Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Gabriel Bazzolo: The future of combat drones in megacities

In one city block, troops could find themselves in an intense gunfight with enemy militants. In another, Soldiers might crawl through debris to rescue trapped residents or deliver needed supplies.

At the cities opposite end, troops could be attempting to quell a civilian riot. As urban populations worldwide continue to raise, the probability of these scenarios increases, from the metropolitan sprawl of Tokyo with its 36 million inhabitants to the massive clutter of rush hour traffic in Seoul.

Megacities present a jarringly daunting obstacle to the future of world combat operations, Army senior leaders said at the 2018 LANPAC conference. “The complexities that go on in this scale almost are unimaginable,” said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, former commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. Additionally, if current trends continue, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in large, metropolitan areas, according to United Nations projections.


Threats to megacities take increased importance in the Asia-Pacific, where a majority of the world’s megacities are concentrated. Making matters worse, many of the cities sit inside the Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile chain in the Pacific basin rampant with volcanic eruptions and unpredictable seismic activity. Some nations, such as Japan, sit on one of the most active tectonic plates in the world. Densely populated cities that include Bangkok and urban centers in Bangladesh are prone to natural disasters. With so much of a nation’s population contained in a compact, urban space, megacities pose a vastly different challenge from the deserts of the Middle East Soldiers have grown accustomed to. Military units in rural areas, deserts, and small villages can contain the aftereffects of combat. In a large urban environment, skyscrapers, large structures, and traffic can cause a domino effect that spread throughout a city and that smaller subsystems comprise a megacity that in turn is part of a much larger system that can extend worldwide.

To prepare for the complexities of urban warfare, the armies are developing simulations for soldiers to prepare for urban terrain. Weeks of coordination and planning must be implemented for a few hours of training, but army’s leaders believe it will prepare Soldiers for future conflicts increasing the scale and size of their urban-simulated training centers, for example training for combat in underground tunnels and structures and simulated chemical attacks. Is important with the soldiers learned to spontaneously alter current operating procedures to adapt to a city environment incorporating space and cyber capabilities more than before. Multi-domain operations will be crucial. No amount of planning, study or preparation can prepare a military unit for the unique rhythm of a major city or what labeled the “flow.” The city’s flow can’t be clearly defined but its impact can never be understated. It can be felt during rush hour traffic or by careful observation over time. A city’s social infrastructure carries more importance than its physical infrastructure. But understanding how a megacity’s population moves and lives can provide valuable insight for learning a city’s unique intricacies.

In São Paulo, Brazil, some 30,000 millionaires travel by helicopter and armored car to avoid contact with the more than 3 million others who live in the city’s 1,600 poverty-stricken shantytowns. “The proximity of extreme wealth and poverty in this city has generated instability,” a report said. The city’s drug gangs pose another threat. In May 2006, they launched hundreds of attacks on public buildings and transportation, and since then they have killed scores of police officers. Or consider Lagos, Nigeria. Already 21 million strong, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, and more than half of its population lives in grinding poverty. “If Lagos experienced a major natural disaster, or significant social unrest because of Lagos’ glaring wealth disparity, it’s unlikely that the extant security forces would be able to deal with the situation,” the Strategic Studies Group report warned. “This increases the likelihood that foreign assistance would be required, and considering America’s significant economic stake in Nigeria, some U.S. military assistance might be offered.”

In a megacity the drones will find four clearly defined combat areas:

Airspace Above Surface (AAS), the use aircrafts or employment of aerial munitions will use this area above surface. However, as a defender, the aim is to deny attackers from using this dimension by setting up a point defense. Attacker’s aircraft will be vulnerable to portable surface-to-air missile systems and anti-aircraft guns.

Land Surface Dimension (LSD) consists of roads, alleys, fields, and parks and any other exterior features of the cities, which influence mobility. The defenders may set bobby-traps, changing street signs to confuse attackers, re-routing traffic, set up mines to cause disruption and other trip lines that will greatly influence ground movement. For example in Groznyy, the Russians amour convoy was lost after separated from the supporting infantry, which became an easy target for the Chechen irregulars armed with anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG).

Super-Surface Dimension (SuperSD), consists of rooftops and upper floors of buildings, towers or other structures that provide a vantage point for the defender. By occupying this area, the defender has the advantage of high ground where he can deploy snipers, early warning and tactical advantage. This high point also restricts attacker’s usage of their superior weapons such as tanks may not be able to target high rooftop, artillery may not be able to perform their function due to the high tilt angle requirements.

Sub-Surface Dimension (SubSD), this dimension is often than not addressed as it is the most difficult task to handle. It consists of sewers, under-ground subways and tunnels. Adversaries may use this dimension to escape or re-supply their troops without exposing themselves. So to control this dimension requires an in-depth understanding of the under-ground system together with the blueprints of buildings around the area of operations. This is one area where airpower has limited influence due to accessibility.

Some equipment and technology that give the armies its margin of superiority on today’s battlefields won’t be as effective in megacities. Tanks and armored vehicles will have trouble negotiating cramped streets and alleys. Long-range weapons and sensors designed to detect enemies at a distance will be less useful in close urban quarters. Surveillance aircrafts won’t be able to see insurgents hiding in buildings or in underground tunnels. Helicopters will be vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. Artillery will kill too many civilians to be a viable weapon. And logistics getting food, medicine and other supplies and medevac casualties out will be problematic.

Also, of course, there are economic and scale considerations, it would be virtually impossible to reduce a city to rubble as it happened with Stalingrad, the cost in equipment, supplies and lives would be prohibitive, but even more complex would be to undertake a reconstruction task so serious economic problems that would cause, of course the nuclear option should be analyzed separately. That is why the soldiers and their equipment, direct descendants of the Grande Armee of the Emperor Napoleon, prepared to fight in open terrain, will have to adapt to urban environments that demand new weapons and tactics, and a minimum of infrastructure destruction.

Among all new technologies, unmanned vehicles in their aerial, terrestrial and marine versions become a fundamental part in the new battle scenario in megacities. From models of 2 tons to models of only a few grams of weight, with ability to slide at low altitude, enter buildings, provide intelligence and recognition, mark targets, carry supplies, medevac, enter sewerage systems, combat engineers or enter in combat against other drones or against enemy vehicles and soldiers, the drones will be (in fact already do) integrated into all the structures of the armies. It is still a technology that needs to evolve and incorporate other advances such as 3D printing on demand of the soldiers and this will happen with the young generations of soldiers reach the highest ranks within the structures of their armies.

Gabriel Bazzolo

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Executive Editor

About this Author

Gabriel Alberto Bazzolohttp://www.qudron.com/
Consultant to SECURITY CORPORATE for Unmanned Systems