In a backyard in Aleppo, Syrian rebels built a tank for urban combat. All it took was an Android smartphone to download a do-it-yourself manual.
They patched together some rusty car parts, with a Game Boy console and flatscreen television controlling a machine gun. The result: a weapon smaller than a Mini Cooper, an ideal alternative in narrow alleys to the 70-ton Abrams tank the U.S. used in Iraqi deserts and Afghan valleys.
From Aleppo to Ukraine’s Donetsk, combat and war planning are moving to urban settings where Internet access facilitates 21st-century guerrilla tactics. With 1.5 million people a week migrating to cities -- mostly in the developing world -- the new battlefields will be slum-ridden yet wired megalopolises such as Lagos and Mumbai, where insurgents and crime bosses can exploit technology to control lawless rings of territory.
“If three quarters of the world will live in cities, and we still fight wars, then wars are going to be fought in this environment,” said Richard J. Norton, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. A decade ago, he coined the term “feral cities,” for places “where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy.”
These days, the tech-savvy Taliban find better cover in Karachi’s unruly streets than in the Tora Bora caves.
Even in Mogadishu, the setting for the 1994 shooting of two U.S. helicopters made famous by Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down,” the degree of connectivity is surprising.
In the Somali capital, which had no functioning government for more than two decades, there are four major mobile-phone operators and a quarter of its 1 million inhabitants own a mobile device, compared to 23 percent with flush toilets.
“Internet access from Mogadishu is actually a lot easier than from parts of the United States,” David Kilcullen, former adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, told an audience recently that included Marines.
Armed conflict will shift to cities “experiencing this tsunami of inflow of population, and information and money and drugs and weapons that come about through rapid urbanization,” Kilcullen said at the talk in San Francisco.
In 2008, all it took were 10 gunmen to transform Mumbai, India’s financial capital with a population of 21 million, into a scene of war. Seven major landmarks were attacked over three days in a remote-controlled onslaught by terrorists in Pakistan.
Siege of Mumbai
The assault of Mumbai was “state of the art” terrorism, Kilcullen wrote in “Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla.” It proved how a non-state armed group can execute actions “traditionally associated with high-tier special-operations forces such as the U.S. Navy SEALs.”
Last year, al-Shabaab militants stormed a mall in Nairobi, east Africa’s commercial hub and a base for Google Inc. and the United Nations, live tweeting their carnage in a killing spree that lasted 80 hours and was telecast worldwide.
While plenty of fighting will is still destined for traditional battlefields, top U.S. Army chiefs last month came to a stark conclusion after simulating military operations in a city of more than 10 million people: Their options are few, their forces are ill-equipped and the scenario is not so hypothetical.
In the war game, as in real life, the techniques used to gain control of population and territory included intimidation, coercion, assassination and murder.
“We saw a lot of similar tactics and techniques that you see in IS in Iraq and Syria,” said Lieutenant General Herbert R. McMaster, referring to Islamic State, a group that beheaded two American journalists.
To date, training and spending are concentrated on traditional warfare. The number one U.S. military purchase is the F-35 jet -- projected to cost $398.6 billion for 2,443 planes. The sum exceeds the annual defense budgets of China, Russia and the U.K.
“I don’t know how an F-35 translates to the city fight,” said Norton. “In terms of fighting very large units in truly industrial areas, a Karachi, or a Lagos, or a Los Angeles, I don’t think anybody is ready.”
Norton retired as a U.S. Navy commander in 1996, when there were only 10 cities with more than 10 million people. By 2030, there will four times as many and Beijing’s population could exceed 50 million.
Some of the tools the military should develop include unmanned vehicles that map tunnels and skin suits to protect soldiers from infectious agents they might encounter moving through sewer systems, according to Norton.
Intelligence agencies need to be more in touch with local populations by using social media, community radio, and local newspapers to form an idea of who controls what neighborhoods.
“You need to figure out the dynamics: Is there a criminal in charge of that corridor?” said Erin Simpson, who leads the strategy firm Kilcullen founded, Arlington, Virginia-based Caerus Associates, in an interview.
Preparing for urban warfare requires specialized training grounds, either actual cities or perhaps simulated cities made with shipping containers.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything like that, that scale,” Norton said. “You could joke that perhaps the government could buy Detroit and we’d have a ready-made environment.”
Combat in Lebanon, the West Bank, and most recently Gaza, has turned Israel into an urban-warfare innovator, according to Bloomberg Government’s Senior Defense Analyst, Robert Levinson. In 2001, a $226 million mock village -- complete with a mosque and Arab marketplace -- was built in the Negev desert to train troops in street fighting.
“This is really a first-class facility with advanced pyrotechnics and computerized observation systems so small unit leaders can be constantly observed and graded on how they preform in this very difficult combat environment,” said Levinson, who visited the facility in 2008.
Mixing military equipment in civilian environments is an explosive and unpredictable cocktail. Look no further than Ferguson, Missouri, a suburban town of 21,000 that last month resembled a war zone.
Demonstrators upset about the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager were met with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas fired from bullet-proof vehicles. Nightly clashes raged between protesters and police arrayed in armored trucks and military fatigues.
Much of the equipment used in Ferguson came from a U.S. Defense Department program that provides used gear to local police departments for counter-terrorism. Such equipment has been increasingly deployed for routine police work.
Lisha Williams, an army veteran who lives near Ferguson, scrambled for cover as local police rolled through in armored vehicles.
“I went over to Iraq and fought for my country,” she said. “Now, I came back, and on my own soil, they do this?''