Prepare to Fight in Megacities

By Major Nick Nethery, U.S. Army

The city has to move.

Megacities Explained

No precise definition exists, but total population and geographic size play an important role in the determination. According to an Army Special Forces colonel with decades of experience operating in DUAs, however, it is density, the ratio of those two factors, that controls. Any city with about 7,000 people per square mile or higher qualifies. 

Such an environment is a radical change for a military that has fought with precision-guided munitions and special operations forces in deserts and on mountains almost exclusively since the First Gulf War nearly 30 years ago. (The urban fighting in Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq demonstrated both an exception and the unpreparedness of the military to fight in a DUA—more than 20 years after the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu should have raised concerns.) The Marine Corps’ and Army’s focus on maneuver warfare, the Air Force’s on deep strike, and the
Navy’s new “distributed lethality” all assume the freedom to move and to attack anywhere from anywhere. These combine to make the U.S. military almost congenitally unsuited for a fight in a dense city. 

Get Out of MOUT

As with most things used by ground combat forces, U.S. national military and Marine Corps training centers cost too much. The Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California have enormous budgets, as does Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, but aside from a few mock-up “villages” consisting of short “buildings” made out of old shipping containers, they hardly train troops for city fighting at all. (The large-scale, $170 million facility at Twentynine Palms is a big improvement over the Conex stacks that serve in most places, but a single, big, expensive facility means small units will get to use it only rarely and for short exercises.)

Forces training for MOUT—DUA combat—whether ground, air, or naval combat element, are done a disservice by training in a static environment, especially a force as adaptable and nimble as the Marine Corps. The Marines are likely to be among the first non–special operations forces on the ground in many of these densely-populated littoral areas in the near future; they are in dire need of realistic training. Cities are alive, and they move independently of the motion of armies and insurgents.

There are a few MOUT sites at Dugway Proving Ground (Utah), Fort Hood (Texas), Camp Fuji (Japan), and some other places. But these are generally unpowered, without simulated, functioning infrastructure, just bare concrete buildings without soul or personality—or people. They are pale shadows of what is needed need to train Marine and Army infantry to operate in real dense urban areas.

The City Has to Move

Megacity combat is different from that on open terrain. Cities have subways and sewers, often multiple layers of them. (Again, Twentynine Palms has taken positive steps by including some underground tunnels.) Buildings in less-dense cities are rarely more than three to five stories, whereas megacities often have skyscrapers dozens to hundreds of stories tall. Civilians in them often have multiple, conflicting and complementary social and community structures—neighborhood and municipal governments, church networks, official and unofficial police or militia forces, etc. These factors make the environment far more complex than a piedmont village with little infrastructure, where “high ground” means ledges not 1,000-square-meter office floors stacked 50 high.

In a city, troops may think in two dimensions, but they must fight in three. Narrow, winding streets offer offensive forces little opportunity to surprise, while alleys, windows, rooftops, subway entrances, and manholes afford defenders many. In the presence of a tightly-packed civilian population, there may be no such thing as a precision strike or the permission to launch one. (These challenges were illustrated well in August Cole’s story “Automated Valor” in the May Proceedings .)

The quickest fix—short of buying up a portion of a down-on-its-luck city such as Detroit—may be to build several small facilities that simulate specific subenvironments of DUAs.

The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) sends all its new firefighters through its Randall’s Island training academy in a months-long training program. The academy features several lifelike training buildings. It has a few storefronts, labeled generically “Hardware,” “Restaurant,” and so on. A simulated naval ship sits right in the middle of the facility. The high-rise has scissor stairs—a concept unfamiliar to many people from rural areas. 

The facility also has not one, but two, simulated subway stations. These train probationary first responders—“probies”—to work in dark, smelly conditions in the depths of the city’s many tunnels. Bright red-and-white striped signs denote “smear zones,” the areas where, even if you press yourself flat against the wall, an oncoming train still will “smear” you into paste along the rough concrete. The probies practice train evacuations here. They also practice what to do when a train runs someone over.

Firefighters and EMTs all come through Randall’s Island. (The severity and toughness of the program might lead a person to believe frontline jobs with FDNY are not that sought after, but the opposite is true. Announcements of new openings can lead to as many as 100 applicants for every position.) The instructors do not pull punches or talk around issues. They will tell you flat out the ugly truth of doing fire work in the city.

“Sometimes, when a guy falls across the tracks so that the train pinches him in the middle, he’s still alive, still breathing and thinking and talking, but he ain’t gonna make it,” says one.

“You can even take his blood pressure and it measures like normal,” says his buddy.

“Yeah, they give blood pressure in the cuff like normal,” the first repeats. “Thing is, they’re dead. The second you pull that train off them, they’re gonna die. So, you know, you maybe see if they have their cell phone, if they want to call their wife or their kids or whatever.”

“But then . . . ,” he trails off.

“You gotta get that train moved,” the second one says. “It sucks. It’s the worst thing in the world, but the city has to move.”

In DUA combat, just blocks from a vicious fight, the city and its residents will keep living, keep moving.

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?

Randall’s Island has another training area called Sesame Street, a 40- or 50-meter stretch of downtown apartment buildings inside an enormous hangar with 4- and 5-story buildings on each side. Probies there learn to operate in a city that even in 2018 often refuses to follow zoning or construction safety laws. Sesame Street attempts to recreate the sorts of places that exist in New York and every other megacity: densely-packed mashups of commercial and residential spaces, that may never have been inspected by anyone resembling a building or occupational safety inspector.

Sesame Street has a much wider road than some in older neighborhoods such as Chinatown, but it is a good start for a probie firefighter. It also has a building with a mechanism that simulates building collapse: the floors are on pins that can be withdrawn, pancaking into the floors below. A favorite training problem for the school is to set up furniture and dummies—simulated victims—on two or three floors, and then collapse them all. The probies practice fighting fires, recovering bodies, and rendering aid in the most realistic simulated city block possible.

Veteran first responders practice here, too, and the training facility includes maintenance capabilities. The synergy has given FDNY an innovative program in which a station will bring its vehicles in for scheduled maintenance, and while the mechanics work on the trucks, the firefighters use the opportunity to practice. 

Marines and soldiers would be smart to emulate this practice—and indeed, Army drill sergeants run some of the initial training, in a brilliant partnership program that has led to increased readiness for the FDNY (and at least one marriage). The Army and Marine Corps could adopt a similar program to combine depot maintenance with training opportunities. Surely the two services could fund a program over three to five years to construct a Sesame Street at each of several major facilities. A single amphibious combat vehicle is expected to cost $12–$14 million dollars, but all the gators in the world will do Marines little good if they have to dismount without knowing how to fight in a living, breathing, moving city.

A Question of When , Not If

The megacity problem is inescapable. In the next few decades, most of the world’s population will be living within artillery range of a coastline. From Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen to short essays in military journals such as those by Modern War Institute deputy director Major John Spencer, numerous observers agree that these dense, littoral urban areas will be a problem for U.S. military personnel—and soon . Grunts will not be held out of these areas simply because leaders wish circumstances were otherwise. Whether the Marine Corps, the nation’s expert in littoral ground combat, or the Army goes in first, the combat troops might (or might not) be supported closely by offshore naval ships as usual but nevertheless will be fighting a new kind of war.

Every divisional and large-scale training post, both Army and Marine Corps, should build its own Sesame Street—with a simulated subway station underneath—and run companies and battalions through it regularly. At the same time, replace opposing forces (OPFOR) who pretend to put up a good fight before they roll over and let the “good guys” win. Model the OPFOR on the aggressor squadrons that Air Force and Navy fighter squadrons face, and develop OPFOR doctrine that permits emulation of the tactics of prospective adversaries. Let both sides fight to win, and let one team lose on its own merits, so both sides can make mistakes and learn.

The United States cannot afford a gradual learning curve as bodies pile up in alleyways and on fire escapes. Overreliance on networks, precision navigation, trustworthy communications, and a presumption of good situational awareness will get soldiers and Marines killed. The military needs to start ten years ago. Every second wasted is another letter regretting to inform a family of the noble sacrifice of a young man or woman who will not be coming home.

A megacity is not some small Iraqi village where troops can learn all the players in a day and things rarely change. It lives and breathes and moves, and the training city must, too.

Major Nethery is a U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal officer. He earned his commission at Texas A&M University and has deployed with the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. He is stationed in Germany with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, conducting counter–weapons of mass destruction planning and assistance in support of USAFRICOM.

Listen to a  Proceedings Podcast  interview with this author about this article below:



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