Author Q&A: The ongoing role of fortified structures in military clashes — and cybersecurity

By Byron V. Acohido

There’s no denying that castle walls play a prominent role in the histories of both military defense, going back thousands of years, and — as of the start of the current millennia — in cybersecurity.

Related: How Putin has weaponized ransomware

In his new Polity Press book, The Guarded Age, Fortification in the Twenty-First Century, David J. Betz, delves into historic nuances, on the military side, and posits important questions about the implications for cybersecurity, indeed, for civilization, going forward.

Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World at Kings College London. I asked him about how and why certain fundamental components of ancient, fortified structures have endured. Below are highlights of our discussion, edited for clarity and length.

LW: You cite many examples of instant castle walls, if you will, getting erected in current-day war zones. How can this be, given modern warfare tactics and smart weaponry?

Betz: Picture a US Army fort during the American Indian wars of the nineteenth century. By the standards of the best weapons and tactics of the day they were ridiculously inadequate. The thing is, though, the Indians against whom they were fighting did not possess the best weapons and tactics of the day.

Against them, wooden marching forts not much different from those built by the Romans two thousand years earlier were perfectly fine. Many of the fortifications that I describe cropping up in current-day war zones are viable for the same reason.

A vast system of Russian field fortifications played a large role in shattering the Ukraine counter offensive last summer.  Or think of the chain of fortified reefs that China has constructed as the central part of its strategy to lay claim to control of the South China Sea.

Likewise, consider the challenge which Hamas’ underground fortification of Gaza presents to the Israel Defense Forces right now, despite its distinct material and tactical advantages. For that matter, Hezbollah’s fortification of southern Lebanon, throughout which it has hidden thousands of rockets in hardened casements, is an even bigger challenge.

LW: You make the point that governments and private industry erect and maintain fortified structures continuously, in ways that would surprise ordinary citizens. How pervasive is this trend?

Betz: As a matter of regulation, installations like airports and port facilities and buildings including schools, shopping malls, hospitals, museums, hotels, sport and entertainment venues, as well as bridges, monuments, and many city streets are hardened against attack by bombing, shooting, or vehicle ramming.

The scale of this effort is quite enormous in money terms. As a small example, the area around the university in which I work, King’s College London, has recently completed a security upgrade, which has seen a major road fully pedestrianized and anti-vehicle barriers installed around the entire periphery. The cost for one urban block: £34 million.

For a larger indicator, consider the global airport security market, which had an estimated value in 2020 of around $11 billion with a projected growth to as much as $25 billion by 2028, of which perimeter security amounts for about a third of total spending. The annual value of the airport operations business in total is reckoned to be around $130 billion, about 20% of which at current rates of growth is consumed by defense.

I could go on. The main point is that the private fortification industry is extremely diverse and highly creative. As an illustrative example, consider the American firm ArmorCore, based in Waco, Texas, which specializes in the making of ballistic-resistant fiberglass panels.

Their products can be found in banks, government offices, critical infrastructure facilities, hospitals, police stations and courthouses, a range of military uses including army recruitment centers and drill halls, residential construction of all types, safe rooms, and schools.

Basically, if you interact with any of these sorts of places you will have encountered the products of ArmorCore, or of hundreds of other similar companies operating in this sector.

LW: Are you suggesting this trend will continue, or perhaps accelerate? What are the drivers?

Betz: Yes, I expect that this trend has a good long way to run yet. Ultimately, one might argue that fortification is the time-honored human response to the fear of being attacked.

Poor and working-class people build walls studded with glass around their homes, install bars, and strengthen their doors because they genuinely fear home invasion. Rich people build more luxurious fortified compounds because they can afford luxury on top of security.

Corporations fortify their headquarters and store their computer servers in ex-military munitions bunkers and deep underground caverns because of their judgment of the likelihood of attack and potential loss.

LW: World Wars I and II made classic fortified structures, like the Maginot Line, obsolete. Similarly, the rise of cloud-connected digital services made on-premise network defenses, like classic firewalls, obsolete. Can you extend that comparison?

Betz: I confess you hit a bit of a sore spot with the remark about the Maginot Line being shown to be obsolete. The maligned Maginot Line failed because it was bypassed. In the few instances it was fought over, its powers of resistance, even with low-quality garrison troops, was very high.

Today the fortification industry is a massive, growing market. The annual value of the global data security market was $187.35 billion 2020, projected to rise to $517.17 billion by 2030.The investment in target hardening of data centers is only a fraction of those numbers but is likely large.

Indeed, it is because of the demand of data security that there has been a huge growth in a heretofore very niche sector of the real estate market, specifically abandoned mines, large natural caverns, and ex-military bunkers.

In Britain, a company known as The Bunker operates two ultra-high-security facilities, one in Kent and the other in Newbury, both based on ex-military nuclear shelters. Of the former site, Colo-X, which is a British brokerage company specializing in data centers, enthuses:

‘The entire complex is located underground and was built to withstand a 22-kiloton nuclear blast! Thus, with 3m-thick concrete walls and up to 100 feet underground, the building sits on rubber buffer strips to absorb shocks and each room is Faraday caged, with blast doors in the corridors.’

Betz

You made an allusion to a modern military fortification with the Maginot Line. I would suggest, a better analog is very much older than that. The very ancient hillforts and palisaded villages built by those first humans to develop settled agriculture packed their strongholds with hand tools, ploughs, seeds, and livestock—everything that they needed to continue functioning as an agricultural society after an attack by their nomadic neighbors.

The essential infrastructure of the knowledge economies of the information age rests on a different foundation of delicate physical stuff—computers, routers, fiberoptic cables, and such like—but it all needs to be guarded all the same, and essentially how we do that is rather the same still.

LW: I absolutely agree with you that the fortification zeitgeist, as you put it, runs counter to the openness of digital systems that hyperconnectivity requires. So where do we go from here?

Betz: You ask a highly pertinent and vexing question. The most honest answer is I don’t know. If I may, though, I would suggest a few things.

One, in all the history which I explore in my book it might be said that there is something of a cycle or pendulum. For a time, the power of weapons seems to drive the idea of static defense into retreat, only then to swing back in the favor of defense making the idea of offense seem futile. We are closer to the beginning of the fortification zeitgeist than towards the end. Ultimately, though, the trend will slow and reverse again.

Two, while I think that the perils of openness and hyperconnectivity have become very evident to many people. Much of what I have observed in the book I would consider an overreaction. A paranoiac society firmly locked down behind stout walls, ubiquitously digitally filed, monitored, and regulated is not one in which I wish to live. I cannot pretend though that we are not on the trajectory toward such a society.

Third, on an individual and unconscious level I think that a great deal of what is driving the developments which I have described is a reaction to the frenetic pace of change of the last generation. It is not just that things are moving fast, it is also that the pace of change is accelerating. The natural response is to hold on tightly to something solid—and there’s nothing more solid than a fort.

Acohido

Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


 

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