The Pentagon Envisions a Horrible and Dystopian Metropolis of the Future

A Special Operations Command video outlines a nihilistic and bleak future for big cities around the globe – and describes why fighting in them may be a non-starter.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


After spending nearly a decade fighting in urban terrain in Iraq and clandestine counter-terror operations around the globe under the auspices of the Global War on Terror, the Pentagon seems to view our urban combat of the future as very ominous indeed. The details of these challenges–and this gloomy vision of the future–are featured in a downright depressing video named  “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity” that has been shown at the Joint Special Operations University.

The video was obtained via a FOIA request by The Intercept. In it, visuals of crowded urban sprawl, riots, poverty and military operations are splashed across the screen as a narrator somberly describes a hugely complex and tactically bankrupt combat environment of the future.

The Intercepts describes the video and its intended use:

The video was used as part of an “Advanced Special Operations Combating Terrorism” course offered at JSOU earlier this year, for a lesson on “The Emerging Terrorism Threat.” JSOU is operated by U.S. Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for America’s most elite troops. JSOU describes itself as geared toward preparing special operations forces “to shape the future strategic environment by providing specialized joint professional military education, developing SOF specific undergraduate and graduate level academic programs and by fostering special operations research.”

Megacities are, by definition, urban areas with a population of 10 million or more, and they have been a recent source of worry and research for the U.S. military. A 2014 Army report, titled “Megacities and the United States Army,” warned that “the Army is currently unprepared. Although the Army has a long history of urban fighting, it has never dealt with an environment so complex and beyond the scope of its resources.” A separate Army study published this year bemoans the fact that the “U.S. Army is incapable of operating within the megacity.”

Here is the video in its entirety:

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The piece goes on to describe megacities in great detail, including the unique and complex social structures that will propagate from high-rise penthouse dwellers all the way down to “subterranean labyrinths” governed by their own laws and social norms. Above all else, the video makes it clear that future cities will be breeding grounds for organized crime, cyber crime and terrorism. And apparently Special Operations Command doesn’t think it's ready to do battle in the megacities of the future, with the narrator stating:

“Even our counterinsurgency doctrine, honed in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, is inadequate to address the sheer scale of population in the future urban reality… We are facing environments that the masters of war never foresaw… We are facing a threat that requires us to redefine doctrine and the force in radically new and different ways.”

The whole affair is reminiscent of the opening sequence of the latest Judge Dredd movie, where the main character narrates over sweeping views of the concrete jungle of dystopic Megacity One–with flashes of social unrest and extreme urban decay woven in:

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So what’s the deal here? Is this just the military industrial complex looking for another paper threat to cash in on, or is fighting in “megacities” something the Pentagon needs to start preparing for in a big way? I think the real answer is a mix of both.

As population increases and urban areas become both more dense and sprawling, certain tactical problems will become more pronounced than they already are during current MOUT (military operations in urban terrain). But this is not a whole new medium of combat operations as the video implies.

There's nothing wrong with getting our best military minds thinking about how to negate tactical deficiencies of the future, the video seems to call for more than just that.

The US military spends billions a year on training its forces for MOUT. Countless fake villages and mock cities have been constructed at US military and allied bases around the globe, just for this purpose. Many of these installations even have role playing actors trained to fill out the civilian population. Some special operations units even get their very own elaborate MOUT training complexes tailored to specific mission sets. Not just that, but Special Operations Command regularly conducts elaborate drills in real metropolisesaround the US, often drawing fascination and ire of the local populous in the process.

Should America’s special operations forces do more of this type of near-real world training? It would make some sense, but some may argue that the US military should build its own metropolis for extreme MOUT training–high-rises and underground labyrinths included.

This is where the line between fantasy and necessity blurs. Building such a training complex would require a massive investment, and there are only so many resources to go around. The same training needs hold true for the missions and combat environments our soldiers are facing on the battlefields of today, not just those that may exist tomorrow.

As an alternative, the Pentagon could probably find some city blocks that are all but abandoned and adapt them for its training requirements. And besides, by the time there are megacities that really represent the threat the video plays them out to be, (if that ever truly occurs) virtual training will probably be up to the task of preparing our soldiers to do battle there successfully.

What are your thoughts on the video? Let us know in the conversation below.  

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