Not since pre-Napoleonic days have the precepts of positional warfare, fortification and siegecraft, so dominated the strategic affairs of the world. Field battles amongst major armies have hardly been seen since the Persian Gulf War of 1990/91, and even then they were on the wane; for decades, the preponderance of Western military effort has been absorbed by counterinsurgency and stabilisation operations (howsoever defined).[i] More recently, in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent Ukraine, combat has been typified by the attack and defence of fortified places, or urban areas which can be rapidly fortified (whether deliberately or as a by-product of combat), operations which unfold over weeks and months not hours and days.
Notwithstanding the continuing primacy of ‘manoeuvrism’ in military education and training in the West and the constant reinforcement of the virtue of speed, the wars that we actually fight have been of the slow moving ‘war of streets and houses’ sort, thanklessly invertebrate, sluggish if not totally static. Extant theory and doctrine is massively out of sync with a contemporary resurgence of fortification strategies; whereas the engineers and strategists of the early modern period, the last point in which such ideas were dominant, studied, theorised, and wrote widely on the subject, nowadays expertise in siegecraft is essentially the province of wargamers, military history enthusiasts, and a niche of a niche in academic war studies.
This is a problem. For it is not simply in the military sphere in which these trends may be seen. Across every aspect of the global political economy national and sub-national governments, non-governmental organisations, and non-state actors both licit and illicit, are responding to diverse threats to their core interests in a similar manner—hunkering down, digging in, and walling up.
In his recent book Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman enjoins us to consider strategy as a kind of drama, specifically a ‘soap opera with a continuing cast of characters and plot lines that unfold over a series of episodes.’[ii] If you accept that metaphor then I offer an extension of it: the leitmotif of the particular soap opera we are in now and for the foreseeable future, given current and projected investments, is fortification—the persistent strategification of architecture across a wide range of security contexts by essentially all actors.
In ten thousand years archaeologists may ponder the mystery of the Hesco Empire that exploded from nowhere suddenly in the first years of the third millennium AD to leave its mark seemingly across the globe; everywhere they will look, should they make the mental connection, Hesco labelled bastions, bunkers, and bases will be seen to mark the contours of the great expeditionary campaigns of the War on Terror and the myriad civil, proxy, and brushfire wars that stemmed from it. Essentially a gabion, a basket that filled with earth and rubble creates a stout ballistic barrier, the Hesco bastion is a work of simple genius—flat-packable, stackable, standardised, modular, and cheap; if Lego and Ikea teamed up to make real castles Hesco is the system that they would devise for doing it.[iii] It symbolises contemporary warfare in a way that the Huey helicopter did the Vietnam War.
Many Infinity readers will have experience of recent wars, particularly operations in Iraq. They will, therefore, in all likelihood be supremely familiar with the campaign of strategic concreting that underpinned the handful of successful actions in that war. David Petraeus’ 2013 article ‘How we Won in Iraq’ begs the question “Did we, really?” but taken at face value the account of the means, including inter alia the ‘surge’ of men and counterinsurgency ideas, plus special forces targeting, Iraqi security force training, and the Sunni ‘Awakening’, curiously omits the obvious:[iv] walls; successful pacification efforts in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, followed the relentless march of concrete barriers of varying sizes collectively known as ‘T-walls’ (on account of their cross-sectional shape) through neighbourhood after warring neighbourhood.[v]
The standout example of this was the spring 2008 Battle in Sadr City, a large Shiite suburb of Baghdad, a few miles northeast of the centre. Fighters of the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) militia loyal to Moqtada al Sadr used it as a launch pad for rocket attacks on the central Green Zone—firing their weapons and then blending back into the dense civil population. The object of the operation was to sweep and clear JAM from the neighbourhoods in which they were operating in order to push them back beyond rocket range of the centre, and to keep them out permanently. The means was the T-wall and it worked well—isolating operational areas with walls deprived the insurgent of mobility, concealment, support, and initiative. As a RAND study of the battle concluded: ‘Concrete enlisted time on the side of the counterinsurgent’, which is a quite remarkable accomplishment.[vi]
Insurgents, however, are making good use of concrete and siegecraft themselves. Over decades of desultory conflict within its own disputed borders as well as in occasional forays beyond them the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have learned that because of their enemies’ fortification efforts the armoured D9 bulldozer needs frequently to be in the lead and always to be a part of its combat trains. In South Lebanon in 2006 the IDF contended with Hezbollah forces deployed in a network of bunkers (some as deep as 20 and 30 metres), trenches, and cleverly concealed fighting positions—hilltop villages were effectively castellated.[vii] More recently, in operations against Islamic State Iraqi Army units have taken to bringing a bulldozer on a flatbed truck along major road movements. When forced to halt, instead of simply setting out pickets and heavy weapons in watch of directions of potential attack the bulldozer is used to dig a ditch and berm enclosure, thus providing a good measure of defence against truck and car bombs.[viii]
Meanwhile Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip added offensive tunnelling to the mix, digging dozens of them, often concrete lined, hundreds of metres long and tens of metres deep, into Israel in order to infiltrate fighters and conduct attacks. In turn, the IDF has developed specialist anti-tunnel engineer units for detection and interdiction, as well as added underground warfare training to its already extensive urban warfare syllabus.[ix] Few other armies have, as yet, mimicked fully the lessons adopted by the IDF, or the increasingly experienced Iraqi military, for that matter; but they will—Germany and Russia have made notably large recent investments in sophisticated urban warfare facilities and others are talking about it.
It bears repeating that none of this is strictly new. Students of counterinsurgency who are not wholly bought into the population-centric orthodoxy will recognise and not be surprised at the central role of military architecture in success. Physical barriers and networks of strongpoints have played a greater or lesser degree in pacification campaigns since before recorded history. The Sunni-from-Shiite separating walls of Iraq are no bigger than the still standing ‘Peace Walls’ of Belfast, Northern Ireland, built by the British to separate Catholic from Protestant neighbourhoods for nearly the same reasons. Roman infantry famously always entrenched on the march nightly for defence against fast-moving opponents in the lands they dominated, or sought to dominate; meanwhile the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman engineers of William the Conqueror assembling at Hastings a wooden motte and bailey castle that had been prefabricated in France. IDF engineers probing the ground with computer-seismographs for enemy tunnels are only a technological generation removed from their military forebears who did the same with stethoscopes or by plunging their heads into barrels of water to listen to magnified ground sounds.[x] What we are seeing rather is a revitalisation of old techniques, and their reapplication with new technology.
Civil infrastructure hardening
The phenomenon, however, is by no means confined to the military sphere. Across the world today there is a burgeoning industry designing, supplying, and installing fortifications in urban settings. The most prominent instances of this are found in the major cities such as London, Moscow, New York, and Washington DC; but even quite small towns perceive a necessity to harden their civil infrastructure in response primarily to terror threats, the damage of which they seek to mitigate rather than prevent outright.
Take, for example, as a microcosm of a much wider development, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in Britain in which I live. After the Westminster Bridge terror attack in March 2017 temporary surface-mounted anti-vehicle barriers were installed on our main streets, notably near Windsor Castle but generally widely. The trouble is that these anti-terror measures are ugly, so the council has earmarked £1.9 million in order to, in the words of the responsible cabinet member:
…replace this stuff with stuff that does the same job but will be more aesthetic and built into the street scene. At the end of the day it’s got to be the very best balance we can get between security versus aesthetics.[xi]
It is ironic that the Changing of the Guard now performed by troops uniformed and marching in a manner not relevant to actual battle since the mid-nineteenth century in and around the grounds of a perfectly preserved mediaeval-concentric-fortress-turned-stately-home is now conducted within a yet newer ring of fortification.
But it is more than that: it is emblematic—fortifications have symbolic significance as expressions of urban and national identity, which is why we sometimes preserve them long after their security function has been superseded; it is pragmatic—for as long as there have been urban authorities they have struggled to balance the needs of defence with their direct and indirect costs, notably the impact of security measures on the revenue generating purpose of civil spaces;[xii] and it is ingenious, in a macabre sort of way.
The peculiar need of contemporary civil fortifications is to provide some defence of the public in various urban spaces against a range of threats including, inter alia, IEDs (either in a vehicle or on a person), active shooters (possibly operating in teams), and vehicle ramming attacks, sometimes in combination. It is a challenge to do this at all, which is why almost all promise limitation of damage from attacks not prevention of attacks per se; it is even harder to do it in an aesthetically appealing way, ideally in a way that is invisible. How do you hide a barrier that must withstand the impact of a 7.5 tonne battering ram propelled at fifty miles per hour? How do you provide protection from small arms grazing fire in places that by functional design have to be wide open and are full of people? How do you protect historically valuable or infrastructurally important buildings against blast threats carried on the very roads that serve them?
A typical street scene in a major city now includes multiple layers of physical fortification, in addition to essentially ubiquitous CCTV surveillance. Some of this is obvious: in 2004, as an example, the UK established the National Barrier Asset (NBA)—essentially a modular system of high strength fence, anti-vehicle systems, and access control points; although the total length of the NBA is unknown the stock of it is continually growing and is certainly now tens kilometres; it is deployed widely in the country by a private contractor according to need, as determined by the Home Office, but is ubiquitous in central London, notably around Westminster Palace and other buildings such as the Admiralty Arch which is equipped with heavy steel boom gates where The Mall heading down from Buckingham Palace enters Trafalgar Square.[xiii]
A great deal though is designed to be less obvious, whether robust rising road blockers that are built into the ground to block off in emergency normally open vehicle access points, rising and static bollards that are proof against light vehicle threats without impeding pedestrian movement, or a wide variety of seemingly surface-mounted street furniture—benches, bus shelters, planters, low walls, public art installations, and so on—which are in fact securely fastened into deep steel reinforced concrete foundations.[xiv] Amongst the best-known examples of such dual-purpose structures is the Arsenal sign on the concourse of the Emirates stadium in London—the heavy concrete and steel letters of the sign provides a measure of defence against ramming and vehicle-born IED attacks on an otherwise easily accessible soft target in the form of vast crowds of football fans and concert goers.[xv]
Another increasingly common fortification measure is the provision of ballistic shields in public buildings such as schools, shopping malls, and offices. These include the likes of bulletproof whiteboards mounted on heavy lockable casters, which can be deployed in seconds to barricade a classroom, for instance. Interior walls covered with ballistic surface tiles or bullet resistant sheets the size of standard wallboard are used to create dead spaces, relatively secure escape routes, and/or triage areas in case of an active shooter attack (plus a degree of blast and fragment protection) on office buildings, hotels, and university buildings.[xvi] Armoured glass panels erected in shopping mall food courts, rail stations, airport terminals, and so on, operate similarly but without breaking up sightlines.
It is hardly the first time in which so many elements of public life have been designed to balance the needs of residency and economy with physical security. Today, for example, the castellated domestic architecture of Scotland, comprised of baronial castles, tower houses, and fortified farms, often perched dramatically on crags and cliff sides, typical of the frequently lawless 12th through 18th centuries, is a romantic tourist fascination; it also should be a reminder of what happens to societal infrastructure in periods of persistent, effectively normalised, insecurity—which is the contemporary condition of urbanity.
Out of the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 came a number of lessons learned. Perhaps one of the most significant is the story of the survival of the Wall St Treasury bond trading company Cantor Fitzgerald, 658 of whose employees (its whole New York office, representing more than half of the company’s total personnel) were killed on that day. And yet on 13 September when the bond markets were reopened Cantor Fitzgerald was ready for business, operating out of its London offices. The long story of the firm’s phoenix rise from the ashes involves several factors, including a couple of lucky coincidences—but the short version, in the words of its technology expert Philip Norton:
Several things saved us. First, we were at the forefront of electronic screen-based trading and our database and accounting system was backed up in London. Without that we had no chance.[xvii]
The cold calculus of survival for the corporate lions of the Information Age, notably those in finance and legal services, and any company whose value resides primarily in knowledge, is that 1) no corporate headquarters, not even one next to the heart of the most important city of the globe’s only superpower, is beyond physical attack, and 2) if you can reconstitute your vital data then everything else—people and things—can be made good, eventually, and good enough really quite quickly.
Often lost in popular discussion of cybersecurity is the degree of physicality in the exercise. Obviously, the security of digital networks rests upon good programming, well-monitored firewalls, and effective ‘computer hygiene’ practices. But when it comes down to it the Internet runs on vast computer server farms, complex routers, and thousands upon thousands of miles of cable and uplink stations—all tangibly material, mostly quite delicate. After some highly secure banks and a handful of ultra-vital military headquarters, on a par with nuclear power plants and the like, the most heavily fortified buildings today are those that house the vital organs of the digital economy.
Most of these are in plain sight. To take a local example again, the town in which I live is home to an important telecommunications facility. Originally, it was a BT telephone exchange which employed several hundred staff; now, no humans work there permanently, not even the discrete security staff. The building itself is non-descript in the extreme—there are windows, or rather holes where windows used to be which are now occupied by opaque ballistic barriers, and there is a stoutly reinforced front door, which never opens.
As data centres go, however, it is at best a fortlet, a small and remote outpost next to true leviathans such as the 750,000-square foot ‘Terremark Worldwide data fortress’ in downtown Miami, Florida which boasts seven-inch-thick steel and concrete outer walls (no windows), or Chicago’s 1.1 million square foot Lakeside Technology Centre located in a converted heavy industrial facility where the famous Sears corporation catalogue and Yellow Book was once printed in colossal numbers before digital killed those particular industries.[xviii]
Even these are significant not so much by size (the largest facility today is over 7 million square feet)[xix] but by their urban locations. More interesting are the specialist facilities which market themselves not on scale but on ultra-security and secrecy, literal data bunkers housed in former military facilities, mines, or limestone caves, serving a growing niche for ‘nuke-proof’ subterranean fortresses able to survive almost any eventuality, natural or man-made. The UK firm ‘The Bunker’ advertises that its data centre which is located in an ex-Ministry of Defence nuclear bunker protected by 3-metre thick reinforced concrete walls, solid steel doors, 24-hour CCTV, escorted access, and electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and Tempest RFI intrusion protection, can withstand ‘a near hit from a hydrogen bomb’.[xx]
The true state of the art, though, combines size with very high security while adding two other vital elements to the mix: the passive cooling capacity required to chill tens of thousands of heat-generating computers and a secure independent power supply. The Norwegian Green Mountain data centre near Stavanger is located in two ex-NATO munition storage bunkers built inside a mountain under 100 metres of granite, providing proof against practically any conceivable surface blast, EMP, or solar flare effect. Cooling is provided via an adjacent deep-water fjord exiting on to the cold north Atlantic and power via multiple local hydroelectricity plants.[xxi] If the apocalypse comes the networks of the hugely rich companies such as Google and Amazon that are paying for this infrastructure will survive; whether or not their users will survive is a different question.
The idea that the way in which any given society generates wealth determines the way in which it makes war has been a staple of strategic studies for decades. It is interesting that more or less as soon as humanity invented agriculture it also invented the stockade village—the original stronghold, a palisaded place, ideally on a small rise, into which livestock, seed, and essential tools could be withdrawn and protected while the pastoralist community waited out the ravaging of passing nomads. The tools today are different, as is the scale of their use, but fundamentally what Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and the like are doing to secure their means of production is strategically perfectly recognisably similar.
The reasons for the ongoing burgeoning fortification zeitgeist are plausibly many. As has been oft-remarked, war is increasingly ‘asymmetrical’ pitching conventionally organised, superbly equipped, and exquisitely expensive armies against ragtag irregulars fired up on religious passion. Under such conditions, against an enemy of relatively low capability with very limited weapons, a static Hesco-centric mode of warfare makes a good deal of sense, whereas against a peer opponent with the ability to deal punishment at the same level as a modern army is capable it would be tantamount to suicide. On a grander level, it may be supposed that the aging of Western society, its relative economic stagnation compared to a more ambitious and striving Asia, while the Islamic world seemingly spirals into a schismatic refugee-wave-generating civil war, brings with it a mood of caution, or weariness, a desire to cover up, to protect one’s gains, and to retrench—perhaps particularly in the wake of costly embarrassing adventurous failures such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
On an individual level, readers will recognise the urges driving the hardening of civilian infrastructure. When 600 people can get shot to pieces, with 58 killed, at a country music festival in the middle of Las Vegas, of all places (and for that not to be extraordinary), the saleability of such things as bulletproof drywall, benches, and so on, is perfectly explicable. As for the actions of corporate giants, one assumes that the ineluctable power of the actuarial tables of the insurance industry are at work. There is a statistically possible likelihood that the City of London could be nuked, irradiated, diseased—or just persistently shot up and bombed; it may be a very small chance, a fraction of one per cent, but a fraction of one per cent of the value that moves through the place is enough to pay for a lot of fortification. The same could be said of potentially dozens of cities—all of them nodes on the giant web of globalisation.
The reasons for epochal changes are difficult to discern with the advantage of some centuries of distance, and seemingly always subject to debate and revision by historians; without distance, they are even harder still. What is not so debatable is that we are in a period where fortification strategies are increasingly dominant, because the evidence of the change is empirically obvious, should we bother to look. In my view, epochal is the correct word to define the strategic moment. For 200 years, since Napoleon strode like Mars incarnate across Europe mobility—movement, fluidity—has been the primary frame of reference for generals and statesmen, military educators, and students of strategy. Now it should not be.
[i] David Betz, Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power (Oxford University Press, 2015).
[ii] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 628.
[iii] Hesco’s products and case studies of its works are available on its website: https://www.hesco.com
[iv] David Petraeus, ‘How we Won in Iraq’, Foreign Policy (29 October 2013).
[v] As convincingly recounted in Bing West, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 330.
[vi] David E. Johnson, M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013), p. 108.
[vii] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2011), pp. 45-46.
[viii] Interview by author with British Army officer who was part of an advisory team in Iraq during Mosul operations.
[ix] Raphael Marcus, ‘Learning “Under Fire”, Israel’s Improvised Adaptation to Hamas Tunnel Warfare’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2017).
[x] Eado Hecht, ‘Hamas Underground Warfare’, Perspectives Paper 259 (BESA Center for Strategic Studies, 27 July 2014).
[xi] David Lee, ‘Making Security a Permanent Fixture’, Maidenhead Advertiser (16 November 2017), p. 27.
[xii] See Kathryn L. Reyerson, ‘Medieval Walled Space: Urban Development vs Defence’, in James D. Tracy (ed.), City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 88.
[xiii] The private contractor is nominally secret though the actual company, Hardstaff Barriers, advertises its function on its website: https://www.hardstaffbarriers.com. The National Barrier Asset has not been much reported on—beyond this short article: ‘Who, What, Why: What Exactly is the UK’s National Barrier Asset?’, BBC (30 June 2015), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33316358
[xiv] The UK-based Avon Barrier firm, ‘perimeter physical security specialists), have an excellent website detailing various anti-vehicle technologies: https://www.avon-barrier.com
[xv] Dominic Casciani, ‘Can a Lorry Attack Ever be Stopped?’, BBC (20 December 2016), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36806691
[xvi] There are many companies involved in this industry, a good representative example, however, is Safespace Solutions which has a comprehensive catalogue on its website: http://www.blockbullets.com/home.html
[xvii] ‘Cantor Fitzgerald: The City Firm That Rose from the 911 Ashes’, Evening Standard (9 September 2011), https://www.standard.co.uk/news/cantor-fitzgerald-the-city-firm-that-rose-from-the-911-ashes-6441839.html
[xviii] See ‘Special Report: The World’s Largest Data Centres’, Data Centre Knowledge (12 April 2010), http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/special-report-the-worlds-largest-data-centers/
[xix] Justin Mitchell, ‘The 10 Largest Data Centres in the World’, Rack Solutions (16 February 2017), http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/special-report-the-worlds-largest-data-centers/
[xx] See ‘The Bunker: Ultra Secure’: https://www.thebunker.net
[xxi] See ‘Green Mountain’: https://greenmountain.no