blown out of the water nor prosecuted in any particular court with authority over their crimes.  War-like criminals, transnational gangs, and traffickers of the future will ride their violent activities to the edge of this perfect gap until governments determine how to close it.

3. Katrina, Haiti, Japan and the Spiral to Chaos:В  Hurricane Katrina that hit the U.S. coastal city of New Orleans in August 2005 demonstrated that the developed world is not immune to systemic urban breakdown.В  As local police and first responders left their own posts to protect and aid their own families, the most vulnerable citizens were without protection, food, and water.В  Once it became clear that the police were no longer present, common criminals began to loot and gangs began to form.

In Haiti, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit in 2010 similarly overwhelmed local authorities.В  In addition to rescuing and caring for refugees, the need to prevent or stop the spread of disease in a city of 3.5 million was a challenge.В  In future, responding to epidemics will present even greater challenges to weak mega-cities hit by similar natural disasters.В  Even military troops may not have the capacity to treat or quarantine the populations that may be required.

Finally, the 2011 combination of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan reflects clearly both the vulnerability of our complex mega cities and the value of resilience.В  In Japan, earthquake-proof buildings limited the type of full-scale destruction we might anticipate if such a triple-disaster were to hit a less resilient, highly populated, urban center.В  Still, despite a laudable level of resilience, Japan still needed humanitarian disaster relief from others.В  Meanwhile, the nuclear part of the disaster has made populations around the world reluctant to adopt nuclear solutions in the future.В  This presents challenges to urban planners who must address the need for more and more energy to power mega cities.

Future Military Planning

A couple of themes emerge from these cases for military planners to consider.

The first is that militaries will continue to be called on when civilian agencies are overwhelmed.В  In each of the cases above, the challenges were beyond the capacity and capability of local law enforcement or first responders.В  As the cases of Japan and Katrina show, this will likely be true even in the more developed and modern cities.

Second, we need to get very serious about “interagency” planning between police and military forces.  The traditional lines between these two may exist for good historical reasons, but they are becoming a liability.  Terrorists, insurgents, pirates, well-armed transnational traffickers and criminals have learned to operate with near impunity in this gap.  When criminals are better armed than police, we need to rethink how we conceptualize these two realms.  In Mumbai, only the special para-military types of units were able to compete with the terrorists.

Third, military planning must consider both the advantages and disadvantages technology provides.  American forces rely heavily on cyber and space-based technologies for communication, navigation, and targeting.   On the low end, the military must train and plan to fight “unplugged” – that is, in environments where such systems are down or compromised.  On the higher end, for environments when the lights stay on, leveraging social media for up to date information or clever crowd-sourced geo-mapping must be part of the military’s repertoire.  Importantly, military planning must account for either scenario in the same plan.

Fourth, if the military is to train the way it will fight, it will need to conduct more of its exercises and training in real cities, and do so side by side with law enforcement.  Small “MOUT” (military operations in urban terrain) sites at military training centers have gotten more sophisticated, but they do not expose troops to the real complexity and “fog” they will face attempting to navigate or control crowded, over-populated streets in mega-cities.

One of the biggest challenges will be scale. While the surges in Afghanistan and Iraq may demonstrate the value of greater numbers of boots on the ground for complex insurgencies and stability operations, the inability of mega-cities under stress to absorb, house, and feed these troops will require military units to be as small and as self-sustaining as possible.В  The military should experiment with off-shore staging, building on the hospital-ship model from previous disasters, and also think through how to have greater impact with smaller numbers.

Finally, as Japan and Katrina show, for massive shocks caused by Mother Nature, local-level response, even in some of the more resilient cities, will not be enough. Regional and global relief regimes will need to be leveraged and coordinated with the private sector and relief organizations.В  As the jammed airfields in Haiti revealed, coordination of the myriad humanitarian relief groups will become increasingly problematic unless we develop pre-determined rules of the road.

Some national security and military leaders may think that now that we are winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be able to actively avoid anything resembling those population-centric missions in future.  But it is a simple fact of military planning – especially in a democracy – that the military does not get to chose where it gets sent, what wars it will fight, what enemies it will face and in which environments.  An increasingly urbanized world means the military will find itself in cities, among crowded populations, and fighting savvy enemies who have been paying close attention, learning, and adapting.  The cases presented here are only a sample of the lessons the military must continue to mine in order to prepare itself for this new fight.

Janine Davidson is Assistant Professor at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Pubic Policy. From 2009-2012, she served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans and the review and assessment of plans.  She previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and with theUnited States Air Force, where she was an aircraft commander and senior pilot for the C-130 and the C-17 cargo aircraft.