The U.S. military has seen the future, and it involves urban warfare.
This year marks a milestone in human history: For the first time, more than half the world's population will live in cities. A June 2007 report by the United Nations Population Fund said this "decisive shift from rural to urban growth" marks a change in "a balance that has lasted for millennia."
Not coincidentally, Army Chief Gen. George Casey recently gave a blunt assessment of how the United States would wage wars in the future: "We're going to fight in cities."
During his three years as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Casey tried to come up with a way to fight an adaptive, largely ur-ban insurgency. That he never developed a fully effective approach explains, in part, his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus in early 2007. Petraeus' strategy of moving U.S. troops off huge bases and into local neighborhoods has tamped down violence in much of the country. Whether it will work in the long run remains to be seen.
Cities-from Stalingrad to Moga-dishu to Fallujah, Iraq in 2004-have long played host to history's major battles. In a 2005 speech in Quantico, Va., Marine Gen. Michael Hagee said, "In my opinion, Fallujah is . . . not a bad example of what we're going to fight in the future, and not a bad example of how to fight it. . . . It is about individual Marines going house to house, killing."
The city as battlefield is partly a function of the city as the hub of modern commercial, educational, financial, social and political activity-a trend accelerated by globalization. Densely packed cities are where transportation arteries converge. Troops moving along the path of least resistance, such as paved roadways linking together major urban areas, are at some point bound to bump into opposing troops.
Meanwhile, the urban explosion is accelerating: By 2020, the number of city dwellers will swell to 60 percent of the world's population, and by 2030, it will reach 80 percent. The most rapid growth now is occurring in Asia and Africa, where the ranks of city dwellers increases by a million people every week.
Megacities-those with more than 10 million inhabitants-continue to expand. The U.N. says the wave of urbanization in the developing world could lead to continued unrest and conflict as the growth in population taxes the ability of cities to deliver security and basic services. It also will tax the ability of the U.S. military to adapt to a very different kind of war than it has traditionally waged.
Soaking Up Troops
It's not just demographics that are causing cities to become the focal point of U.S. military operations. Enemies have learned that they don't survive long in wide open spaces, where they are easily targeted with long-range precision weaponry. So they have sought to lure U.S. soldiers into ambushes and close-quarter firefights in urban areas, where limited lines of sight negate technological superiority.
Urban warfare occurs in chaotic spaces, where primitive weapons such as mines and sniper rifles inflict heavy casualties. Enemy fighters intimately know the terrain of their own neighborhoods, and they tend to "hug" U.S. units so pilots overhead fear dropping bombs on friendly troops.
A military adage holds that cities soak up troops like a sponge. A battalion of 800 troops can clear open farmland or desert of a small band of guerrilla fighters rather quickly. But searching for fighters or weapons hidden in a block full of high-rise apartment buildings in Baghdad can take a force that size the entire day.
Improved technology hasn't solved this problem yet. The U.S. military is increasingly reliant on battle networks built to provide troops information superiority from communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, and digital command and control. But radio frequencies depend on line-of-sight for transmission. That simple law of physics means cities are a distinctly difficult environment with ample obstructions literally around every corner.
Buildings block overhead surveillance systems, act as obstacles to radio waves and create electromagnetic dead spaces that render Global Positioning System devices inoperable.
Troops remotely flying aerial drones over Baghdad say it's the most difficult of operating environments. Radio frequency clutter can cause controllers to lose the signal to drones, resulting in crashes. Adding to the problem is the fact that the jammers U.S. troops use to block insurgents' signals to keep them from detonating roadside bombs also gum up communications. And such communications are vital to prevent troops from feeling isolated from their comrades.
In urban areas, perhaps the most significant challenge the military faces is finding the "low-signature enemy," an opponent who blends into the civilian population. In Baghdad, U.S. forces have affixed cameras to towers, hovering blimps and aerial drones to extend what the military calls "situational awareness" over the entire city. But while the thermal imaging devices on these electronic eyes can identify human beings, even at night, from great distances they can't tell whether a person with an AK-47 assault rifle is a police officer patrolling a troubled neighborhood or an insurgent preparing to ambush an American patrol.
In no other war has the car played such a central role as, arguably, it does in Iraq. In a city whose streets resemble Los Angeles at rush hour, the car provides guerrilla fighters a means to stay mobile, attack where they choose and then rapidly disperse. Insurgents trigger roadside bombs from inside cars and then speed away. The ultimate low-tech, guided missile in urban guerrilla warfare, suicide car bombers cruise Baghdad's streets waiting for a cell phone call or text message pinpointing a target. Because of frequent U.S. raids on suspected insurgent hideouts, cars have been turned into what soldiers term "rolling weapons caches," crammed with electrical components, wires, timers, detonators, plastic explosive and artillery rounds, shifted from location to location about the city.
Decoding the Megalopolis
During the Cold War, the military's conceptual approach to city warfare had only two dimensions, says Dave Ozolek, executive director of the Defense Department's Joint Urban Operations Office at U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., which is spearheading many of the military's urban warfare initiatives. The first was simply to try to bypass urban areas because they strip away so many of the military's advantages. If forces had to go into cities, the preferred approach was to rely on superior firepower to fight their way through.
Neither option is acceptable anymore. "We realize now that rather than an obstacle, the population is the center of gravity in urban areas. You can't save the city by destroying it, so that takes the firepower solution off the table," Ozolek says. So what does work? Whether the threat is terrorist cells, a network of insurgents, a criminal enterprise or armed thugs, "the faster we get the support of the local population, the faster we defeat the threat," he says.
Ozolek says JFCOM is developing a new approach that looks at cities as complex systems and attempts to assess economic, social and political factors to determine how they work. JFCOM is using computer modeling and simulations to try to understand human behavior in the urban megalopolis and how the military's decisions and actions influence that behavior.
It's like the popular computer game SimCity, only infinitely more complex, says Toni Cerri, JFCOM's chief of modeling and simulation. The command has spent several years developing a synthetic world that models human behavior in urban areas, called the Sentient World Simulation. In it, courses of action can be modeled to test the potential reactions of a populace. "Let's say we decide to level Fallujah," Cerri says. "We run the simulation, find out what world opinion is and what the generational view of that decision is-what will the children of people who lived in Fallujah think about that decision 10 years from now."
Cerri acknowledges that simulating human behavior is an enormously complex undertaking. To understand the behavior of a megacity's population, the simulation must model the behavior of millions of residents, a task JFCOM officials were unable to attempt until they gained access to the Pentagon's supercomputers. He says the models are getting better all the time.
Ozolek said commanders in Afghan-istan are using the simulation to help inform decisions with different population sets following six months of experimentation in the country. "We don't see it as a Magic 8 Ball to answer how the population will react," he says, "but it helps us understand the factors that will lead to a population's reaction." Ozolek said the focus is less on predicting outcomes of certain courses of action and more on identifying what the causes of the outcome would be. The simulations tap into the expertise of anthropologists, social and political scientists, and economists, and then feed that information to a forward-deployed battle staff.
At some point troops have to enter the actual urban world. To help them better operate at the tactical level, the military has turned to the defense industry.
Speaking to an audience of defense business executives in 2006, Maj. Gen. Robert Nadeau, head of the Army's research and development efforts, pointed to a photo of Baghdad's crowded streets projected on a huge screen at the head of a conference room. "This is not open field warfare, this is street fighting, this is nose to nose, soldiers jumping over walls, going into buildings," he said. Nadeau told attendees not to bother knocking on his door unless they could tell him how their products would help a soldier fight better in a city. Then he rattled off an urban warfare technology wish list: better radio communications, tagging technologies to track insurgents in civilian populations, the ability to see through walls, better night vision equipment, and a bunker-buster weapon to enable soldiers to blast holes through walls.
The Defense Advanced Research Proj- ects Agency, the Pentagon's cutting-edge battle lab, is pushing the technological envelope in urban warfare. DARPA has produced a handheld sensor that can see through 12 inches of concrete. It weighs less than two pounds and runs off AA batteries. About 50 prototypes have been sent to Iraq for testing. But the device has its limitations: It works only as far as about 20 meters from a building, and cannot penetrate metal walls. A larger device in the works is called VisiBuilding, which can show the internal layout of a building and the people inside. Once fully developed, it will be carried aboard vehicles and even aerial drones.
At the same time, the military is developing smaller versions of such drones for urban environments. The Class I UAV, part of the Army's $200 billion Future Combat Systems program, can hover in place or maneuver down city streets and alleys to show troops what might be lurking around the corner. DARPA developed the WASP aerial drone, which has a 16-inch wingspan and weighs less than half a pound, but can carry two video cameras and a GPS system-and stay aloft for an hour. A swarm of such microdrones could be unleashed by a patrolling squad to scout the streets ahead for hidden threats.
"Combat, if you break it down by steps, is not altogether complicated," says Adam Harmon, a former Israeli paratrooper and special operations officer who advises the U.S. military. "It's basically fire and maneuver." The complexity comes in trying to size up a situation and make the right decisions while under the terrifying stress of combat. That's particularly challenging in the urban environment, he says.
Israeli soldiers suffered heavy losses in urban combat in Lebanon in 2006, as inexperienced troops clustered together in streets became inviting targets for Hezbollah fighters armed with long-range missiles. Since then, the Israeli Army has nearly doubled its training budget. Harmon says the tactics and techniques of the Israeli troops are fundamentally sound. It's the intensity of training that must be addressed.
Fighting in urban environments demands that adaptability and decision-making be pushed down to the lowest level, because decisions must be made in a fraction of a second. The problem is the traditional military culture of following commands can lead to situations in which people on the ground are looking for direction and guidance. In the meantime, they become targets. In Israeli Army basic training, Harmon says, commanders are killed off in the first few seconds of simulated fighting, forcing the individual to take charge.
Before deploying to Iraq last year, soldiers of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division spent much of their time training to react to sniper fire, a growing threat to American troops in Iraq's cities. Col. Tom James, who commands the division's 4th Brigade, which is now in Iraq, said leaders sought to break troops of the instinctual reaction of trying to help a member of their team who had been hit by sniper fire, or trying to find cover from the fire, and instead to go after the sniper.
Harmon says that from day one of basic training, Israeli soldiers learn that rocks, buildings and trucks are not cover: "Your weapon is your cover. Fire is your cover." The most important thing is to neutralize the threat.
At the U.S. Army's premier combat training ground, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., the spread of urbanization is clearly visible. Sprawling pre-fab cities have been built in the once-open desert as the Army prepares its soldiers for street fighting. Considering where the service was five years ago, the Army has made major strides in preparing for urban warfare, Harmon says.
The problem is, America's enemies also are training every day. "The Army likes to say that we have the best training facilities in the world," says Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Quite frankly, the Iraqi insurgents are at the world's best [training center] right now. They're there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, going up against the world's best."