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New Wars in the City: Global Cities – Global Slums

7 MINS READJul 4, 2018 | 00:00 GMT
AFP / Stringer / Getty Images

Urban warfare is increasingly being recognized as a feature of contemporary and future war. Indeed, successfully negotiating urban operations is an imperative as the “era of urban warfare is already here.” This now and future operational space is fraught with challenges as described in the previous essays in this series. These challenges include the complexity of operating in urban terrain ranging from tunnels, to vertical spaces, population density and diverse demographics, sprawl, architectural and political complexity, culminating in humanitarian challenges. Add to this: environmental and ecological challenges, such as hazardous materials disasters, and famine and resource scarcity resulting from urban fighting.

Urban Convergence

The urban operational space (‘opspace’) is one of ‘convergence’. As any ‘beat cop’ that has patrolled an urban setting can attest the diversity of urban terrain demands a flexible and adaptive approach to working the streets—and subways and high-rise structures ranging from office towers to housing projects. This convergence is often most visible during critical events and disasters. These range from ‘bush’ fires at the urban-wildland interface exacerbated by sprawl to damage to urban infrastructure as seen in Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina through the collapse of high-rise structures as seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. All of these events involved complex, multidisciplinary, multi-agency responses and long-term health, environmental, and social consequences for the cities impacted.  

Another variety of terrain convergence is the ‘urban-littoral’ battlespace convergence. While Hurricanes and tsunamis illustrate the risks accompanying urban development in littoral zones, littoral combat brings an additional set of complexity. Littoral zones—or the coastal regions—are the most populous on the planet. They are also home to most megacities and of course the world’s seaports. The fragility of coastal cities when combined with their economic significance makes them likely sites of future urban conflict. As one trenchant Australian Army analysis noted, urban littoral combat brings the “worst of both worlds.” This convergence applies to both urban terrorism—as seen in the infiltration of the Mumbai attackers for the 2008 urban siege/swarming attack on 26/11—and urban warfighting at seaports and their cities.

Urban-Cyber Convergence

Next comes cyber-urban convergence where the urban domain interacts with the cyber realm. The result is a set of new technology challenges that complicate the urban opspace. Drones, swarms of drones, and artificial intelligence (AI) aiding intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as command control and communications—cumulatively C4ISR—for all parties of the conflict. Drones, while generally bringing intelligence capabilities to non-state actors can also achieve kinetic potentials. Houthi rebels in Yemen are deploying armed UAVs to attack Saudi and Emirati troops and lethal anti tank drone ambushes evoke “Shades of Grozny” where Chechen guerrillas decimated columns of Russian armor. Suicide or ‘kamikaze drones’ compliment the mix of capabilities. The threat of terrorist drones being deployed against cities is real.

The terrorist drone potential would be enhanced if it employs swarms of drones or is used to leverage chemical and biological attacks. As operational urban warfare scholar John Spencer noted, ISIS used off-the-shelf drones as “grenade launchers, kamikaze, bombers, decoys and aerial ‘eyes in the sky’ increasing their ability to find, target and attack” opposition forces. This capability will be expanded when drone swarms are added to the mix with drones becoming force multipliers by enhancing the ability to identify adversaries while maintaining concealment and protection. In a graphic example of drones deployed against critical infrastructure Greenpeace crashed an unarmed drone into a French nuclear reactor to highlight risk to nuclear facilities. All combatants that gain aerial drone superiority can exploit this capability. Artificial intelligence (AI) and lethal automated weapons systems (LAWS) also promise to alter the urban battlespace. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has warned of terrorist use of AI and both urban terrorists and conventional combatants are likely to embrace AI as it becomes a mature technology.  Quite simply, drones and AI will—and are—changing the face of urban battle.

Global Cities-Global Slums

The convergence of crime and war is the final urban convergence. Here, criminal bands—gangs, cartels, militias—wage battle in irregular conflicts with both criminal rivals and the state. The gangsters’ battlespace ranges from narco-cities in Mexico to Brazil’s favelas.  Many of the world’s global slums are home to gangs that at times become incubators for child soldiers. Farhad Khosrokhavar has examined this social dynamic in the development of jihadis in the banlieues of France asserting that 'poor districts' (i.e., slums) can become hotbeds of Jihadism. He called the situation one of a ‘jihadogenous urban structure’. Similar dynamics drawing youths into criminal enterprises or the ‘crime-terror’ nexus exist in global slums throughout the world.

This complex social terrain of conflict has turned contested cities in the Middle East into ‘Stalingrads’ as Antônio Sampaio reminds us: “The New Frontlines Are in the Slums.” As Mike Davis illustrated in Planet of Slums, the world’s slums are potential incubators of not only conflict but also innovation. That is they are not only potential venues for conflict but also potential venues of reconciliation and peacemaking. This make understanding feral cities and “Global cities – global gangs” a critical element in successful urban operations.

Operating in Cities and Megacities

Cities and megacities will dominate future military and peacekeeping operations. As stated in the opening essay of this series, China is home to mega cities and emerging megacity complexes that promise to reshape the future of urban warfighting. Indeed, China is reconfiguring into a series of interlocking metropolitan mega-conurbations. These clusters are restructuring the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and mega-city corridors along China’s coast as well as in the interior. The result is expected to be 19 mega-cities forming new super-regions. One of these super-regions in the Pearl Delta is expected to cover 42,00 square miles and area larger than the Netherlands. The mega-cities are being linked by a dense network of high-speed rail and commercial infrastructure. Competition among the regions is a distinct possibility despite the intent of the Chinese Communist party to sustain hegemonic control. Similar mega-city clusters are emerging—or are likely to emerge—in other parts of Asia and Africa. Understanding these novel patterns of development demands intense study of emerging urban political economy and conflict.

Peacekeeping in cities will be an important part of this mix. Integrating policing, humanitarian considerations, and understanding of communities to build opportunities for peace and governance requires the development of new skills.  

The urban opspace will place significant demand on commanders, their subordinate leaders, and operators. Major John Spencer has articulated the need for a U.S. Army urban warfare school to address this need. Such a school would benefit from the development of counterparts for other services: the navy, coast guard and marines for urban-littoral operations (as amphibious and riverine operations in cities may become necessary) and the air force (and naval and marine air) for close air support—picture a drone enabled Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Similar learning capabilities would be beneficial at allied militaries (and with gendarmerie and police partners) since combined urban operations are also likely in the future.

Conclusion: A New Grammar for Urban Strategy

Michael Evans in his essay “War and the City in the New Urban Century” advised that training and technology would be essential to addressing urban insurgency and urban military operations. The nexus between insurgency and urbanization that he described is increasingly important; as is his recognition that cities are sites of strategic importance. This ‘strategic commons’ is punctuated by the interplay of global cities and global slums. These are the venues of Mary Kaldor’s ‘New Wars’ and they demand not only the development of venues for training and exercising but the development of not only what Alice Hills would call a ‘new grammar’ for addressing urban operations but also a new theory of urban strategy to ensure “Command of the Cities.”

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