Time and again over the past several decades, the Pentagon has staged "war games" inside US cities -- Kingsville, Texas; Oakland, California; Pittsburgh; Chicago San Francisco and elsewhere. These so-called "humanitarian exercises" are actually a pretext for honing techniques to seize control of the "Urban Battlescape" inside the US. This investigative report (versions of which originally appeared simultaneously in the Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express) focuses on the Pentagon's "Urban Warrior" exercise staged in San Francisco and Oakland in 1999.
From a paper presented at the "Cities and the New Wars" Conference at Columbia University, New York, September 2009.
Operation Urban Warrior: EAW Video (5 Min.)
"The Humanitarian Assistance will start on Monday and continue through the firefights that follow."
-- Interview with Col. Mark Thiffault, March 1999
On February 8, 1999 a squadron of eight black helicopters flying at tree-top level dropped a team of elite special operations soldiers into the center of Kingsville, Texas. For the next two hours, the Army's Delta Force and Night Stalkers conducted a "mock battle" with live ammunition and real explosives that inadvertently set one building on fire. Elderly residents relaxing on benches outside a retirement home watched in disbelief as explosions blew out the windows on a large office building nearby.
Army officials subsequently confirmed that live ammunition was used, sometimes within a few hundred feet of startled civilians. The Army emphasized that they had only used "training ammo," which employs plastic slugs and a smaller powder charge. Soldiers had slipped into town earlier to fit the targeted buildings with "bullet traps" designed to keep wayward bullets from flying outside the designated training area.
The only people who knew about "Operation Last Dance" in advance were the mayor, the city manager and the police chief who were told not to discuss the exercise "for national security reasons."
"Safety is our number one priority in these things," Fort Bragg Army Special Operations Command spokesperson Walt Sokalski insisted. Denying reports that the helicopters had opened fire on the town, Sokalski offered this grammatically tortured assurance: "The unsurity of using [live] ammunition from... aircraft... is an unacceptable risk that we do not want to put the citizens that are supporting us in this training in."
"The law is quite clear in America that the military is not to serve as an occupying force or to be directed in any way against the people of the states," writes World Net Daily editor Joseph Farrah. (Actually, federal force has been used to quell industrial strikes, US Marines were deployed during the LA Riots and US Code Title 10 Sections 331-4 do permit the president to send troops to quash civil rebellions.)
Operation Last Dance wasn't the first time the Pentagon had launched a sneak attack on the US mainland. One summer night in 1996, nine Army choppers and troops from the Special Operations Command turned sections of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania into a war zone, terrifying residents with gunfire and explosions that sent one woman into premature labor.
Pittsburgh police were besieged with calls from fearful and angry citizens and the planned weeklong exercise was canceled the next day. In its defense, the Army insisted that it had, in fact, notified police and residents in the "immediate vicinity" several hours before the surprise attack.
"It is outrageous to give only a few hours warning," Ian Williams Goddard wrote in the Washington Times, "It shows utter disregard for the sovereignty and dignity of the people and their communities.... Is it an effort to teach people to tolerate military occupation? ... these seem to be questions that should be raised."
In May 1998, San Antonio, Texas refused an Army request to stage urban war games in the city. "We're not going to go someplace where we're not wanted," Sokalski claimed. (Ignoring the fact that this is the very definition of an attacking force.) Despite these assurances, the Army continued to plan war games in the vicinity of the city and San Antonio's Police Chief Al Philipius subsequently complained that the military had attempted to bribe local officials to allow the exercises to proceed.
That same month, the Marines brought their Urban Warrior act to Chicago. Marine public affairs officer Lt. Col. Jenny Holbert told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I don't think we could have picked a better city," During the exercise, a small contingent of Marines studied Chicago's bridges, tunnels, subways, sewers, water treatment plant and electrical and communications systems.
Two months later, in another Urban Warrior exercise, a team of 100 Marines "seized" downtown Jacksonville, capturing City Hall and the Main Street Bridge. While this exercise involved no weapons, vehicles or planes, it did suggest one credible reason why a US military force might want to invade a city. As the Jacksonville Metro explained, there was a third strategic target: "an abandoned building posing as a national bank safeguarding $5.7 billion of gold ingots."
But none of these exercises were on the scale of the Urban Warrior exercise planned for the San Francisco Bay Area. The mock invasion, originally set to run from March 15-18, 1999, in San Francisco, was relocated across the Bay to Oakland, after local residents and officials complained.
The marines said the exercise, dubbed Urban Warrior Advanced Warfighting Experiment, was designed to teach the armed forces how to distribute humanitarian aid to a big city after a disaster. But a review of hundreds of pages of military documents obtained through public records requests, from the Marine Corps' Web site, and from the Alameda County Public Library, revealed a very different mission. I
n fact, Urban Warrior was designed to give marines practice in seizing control of large cities -- including taking over food and water supplies, utilities, and communications systems. Statements and articles by military leaders suggest that the armed forces were preparing themselves to contain popular uprisings -- including uprisings in US cities.
The use of military troops to quell civilian unrest is not unprecedented but Urban Warrior represented a dramatic escalation in the potential use of the military on American soil.
Urban Warrior in Oakland, California
According to official documents, the overall $6.4 million cost for the Urban Warrior exercise included $2.4 million for personal support and $16 million spent on R&D contracts with California companies. Another $210,000 was spent to hire civilian "role players" who pretended to be civilians and rebels.
Some $300,000 was budgeted for office equipment, $95,000 for "environmental cleanup," and $7,000 for bleachers for VIP observers. In addition to the assault in Oakland, Col. Thiffault noted the Marines had "all kinda good things happening" in the city of Concord, Moffett Field and in San Francisco's Financial District.
The Oakland political establishment, led by the-Mayor Jerry Brown, rolled out the red carpet for the troops. Four days of mock fighting, including the firing of 24,000 blank rounds, have been scheduled to take place at Oakland's abandoned Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. The guns opened fire at 7:30 in the morning and continued daily for seven hours at a stretch.
Over the course of five days Urban Warrior, vehicles were expected to consume 18,063 gallons of fuel and generate 1.21 tons of air pollution. The nitrous oxides produced were 3.4 times greater than the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's "significant threshold." (Those figures didn't include pollution from military aircraft, since the Marine Corps' ruled these exhaust gases would not fall into the urban "mixing zone.") During Urban Warrior's grand finale at Oak Knoll March 18, marines discharged 60 smoke bombs and 8,000 rounds of blanks in a single hour.
The Three-block War
When the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) first proposed staging Urban Warrior inside San Francisco's Presidio National Park, it described a three-day exercise involving 200 to 300 marines. By January the exercise included five ships, 6,000 sailors and marines, fighter jets, helicopters, and four days of simulated combat. National Park Service officials decided the event had grown too large and pulled the plug.
In an effort to save the Presidio invasion, Gen. Charles C. Krulak (who founded the Urban Warfighting Laboratory in 1995) wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner appealing to San Franciscans to rally 'round the flag and allow the attack to proceed. Krulak offered a rather implausible pretext for exploding thousands of rounds of blanks inside a US city.
"Marines will be transported to the Presidio, where they will provide humanitarian assistance to 'victims' of an assumed natural disaster," Krulak wrote. "'Rebel' elements opposed to the operation will then arrive. The situation will deteriorate into conflict." Krulak didn't explain why "rebels" would be opposed to humanitarian assistance in the wake of a natural disaster.
"Humanitarian relief" effort involves marines handing out "food, water, and diapers" to paid actors performing from a prepared script, Urban Warrior press representative Col. Mark Thiffault explained. But Thiffault conceded that "humanitarian assistance is not the primary goal. We're doing it so we can figure out how to do urban warfare."
A review of hundreds of pages of documents regarding Urban Warrior exercises around the country and in the Bay Area reveals no plans for providing humanitarian assistance. The actual goal of the operation is clearly stated: it is to "penetrate," "thrust," and "swarm" into urban settings to seize power plants, TV and radio stations, and food and water supplies, to suppress any local opposition — and ultimately to control the cities.
Urban Warrior strategists envision a "future battlefield" defined by stateless war in an urban terrain, against threats including "criminals with computers" and "terrorists searching for weapons of mass destruction." (Curiously, they don't have them; they are merely searching for them.) Marine Corps documents explain that the Bay Area operation will pit "an enhanced Combat Operations Center ... against a well-trained, well-equipped opposing force with the capability to detonate WMD [a biochemical 'weapon of mass destruction'] in an urban environment."
While the planners of Urban Warrior gloss over the purported humanitarian work, the experiment's war-fighting components are proudly detailed.
Helicopters will hover 1000 feet above the ground. Humvees, light armored vehicles, and five-ton trucks will add to the din. Monstrous 88-ton, 88-foot-long hovercraft, each big enough to carry four M1A1 tanks, will move supplies and vehicles from ships to shore. Over the course of the five-day exercise, Urban Warrior's 1,500-member force would subject East Bay residents to 14 waves of hovercraft landings, more than 40 aircraft overflights, and the detonation of 60 "flashbang" grenades and 24,000 rounds of blanks.
The purpose of all this disruption is to hone soldiers' skills in fighting what is known as "the three-block war." The strategies practiced in Urban Warrior experiments are designed for capturing and holding modern cities dense with high-rises.
"Urban terrain offsets many of the strengths in the traditional American way of war," Urban Warrior documents report. They go on to state that the effectiveness of satellites is severely reduced, rubble from buildings lends the defender a strategic advantage, and massive numbers of civilians are likely to get caught in the crossfire.
Urban troops should rely on the "opportune use of indigenous resources," the documents state. "Developing our ability to effectively forage for power, water, and fuel may provide a significant reduction in the logistics requirement on the seabases."
Unfortunately, such foraging would mean seizing resources from the indigenous population. But that can have its own advantages. To gain "leverage in establishing control over the urban environment," Urban Warriors are advised to seize power plants, water plants, and food storage and distribution centers. Another section of the Urban Warrior game plan is more direct, recommending operations "designed to collapse essential functions."
Fighting in the 'Urban Canyons'
To enter cities in real-life warfare, the marines plan to use existing underground passageways, including underground transit systems and sewer and utility tunnels. "Sewer and underground utility systems offer one of the most clandestine avenues for penetrating the urban environment," Urban Warrior documents state. Special troops equipped with air-quality sensors would slither through city sewers and utility tunnels on special sleds and trolleys to reach strategic positions. (As a practical matter, the Urban Warrior invasion plan warns, the "firing of conventional weapons in an environment with a high methane content may pose unacceptable risk.") Marines may also enter from above. The documents envision marines deftly maneuvering through cities via paragliders, parachutes, and powered parafoils.
To fight in the spaces between skyscrapers, which the marines refer to as "urban canyons," the 21st-century marine is being trained to move up the sides of buildings like a human fly and skitter from one high-rise to another on rope webs and cable suspension bridges.
The military has developed special weapons to enable US forces to shoot over the tops of skyscrapers, firing on enemy troops hiding on adjacent streets. Other weapons blast holes through steel-reinforced concrete to destroy the inhabitants of a specific room deep inside a high-rise.
Self-loading automated weapons systems can be parked in intersections or within buildings, controlled and fired by gunners sitting in front of computer screens on ships floating 12 miles offshore.
Urban Warrior's Conceptual Experimental Framework (CEF) treats civilians and noncombatants as bothersome inconveniences and logistical nuisances. "Noncombatants and refugees may be as formidable a factor as the urban infrastructure," the CEF states. "Refugees are likely to clog roads, inland waterways, airfields, and ports as well as presenting commanders with humanitarian support issues."
A section addressing crowd control contains photos depicting helmeted military police with shields and truncheons surrounding an armored personnel carrier as it rolls toward a crowd of angry, unarmed civilians.
The marines hope to deal with crowds using such "non-lethal" weapons as exploding nets, nausea-inducing ultrasound weapons, blinding laser lights, incapacitating (and potentially asphyxiating) sticky foams, and quick-drying substances that can be used to seal doorways, windows, pipes, and "subterranean avenues of approach."
The vast majority of these technologies, the CEF states, were developed for local police to use against antiwar and civil rights protests in the 1960s. "Urban fighting has always been one of the most destructive forms of warfare," wrote Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., the commandant of the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., [October 1998, Armed Forces Journal.] "In the Vietnam War, the numbers of Marines killed in the battle for Hue exceeded the losses in WWII's amphibious assault on Okinawa."
Meet the Land Warrior
Like the US Marine Corps, the Army is working hard to turn soldiers into Land Warriors — hard-wired futuristic Robo-Cops in Kevlar helmets fighting with one foot in cyberspace. The Army News Service reports the Army's "Force XXI soldier system [is] designed to enable infantrymen to engage and defeat an enemy on tomorrow's digitized battlefield, which may include an urban scenario."
The Land Warrior will be equipped with back-mounted computers, global positioning devices, small video cameras, modular body armor, laser range finders and targeting lights, special close-combat optics and a helmet with a built-in monocular computer display, day/night target sensor unit and adaptable chemical/biological mask.
"As the world's population continues to grow, more and more people are living in cities," says Col. Henry L. Kinnison, a Land Warrior project officer at Fort Benning, Georgia. "the battlefield of the future is not only the open plain — it's a building... room or hallway." Production of the first Land Warrior systems was set to begin 1999.
Urban War and Microsoft Militarism
In 1999, General Charles C. Krulak offered his vision of the 21st Century's wars. [Briefing published in the January 19, 1999 issue of Navy Times]. Gen. Krulak is convinced that "the future of conflict is likely not going to be in the great sandy deserts of the Persian Gulf War, but in the growing urban areas along the world's coastlines. Who knows that the next threat is going to be? It could be the mind. It could be piracy.... It could be a major regional conflict, or unrest, or weapons of mass destruction. It could be information warfare. It could be the environment, our institutions, our banking.
"Right now the military is kind of in a niche business.... But in the future, we are going to have a major impact on our nation," Krulak prophesied. "If there is an enemy out there that wants to make a difference, he can only make a difference by getting us into a complex, chaotic, deadly environment that negates our technology, negates our strength and capitalizes on their strength. That place is called the cities."
The National Security Act of 1947 "gave us the foundation for who we are and what we are," Krulak declared. Krulak called for a new National Security Act for the 21st Century that would "take advantage of the resident capabilities, assets, and intellects of industry, academia, monetary institutions, and other non-governmental agencies. We need to combine these with the more traditional elements of national power -- military, political, economical and cultural. We're taking about building a [new]... organization that would... focus all the elements of national power. It would provide the national and regional commander with the ability to consult and interact with subject matter experts."
"You have to tap into some of that experience outside of the federal government. We're doing it right now," Krulak confided. "I was in communication with the CEO of IBM, and they're working in the black world right now. They're more than willing to work in the white world. They are taking zero pay -- zero pay. Bill Gates is working with us. We've got a tape we could show you of some of the things he's putting on as a result of Hunter Warrior, joining with us in looking at software, banking, humanitarian organizations, science technology."
Close to Home
While Urban Warrior's promoters say such exercises train marines to enter foreign trouble spots, military documents challenge that assertion. There are few 15-story urban canyons in Third World cities. And the photographs in Urban Warrior's strategic documents portray targets much closer to home -- Seattle, Miami, San Diego, New York City, and San Francisco.
In a rare reference to non-Western countries, the conceptual framework points out that urban warfare is fundamentally unsuited to most cities in the developing world. "The squalor and highly inflammable nature of building materials within many non-Western urban areas — coupled with the wide use of propane or natural gas for heating and services -- creates a risk of catastrophic fire," the document states.
Meanwhile, plans are afoot to increase the military's power in the event of a national emergency. In 1999, a disturbing proposal to commission a supreme military commander to take charge in the event of a "terrorist threat" received a favorable nod from the White House.
On January 28, 1999, the New York Times reported that "The Pentagon has decided to ask President Clinton for the power to appoint a military leader for the continental US because of what it sees as a growing threat of major terrorist strikes on US soil." The Times reported "top White House officials have reacted favorably," despite concerns from civil libertarians that "such military power could slowly expand to threaten the privacy, liberty, and lives of private citizens."
George Bush, Dick Cheney and the Millennium Project
In 2009, the Millennium Project's 6,700-page State of the Future report (based on the findings of 2,700 experts) concluded that climate change "ranging from changes in weather patterns to loss of livelihoods and disappearing states — has unprecedented implications for political and social stability.... By 2025, there could be three billion people without adequate water." The Pentagon was way ahead of the Millennium Project's visionaries.
A decade earlier, Urban Warrior strategists were pointing out that approximately 85 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2025, and these cities will contain "all the classic ingredients for conflict. There will be social, cultural, religious, and tribal strife between different groups. Many areas will have scarce resources, including the most basic ones like food and shelter. As populations grow and resources shrink even further, the chances for conflict will naturally grow with it."
The U.S. Marine Corps document "Why Urban Warrior?" suggests that foreign terrorists weren't the only domestic threat the military was preparing to address. In a January 1999 article in Armed Forces Journal International, Col. James A. Lasswell, head of experimental operations for the MCWL, warned: "There will be widespread economic problems and cultural, ethnic, and tribal tensions, many caused by wave after wave of immigration."
In another issue of the same publication, Major General Scales minced no words about the military's role in urban warfare. In the decades ahead, Scales writes,
the mission will be to fight on behalf of the rich and against the poor.
"The future urban center will contain a mixed population, ranging from the rich elite to the poor and disenfranchised," he writes. "Day-to-day existence for most of the urban poor will be balanced tenuously on the edge of collapse. With social conditions ripe for exploitation, the smallest tilt of unfavorable circumstance might be enough to instigate starvation, disease, social foment, cultural unrest, or other forms of urban violence.
"The enormous problems of infrastructure and the demand for social services that threaten to swamp governing authorities in the urban centers of emerging states will most likely worsen," Scales predicted. "Moreover, the proximity of the disenfranchised to the ruling elite provides the spark for further unrest and sporadic violence."
For all the frightening clarity of the military's plans, the documents leave one vital question unanswered. Urban Warrior proposes nothing but open-ended battles for urban terrain. What happens after the marines swarm ashore and successfully seize a city? At what point would they stop blasting holes in the urban infrastructure?
"That's one of the difficult points," Thiffault said. "When do we get out? Who defines how we get out?" He didn't offer any answers.
Interview with Col. Thiffault
Q -- Why would "rebels" be opposed to a "humanitarian relief" effort?
A -- Thiffault laughs and says "What do you think was happening in Somalia?"
Q -- But in Somalia the warlords were already involved in a struggle for power before the USMC arrived.
Q -- If an earthquake struck SF, why would rebels spring up to fight the HA?
A -- Thiffault insists that these games do not mean the USMC plans to invade US cities. He repeats the argument that this is illegal under US law.
Q -- So the Marines are planning to invade foreign cities like London or Paris?
A -- Thiffault argues that this is "a political decision." The Marines don't decide where they will be sent. They are just concerned with getting the job done when they get there. Thiffault boasts that "the Marines and the Navy are way out in front on this." A few other countries (Britain, etc) are now participating "to find out how we do it."
Q -- If the USMC isn't going to use these techniques inside the US, what foreign cities -- with 15-story high-rises -- would we be willing to invade? London? Sao Paolo?
A -- "Those are political decisions."
Q -- If the USMC is going to try and capture foreign cities, I assume its been coordinating with the UN?
A -- "The UN was not involved." "We don't need anyone to tell us how to train." Humanitarian Assistance is not the basic goal. "We're doing it so we can figure out how to do urban warfare."
Disaster relief includes a chemical biological response force. Thiffault cites the "anthrax bomb" that Saddam Hussein was planning "to export to the US."
Q -- Are you bothered that there is no endgame?
A -- "One of the very difficult points. When do we get out? Who defines how we get out."
Q -- Do you believe you can fight and win a war inside a city?
A -- Thiffault asks if I was ever in the military and questions whether I have the strategic background to ask such a question.
Q -- I respond that this is why we have a civilian military, so that we can raise questions like this.
A -- "You're really out there. Where do you get these ideas?"
Q -- From the MCWL's CEF.
A -- Thiffault says the reasons the photos of US cities were in there was because "those are the cities we've trained in." But they had not trained in SF when the CEF was published. We agreed that it could cause an international incident to run a photo of a foreign city. Thiffault suggested that perhaps in future documents they would leave out the photos of the US cities.
Q -- A good PR move, I replied.
Gar Smith is co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, the winner of three Project Censored reporting awards and author of Nuclear Roulette.