The US Army thinks it needs a plan to invade Lagos

Image: Getty.

So the United States Army has recently been thinking about megacities, that growing cluster of urban giants containing more than 10 million souls. Here are its main conclusions:

  • It's basically inevitable that it'll send troops into a really big city one day;
  • It doesn't think that city will be New York, but it might need to invade Bangkok or Lagos;
  • It doesn't currently have the first clue how to do this;
  • It thinks it can probably learn how to re-establish order, but – and this is a reassuring bit – "this order may not resemble previous conditions".

So, to sum up, everything's going to be fine.

This cheery vision of the future is to be found in a report from the Chief of Staff's Strategic Studies Group (SSG): a sort of internal military think tank which conducts "independent, unconventional, and revolutionary research” into things you can do if you have the world’s largest standing army. When one thinks of the urban studies community, this is probably not the first group that springs to mind.

“It is inevitable that at some point the army will be asked to operate in a megacity, and currently the army is ill-prepared to do so”

– Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for an Uncertain Future, p3

But the SSG gives a number of reasons why it’s decided to start thinking about this topic. The world’s growing cluster of megacities contain a growing share of the world's population; they produce a growing share of its GDP; and they play a critical role in key resource markets ("Some megacities," the report says, "will be conduits for access to critical natural resources like petroleum"). So, the implication runs, war will get one of them eventually, by the law of averages alone.

Actually, the report gives a more tangible explanation for its existence, too: the megacities of the developed world are unusually prone to unrest. They grow quickly, in unplanned ways, and often contain areas (slums, favelas) where government control is tenuous, at best. They bring people of different religions, ethnicities or wealth levels into close proximity, which can generate tension. They're well connected to global transport networks, and are easy to get in and out of.

The result of all this is that “operating from megacities allows hostile actors relative freedom of maneuver as they blend in with the local population”. Or, to put it another way: “We think bad people are there, and we don't know how to find them.”

"Not knowing stuff" is actually the main theme of this report. Historically, when the US has needed to conquer a foreign city, its strategy has basically been (I simplify) to surround the thing and walk inwards until their troops control it. You can't do that with a city of 10 million people: it's just too big. The physical infrastructure is rubbish, so the roads are too narrow to get a tank through; but the technological one is brilliant, so the guys on the other side can use their mobiles to co-ordinate resistance. And the current urban training environment, pictured on p9, leaves rather a lot to be desired:

As a result, “it is inevitable that at some point the army will be asked to operate in a megacity, and currently the army is ill-prepared to do so”. It’s the SSG’s job to make sure the army isn’t ill-prepared for anything; ergo, it’s having a think.

If your job is to ensure that the US military is ready for any war it may one day have to fight, then all this no doubt makes sense. If you’re a mere citizen, however, its conclusions are just a tad worrying.

For one thing, consider which cities it talks about operating within. "Highly integrated" cities – good infrastructure, good government, some control over who goes in and out – are “anti-fragile”, can look after their own affairs, and are therefore fine. The section on New York reads like a cross between a tourist brochure and a panegyric to the fire fighters of 9/11 ("a rich history of assimilation and integration.... supporting infrastructure is not simply rebuilt, it is rebuilt stronger and able to withstand more"). New York City will not face military occupation any time soon.

Work your way down the development table, though, and the attitude changes. Bangkok has decent infrastructure, yes – but it also has soaring income inequality and a lot of coups, so "it is not unreasonable" to think the US army may find itself there on "counter terrorism operations" one day. (You'll be pleased to hear its extensive canal network will help on that score.)

Lagos, meanwhile, has a soaring population, enormous slums, and is in an economically critical country. All this means that foreign assistance could be required one day – “and, considering America's significant economic stake in Nigeria, some US military assistance might be offered".

"Offered" is a key word here: the language right through the report is that of invitation, not invasion. Now to be fair, the vast majority of megacities are in states allied to the US, and in the current climate it'd be more than a little inflammatory to publish a plan for occupying Moscow. Nonetheless, it leaves you with the odd impression that the Americans are cheerfully envisioning how they might go about occupying the biggest cities in friendly countries. Why Lagos and not Kinshasha? Why Rio, not Bogota?

"By 2030, there will be 37 cities across the world that are 200-400% larger than Baghdad" 

– Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for an Uncertain Future, p8

There’s one more worrying aspect to all this: the report gives very little indication of what occupying one of these places would actually mean. The Army explains why it might want to operate in a major city. It explains the barriers to doing so. It contrasts the cities it might invade with those that it probably wouldn't. But at no point does it give us the first clue what a US Army presence in Lagos might actually look like. The comparisons with Rio and so on talk about policing activities; but other parts of the report suggest total war. Are we talking ground troops here? Tanks? Air strikes? It's not clear – and in that ignorance lurks terrors.

The US army isn't planning to invade any of these places, of course. It just wants to know it can. It has a responsibility, the report says, "to prepare itself to provide the right tool to the Nation when contingencies arise".

Before the Iraq War, the US army failed to come up with a viable strategy for winning over Baghdad. It won’t make that mistake again. When war comes to Lagos, it intends to be ready.


Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.