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

Continuing our intellectual journey into the city, this week we are looking at megacities (those with more than 10 million residents) and possible conflicts within them. We are considering David Shunk’s article ‘Mega Cities, Ungoverned Areas, and the Challenge of Army Urban Combat Operations in 2030-2040’ from Small Wars Journal. Available here.

Shunk discusses a number of aspects of urban warfare, and how they might apply to megacities in the future. The article is quite short and well worth a read.

Here are our thoughts:

The direction of this article comes as no surprise, though it does include far more detail than the other similar article we have read this month on military operations in an urban setting. However instead of focussing on any one of the quite clear-cut issues raised in the article itself, I’d like to raise a few of the other issues raised both in the comments section under the article, and in my own thoughts as a I engaged with the piece:

  • Force size – how big is the enemy force? Is it ever knowable in an urban setting?
    • If the enemy force size is unknowable, how can you commit sufficient forces to win the war, while keeping losses to a minimum? Is there also a danger then that you ‘under-commit’?
  • Logistics – how do we keep our forces supplied in a ‘hostile’ environment?
  • Politics – do we have the political ‘will’ for a protracted urban conflict? Are we prepared to deal with the consequences of what will at times be quite ruthless operations?
  • Is any urban war ‘winnable’? – If the only way to neutralise all threats is to clear each and every building individually, then why even bother going in on the ground at all? Is it ever possible to win a war and keep the infrastructure (generally) intact without say, bombing the city to the ground?
  • Will we see the use of ‘pacifying’ chemicals and/or some form of cybernetic warfare used as the most ‘humane’ way to minimise actual bodily deaths?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

Due to the format as a blog-post this article necessary could not provide very in-depth analysis. However, reading this read in conjunction with Michael Evans’ article on future war in cities turns it into an excellent illustration of Evans’ point. Evans warns his readers for a too narrow focus on mega-cities, as most urbanization takes place in small and medium-sized cities. Schunk on the other hand only focuses on megacities, and bases his message of only a few sources, which all stem from a strategic studies background. Kilcullen for instance gets a key role, which Evans had described as a work with a “dystopian view”. Schunk also leaves little room for multiple interpretations on the future of mega-cities, and his view is overwhelmingly negative. “Life in megacities will deteriorate as populations surge beyond their capacity” is a very bold claim, with little material to back up such a claim.

The analysis is rather descriptive, with little time spent on what causes the phenomena we will encounter in mega-studies, how they are connected, and wat the concrete effects will be on urban warfare. Everyone is aware of the fact that rapid urban growth might create environmental or infrastructural problems, but how does this specifically affect urban warfare?  He does not really go into depth on that – which makes sense due to the format, but which ensures the article has little substance. I do appreciate his list of “basic characteristics of combat in urban terrain”, but again, I wish this was connected with the phenomena of urbanization.

Shunk also makes some strong statements which border on colonialist and orientalist thinking, especially in his descriptions of cities in the Global South as completely outside control. Saying that the rule of law in Lagos almost does not exist anymore is a gross exaggeration. It presents the Global South as an urban jungle left into the darkness, without growth, development or technology, which is a highly colonial view, and left a bad taste in my mouth after reading this article.

Maaike Verbruggen, SPIRI

It would seem that the danger when considering urban warfare following on from the major city conflicts that this article refers to, Stalingrad, Mogadishu, Grozny and Nablus, that a decisive victory in a mega city could be impossible. Indeed, repeating Mogadishu and the temporary US withdrawal from international interventions would be catastrophic for power projection and the actual securing of a mega city. This leads us to posit that states cannot really afford to lose urban conflicts where potentially major strategic positions could be taken by non-state actors.

Non-state actors have held territory, Islamic State being a prime example. But, Syria only provides a case study of where it is mostly difficult to regain territory in terms of the political situation in the area. A non-state actor in control of a mega city also presents a case study where it is militarily difficult to remove the enemy.

Perhaps such potential of non-state actors shows that the concept of the state as the primary movers in warfare is slipping, along with their monopoly on violence. A city so dominated by a non-state actor that it becomes an ‘ungoverned space’, much in the same way that rural Yemen and Somalia have been seen could result in major changes to the way in which warfare takes place. We see drone strikes against terrorist suspects in these rural areas because they are controlled by the terrorist groups, and not by the territorial state. Drone strikes in a city centre do not fit with the general conception that voyeuristic operators wait to strike targets out in open countryside. However, we do see city-based drone strikes in the fights against IS.

Conceptually, there is no difference between a state losing control over rural areas, and over urban areas. This should mean that there is also no conceptual difference between striking targets in open countryside and urban areas. Yet, the higher concentration of civilians means that such strikes are less-likely to take place. At least, this would be the case if munitions remain the same. Striking single enemy target in and amongst civilians may require robotic systems to be equipped with bullets, rather than explosive munitions.

This perhaps leads us to a possible ‘solution’ to the difficulties of urban warfare, more increased use of robotics. Potentially, this enables force to be exerted in enemy urban areas, without risking lives. Yet, use of Terminator-like machines is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Indeed, a high-loss rate is likely, so quickly made machines using 3D printing will probably be more common. Use of such systems may be able to provide infantry with an equal reduction in risk that the drones we use today have given to air forces. Other than an increased use of machines, the other option that springs to mind for reasserting some government control in a mega city dominated by non-state actors is Judge Dredd.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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

  1. I wonder, will there be a move in the future, do we think, for terrorists / partisans to move away from cities, into rural environments in order to get ‘off the grid’? There was a great show on TV fairly recently with professionals trying to avoid police capture, with the most successful being those who didn’t hide in cities, but who rather moved away from cities (where capture was far easier) into environments where police / government control was much harder to enforce? Is the urban terrorist then, merely a short-term phenomenon, or will it continue for many years yet?


    1. Hi Mike, that’s an interesting idea. I think it has to do with the idea of ‘ungoverned spaces’. Wherever police/state control is lesser, I would think that terrorists would move there. In rural areas, pure geography restricts state control. But in a MegaCity, perhaps state control is limited by additional factors. Such as sympathetic residents helping terrorists, competing power structures and ‘slum lords’, increasing mayoral rather than state power, and an ability for urban terrorists to hide amongst the crowd with multiple safe houses. Obviously rural areas have their advantages, but perhaps there is also something about terrorists needing to have a base of operations close to their supporters?


      1. Hi Josh, yeah it’s an interesting one. I wonder at what point a city reaches a ‘critical mass’ at which it becomes ‘mega’ and ‘ungovernable’ as such? Obviously it’s going to be an ever-changing threshold based on technology and capacity, but if you were to be able to define such a threshold, I wonder if that would be a good indicator of which cities need more attention and are potential harbours for terrorists?


      2. Hi Mike, it seems the definition of ‘mega’ is a population over 10 million. But, as to what constitutes ‘ungoverned’, is a bit more difficult. I don’t think that simply a lack of government control would be enough, as there are some areas that are ‘no-go’ for police in many Western cities. I doubt many social workers, or ambulance crews would go there willingly either. Often, it sounds like these areas are controlled in some ways by criminal gangs. As these situations don’t result in parts of London being deemed ‘ungoverned’, perhaps it needs a competing power structure from a non-state actor, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula who perform state-like actions. Perhaps ‘ungoverned’ is a misnomer, and ‘competitively governed’ might be more accurate!


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