The (Im)Possibility of War in the Mega-City, by Ty Bomba (and Maciej Jonasz)

 

Issue #9 of Counterfact magazine has a game in it called War in the Megacity, designed by Joe Miranda. It’s in the mail now. On October 27, editor Ty Bomba posted the short piece quoted below on the publisher’s Facebook page, as his take on the subject (permalink  https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1130023770514214&id=189803314536269&__tn__=K-R)

 

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 – the 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 Megacity.” 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:

http://ossgamescart.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=5&products_id=114&fbclid=IwAR1nA9D5i3nZbOqWFFvxCkSV-hBieH8g7_8JlM08SLwrGqrciAyHWjX1vtc

I find I cannot disagree with what Ty has written here, having read some time ago all the articles and papers he cites, and more besides. Yes, we will not see the entire rifle-company strength of the US Army and Marine Corps squandered in an enormous mega-Aachen, or even a restaging of the Second Battle of Seoul (not least because Seoul is ten times the size it was in 1950). Ridiculous notion.

Ty published the designer’s notes to the game over on Consimworld some time ago, wherein Joe seems to be walking back the game’s initial impression that you are fighting a massive, primarily kinetic battle for a huge city (wherein Fallujah or Grozny would fill only three or four of the map’s 30 abstract sectors). He uses the triple-CRT, units-rising-and-falling-in-strength method first done in James Dunnigan’s game Chicago-Chicago!, and reused by him in LA Lawless, Decision Iraq, and by me in Greek Civil War (this last by order of Decision Games, though somewhere in between my submission and eventual publication there were a lot of changes to both my game and to Joe’s system, including collapsing the 3 CRTs into one, and radical changes in unit typology and abilities). He also speaks of the ridiculous troop-to-space ratio in a city of 10 million or more, but does note that the troop scale in the game is brigades (thousands of uniforms) vs. crowds (tens of thousands in size); even the guerrilla units are estimated to be a thousand or more fighters (though in fairness, because it’s a Joe Miranda near-future game, there are also small detachments of “”Fifth Generation” troops whose weaponry, and sometimes their own physicality and mental states, have been enhanced by leading-edge technologies.”).

http://talk.consimworld.com/WebX?14@@.1ddb038b/479

But I added the emphasis in Ty’s penultimate paragraph. Megacities will not be the arenas where entire brigades and divisions square off against each other, but they will see a great deal of low-level irregular conflict, by and among irregular forces, who will be opposed much of the time by uniformed forces in modest amounts. However, I do not share his enthusiasm for autonomous robots.*

Joe and I are on the same wavelength on a lot of things, but often we differ considerably in our design approaches to the same kind of problem. To my mind, a more realistic and sobering pair of books to read on this subject are Planet of Slums by Mike Davis and Out of the Mountains by David Kilcullen (especially his chapter on the Tivoli Gardens operation in Kingston, Jamaica). What would be interesting from my point of view would be a game in a megacity that emphasized limited intelligence, surveillance, building and degrading organizations, positioning and threats, information warfare, for both insurgent and counterinsurgent. All precursors to kinetic operations, which are kept to a minimum. So far the megacities in the world that have experienced problems severe enough to see actual conflict involving their national militaries have all been outside of NATO, and the conflicts have all been pretty one-sided; government moves in against insurgent gangs, they scatter obligingly and civil disorder continues, though turned down to a dull roar until the uniforms leave and the gangs return.

I tried to do this in one of my first games, Tupamaro, which took place entirely within one large city (1.5 million, which was kind of large for 1968). And maybe that’s more typical of what went on in Baghdad (pop 6-7 million, give or take) for years. This was my thinking in developing the “Maracas megacity” module for the District Commander system over the last couple of years, available here for free PnP at least until Hollandspiele publishes it some time in the next few years.

New free game: Maracas

*PS: I mentioned this before, but here again is mention of Crisis at Zefra, a conceptual book written by a science fiction writer named Karl Schroeder in 2005 for the Canadian Armed Forces about how Canadian soldiers would deal with asymmetrical threats in the imaginary African city-state of “Zefra” in the near future (2025). Again, a bit too goshwow with respect to the technology for me – nano-this and nano-that – but these things are valuable just by having been written down. Here’s a copy:  Crisis-in-Zefra-e and the work is also available at Schroeder’s website at http://www.kschroeder.com/foresight-consulting/crisis-in-zefra/Crisis-in-Zefra-e.pdf .

Somewhat later (16 November), edited to add another section from another article that Counterfact will run in a later issue:

The (Im)Possibility of War in the Mega-City, Part 2: The Tactical Nitty Gritty,

by Maciej Jonasz

A tactical-level offensive operation conducted inside a hostile mega-city would, at least initially in regard to its organization and approach, be conducted in much the same manner as a standard assault operation in any urban area. That is, it would ideally call for an outer cordon, an inner cordon and an assault element.

The role of the outer cordon is to isolate the target area from external factors. In this case, the primary task of would be to keep civilians or reinforcements from entering the target area in order to minimize collateral damage and hold the enemy response to a minimum.

The outer cordon doesn’t need to be too robust, but it should be sufficient to establish blocks along roads and other access routes. In case a counter-move against the operation is seen to be developing from outside the target area, a Quick Reaction Force should be nearby as well.

The role of the inner cordon is to prevent any hostile personnel from escaping the target area. Unlike the outer cordon, the inner cordon needs to be robust, as key individuals and whole enemy units may attempt to breakout. Since such breakout attempts will probably be in the form of large numbers attacking out in several directions, the cordon needs to be equally strong along its entire length.

As it would be unrealistic to create a wall of personnel all along a perimeter that may be a mile or more in length, the best solution will be for the inner cordon to consist of barbed wire and other barricades with personnel and sensors interspersed along its length.

Ideally, a section of infantry would be employed along 100 yards of perimeter, as that will allow for a speedy set-up of the cordon and a strong presence along it. Given that standard, a 3,000 yard perimeter would require about three battalions – which is a significant amount of manpower.

The inner cordon also needs to cut enemy communications between the target area and the outside, while also disrupting those same communications within the target area itself. Some of that can be accomplished by shutting down the civilian telecommunications networks – both landline and mobile – but an electronic warfare element would also be handy. In addition, that will enable the friendly command structure to control the messaging going out to the media, thereby preventing false information from reaching the wider public.

The role of the assault (a.k.a. “search”) element is to enter the target area and conduct kinetic operations against enemy units and individual “high value targets” within it. Ideally, such operations will deploy one assault element for each of the target area’s buildings, so all of them can be hit simultaneously and, in cases of large buildings divided into separate segments, there should be an assault element for each of those segments.

While the cordon elements have a relatively simple task and composition, assault elements will require some personnel with specialized skills and will be composed of different teams. First, each will require teams to go through targeted buildings room by room. Those entry teams need to be supported by extraction teams to remove prisoners and friendly casualties as quickly as possible, thereby allowing the assault teams to move forward as quickly as possible.

The size of the extraction teams is important, as they will need to have enough personnel so the assault teams aren’t kept waiting to hand over prisoners or wounded. That’s especially true in high-rise buildings, where it will take time for personnel to bring prisoners and casualties down 20 or more floors, load them into vehicles or temporary holding compounds, and then return. Depending of the size of each building, a minimum of a platoon will be necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of this aspect of the operation within each one.

A security element, practically another inner cordon, needs to be placed around each building that’s being assaulted. The role of those elements is to interdict escapees (or reinforcements) trying to make their way out (or in) through lower floor openings. As they will be operating outdoors, and will therefore be fully exposed to gunfire coming from high up inside targeted and neighboring buildings, as well as the sewers below them, these elements will need to be equipped with armored personnel carriers for their own protection.

The manpower requirements for an assault element would be even bigger than those for the inner cordon. With a section or two dedicated to over-watch on every floor, with at least one platoon as an extraction element, and another platoon deployed as an outside security element, each building will require anything from a company to a battalion to clear it speedily and fully. For example, in a six-floor building with two separate staircases, the requirement would be for two companies of infantry – and each target area may consist of up to dozens of buildings.

The first troops to go in need to gain control of staircases, corridors and the immediate surroundings of those areas. To speed things up, parts of those elements could be airlifted to the rooftops of taller buildings, from where they can most quickly secure the upper floors. Ideally, the main units assaulting a building would work their way down from the top floor. In buildings with multiple staircases, separate ones could be designated for friendly upward and downward movement.

A tactical offensive within a mega-city like the one described here would inescapably be an undertaking on a massive scale, due to the large amount of resources it would require and the casualties that would be generated. Even the most highly trained assault force would likely suffer at least 10 percent casualties per day. That means a single neighborhood of three or four blocks would likely require as much as a brigade’s worth of manpower to launch and sustain such an operation to its conclusion, which would take an average of about 12 hours.

Emphasis added at the end. These seem to be fairly realistic estimates of the infantry numbers involved, just for the fighting and extraction. Add in another hefty chunk for protection and/or security of prisoners, LoCs back to whatever passes for an MSR, and whatever other elements are needed to support the bayonets (medical, logistics, engineer equipment and assembly areas). And then the casualties start to pile up, even more after the first 2-3 days when people start to get really tired….

Whatever happens, it’s not going to be pretty if it’s done on this scale.

 

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Tupamaro is out!

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Copies of Tupamaro are winging, rumbling, lumbering their way through the American postal system to all who pre-ordered this folio game from One Small Step Games, at the low price of $19.95.

Everyone else is welcome to buy theirs now, at the slightly higher price of $24.95!

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For more on this game, one of my first completed designs (1994-95), see:

Interview at The Players Aid blog: Tupamaro

short article I wrote about the Tupamaros, at about the time of designing the game