Breaking the Siege of Gotham: an Operational Analysis of The Dark Knight Rises

I wrote this a few years ago in piece intended for now-sadly-defunct Grand Blog Tarkin. For a few reasons the piece didn’t happen then, but here (for the first time) is my operational and tactical analysis of the Siege of Gotham.

So if Bane and the League of Shadows actually took America’s largest city hostage with a nuclear device, what would happen? Unsurprisingly, the American government has already planned for such a contingency. Presuming that terrorists are political actors, a hostage scenario is one of the more likely methods of nuclear terrorism; detonating a device without warning is likely to result in few political gains and much backlash. As we’ve already demonstrated, not responding to nuclear terrorism is simply not a realistic option for an American president. How might the federal government actually respond to Bane’s attack?

In this scenario, we’ll make a number of assumptions from the Dark Knight Rises:

  • Gotham City is similar to New York in climate, resources, organization, etc., with slightly different geography (see the map).
  • Bane does not release any more information to the government than he does in the movie.
  • Bane’s resources are limited to those depicted in the movie (including those of the wily Talia).
  • The government knows as much about Bane as Batman does after his initial search.
  • The nuclear device has the same radiation profile as a similarly sized fission bomb (the movie doesn’t go in depth on the fusion reactor and how it’s been weaponized.)
  • The government has no initial intelligence on Bane, the League of Shadows, or this specific conspiracy.
  • The bomb is as big as Bane said it was

From these assumptions, we can begin to predict, given real-world policy, how the US government would react to Gotham City being held hostage by nuclear-armed terrorists.

The initial response would in all likelihood be similar to that given in the movie. Fighter jets would scramble for show-of-force and reconnaissance and National Guard units would be activated. Moreover, Homeland Security (DHS), Coast Guard, and local counterterrorism forces would be activated. For simplicity’s sake (and to give Mr. Nolan some artistic license), we’ll assume that, as with the police, Bane’s men are able to capture, kill, or otherwise neutralize Gotham’s first responders, including regional FBI and DHS offices. After Bane’s demands are firmly establish, the President would no doubt address the nation, offering them similar rhetoric of determination, perseverance, and hope. In TDKR, this action is essentially the extent of federal involvement in the Siege of Gotham. In a more realistic scenario, the President’s speech would be merely the beginning of a massive operation rivaling a minor war in its scope and intensity.

As we’ve already shown, the seizure of a major American city, much less THE major American city, would demand a response. No expense would be spared in attempting to reassert American sovereignty and demonstrate to the worldAmerica’s capability to maintain rule of law. Such an operation would not be left to the remnants of a municipal police force (even one as capable as GothamCity’s) but would be supervised at the very highest level by the President,Vice President, and Secretary of Defense, who together constitute the National Command Authority (NCA), which is ultimately responsible for military action and homeland defense.

As implied in TDKR, Bane’s seizure of the city would not go unnoticed. In all likelihood, the first federal authorities to react to the attack on Heinz field would be America’s intelligence and response centers. US Northern Command(USNORTHCOM), the CIA’s Global Response Center, the FBI’s Strategic Information and Response Center, and other similar response groups would quickly alert higher-ups and begin analyzing the situation. The most critical of these centers in this case would be Gotham City’s Emergency Operations Center, which would serve as a hub to coordinate a local, state, and federal response. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume that Bane has taken out this center alongside his other actions against the police. Other fusion centers (set up after 9/11 to coordinate intelligence between agencies) on the East Coast, and especially in Washington, would further facilitate crucial intelligence sharing as the situation progressed. Because Gotham City’s Emergency Operations Center has been neutralized, we would expect a longer lag before the extent of the situation is made clear. In the meanwhile, USNORTHCOM’s scrambling of jets and activation of National Guard Units are certainly not unreasonable. At the same time, America’s premier counterterrorism forces (Tier-One operators including Delta Force, DEVGRU, and others) would be notified of the developing situation;they’ll play an important part later.

Stage One: Finding the Bomb

Federal resources (civilian and military) would quickly be organized into a joint task force, overseen directly by the NCA, under the control of a combatant commander (CCDR), probably from USNORTHCOM, though US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) might be another option. This commander would be responsible for coordinating massive inter-service and inter-agency resources available to break the siege of Gotham. The task force’s primary objective would be to retake Gotham City with minimal civilian loss-of-life. To accomplish this, the task force must find and neutralize Bane’s nuclear weapon.

While TDKR is not as science illiterate as most other superhero movies,it’s not perfect. When Bane displays the nuke to the world after the attack on the football stadium, the movie depicts a radiation spike at an anonymous military monitoring site. While the government does indeed maintain an early warning system for nuclear detonations, it’s not nearly sensitive enough to sniff out a single un-activated device. Provided that the converted fusion reactor is low-radiation or well-shielded enough to not give those escorting it radiation sickness, it remains well below the threshold for satellite threat detection. Even UAVs or surveillance flights would have trouble picking up the fusion device over the background radiation noise.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance(ISR) efforts would focus on information gathering about the nuke (including detailed technical characteristics) the nature of Bane’s trigger, and the location (s) of the nuke. Moving the reactor outside is a foolish choice by Bane; American geospatial intelligence satellites retasked to provide intel on the developing Gotham City situation would sooner or later (probably sooner)identify the convoys carrying the nuke. This would be supplemented by on-the-ground intel. In reality, a satellite is unlikely to pick up the radiation from this fusion weapon, ‘lead-lined roof’ or not. However, Gotham City, after 9/11, may have followed several other major cities (including NYC)and installed a citywide radiation monitoring system designed to find ‘suitcase nukes’ and dirty bombs. Accessing this system would be an early priority for American forces.

Increased ISR (including reconnaissance overflights) would be followed shortly by the insertion of special operations forces to further map the battlefield and prepare for a decisive conflict. Why would the president risk a nuclear attack to insert troops? It would essentially be his only option, and the odds of triggering the attack are relatively slim. Since Bane has made it clear that he won’t negotiate, the NCA would quickly move to counterforce options. Special operations forces are trained to operate stealthily in hostile environments with limited lines of communications; operating in an American city would be far easier for them than missions they’ve had in far-away lands across the world. In the movie, a small SOF team is inserted via a supply truck. Of the three entry possibilities(Land, Sea, Air), this may be the least likely; its reasonable to believe that the limited land points of entry would be closely monitored by Bane. While airborne assault (parachute operations) is also an option, the simplest and stealthiest entry would be via submarine. Many SOF units (including the Navy Seals and Marine Force Recon) are trained for submarine entry. As a quick look at a map of Gotham illustrates, there are numerous approaches for a SOF amphibious assault. Gotham City would quickly find itself home to a few hundred or even thousand new residents; in a city of 12 million (especially one in chaos), they would blend right in.

These units would quickly establish urban hides – concealed hideouts from which to observe Bane’s forces and conduct operations. Given the chaos the movie reveals, these teams would have relative freedom of action. These soldiers’ first priority is a natural offshoot of the primary military objective; they must gather as much intelligence as possible on the nuclear device and its inner workings. Without a high level of certainty as to how the bomb works, the NCA will not order an escalation of the conflict and risk killing millions of people.

Intelligence gathering would revolve around answering several specific questions. How exactly does the bomb work? How is it protected? How is it triggered? What backup systems are in place? Gaining solid answers to these questions will permit the creation of an operational plan (OPLAN) – specifying the resources, timing, and directionality of the inevitable US attack on Gotham. While I can’t speak to specific reconnaissance tactics, I’ve no doubt that these operators would have little difficulty silently and effectively gathering intelligence. Besides locating the bomb (with the benefit of persistent surveillance, teams throughout the city, and other tech wizardry, not such a big problem), special operations forces will need to discover the exact trigger mechanism Bane intends to employ. While the movie shows a pretty standard trigger (pushing the trigger button sends a radio signal to detonate the bomb), there’s no way for the American forces to know that; in particular, given that Bane should be at least planning for some interference, he could very well elect for a dead-man switch. Knowing how the trigger works is absolutely critical- jamming a regular trigger would be a crucial part of the final operation, but jamming a dead-man switch would actually set the bomb off.What sort of device the teams discover (and what level of certainty they achieve) will substantially influence the OPLAN.

Figuring out the nuclear mechanism should be simpler than discerning how it’s triggered. Every nuclear reactor must register with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; even if Wayne Enterprise’s reactor hadn’t been activated, the mere fact that it is ready to be turned on means that it has already been subject to a regulatory process. Nuclear experts (many of whom are already employed by the US government through the DOE national labs system) would be called in to elucidate how the fusion reactor could be weaponized. They would be assisted in this by the article that Bane’s Russian physicist published on the topic, lending an additional degree of certainty to US intelligence on the fusion reactor.

In order to better understand the nuclear device, some daring and creative intelligence gathering will be called for. In order to peek inside the truck carrying Bane’s device, SOF will need to set up a cargo-scanning system(using any number of X-ray technologies employed for that purpose at harbors and other points of entry). This may in fact be the most difficult and crucial stage of the operation; assuming that the trucks carrying the device use randomized routes through the city, it will be difficult to set up this large equipment in place to scan the trucks. Nonetheless, I’m confident that, one way or another, SOF would accomplish this task, gathering critical intel and enabling more confident operational planning.


Stage Two: Battlefield Shaping and Operational Preparation

Concurrently with their intelligence mission, SOF within Gotham City will be tasked with battlefield shaping, preparing for the eventual assault on Gotham by prepositioning supplies, harassing Bane’s lines of supply, sabotaging his forces and otherwise laying the groundwork for a larger operation. As part of this stage, they may organize an insurgency of Gothamites; because training opportunities would be extremely limited due to the timeframe and hostile environment, US forces would focus on recruiting veterans and law enforcement who had gone into hiding. It’s not clear whether immediately rescuing Gotham’s imprisoned police officers would be a part of the plan; certainly, the US military would not need them in the same way Batman does.

This stage of the operation is particular fraught with concern about operational security. ISR is observational and does little/nothing to telegraph your wider designs to your opponent. Battlefield shaping, on the other hand, inherently involves actively laying the groundwork for a more or less specific operation – if your opponent can ‘read’ how you are shaping the battlespace,he’ll gain insight into your OPLAN. That said, the teams operating within Gotham are world-class surreptitious actors – while Bane’s forces may notice that their capabilities are being acted against, there’s no indication that they’re organized enough to detect this threat, much less counteract it.

At the same time that SOF are performing ISR and battlefield shaping operations, the Pentagon’s expert operational planners are preparing to break the siege of Gotham. Because of the location and strategic importance of this operation, lines of communication and oversight will be very short; the operational-level joint force commander will be in close communication with the CCDR and the NCA. These operational planners will decide the order of battle and prepare for the logistical effort of getting these forces in place to carry out the operation. As D-Day approaches, troops, supplies, and transport will be staged across the river from Gotham City to await the operation.

In the buildup to operational execution, US forces will take measures to disguise the timing and intentions of their mission. 24-hour, irregularly-timed fixed-wing and helicopter river patrols or flybys will acclimate Gothamites and Bane’s forces to the sights and sounds of US military operations at all times of the day. Unit deployments will be conducted as quietly as possible, and a media blackout imposed.

Stage Three: Execution

The hard work of several weeks will result in a multiple-stage assault on Gotham. Following from the commander’s intent (retaking Gotham with minimal civilian loss of life), three obvious phases are neutralizing the nuclear weapon; eliminatingBane’s forces; and re-establishing rule of law throughout the city.

Phase I: The Bomb

There’s a wide margin for creativity in planning to neutralize Bane’s nuclear weapon,and, in all likelihood, several neutralization methods will be prepared in sync. The stakes are far too high to allow a single point of failure.

Potential Attack Vectors

After intelligence confirms that the trigger is not in-fact a dead man’s switch, all of these attacks will occur with electronic warfare (EW) support in the form of radio frequency jamming. These attacks will most likely occur in the middle of the night, when SOF will have a greater tactical advantage, response times are likely to be slower, and the triggerman may be asleep.

  • Air-dropped bomb on the nuclear device. Pro: Instantly neutralizes the threat. Con: Scatters radioactive debris into the surrounding area (a post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money indicated this line of thinking, although a Tomahawk missile is an unlikely option, as its navigation system and angle of attack don’t lend themselves to urban, mobile targets)
    On-the-ground neutralization: SOF troops, with the help of members of the Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) attempt to disarm the device on the spot before moving it to a secure location. Pro: the quietest of these options,allows for quick, expert confirmation. Con: Leaves the device, at least temporarily, on the battlefield. If the device has been extremely modified or booby-trapped, could result in full or partial detonation.
  • “The Batman”- Victory through superior firepower. Can’t figure out how the trigger mechanism works? Running out of time? Screw ‘em. Special ops forces use IEDs or HEAT rounds (or, better yet, act as JTACs calling in some precision air support) to destroy the cabin of the bomb truck as well as its escorts. SOF then harness the trailer holding the bomb and let a Chinook carry it off to sea at a five klicks a minute. They could either carry it to a secure location to be disarmed or drop it in the sea and pick it up later. Pros: fast, without the debris of the first option. Very American, probably unexpected. Cons: Lots of moving parts means much can go wrong, not as quiet as a solely ground-based option.

I’m sure there are lots of other creative ways to take out the bomb; if you have any ideas, post them in the comments section.

Phase II: The Siege

As soon as the special operations forces responsible for neutralizing the bomb report their success, the real fun begins. Thousands of US soldier and Marines will descend via air assault (helicopters) and airborne assault (parachute) on landing zones secured by special operations forces (different teams, obviously,from those who neutralized the bomb). Their primary targets will be Bane’s command-and-control (C2) as well as Bane himself (and any other high-value targets). While Bane’s men may have proved a challenge for a frontal assault by Gotham City PD, they would prove no match for America’s finest, equipped with a wide arsenal and air superiority. Within minutes, Bane’s forces would find themselves disorganized, disoriented, and surrounded.

Phase III: Rule of Law

Once Bane’s forces have been defeated, the work of putting Gotham back together will begin. Federal relief agencies, NGOs, and the like will bring much-needed supplies and services into Gotham, which will be patrolled by policemen and National Guard units until law and order can be firmly established. And, at the end of the day, the president will make a feel-good speech extolling heroes, patriotism, and American resolve, a speech he’d never be able to give in the movie Nolan has given us.

Conclusion: Deconflicting the Batman

Batman is, of course, absent in this entire narrative. It should be clear from what I’ve laid out that there is no obvious place for him within it. Suppose that Batman escaped from the pit-prison in time to participate in liberating Gotham. Given his lone-wolf M.O. and moral qualms about firearms, he wouldn’t make a natural match for any of the military options I’ve outline here. It seems more likely he’d get in the way. Nolan’s Batman is partial to the theatrical and symbolic; from lighting a giant bat signal on the bridge to insisting on a one on one confrontation with Bane, Batman places the message above the mission time and time again.

This, I think, points to a broader theme Nolan addresses in his trilogy. Hanging about Batman’s heroics is the question of megalomania. How much of Batman’s decisions can be attributed to sheer neediness: the desire to have the city need you and call for your help. Batman is a masterful tactician but is terrible at operations. In TDKR, he time and again loses sight of the primary goal of saving lives; instead, he pursues his personal vendettas at the cost of operational effectiveness. The problem with working with Batman is that he forgets that others are not as skilled, fit, or efficient as he is. Thus, he tasks those working with him with well-nigh impossible tasks. Gordon’s difficulty in attaching the jammer to the bomb puts a comic twist on a task with which Batman surely would have had no trouble. Not so humorously, Batman has the wherewithal to confront hundreds of crooks at dawn. The police officers to whom he assigns this suicide mission do not. Batman’s skills (physical and operational) are well-suited for handling lone lunatics with mad ideas. For nuclear terrorism, however, even Batman should call in the cavalry.

Further reading

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