by Nick Turse
October 13 2016
An officer from the CORE police special
aims his weapon during an operation to
search for fugitives
in the Complexo do Alemao favela
on May 13, 2014, in
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,
one of the world's megacities.
The year is 2030...
Forget about the flying cars, robot maids, and
moving sidewalks we were promised. They're not happening. But that
doesn't mean the future is a total unknown.
According to a startling Pentagon video obtained by The Intercept,
the future of global cities will be an amalgam of the settings of "Escape
from New York" and "Robocop"
- with dashes of the "Warriors"
It will be a world of
Robert Kaplan-esque urban hell-scapes - brutal and anarchic
super-cities filled with gangs of youth-gone-wild, a restive
underclass, criminal syndicates, and bands of malicious hackers.
At least that's the scenario outlined in
"Megacities - Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity," a five-minute
below video that has been used at the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations
All that stands between the coming chaos
and the good people of Lagos and Dhaka (or maybe even New York City)
is the U.S. Army, according to the video, which The Intercept
obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
"Megacities - Urban Future, the Emerging
a video created by the Army
and used at
the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations
The video is nothing if not an instant
melancholy music, an ominous voiceover, and
cascading images of sprawling slums and urban conflict.
"Megacities are complex systems
where people and structures are compressed together in ways that
defy both our understanding of city planning and military
doctrine," says a disembodied voice.
"These are the future breeding
grounds, incubators, and launching pads for adversaries and
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
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
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 - Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain
Future," 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."
These fears are reflected in the
hyperbolic "Megacities" above video.
As the film unfolds, we're bombarded
with an apocalyptic list of ills endemic to this new urban
"religious and ethnic tensions"
"open landfills, over-burdened
"growing mass of unemployed"
The list, as long as it is grim,
accompanies photos of garbage-choked streets, masked rock throwers,
and riot cops battling protesters in the developing world.
"Growth will magnify the increasing
separation between rich and poor," the narrator warns as the
scene shifts to New York City.
Looking down from a high vantage point
on Third Avenue, we're left to ponder if the Army will one day find
itself defending the lunchtime crowd dining on $57
"NY Cut Sirloin"
steaks at (the plainly visible) Smith and Wollensky.
Lacking opening and closing credits, the
provenance of "Megacities" was initially unclear, with
claiming the video was produced by JSOU, before indicating it was
actually created by the Army.
"It was made for an internal
military audience to illuminate the challenges of operating in
megacity environments," Army spokesperson William Layer told The
Intercept in an email.
"The video was privately produced
pro-bono in spring of 2014 based on 'Megacities and the United
States Army'… The producer of the film wishes to remain
According to the video, tomorrow's vast
urban jungles will be replete with "subterranean labyrinths"
governed by their "own social code and rule of law."
They'll also enable a proliferation of
"digital domains" that facilitate,
"sophisticated illicit economies and
decentralized syndicates of crime to give adversaries global
reach at an unprecedented level."
If the photo montage in the video is to
be believed, hackers will use outdoor electrical outlets to do grave
digital damage, such as donning Guy Fawkes masks and filming
segments of "Anonymous
This, we're told, will somehow,
"add to the complexities of human
targeting as a proportionally smaller number of adversaries
intermingle with the larger and increasing number of citizens."
"Megacities" posits that despite the
lessons learned from the ur-urban battle at
Aachen, Germany, in 1944, and the city-busting in
Hue, South Vietnam, in 1968, the U.S. military is fundamentally
ill-equipped for future battles in Lagos or Dhaka.
"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," the film notes, as if
the results of two futile forever wars might possibly hold the
keys to future success.
"We are facing environments that the
masters of war never foresaw," warns the narrator. "We are
facing a threat that requires us to redefine doctrine and the
force in radically new and different ways."
Mike Davis, author of "Planet of Slums"
and "Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb," was not
impressed by the video.
"This is a fantasy, the idea that
there is a special military science of megacities," he said.
"It's simply not the case… They seem
to envision large cities with slum peripheries governed by
antagonistic gangs, militias, or guerrilla movements that you
can somehow fight using special ops methods. In truth, that's
You only have to watch 'Black Hawk Down' and
scale that up to the kind of problems you would have if you were
in Karachi, for example.
You can do special ops on a
small-scale basis, but it's absurd to imagine it being effective
as any kind of strategy for control of a megacity."
The U.S. military appears unlikely to
heed Davis's advice, however.
"This is the world of our future,"
warns the narrator of "Megacities."
"It is one we are not
prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable.
The threat is clear. Our direction remains to be defined. The
future is urban."
A Pentagon video forecasting the future
of the world's urban populations suggests that the U.S. military is
fundamentally ill-equipped for future battles in megacities.