The Army Created a Scary Video About the Future of Urban Environments

November 1st 2016

Mike Rothschild

In 2014, the US Army released a study called “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a complex and uncertain future.” Like most papers distributed to military branches, it had little wider visibility – until a five minute video adaptation of the paper, called “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” was obtained and published by the Intercept.

And what the video shows is as brutal and dystopian as any 70’s Charlton Heston end of the world movie.

According to the Intercept, the video was made pro-bono by an anonymous editor, and used by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) in a class on confronting emerging threats in the developing world. Based on the video’s ominous string music, flat narration, and scary stock footage of riots, slums, and terrorists, the future is not at all bright for the millions who will be dwelling in what's referred to as “megacities.”

In this hypothetical future, megacities are places rife with poverty and instability, and the Army has no idea how to operate effectively in them should the need arise. However, even with is hyperbolic imagery and tone, the video makes a necessary point — the military has to plan for things it can’t anticipate, even urban combat in futuristic shanty towns.

The 2014 paper defines a megacity as an urban environment with more than ten million people. It estimates there will be dozens within a decade, with most located in the developing world. They’re both digitally connected and impossible to map. They’re teeming with youth, separated by class boundaries, and growing too fast.

Describing the “urban environment” as “the locus where the drivers of instability will emerge” the video goes through the litany of problems that rapidly growing cities in developing countries will deal with. These problems include overcrowding and overpopulation, chronic unemployment, drug use, lack of safe infrastructure, poor access to food and water, availability of weapons, rampant criminality, undeveloped sanitation, ad-hoc power grids, religious and ethnic strife, and crushing poverty — all of it inaccessible to police and led by “alternative forms of government.”

These megacities would be independent ecosystems where inequality will drive the poorest and richest farther apart, and possibly necessitating military intervention.

As both the paper and video make clear, this intervention will be basically impossible. “We are facing environments that the masters of war never foresaw”, the video says plainly.

The modern megacity is simply too sprawling, too dense, and too chaotic to allow for a highly professional military to accomplish anything. Yet, local authorities will have little legal means or logistical capability to deal with the terror cells, massive uprisings, drug gangs, cyber-crime operations, and organized crime these cities have in store. While the video optimistically guesses that “99% of the population” will be friendly, this still leaves tens of thousands of possible militants to be dealt with.

Figuring out a plan to deal with these very real problems is the crux of the video, but it seems like history won’t offer precedent. The Army is well versed in urban combat, and the video cites the brutal house-to-house fighting of the Battle of Aachen in 1944 and the Siege of Hue in 1968 as examples. But these battles destroyed their environments and killed thousands of Americans. This is not optimal.

The disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in 1994 showed what happens when a highly trained military force runs into a poverty-stricken urban environment teeming with heavily armed and drug-fueled militants. What worked before might not work now, and even if it does, the cost is likely too high for today’s modern military to bear.

The military often prepares for extreme, and even unlikely, scenarios.

In the 1920s, the U.S. military developed color-coded War Plans for everything from invading Iceland to dealing with an insurgent Great Britain to suppressing mass uprisings at home.

Lack of previous doctrine often ends in disaster – the myriad failures that led to the Pearl Harbor attack, or a civilian aviation system overrun with security lapses before 9/11 are just two examples. What we can’t anticipate is likely to happen anyway, whether or not we train for it. So maybe it’s better for the Army to make a fear-stoked and hyperbolic video now, if it leads to a better solution later.

Attn: reached out to the US Army for a comment on the video, but did not receive a reply.