We've all seen them -- whether picturesque castles, grim fortresses, chaotic and open firebases, or grimy underground tunnel warrens -- most people know a "fort" when they see it. Most people, however, also assume that such things are passe, obsolete ideas long overcome by technology.

But - are fortresses obsolete?

From mankind's earliest days of social interaction, we have been building defensive structures. At first, defense against the weather - mainly, the rain and the cold - was the major concern, mostly because caves could be hard to come  by. Over time, however, it readily became apparent that sturdier defenses were needed, to protect us from large predators. Eventually, though, someone realized that improving those structures made it difficult for the raiding party from the next valley to steal all the women and goats. Thus, the first real walls were built...causing, consequently, the first arms race.

As time went on, attackers began figuring out how to get over, under, around or through walls. In response, walls got taller and thicker. Covered parapets began to appear. Then, someone built a tower, and someone else extended walls away from it...

This spiral continued for unknown millennia, until - in Western Europe, at least - the early 14th Century. Then, black powder appeared in concert with cannon, and with increasing speed, castles that had withstood multiple sieges began falling, as their inflexible stone battlements were blown apart by stone - followed by iron - shot.

It took until the middle of the 17th Century before one man brought fortifications back from obscurity: Vauban.

Fort Bourtange, Groningen, Netherlands

Starting with the basis of the "trace italienne", Vauban revolutionized the entire science of military engineering. His designs were applied around the world for the next two hundred and fifty years. And then, of course, technology caught up.

The advent of high explosive artillery in the late 19th Century spelled the end - for a time - of Vauban-style fortresses, as the high explosives could obliterate the intricate constructions at will.

But then, an odd thing happened.

Following World War 1, France was left with the stark reality that nearly an entire generation of its young men had been wiped out in the trenches. Needing what we would now call a "force multiplier", France turned to its engineers, and built the "Maginot Line", named for the war veteran and War minister of the time, Andre Maginot.

This enormous complex was a series of self-contained concrete fortresses, all of which were built around multiple pieces of heavy artillery. All of the forts in the defensive belt that ran from the Swiss border to Luxembourg could cover their neighbors with overlapping artillery fires, making any attempt at assault costly to even contemplate.

French leaders were convinced that the Maginot Line would force Germany into a long war, that would give France time to assemble allies against them.

Of course, when war came, French and British troops sat and stared at Germany, until the Nazis smashed through the Low Countries, and forced France to surrender in six weeks.

British forces surrender Singapore

The hideously expensive Maginot Line, it seemed, had failed completely. Coupled with the other spectacular surrenders of heavily and expensively fortified places in World War 2, it seemed that fortresses were finally dead.

But...were they? Did the Maginot Line fail?

In a word - no.

In fact, the Maginot Line worked flawlessly: it forced the Germans to essentially repeat the much maligned Schlieffen Plan of World War 1, with the crucial additions of at least partially armored and motorized formations supported by dedicated ground attack aircraft. These additions, coupled to a hopelessly inadequate and lackluster command structure among the Allies, are what led to France's collapse.

In fact, only one of the fortresses of the actual Maginot Line ever fell to the Nazis. The most famous fortress built on the Maginot model - that of Eben-Emael, in Belgium - was neither part of a cohesive defensive network, nor was fully manned of supplied and was not designed to defend against a glider assault, something built into the layout of the Maginot network.

B-61 Nuclear Weapon

However, the public - and unfortunately, most of the military - perceptions were that the concept of a fortress, as such, was dead, especially with the advent of atomic and nuclear weapons.

And yet...countries still built versions of fortresses, a practice which continues into the present day.

 

From the underground command bunkers and ballistic missile silo's of the militaries of the United States and the USSR in the Cold War, to the firebases and underground guerilla bases of Vietnam, to today's "forward operating bases", fortresses still quietly soldier on.

One of the chief arguments against a modern fortress is its supposed vulnerability to "smart munitions", primarily bombs and missiles. However, this dangerous assumption presumes two things to exist: complete command of the air, and a lack of effective anti-missile systems on the part of the defenders in the fortress. The North Vietnamese Armed Forces, like their modern Islamic State counterparts, would have happily bombed US and South Vietnamese  firebases and FOB's out of existence; however, lacking any effective way to contest the airspace over those bases, those forces were forced to rely on infiltration, suicide bomber tactics and human wave assaults. Similarly, although Saddam Hussein's Iraq was capable of buying effective anti-missile systems, he declined to do so, because that would have required a level of technical ability and professional competence to operate that he was loathe to allow in his fragmented force.

Another argument against a modern fortress is its susceptibility to attack by conventional ground forces, such as artillery and tanks, as well as infiltration attacks by various types of special forces. This argument ignores the fact that while a modern fortress can indeed be severely damaged by modern high explosives, the amounts of artillery ammunition needed are staggering; in fact, it is questionable if modern armies possess the firepower necessary to reduce a position like Verdun.

As a result of these factors, no one has attempted to design an actual "fighting fortress", as such, for almost a century. This begs the question: What would such a fortress look like?

In order to be functional, the fortress would have to be sited to guard a specific location, like its predecessors. It would need an array of offensive weapons, of both tactical- and theater-level, and both active and passive defensive systems.

Vertical Launch System, USS San Jacinto

In the offense, the fortress would need batteries of tactical- and theater-level conventional missiles, likely stored ready-to-fire in vertical-launch units; these types of missiles have been in use for decades. Our hypothetical modern fortress would also have an array of emplaced conventional artillery. These weapons, most with ranges in excess of 15km, have been in common use worldwide for over a century. The modern fortress could also have some form of armored cavalry unit secured in underground revetments, ready to launch rapid counterattacks if necessary.

Defensively, our modern fortress would have passive defenses in the form of Vauban-style approaches, as well as barbed wire and defensive landmine barriers, designed to channel and slow conventional infantry attackers, and making armored attacks problematic. Active defenses would include various radars, as well as defensive missiles like the Rolling Airframe Missile and rotary anti-missile turrets, but could also employ more advanced systems, such as "Iron Dome" or the THEL system.

 

 

The penultimate argument actual fighting fortresses in the modern age, at the end of the day, is one of expense: in an era where countries are paying well in excess of US$100million for fighter planes, constructing a fighting fortress would be staggeringly expensive.

But not completely out of reach.

Time will tell, if the fortress will make a return to the front of the stage.



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