The Grim Future of Urban Warfare

The mock village of Razish at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.

The mock village of Razish at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. Robert Burns/AP

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New technologies are making war even more horrific.

War is won by breaking an enemy’s morale until their ability to resist collapses. In Iraq, the U.S. military employed “shock and awe,” demonstrating overwhelming force while using superior technology and intelligence. It was a new term for an ancient approach: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,” Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, centuries before Christ. Strike suddenly, brutally, and with the element of surprise to sow confusion and encourage surrender and retreat—or to stage annihilation.

The Third Reich’s blitzkrieg techniques did the same (“the engine of the Panzer is a weapon just as the main gun,” the German general Heinz Guderian noted), along with the shrieking “Jericho Trumpet” sirens its Luftwaffe attached to planes making dive-bomb attacks on cities. The aim was not just the shattering of buildings but the shattering of nerves.

In the present, war’s terror arrives more silently. Soon, the missiles raining down will be hypersonic, traveling in excess of five times the speed of sound, and evading detection and interception in the process.

War has changed and remained the same. The origins of future wars are already here, being laid in policies and ambitions, rivalries and resources, greed and grievances. The technologies that will be used to dominate and destroy are already in use or development. They will bring more conflict to cities, where casualties will multiply, along with chaos and fear. War is always bad, but it’s going to become much worse.

Proxy and civil wars will continue to flourish, as will conflicts on the peripheries of power blocs. The danger of inadvertent escalation is high. The planet has already survived the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Soviet false alarm of 1983, and the Norwegian Black Brant nuclear-rocket scare of 1995. Eventually our luck might run out, and when it does, cities will likely be ground zero. The world’s city-dwelling population exploded from 746 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018, according to the United Nations (which expects that total to increase by another 2.5 billion by 2050). To dominate a nation has come to mean dominating its population centers.

There are reasons that coming wars will be more, not less, deadly. As weapons systems become increasingly accurate through satellite positioning, surgical strikes on military targets will seem more viable. But the blood-soaked history of “smart bombs” show that they have only been as smart as the intelligence used to deploy them. In 1991, laser-guided missiles entered the Al-Amiriyya bomb shelter in Iraq through a ventilation shaft, killing more than 400 civilians. In 2008, an air raid obliterated a bridal party at Haska Meyna. Such “aberrations” likely will increase in frequency.

The “double tap” approach—one strike followed quickly by a second meant to target rescue and medical personnel—that has been favored by Islamist terroristsCIA drones, and Syrian and Russian air strikes will continue to devastate civilian morale and the public’s ability to survive and recover. Absent repercussions, or just to test the geopolitical order, combatants might abandon even the appearance of avoiding civilian targets. That’s already happened in the Russian bombardment of civilian parts of Syrian cities.

Even an “ethical” attack, on infrastructure rather than civilians, will result in misery. Destroyed airports, downed bridges, disabled power stations, and disrupted communication networks will tear daily life asunder. The psychological impact upon children—living in basements; subject to the sounds and tremors of bombardments; isolated from social systems, education, adequate sanitation; facing food and medical shortages—is inestimable. Danger in the form of cluster bombs (which are still killing and maiming peoplein Southeast Asia decades after their deployment) and chemical weapons litters the wreckage that children play in.

The threat of attack has already changed the design of cities. Some had underground metros where people could take refuge; in Uzbekistan, Tashkent’s even boasted atomic blast doors. Beijing has an entire underground city called Dixia Cheng, built in case the Sino-Soviet split went nuclear, capable of sheltering millions of people. During World War II, Switzerland built enough bunkers for its entire population to disappear into, along with infrastructure that was rigged to explode upon invasion.

But most cities would require improvised refuge in the case of attack: the digging of impromptu and ineffective shelters, with most inhabitants fleeing into refugee camps or taking up residence in the interior rooms of buildings, avoiding windows and daylight, shrouding themselves in the shadows.

In order to minimize the uncertainty of war, armies now practice on purpose-built fake towns, long before taking on the real thing. China has designed a replica Taipei to be stormed in Inner Mongolia. The German Bundeswehr pre-enacts civil war scenarios in the artificial settlement of Schnöggersburg. The Americans simulated an Afghan ghost town called Ertebat Shar in the Mojave Desert. The infrastructure of real cities crumbles while governments construct fake ones in order to destroy them.  

For those who do bring combat to the metropolis, data and smart technology can come to their aid. Aircraft pilots can see the landscape below them via augmented-reality headsets that supply up-to-date information and instructions. Already, supposedly innocuous social technology is being put to murderous use. Before and during the Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was spreading conspiratorial paranoia and agitating for violence. In the case of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar that has been targeted by the country’s military, the hate was stirred up on Facebook.

On the ground, advances in facial-recognition and surveillance software would identify targets and innocents, but it could also single out specific ethnic groups, facilitating repression (or worse). This tech is already aiding “China’s Muslim gulag” and its authoritarian social-credit system, setting the stage for granular information to service formal conflicts.

Despite all those innovations, the block-by-block, building-by-building, room-by-room fighting seen from Stalingrad to Aleppo will continue at great cost. Soldiers avoid conventional routes, preferring “mouse-holing” by blowing holes through the walls. For invading forces, the fear of infiltration and assault from below, from the city’s bowels, is ever-present. Jewish resistance fighters surviving beneath the Warsaw ghetto noticed that the German soldiers above suffered from “sewer paranoia,” fearing they could be attacked from any location. In Vietnam, the American soldiers referred to the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi with the nightmarish term “Black Echo.” But invaders in the future would be armed with more than flamethrowers, harnessing sonar and special 3-D-mapping drones that could venture down where soldiers feared to tread.

Some war technologies exist only to protect (and to restore confidence in) troops entering potentially hostile territory. Sniper-detection devices can be fitted on vehiclesSoldiers will wear exoskeletons to increase strength and mobility, or graphene armor to reduce vulnerability. They will fire self-steering bullets, and drive tanks built with composite metal foams that are supposedly invincible.

Given the dangers of physically entering cities on the ground, drones offer a safer alternative. Underwater drones can patrol seaside towns. Drone swarms, consuming everything in their path like a biblical plague, will be the stuff of psychological warfare long before they became reality. Paranoia pervades the sky, which might look empty but harbor invisible threats. Land-based robotswill also strike terror into city dwellers, while collecting information from within the fog of confusion they also create.

Reassurances that there was always a human supervisor somewhere in the operating of these otherwise autonomous weapons systems means little to the citizens who will watch them make their way through the streets like mechanical dogs, apes, or human beings.

The ethics of autonomous warfare has become a contemporary crusade. There is a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, with signatories such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk urging caution. Other researchers disagree, begging for progress on robot soldiers to keep ahead of the “bad guys.” International legislation probably won’t come to pass, for a number of reasons. First, the arms race is already on, and it’s profitable. Second, there is a gray area as to what counts as a “killer robot,” given that automated weapons systems are already being used for defensive positions. And third, it is easy to portray war robots as a humanitarian advance. They spare soldiers from PTSD caused by messy operations. Not to mention that robotic troops wouldn’t require food or sleep, and would not suffer from guilt or remorse. That’s probably a mistake. Though it can be horrific, humans suffer trauma in part as a warning system, the mind’s message that an experience is deeply wrong.

The roots of future conflicts are already here. Trade warsterritorial disputes, and resource grabs bubble away. International institutions promoting development and stability are being undermined by exceptionalism. Crucial urban infrastructure gets hacked and sabotaged by state agents. This battlefield alone promises to be devastating in the age of the Smart City. Political disinformation campaigns are rife across the internet, with the Russian fog-creating technique of maskirovka, or military deception, going digital.

The Institute of Economics and Peace has noted eight pillars of what it calls “positive peace”: well-functioning government, equitable distribution of resources, free flow of information, good relations with neighbors, high levels of human capital, acceptance of the rights of others, low levels of corruption, and a sound business environment. The absence or fragility of these is not encouraging. The catastrophe of climate change alone has already begun to fuel conflict, and even attempts to mitigate it may lead to violence.

What might spark the powder kegs could be anything from the seizure of an island in the South China Sea to a spree of graffiti to a market seller setting fire to himself.

Though these wars may happen far away from the metropolitan centers of the West, in a globalized world, ripples will undulate globally: Failed harvests. Economic collapses. Surges in refugees. The rise of populist parties. The technological militarization of domestic police forces continues unabated—long-range acoustic devices and microwave “pain rays,” for example. War is privatizing at the urging of defense contractors, and arms fairs, selling technology to be used at home and abroad, are booming. In the fog of war, and its manufacture, there is a lot of money to be made.