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Book Reviews

The Guarded Age – Fortification in the 21st Century

In an era of drones, loitering munitions, precision strikes, and manoeuvre warfare; discussing fortification seems almost quaint. Surely the revolution in military affairs and its successors have rendered bunkers and fixed positions irrelevant. If the future battlefield is transparent and the kill chain is as swift as proponents anticipate, staying still is a death sentence. That is, of course, a trite assessment, but it reflects that very little consideration is given to hardened positions in the modern era. King’s College London professor David Betz offers an interesting corrective to this misguided notion in his new book “The Guarded Age” (a copy of which was kindly provided for review by the publisher).

In the interests of full disclosure, Betz was one of my tutors at King’s whilst I pursued my MA in War Studies. Readers will now undoubtedly attempt to divine how fairly he marked my papers based on the outcome of this review.

The Guarded Age: Fortification in the 21st Century Cover shot

Fortifications are not just castles and bunkers, as Betz shrewdly shows. The process of fortification is, ultimately, about controlling and channelling the movement of forces and people (and data, too). Sensibly broadening the definition without losing fidelity allows for a more nuanced consideration. Fortifications are all around us when we stop and look. Indeed, much of urban design and planning incorporates fortification at a base level. As the war in Gaza illustrates, cities themselves, both before and after destruction, are perhaps the ultimate fortified position. Designed to channel the flow of people when intact, they serve as superb hardened positions when destroyed—deadly for offensive forces but ideal for defenders, enabling them to hold key positions and tie down attackers with minimal resources.

Whether Haussman’s redesign of Parisian streets to prevent the creation of barricades or the redesign of the Strand outside of King’s College London and across from Bush House, city planning is about restricting movement and creating safety and security. From personal experience, the space outside King’s was hazardous to students’ health as lorries, cars, and cyclists competed for space. After considerable renovation and redesign, the space outside the Strand Campus is a delightful haven for students.

There is a palpable sense of enthusiasm, tempered by shrewd professionalism, that suffuses Betz’ writing and elevates his final product. “The Guarded Age” is a book that runs counter to the zeitgeist of defence and security writing, where everything is about mobility, manoeuvre, autonomy, and precision. In an era when everything seems fluid, writing about something that is fixed seems odd. In less enthusiastic hands, the case for discussing and considering what fortifications are and could be would be harder to make. Writing about fortifications of the past? Decidedly easier. Writing about fixed positions and emplacements when everything is about drones and hypersonic munitions? Vastly more difficult.

Fortifications have a “strategic stratigraphy” to them, Betz writes. In essence, successive cultures, countries, or armed forces build upon the fortifications and embattlements of the past – a palimpsest approach to digging in and hardening positions. This, on reflection, is rather self-evidence but a novel way of looking at the bastions of the past and today. As others like Tim Marshall have eloquently written, geography still matters. While it does certainly change due to geological, meteorological, and cartographic developments, high ground remains high ground, channels remain channels, and the desire for strategic advantage endures. Yet beyond the positioning of fortresses, their design remains strikingly consistent – stone walls are succeeded by Hesco barriers and moats are replaced by concrete bollards. Even the designs of the past are found in use today, with medieval star forts being replicated in the Sahel. A good idea remains a good idea.

Perhaps the sole exception to this rule is in the realm of information and data fortifications. Whilst hardening of server farms and data centres is paramount, the considerations of power and cooling sources are often greater drivers of positioning than defensibility.

Betz attempts to weave in a post-modern theory of fortification into the book that isn’t entirely followed through but is an interesting standalone thought-exercise. The events of 11 September put an end to that illusion with the hardening of nearly every facet of national and international life—from airports to hotels, civic and government buildings, and even homes.

In the years since the attacks, the world has become increasingly fortified and hardened. Few can recall the days before ubiquitous security screening, entry control points, or the all-seeing eyes of CCTV. The 11 September attacks put the irrational exuberance of the end of walls and fortifications to bed. Subsequent attacks such as 7 July in London, the 2005 Madrid bombings, and even more recently, the Bataclan attack in Paris have only reinforced the sense of insecurity. This pervasive sense of insecurity and desire to manage and mitigate risk drives the fortification process not only in the military world but also increasingly the civilian space as well. The proliferation of doomsday bunkers (luxury and otherwise), panic/safe rooms, and up-armoured personal operating vehicles reflect the contemporary mood.

For the civilian world, the truth is that the art and science of fortification, as Betz shows, did not go away—even in the heady days after the end of the Cold War. It merely responded to the perception of risk and insecurity and the desire to mitigate those feelings.

For the military, the usefulness of fortifications has never ended; it merely received less attention until it was necessary. The ever-present T-walls of Sadr City in Iraq or the small combat outposts in Afghanistan (through to their mini-city siblings) prove the value and purpose of such fortifications. While protecting service members, they served as an obstacle to strategic communication and, ironically, a message in and of themselves. A balance was sought between security and engagement but never quite found—a point that Betz reflects upon at the opening of his book. It is difficult to communicate with the public from behind a bastion, but openness is to invite attack and the attendant political repercussions of military losses. More recently the war against Ukraine highlighted the value of digging in despite hyperbolic claims of how loitering munitions, precision strike, and drones would render fixed positions obsolete.

Betz’ book is a curious entry in the defense and security studies literature. It is a book that is interesting in and of itself, but also fills a gap that few appreciated existed. After reading “The Guarded Age” it is clear that fortifications are still very much relevant and will be for the foreseeable future—a slightly self-evident truth to be sure, but a useful reminder nonetheless. It is often the basics of war and defense that we assume to know, but reflect little on, that prove to be the most significant challenges to successful operations.

Joshua C. Huminski

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

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