Urban Warfare Simulacra

The Pseudo-Urbanism of Military Synthetic Training Environments

Ryan L. Thomas (MDes Urbanism, Landscape, Ecology ‘20)

Capt. Gregory Walsh. n.d.  “1-163 Attacks Razish at NTC.”  DVIDS. Accessed June 10, 2019.   https://www.dvidshub.net/image/5453643/1-163-attacks-razish-ntc .

Capt. Gregory Walsh. n.d. “1-163 Attacks Razish at NTC.” DVIDS. Accessed June 10, 2019.


“If war is about politics, it’s going to be fought, in general, where people are and it’ll be fought, in my opinion, in urban areas”.(1) — General Mark A. Milley, 39th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army

Over the last four decades, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has formulated and circulated several iterations of military doctrine related to cities as operational environments that it functions within, and to no insignificant degree, the increasing relevance of “urban terrain” in military doctrine has shaped the ways its military branches fight and operate.(2)  With such a nascent history of urban warfighting doctrine, considering military planners and strategists have historically avoided cities (3) when wargaming, the military and defense sectors have become easily impressionable to the forecasting of imminent urban conflict.  This imminence is espoused by defense think-tanks, private contractors, and policy makers,(4) with little or no regard for the histories of urbanization and human settlement that would astutely inform their decisions.  These institutions and organizational bodies have steered the DoD toward a fervent belief that its future wars and conflicts will be —inevitably— in cities, regardless of any defined strategy or enemy to substantiate such claims.(5)  The result of this assumption has permeated everywhere from the creation of new doctrine and tactical handbooks on ways to fight in dense urban terrain, to massive investments in virtual and augmented reality gaming industries, to the makeshift and widespread construction of mock-cities and villages across the country and its greater territories.(6) 

At present, across the United States exist hundreds of artificial cities devoted to simulating warfare in urban areasThese proving grounds have been designed and purpose-built to reify an image of cities as austere environments, one that justifies a preparedness for urban warfare.

This fallacious argument of inevitable conflict in “urban terrain” has become enmeshed with other contemporary arguments (and tropes) on rapid urbanization (7), garnering further support for the defense sector to prepare for warfare in megacities.(8)  This has enormous implications of risk for burgeoning urban centers around the world. The emergent urbanization derived from the DoDs synthetic training environments and their fabricated threat of cities create an operational environment in its own image.(9) It is through the observation of megacities as scientific objects of study that thereby constructs them as prerequisite problem areas, and the image of such objects renders them compliant in the framework of future conflict.(10)  Design, as both a vocation and craft of shaping the built environment, has an inherent responsibility with negotiating the power structures it is akin to.  In an apparatus that is often divorced from design for the aim of technocratic and securocratic ideals, it is the responsibility of designers to interject in systems of defense contract procurement, security policy processes, and the framing of the built environment as a hostile image-concept.  This is the defense sector’s longstanding ‘urban legend’.

The intersection of military strategy and urbanism is often underexamined in discourses of spatial politics and urban studies, and largely left to the defense sector to legitimate its knowledge base.  Interrogating these concepts-turned-proving grounds can challenge and reframe this power-knowledge.

[1] Quote transcribed from video proceedings of think tank, New America[’s] Future of War Conference, 2017 https://www.newamerica.org/conference/futureofwarconference/

[2] U.S. Army. 1979. Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT). Department of the Army.  FM 90-10. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979. [obsolete].

[3] Sunzi, active 6th century B. C. 1946. “Chapter Eight: The Nine Variations.” In The Art of War; Military Manual Written about B.C. 510. Sun-Tzu, Active 6th Century B.C. Ancient Chinese Classics Series. Shanghai: Printed by The World Book Co.

[4] Russell W. Glenn, Rand Corporation, and National Defense Research Institute, Preparing for the Proven Inevitable: An Urban Operations Training Strategy for America’s Joint Force (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2006), xv.

[5] Markantonatou, Maria. 2012. “Potestas and Violentia Power in the Doctrine of ‘Military Operations in Urban Terrain’ (MOUT): State Sovereignty and Biopolitics in 2000-2011 Urban Warfare.” Edited by Neovi Karakatsanis and Jonathan Swarts. Political and Military Sociology: An Annual Review 40: 1–21.

[6] Stephen Graham, “Theme Park Archipelago,” in Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London ; New York: Verso, 2010), 187.

[7] Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. 2014. “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question.” In Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, 310–38. Berlin: JOVIS.

[8] Spencer, John, and John Amble. 2017. “So You Think the Army Can Avoid Fighting in Megacities.” Modern War Institute (blog). May 16, 2017. https://mwi.usma.edu/think-army-can-avoid-fighting-megacities/.

[9] Turse, Nick. 2016. “Pentagon Video Warns of ‘Unavoidable’ Dystopian Future for World’s Biggest Cities.” The Intercept, October 13, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/10/13/pentagon-video-warns-of-unavoidable-dystopian-future-for-worlds-biggest-cities/.

[10] Lynch, Michael. 1988. “The Externalized Retina: Selection and Mathematization in the Visual Documentation of Objects in the Life Sciences.” Human Studies 11 (2): Representation in Scientific Practice, 201–234. Boston: Springer.

[X] For additional work on this topic of Urban Warfare Simulacra, visit https://MOUT.Site/

See also the works of AGENCY Architecture in FRONTS | Security and the Developing World.

Applied Research + Design | ORO Editions (forthcoming)

See also the works on urban conflict by futurist Geoff Manaugh in his BLDGBLOG at  http://www.bldgblog.com/