Mega Cities, Ungoverned Areas, and the Challenge of Army Urban Combat Operations in 2030-2040

Small Wars Journal – by David Shunk

The Worst Policy is to Attack Cities. Attack Cities Only When There is No Alternative.1

Sun Tzu, Art of War

Convinced that Hitler would employ whatever forces were necessary to seize the city [Stalingrad]…the sole function of the [Soviet 62nd & 64th Armies] was to lure combat ready German forces into the city…, sap their strength in the kind of street combat for which German soldiers were neither trained nor accustomed to fighting. By staying close to the German attackers and contesting every block, the Soviet soldiers deprived the Germans of the greatest advantages: firepower and maneuver. 2   

David Glantz, Armageddon in Stalingrad

Mega cities will complicate and greatly challenge Army urban combat missions in the 2030-2040 timeframe. By 2030 three out of five persons are forecast to reside in cities. This migration will bring competing interests into conflict and raise the chances for urban combat operations. Urban combat is the great leveler. Standoff technologies are negated and the city fight is still street to street, floor to floor, and often face to face. This paper will discuss mega city challenges and characteristics, the problems of ungoverned areas, offer historical examples of urban combat and the challenges of land combat in mega cities in 2030-2040. The Army should study urban combat in mega cities to develop the capabilities required for success in 2030-2040.

What is a Mega City?

So what is a mega city? As defined by the United Nations, a mega city is defined as a city with more than 10 million inhabitants.3 Today twenty four mega cities exist and by 2025 at least twenty seven cities will be classified as mega cities.4 The current largest mega city, Tokyo, has a population of over 32 million and a city area that is 56 miles wide and 16 miles long.  Any type of Army mission in a mega city will face daunting challenges.

Mega cities will further complicate the political, social, and military landscape in 2030-2040. Megacities and regional groupings are likely to assume increasing political and economic powers, whereas countries and global multilateral institutions will struggle to keep up with the rapid rise of their power.5 With the rise of the mega city autonomy what are key mega city characteristics and problems?

Characteristics and Problems in Mega Cities:

  • Potential for massive poverty and social unrest, especially in third world mega cities.
  • Potential for massive infrastructure problems with communications services, basic infrastructure maintenance, transportation and congestion.
  • Potential for environmental concerns, such as contaminated water, air pollution, and sewage.
  • Potential for increased disease transmission due to over-crowding, drug-resistant strains of infection, and lethal environmental conditions.
  • Potential for ungoverned spaces within the mega city.
  • Potential for littoralization – the propensity for mega cities to cluster on coastlines.
  • Population can be quickly mobilized with social media during times of social unrest.
  • Demographics indicate higher birth rates, city migration and a young unemployed population.

Taken together these mega city characteristics demonstrate the possibility of instability over stability. Mega cities hold a high potential for unrest, disruption and disorder on a large scale.

Life in megacities will deteriorate as populations surge beyond their capacity. The teeming populations of Lagos, Karachi, Cairo, and Dhaka have few options. In Lagos one could almost say that the rule of law does not exist.

Moreover, some of what we term indigenous “non-state actors” and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) have the potential to become so powerful within megacities as to be virtually invulnerable to the power of the governments of their respective states.6


P.H. Liotta and James F. Miskel, Real Population Bomb

Potential for Disorder and Conflict in Mega Cities

David Kilcullen in his book, Out of the Mountains: The Rise of the Urban Guerrillaforecasts a world with conflict focused on megacities due to these factors:

  • Urbanization – tendency for migrations to larger and larger cities
  • Littoralization – the propensity for people to cluster on coastal cities
  • Connectedness – the increasing connectivity among people, wherever they live.7

He predicts conflict will occur in the sprawling coastal cities and in urban slum settlements of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Cities, rather than nations, may become the critical component for future conflict. Mega cities may permit the reemergence of the city state.

The greater danger for the future may not be failed states, but the possibility of failed mega cities.  When states fail to provide protection and other basic services within a mega city an ungoverned region may rise within the mega city.

Increasing urbanization worldwide, combined with growing attention to illicit actors in remote areas, suggests that “hiding in plain sight” in urban and suburban areas or rural villages will be a strategy that illicit actors are likely to increasingly follow. Many cities, even in Western liberal democracies, have entire housing projects, neighborhoods, or slums that are known to be controlled by drug traffickers or other illicit actors and are “no go” areas for policemany favilas, urban slums, shanty towns, refugee camps, and squatters’ villages outside of major cities lack police protection or government oversight.8

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens

With no government, no courts, no law, and no university there was no work … in Mogadishu. How could these bloody Ranger raids alter things? 9

Blackhawk Down

Mega City Disorder and Conflict May Result in Ungoverned Areas

Cairo, Mumbai, Dhaka, Karachi, Lahore, Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi, and Rio de Janeiro all have something in common – ungoverned spaces. All of these cities have ungoverned sectors in which the government is incapable of providing law enforcement, public health, education, and other basic services.17

What is an ungoverned area in a mega city? It is a sector where the government has lost control and the capacity to manage the population.  Security is challenged by non-state actors such as terrorists, insurgents, criminals, and extremist organizations.

Non-state armed groups may become a governing factor in mega cities. These groups may provide localized medical care, reconstruction, education and religious instruction aiming to win control of the people when the government fails to provide these services.

Within an ungoverned area the Army may be required to accomplish missions such as restoring order, seizing chemical or nuclear weapons. Any combat operation in a mega city will be a formidable challenge.

An urban area can constitute a major military obstacle. Its population poses major logistical, administrative and security problems for the invader. Tactically, a city’s closely packed buildings, basements, alleyways and sewer systems offer cover, concealment, and ready-made defensive positions to the defenders.

Generally, a modern city magnifies the power of the defender and robs the attacker of his advantages in firepower and mobility. A city can ingest an invading army, paralyze it for weeks on end, and grind it down to a state of ineffectiveness.10

2d Battalion, 26th Infantry, at Aachen, October 1944

Combat Operations in a Mega City

With the potential for future combat operations in highly networked and densely populated mega cities, what can one expect?  As demonstrated in Mogadishu, efforts that begin as humanitarian assistance or noncombatant evacuation may face an all out urban conflict with little notice.

Army forces in mega city combat may face several types of adversaries as shown by history:

  1. Grozny – state versus terrorist/guerrilla/irregular forces.
  2. Stalingrad – state on state war within a city.
  3. Mogadishu – city militia turns on U.S. forces.

The problems of urban combat in a mega city may be greatly magnified. Due to their size combat in mega cities will be complex, offer more dangers and larger entrapments. Additionally in 2030-2040, prevalent technologies such as improved UAVs, 3D printing, and robotics will greatly empower the adversaries. So what are some basic characteristics of urban combat?

Survival meant moving like your hair was on fire. As he moved he thought about making every one of his shots count. They were in a 360-degree battlefield.11

Delta Force SFC Paul Howe, Blackhawk Down

[In the streets of Mogadishu], the Rangers on the lost convoy took better than 50 percent casualties moving through the streets in vehicles.12

                                   Blackhawk Down

In the Battle of Stalingrad, shock group and assault parties spent days fighting for single buildings or blocks of buildings, struggling for hours over separate rooms, single bunkers and foxholes, cellars and twisted pieces of destroyed machinery. The sheer attrition took a terrible toll on both sides, quickly depriving units of their combat effectiveness.13

David Glantz, Armageddon in Stalingrad

Basic Characteristics of Combat in Urban Terrain:

  • Easy to enter, hard to extract forces in urban operations (think Mogadishu)
  • Restricted movement
  • Funneled approaches
  • Constant threat of ambush
  • Multi-level operations: subterranean, street level, and elevated terrain (buildings)
  • Infantry intensive operations
  • 360 degree battle
  • High expenditure of ammunition and other expendables
  • Potential for high causalities
  • Terrain favors the defense
  • Attacker firepower and mobility advantage is lost

To illustrate some of the challenges of urban combat, a look at the past will help view the future. Four examples from recent history illustrate three challenges and one possible solution.

Historical Examples Illustrating Three Urban Combat Challenges and a Solution

  • Stalingrad 1942 – Ultimate city conflict – state on state, tremendous casualties
  • Mogadishu 1993 – City wide militia rises up to attack U.S. forces
  • Gronzy 1995 – Russians rush to disaster, destroyed in detail
  • IDF Nablus 2002 – One solution, fighting through city walls

Stalingrad – Extreme Causalities

Stalingrad is the ultimate example of nation on nation warfare fighting for a city and the potential for extreme losses. The defensive phase of the battle for the city of Stalingrad battle lasted 126 days and the Russians lost 324,000 dead and 320,000 wounded/sick resulting in 644,000 total causalities producing an average of 5,100 casualties per day.14 The battle created 600,000 Russian refugees.15

Mogadishu 1993 – City Militia Rises Up

A planned ninety minute mission to capture warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid turned into a seventeen hour firefight when the city militia attacked the Ranger and Delta Force in the urban environment. An armored relief column rescued the trapped Rangers and Delta Force but the Americans suffered eighteen dead and eighty four wounded.  The geopolitical consequence saw U.S. national resolve defined by casualties resulting in disengagement from Somalia.

Grozny (Chechnya) 1995 – Rush to Destruction

In the 1995 battle for Grozny the Russians initially used urban penetration tactics to move on multiple axes to seize an objective and then isolate and protect it from the enemy. The Russians moved on multiple axes to seize the presidential palace, railroad station and radio/television center.

The Russians moved unopposed until deep in the city, where the Chechens attacked and destroyed them. The Chechen opposition learned not to provide permanent strong points that would provide a focus for Russian air, artillery and maneuver forces. Rather, the Chechens employed temporary strong points and a great deal of internal mobility to deploy and redeploy strong points throughout the city.16 Technology superiority did not guarantee victory for the Russians.

Nablus 2002 – Walking Through Walls

At Nablus 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys or courtyards that constitute the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, sought to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares.

The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings and floors across the urban mass reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban rules of combat. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through-walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.17 Innovation provided new tactics and success in this urban fight.

There is excellent reason to believe that future enemies of the United States will look more like the Chechens than the Russians. Therefore, it behooves the United States to prepare for urban combat. As the Russians have learned, avoiding it, although preferable, is often impossible.

U.S. planners should also recognize that a resident insurgency force enjoys significant advantages over even a technically superior foreign aggressorIt is better to learn from the experiences of others than to repeat their mistakes.18

RAND, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000


Mega cities and the potential for the Army to engage in mega city combat operations in 2030-2040 fit the definition of ‘wicked problem.’ Leadership and intellect will be required to overcome the significant and complex challenges of mega cities.

It would be easy to dismiss urban combat in a mega city as a potential mission due to the dangers and limitations. However, by studying urban combat in mega cities the Army can best develop the capabilities required to face this challenge in 2030-2040.

Never under estimate the enemies in mega cities and never over estimate your own capabilities. Remember the warning of Sun Tzu.

End Notes

1Samuel Griffith translator, Sun Tzu, Art of War, (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1963), 78.

2David Glantz, Armageddon in StalingradSeptember-November 1942, (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2009), 705.

3European Association of National Metrology Institutes, Mega Cities, 1. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

4P.H. Liotta and James F. Miskel, The Real Population Bomb: Megacities, Global Security and The Map of the Future, (Dulles, Virginia:  Potomac Books, 2012), 2.

5National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, 57. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

6P.H. Liotta and James F. Miskel, 10.

7David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming of Age of the Urban Guerrilla, (Oxford Publishing: Oxford, England, 2013), 22.

8Robert D. Lamb, Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens, Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project, Prepared for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, 2007, 25. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

9Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, (New York, New York: Penguin, 1999), 75.

10Roger Spiller, Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command & General Staff College Press, 1992), 163. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

11Mark Bowden, 175.

12Mark Bowden, 339.

13David Glantz, 709.

14Micheael Desch, Soldiers in Cities: Military Operations On Urban Terrain, Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), October 2001, 24. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

15S.J. Lewis, Battle of Stalingrad, Web Source, 30, 35. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

16Lester Grau, Urban Combat: Confronting the Specter, Military Review, July-August 1991. 20 Nov 2013)

17Eyal Weizman, Lethal Theory, 2006, 81. (Accessed 20 Nov 2013)

18Olga Oliker, RAND, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000, Grozny Summary, 2001,  xv. 20 Nov 2013)

Dave Shunk is a retired USAF Colonel, B-52G pilot, and Desert Storm combat veteran whose last military assignment was as the B-2 Vice Wing Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing, Whitman AFB, MO. Currently, he is a researcher/writer and DA civilian working in Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), Future Warfare Division, Fort Eustis, Virginia. He has a National Security Strategy MS from the National War College.



2 thoughts on “Mega Cities, Ungoverned Areas, and the Challenge of Army Urban Combat Operations in 2030-2040

  1. Yep, Sun Tzu always said, “Never lay siege to a city” You will exhaust all your strength and the enemy will overtake you.

    I think this is the reason why Barry and company want us all to move into the major cities, so they can surround and contain us and then the rural areas and suburbs will be theirs and no need to worry. It seems they are focused more on moving and containing us than destroying us in the cities. That is their strategy, but I do believe they realize that it won’t be that easy and that’s why Urban Operations have been intensely researched by them and have been expanding and evolving this past decade or so. Especially when most of us have guns, they know they will have to find some advantage in besieging a city with the fewest casualties possible. They may have drones and countless surveillance technologies but it still will be an impossible feat for them to accomplish.

  2. It is bad for the attackers in a city.
    Look at the london blitz. Lots of bombs and destruction but all those people who survived became numb to the bombings and at one point felt invincible. They walked to the store for bread and eggs whilst the explosions happened on the next block. Children where even seen playing in the street during the blitz.

    It takes too much resources to ‘affect’ everyone and those that go ‘un-affected’ become more resolve and mentally hardened.
    But you want to wipe out a city, nukes are your friend. Much more so than in a rural area. 1 nuke in a rural area might kill 12-50 families. In a city it kills a large percentage of 10’s of millions.
    Disease is great because it leaves the wealth intact. US corp has the market cornered on disease.

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