The Next Battleground: Cities

John Robb analyzes the growing likelihood of large-scale urban systems disruption as the weapon of choice in future wars.

But in the current evolution of warfare, cities are no longer defensive anchors against armored thrusts ranging through the countryside. They have become the main targets of offensive action themselves. Just as the huge militaries of the early twentieth century were vulnerable to supply and communications disruption, cities are now so heavily dependent on a constant flow of services from various centralized systems that even the simplest attacks on those systems can cause massive disruption.

Robb points to the current plight of Baghdad, where a handful of insurgents have successfully stymied any hope of stability by waging an ongoing campaign of blowing up power lines, water mains, and pipelines.

Iraq is a petri dish for modern conflict, the Spanish Civil War of our times. It’s the place where small groups are learning to fight modern militaries and modern societies and win. As a result, we can expect to see systems disruption used again and again in modern conflict—certainly against megacities in the developing world, and even against those in the developed West, as we have already seen in London, Madrid, and Moscow.

He fears that rogue elements will eventually gain the ability to use weapons of mass destruction — most likely biological rather than nuclear — to really paralyze cities and nations.

His solution? Decentralization.

In almost all cases, cities can defend themselves from their new enemies through effective decentralization. To counter systems disruption, decentralized services—the capability of smaller areas within cities to provide backup services, at least on a temporary basis—could radically diminish the harmful consequences of disconnection from the larger global grid. In New York, this would mean storage or limited production capability of backup electricity, water, and fuel, with easy connections to the delivery grid—at the borough level or even smaller. These backups would then provide a means of restoring central services rapidly after a failure.

We won’t realize how utterly dependent we are on this highly complex — and fragile — web of interconnected systems, until it gets taken down. Then we’ll be in a world of hurt.

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