So you think that American troops, fighting in the urban maze of Baghdad’s huge Shiite slum, Sadr City, add up to nothing more than a horrible mistake, an unexpected fiasco? The Pentagon begs to differ. For years now, U.S. war planners have believed that guerrilla warfare is the future — not against Guevarist focos in the countryside of some recalcitrant, possibly-oil-rich land, but in growing urban “jungles” in the vast slum cities that increasingly dot the planet.
Take this urban-labyrinth description, for instance. “Indigenous forces deploying mortars transported by local vehicles and ready to rapidly deploy, shoot, and re-cover are common… [Meanwhile,] an infantry company as part of the US rapid reaction forces has been tasked with the… mission to secure several objectives including the command and control cell within a 100 square block urban area of the capital…”
Is it Baghdad? It’s certainly possible, since the passage was written in 2004 with urban warfare in Iraq’s capital already an increasingly grim reality for Washington’s military planners. But the actual report — by an official from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s blue-skies research outfit — focused on cities-of-the-future, of 2025 to be exact, as part of “a new DARPA thrust into Urban Combat.”
Fear of urban warfare has long been an aspect of American military planning. Planners remember urban killing zones of the past where U.S. forces sometimes suffered grievous casualties, including in Hue, South Vietnam’s old imperial capital, where “devastating” losses were incurred by the Marines in 1968; in the Black-Hawk Down debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, where local militias inflicted 60% casualties on Army Rangers; and, of course, in the still-ongoing catastrophe in Iraq’s cities.
In fact, military planners cannot have been shocked to find themselves fighting in the streets and alleyways of Baghdad (as well as Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Najaf, and Tal Afar) these last years. Prior to the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, American newspapers were full of largely military-leaked or inspired fears that, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Washington Post in late September 2002, Saddam Hussein “would respond to a U.S. invasion by attempting to… draw U.S. forces into high-risk urban warfare.” It was feared that the taking of “fortress Baghdad,” as then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld termed it, might prove costly indeed.
On April 8, 2003, however, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. Army troops rolled into Baghdad” and conventional wisdom in and out of the administration held that “victory” — the very name given to the first major base the U.S. established in Iraq, “Camp Victory” right at the edge of Baghdad International Airport — was close at hand.
That was then, of course. Last October 8th, exactly 3 years and 6 months later, the Post confirmed that the worst pre-invasion fears of military planners had, in fact, come true — even if somewhat belatedly and with Saddam Hussein imprisoned somewhere in the confines of Camp Victory. The “number of U.S troops wounded in Iraq,” wrote reporter Ann Scott Tyson, “has surged to its highest monthly level in nearly two years as American GIs fight block-by-block in Baghdad.” In fact, aside from the huge Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province, Baghdad had, by then, become the deadliest location for U.S. troops in Iraq and urban warfare in a slum city, involving snipers, IEDs, suicide car bombs, and ambushes of all sorts had, it seemed, become America’s military fate.
DARPA’s Future War on the Urban Poor
In his tour de force Planet of Slums, Mike Davis observes, “the Pentagon’s best minds have dared to venture where most United Nations, World Bank or State Department types fear to go… [T]hey now assert that the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World –especially their slum outskirts — will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century.” Pentagon war-fighting doctrine, he notes, “is being reshaped accordingly to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor.”
In fact, this past October the U.S. Army issued its latest “urban operations” manual. “Given the global population trends and the likely strategies and tactics of future threats,” it declares, “Army forces will likely conduct operations in, around, and over urban areas — not as a matter of fate, but as a deliberate choice linked to national security objectives and strategy, and at a time, place, and method of the commander’s choosing.” Global economic deprivation and poor housing, the hallmarks of the urban slum, are, the manual asserts, what makes “urban areas potential sources of unrest” and thus, “[i]ncreases the likelihood of the Army’s involvement in stability operations.” And “idle” urban youth (long a target of security forces in the U.S. homeland), loosed in the future slum city from the “traditional social controls” of “village elders and clan leaders” and prey to manipulation by “nonstate actors” draw particular concern from the manual’s authors.
Given the assumed need to be in the urban Iraqs of the future, the question for the U.S. military becomes a practical one: How to deal with these uppity children of the third world. That’s where DARPA and other Department of Defense (DoD) dreamers come in. According to DARPA’s 2004 report, what’s needed are “new systems and technologies for prosecution of urban warfare… [and] new operational methods for our soldiers, Marines, and special operations forces.”
Today, DARPA, and other Pentagon ventures like the Small Business Innovation Research Program (in which the “DoD funds early-stage R&D projects at small technology companies”) and the Small Business Technology Transfer Program (where funding goes to “cooperative R&D projects involving a small business and a research institution”) are awash in “urban operations-oriented programs.” These go by the acronym of UO and are designed to support tomorrow’s interventions and occupations. The Director of DARPA’s Information Exploitation Office put it this way:
“[They are aimed at] conflicts in high density urban areas… against enemies having social and cultural traditions that may be counter-intuitive to us, and whose actions often appear to be irrational because we don’t understand their context.”
These programs include a wide range of efforts to visualize, map out, and spy on the global mega-favelas that the U.S. has, until now, largely scorned and neglected. A host of unmanned vehicles are also being readied for surveillance and combat in these future “hot-zones,” while all sorts of lethal enhancements are in various stages of development to enable American troops to more effectively kick down the doors of the poor in 2025.
Urban Planning, Pentagon-style: Spider-Men and Exploding Frisbees
So let’s try to fill out that futuristic combat scenario in the planet’s urban jungles with a little futuristic detail. Current UO-oriented systems under development include:
VisiBuilding: This is a program aimed at addressing “a pressing need in urban warfare: seeing inside buildings” by developing technology that will allow U.S. forces to “determine building layouts, find anomalous quantities of materials,” and “locate people within the building.” According to Edward Baranoski of DARPA’s Special Projects Office, Visibuilding will allow “a lot of opportunity to stake out buildings and really see inside.” Think of it as a high-tech military Peeping Tom system that lets U.S. troops spy inside foreign homes and make judgments about whatever they might deem “anomalous” inside. While VisiBuilding is in development, troops will have to be content with “Radar Scope” which allows them to “sense through 12 inches of concrete to determine if someone is inside a building.”
Camouflaged Long Endurance Nano Sensors: This “real-time ultra-wideband radar network… will detect, classify, localize, and track dismounted combatants… in urban environments.” In translation, a system of palm-sized, networked sensors will monitor an area, day in, day out for weeks at a time. This is what DARPA likes to call “persistent surveillance.” The U.S. military has headed down this particular surveillance path before via the ill-fated McNamara Line and various people-sniffer devices, all of which proved incapable of differentiating between armed combatants and civilians in Vietnam era. On this score, there’s little reason to believe anything will change in future alien urban slums, despite the increasing technological sophistication of such systems.
UrbanScape: This program aims “to make the foreign city as ‘familiar as the soldier’s backyard’” by providing “the warfighters patrolling an urban environment with an up-to-date, high resolution model of the urban terrain that can be viewed, manipulated and analyzed.” Specially-outfitted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and Humvees are to gather data about a target city and then translate it into 3D visuals. These images will then be available to troops for use in navigating through and conducting combat operations in tomorrow’s labyrinthine slums.
Heterogeneous Urban RSTA Team: With the apt acronym of HURT, this program will network together a squadron of small, low-altitude UAVs sending video footage to hand-held devices for the immediate use of urban RSTA (reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition) troops. This high-tech system is designed, according to DARPA’s director, Dr. Anthony J. Tether, to provide U.S. forces with “unprecedented awareness that enables them to shape and control [a] conflict as it unfolds.” It is meant to improve the odds when American counterinsurgency warriors take on “warfighters in a MOUT [Military Operations on Urban Terrain] environment” or any rag-tag slum militia of tomorrow. If a report by the Pentagon Channel News is to be believed, HURT will be operational by 2008.
The Air Force is, in turn, seeking the “ability to continuously track, tag, and locate (TTL) asymmetric threats in urban environments using sensors across the tiers of airborne assets.” What they envision is a slew of UAVs loitering long-term above hostile cities and slums, ready at a moment’s notice to spot a target and begin tracking it. Such “targets” might be “commercial vehicles” or individuals identified through a “hyperspectral imaging HSI video camera” that allows for “the frequency spectrum of clothes, hair, and skin [to] be exploited” thus providing “targeting level accuracy to weapon delivery assets.” Think of it as the high-tech urban hunter-killer system for the neo-colonial future. While the Air Force sees this as a way to target and kill “anti-occupation forces” in Baghdad 2025, they also envision it doing double duty in the Homeland where, they say, “law enforcement require[s] urban target tracking.”
Nano Air Vehicle: Imagine a world in which mechanical gnats infest a city, buzzing through people’s homes, intruding on their lives, filming whatever they choose with tiny cameras and transmitting the data back to U.S. troops. This program aims to “develop and demonstrate an extremely small (less than 7.5 cm), ultra-lightweight (less than 10 grams) air vehicle system… to provide the warfighter with unprecedented capability for urban mission operations.”
Additionally, there’s the Multi Dimensional Mobility Robot (MDMR), which “will traverse complex urban terrain”; the Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) a small, vertical take-off and landing UAV that will be “employable in a variety of warfighting environments” including “urban areas”; and the intriguing but shadowy Urban Hopping Robots program whose project manager, Dr. Michael Obal, declined to answer Tomdispatch’s inquiries about the project. Jan R. Walker of DARPA’s External Relations office told Tomdispatch in an email that there is “very limited information available on the Urban Hopping Robots program,” but suggested that the “program is developing a semi-autonomous hybrid hopping/articulated wheeled robotic platform that could adapt to the urban environment in real-time and provide the delivery of small payloads to any point of the urban jungle while remaining lightweight, small to minimize the burden on the soldier.” The proposed hopping robot, she noted, “would be truly multi-functional in that it will negotiate all aspects of the urban battlefield to deliver payloads to non-line-of-sight areas with precision.”
Z-Man: Copyright infringement was probably the only thing that stopped this DARPA program from being called the “Spiderman Project.” Basically, Z-Man seeks to “develop climbing aids that will enable an individual soldier to scale vertical walls constructed of typical building materials without the need for ropes or ladders.” The Pentagon is aiming to find methods similar to those employed by “geckos, spiders, and small animals [to] scale vertical surfaces, that is, by using unique biological material systems that enable controllable adhesion.” This weaponized wall-crawler, assumedly capable of creeping into some 2025 apartment window in Baghdad, Beruit, or Kerachi “carrying a combat load,” definitely is not meant to be your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
Modular Disc-Wing (Frisbee) Urban Cruise Munition: Yes, you read it right, the Air Force has green-lighted Triton Systems, Inc. to create “a MEFP [Multiple Explosively Formed Penetrator]-armed Lethal Frisbee UAV.” That is, a flying disk that will “locate defiladed combatants in complex urban terrain” and annihilate them using a bunker-buster warhead. Unlike your run-of-the mill Wham-O, however, this “frisbee” will probably be thrown using a device resembling a skeet launcher.
Close Combat Lethal Recon This deadly, loitering explosive expressively for use in urban landscapes will expand a soldier’s killing zone by reaching “over and around buildings, onto rooftops, and into open building portals.” Think of it as a smart grenade or, according to DARPA Director Tether, “a tube-launched cruise munition that can be used by a dismounted infantryman in an urban area to attack a target, perhaps spotted by a UAV, which is beyond his line of sight. It’s like a small mortar round with a grenade-size explosive in it. A fiber-optic line unreels from its back end and provides the data link that allows the soldier to see the video from the munition’s camera and to fly it into the target.”
Training for Tomorrow’s Urban Occupations
Just a cursory glance at last year’s Pentagon expenditures makes clear the heavy emphasis on training the men and women who are slated to use DARPA’s high-tech urban weapons against slum-dwellers in the coming years. In March 2006, the Army signed a nearly $25 million contract “for construction of a combined arms collective training facility/urban assault complex” at Fort Carson, Colorado. In August, the Navy inked an $18.5 million deal for the “design and construction of a combined arms military operations in urban terrain facility” at Twenty-nine Palms, California. In September, the Army approved a contract for the construction of an Urban Assault Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. In November, the Navy awarded a $12,500,000 contract for construction of a “Special Operations Force Military Operations on Urban Terrain Training Complex” at San Clemente Island, California. And in December 2006, the Army agreed to pay $11,838,998 for a new “Military Operations Urban Terrain Facility” for Fort Irwin, California.
The Pentagon has even exported its urban warfare training centers to sites closer to tomorrow’s prospective targets, such as the Army’s custom-made MOUT facilities at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan and at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. In November 2006, the Army awarded General Dynamics a $17 million contract to construct an urban combat training site as part of the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center in Jordan — a facility which will, according to an Army spokesman, be available to “all friendly nations that support the War on Terror.”
American Terminators vs. Drug-Dealing Serial-Killer Guerillas
As both the high-tech programs and the proliferating training facilities suggest, the Pentagon views the foreign slum city of tomorrow as a dystopian nightmare and the bloody battlespace to be feared and controlled in the coming decades. Beyond this, the Pentagon exhibits a palpable fear of urban disorder of any sort. In response, it is creating its own Hollywood-style solutions to its Hollywood-esque Escape From New York-meets-Bladerunner-meets-Zulu-meets-Robocop vision of the Third World city to come.
For example, the Navy/Marine Corps recently launched a program seeking to develop algorithms to predict the criminality of a given building or neighborhood. The project, titled “Finding Repetitive Crime Supporting Structures,” defines cities as nothing more than a collection of “urban clutter [that] affords considerable concealment for the actors that we must capture.” The “hostile behavior bad actors,” as the program terms them, are defined not just as “terrorists,” today’s favorite catch-all boogiemen, but as a panoply of nightmare archetypes: “insurgents, serial killers, drug dealers, etc.” (For its part, the Army’s recently revised “Urban Operations” manual offers an even more extensive list of “persistent and evolving urban threats,” including regional conventional military forces, paramilitary forces, guerrillas, and insurgents as well as terrorists, criminal groups, and angry crowds. In fact, even the threat of computer “hackers” are mentioned.
To do battle in dystopian mega-cities where serial killers, druglords, hackers, and urban guerillas may have joined forces, DARPA is intent on developing a program worthy of a direct-to-video sci-fi thriller. In a recent solicitation, it offered a vision of a human-robot military SWAT team busting down doors in a favela of the future. It reads:
“The challenge is to create a system demonstrating the use of multiple robots with one or more humans on a highly constrained tactical maneuver… One example of such a maneuver is the through-the-door procedure often used by police and soldiers to enter an urban dwelling… [where] one kicks in the door then pulls back so another can enter low and move left, followed by another who enters high and moves right, etc. In this project the teams will consist of robot platforms working with one or more human teammates as a cohesive unit. The robots should be under autonomous control rather than remote/teleoperated.”
This scenario of tomorrow already seems well launched. The military has, in fact, been obsessed with the idea of sending to war heavily-armed, tele-operated robots — such as the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS Talon, a small, all-terrain tracked vehicle, used by the U.S. military since 2000, that can be outfitted with M240 or M249 machine guns, Barrett 50-caliber rifles, 40 mm grenade launchers, and anti-tank rocket launchers.
Pentagon to Global Cities: Drop Dead
This past fall, the Pentagon’s U.S. Joint Forces Command engaged in a $25 million, 35-day, computer-based simulation exercise involving more than 1,400 soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors. A year in the making, “Urban Resolve 2015″ had one simple goal — to test concepts for future “combat in cities” — and, not surprisingly, it was set in Baghdad 2015. An article put out by the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service was quick to say, however, that the virtual exercise really could be taking place in “any urban environment.” And the reason why was clear in the words of Dave Ozolek, the executive director of the Joint Futures Lab at the Joint Forces Command. Urban zones, he said, are “where the fight is, that’s where the enemy is, that['s] where the center of gravity for the whole operation is.”
While the Joint Forces Command may already be war-gaming the 2015 Battle for Baghdad, right now it looks like the U.S. military will have trouble hanging on there for even a couple of more years. Still, if present plans become reality, odds are U.S. military planners will be attempting to occupy some city, in some fashion, come 2015 and 2025. In the future, as the Army’s new Urban Operations Manual puts it, “every Soldier — regardless of branch or military occupational specialty — must be committed and prepared to close with and kill or capture threat forces in an urban environment.”
The way the Pentagon seems to envision the future, its human-robot expeditionary forces will spend increasing amounts of time dropping in on Third World super-slums armed not only with heavy weaponry, but also with gadgets galore. They will be able to read instant 3D maps of the buildings they’re approaching and watch real-time video of the most intimate activities in the urban zone they’ve been tasked to subdue.
As tiny flying UAVs blanket an impoverished neighborhood, a squad of special-ops Spidermen and Geko warriors will crawl and slither up apartment-building walls, while teams of robots are simultaneously hopping through first floor windows, and Terminator-Human teams are kicking down front doors to capture an enemy drug kingpin. Nearby “angry crowds” of politically-minded youth will be engaged by heavily-armed tele-operated SWORDS Talon robots, while a few up-armored cyborg troops, at a safe distance, fire their loitering smart grenades at a gathering crowd of armed slum-dwellers who believe themselves well hidden and protected in nearby alleyways.
Of course, no matter the fantasies of Pentagon scientists and planners, such futuristic solutions will not replace U.S. reliance on massive firepower, even in labyrinthine cities, as was true with Tokyo during World War II, Pyongyang during the Korean War, Ben Tre in Vietnam, and the Sunni city of Fallujah during the current war in Iraq. As Major Tim Karcher, the operations officer for the Army’s Task Force 2-7 Cavalry, recalled of the American assault on Fallujah in November 2004, “We sat there for a good six or seven hours…watching… this death and destruction rain down on the city, from AC-130 [gunship]s to any kind of fast-moving aircraft, 155 [millimeter] howitzers. You name it, everybody was getting in the mix.”
Given the military’s fear of sending large numbers of American troops into the enemy- friendly landscape of the urban mega-slum, where significant casualties are almost unavoidable, this form of Pentagon-preferred urban renewal is unlikely to be replaced, no matter what technologies come down the pike.
The Military and the Metropolis
Cities are obviously on the Pentagon’s hit list — today, it’s Baghdad; tomorrow 2015 or 2025, if military planners are right, it could be Accra, BogotÃ¡, Dhaka, Karachi, Kinshasa, Lagos, Mogadishu or even a perenial favorite, Port au Prince. Regardless of the exact locale, Pentagon strategists looking into the DARPA crystal ball of the future have determined that urban slums will be a crucial battleground, and slum-dwellers a crucial enemy.
Yet the outlook for the U.S. military is not upbeat — even with high-tech exploding frisbees, spider-man suits, terminator-like robots, and urban training facilities galore coming on line. In the wars begun since the U.S. high command moved into its own self-described virtual “city” — the Pentagon — a distinct inability to decisively defeat any but its weakest foes has been in evidence.
Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, Lebanon in the early 1980s, Somalia in the early 1990s were all failures. More recently, victory in Afghanistan has proved worse than elusive and a ragtag insurgency in Iraq has fought the Pentagon’s technological dominance and superior firepower to a standstill. While able to cause massive casualties and tremendous destruction, the Pentagon war machine has proven remarkably ineffectual when it comes to achieving actual victory.
Now, the Pentagon has decided to prepare for a fight with a restless, oppressed population of slum-dwellers one billion strong and growing at an estimated rate of 25 million people per year. To take on even lone outposts in this multitude — like any of the 400 cities of over 1 million people that exist today or the 150 more estimated to be in existence by 2015 — is a fool’s errand, a recipe for both carnage and quagmire.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]