Defensive Barriers.. Effectiveness in modern warfare

Military barriers and fortifications have long held a prominent position in military history‭, ‬being present in many modern wars‭,‬‭ ‬especially those witnessed worldwide from the 19th to the 21st century‭. ‬Notable examples include the German Siegfried Line‭ (‬1916‭ ‬–‭ ‬1917‭), ‬the French Maginot Line‭ (‬1929‭ ‬–‭ ‬1938‭), ‬and the Israeli Bar Lev Line‭ (‬1968‭ ‬–‭ ‬1973‭).‬

In military science‭, ‬fortifications and barriers are defined as fixed structures erected to strengthen the defensive position of‭ ‬one state against an adversary‭. ‬These fortifications are usually of two types‭: ‬permanent and field fortifications‭.‬

Permanent fortifications‭, ‬such as forts and troop shelters‭, ‬are often constructed during peacetime or when the threat of war arises‭.‬

On the other hand‭, ‬field fortifications are created during military confrontations or when the threat of war is imminent‭. ‬

Forts typically consist of fortified positions for individuals and weapons‭, ‬obstacles such as explosive mines‭, ‬barbed wire‭, ‬anti‭-‬tank trenches‭, ‬and more‭. ‬Field and permanent fortifications often benefit from natural obstacles‭, ‬such as channels and rivers‭, ‬and are usually camouflaged or concealed‭.‬

Objectives of Fortifications and Barriers‭ ‬

The objectives of fortifications and barriers include enhancing the firepower of defending forces‭, ‬providing cover to protect entrenched forces behind these barriers‭, ‬and hindering the advance of enemy forces or restricting their movement by forcing them into specific paths‭. ‬

While their primary role is defensive‭, ‬barriers sometimes play a role in seizing new territories‭, ‬contributing to defensive and‭ ‬offensive strategies‭.‬

In contemporary wars‭, ‬the most prominent examples of defensive fortifications are the Russian‭ “‬Suroviken Line‭” ‬and the Israeli Iron Wall‭. ‬

The review of various historical cases led to the belief that military barriers do not always live up to their expected effectiveness when constructed‭. ‬

The anticipation of their ability to withstand counterattacks is usually high‭, ‬leading to strategic surprises when these fortifications unexpectedly collapse‭. ‬

This can be observed in historical cases such as the German Siegfried Line‭, ‬the French Maginot Line‭, ‬and the Bar Lev Line‭.‬

This study aims to understand this issue by proposing the following hypothesis‭: ‬fortifications are more effective when they are‭ ‬part of an advanced defensive strategy that takes advantage of environmental and geographical factors on the battlefield‭. ‬

Defensive lines alone are not a specific factor for victory or defeat‭; ‬it depends on the defensive strategy adopted by the armed‭ ‬forces of the concerned state‭. ‬

This hypothesis will be tested by applying it to two cases‭: ‬the Russian Suroviken Line in Ukraine and the Israeli Iron Wall around the Gaza Strip‭. ‬The former was tested in mid-2023‭ ‬when Ukrainian forces launched their counterattack‭, ‬while the Israeli wall‭ ‬was tested on October 7‭, ‬2023‭.‬

The Suroviken Line

The term‭ “‬Suroviken Line‭” ‬gained prominence in Western media towards the end of 2022‭, ‬used to describe the defensive lines established by the Russian army along the front‭. ‬The designation is linked to the former commander of the Russian forces in the special military operation zone‭, ‬Sergei Suroviken‭.‬

The Suroviken Line consists of three defensive lines‭, ‬with a final line featuring trenches and‭ “‬Dragon’s Teeth‭,” ‬which are pyramid-shaped concrete obstacles designed to slow down vehicles and armoured units‭, ‬forcing them to move in straight lines‭, ‬limiting‭ ‬their manoeuvrability and making them more susceptible to targeting and destruction‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬the Russians also asserted control over the battle’s airspace‭, ‬whether through their advanced air defence systems or electronic warfare‭, ‬contributing to the downing of a significant number of Ukrainian drones‭. ‬Additionally‭, ‬this disrupted the communication of the attacking Ukrainian forces‭, ‬depriving them of the ability to coordinate cohesive attacks‭.‬

When Ukraine launched its counteroffensive in early June 2023‭, ‬Ukrainian forces expected minefields‭. ‬However‭, ‬they were surprised by the density of mine distribution‭, ‬covering the ground with explosives‭. ‬Mine clearance units could only secure narrow passages‭. ‬As Ukrainian forces advanced using Bradley armoured vehicles or other Western and Soviet-era armoured vehicles on the cleared paths‭, ‬Russian forces positioned on elevated terrain directed anti-tank missiles‭, ‬hitting some vehicles in the convoy and forcing others to deviate from the cleared path‭, ‬leading to mines exploding‭. ‬

Russian helicopters and drones then targeted the remaining military convoy‭, ‬compelling the attacking units to withdraw multiple‭ ‬times to reorganize before resuming the assault‭, ‬resulting in similar bloody outcomes‭.‬

In late 2023‭, ‬General Valery Zalogny‭, ‬the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces‭, ‬acknowledged that the war in Ukraine had reached an impasse‭, ‬with limited military gains for Ukraine‭.‬

The success of the Russian forces can be attributed to several factors‭.‬

Firstly‭, ‬Russia’s control of the airspace through advanced air defence systems and electronic warfare‭, ‬which effectively shot down most Ukrainian fighters and drones‭. ‬

This diminished the Ukrainian Air Force’s ability to effectively counter Russian airstrikes‭, ‬especially against attacking Ukrainian units‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬the Ukrainian forces faced challenges in conducting manoeuvres due to minefields and anti-tank trenches‭.‬

A senior Ukrainian official acknowledged the Russian air superiority‭, ‬highlighting the limitations of Ukrainian MiG-29‭ ‬fighters‭ ‬with a detection range of 40‭ ‬miles and a firing range of up to 20‭ ‬miles‭. ‬

In contrast‭, ‬Russian Su-35‭ ‬fighters could detect targets beyond 90‭ ‬miles and engage them from a distance of up to 75‭ ‬miles‭. ‬While Ukrainian officials blamed their American counterparts for the delayed supply of F-16‭ ‬fighter jets‭, ‬a high-ranking American defence official asserted that even if Kyiv had been supplied with F-16s‭, ‬they would have been swiftly defeated on the first day due to the formidable and highly capable Russian air defences in Ukraine‭.‬

The second factor is the failure of the Western military theory‭, ‬which deemed fixed fortifications militarily irrelevant due to‭ ‬the evolution of precision artillery‭. ‬

This type of artillery can be employed to target enemy fortifications with high accuracy‭, ‬leading to their destruction‭. ‬Additionally‭, ‬the West relied on the tactic of joint arms manoeuvres‭, ‬aiming to utilize ground and air forces simultaneously in attacking enemy fortifications‭.‬

However‭, ‬Russia‭, ‬in contrast‭, ‬thwarted this Western reliance on advanced weaponry and joint manoeuvres by employing a network of‭ ‬intricate fortifications that proved difficult to destroy‭.‬

The third factor lies in the West’s underestimation of the capabilities of the Russian army‭. ‬The misguided belief of the Western countries supporting Ukraine was‭ ‬rooted in the U.S‭. ‬military intelligence’s assumption that Russian defences in Ukraine were weak‭, ‬lacking sufficient forces for‭ ‬defence‭, ‬and experiencing a collapse in morale among Russian troops‭.‬

Intelligence reports even suggested that Russian leaders believed their chances of victory in the war against Ukraine were limited‭. ‬However‭, ‬these conclusions later proved inaccurate‭. ‬

In a short period‭, ‬the Russians successfully built military fortifications spanning over a thousand kilometres with a depth of fifty kilometres‭, ‬revealing their highly advanced military engineering capabilities‭.‬

Ukrainian counter-attacks

On the other hand‭, ‬what enabled the Russian forces to repel the Ukrainian counter-attack was not only the military fortifications but also the military tactics employed‭, ‬specifically the‭ “‬defence in depth‭” ‬strategy‭, ‬also known as flexible defence‭. ‬This military strategy involves constructing multiple layers of defensive lines to slow down or halt the enemy’s advance‭. ‬The objective‭ ‬is to make it challenging for the enemy to penetrate the country’s defences as much as possible‭, ‬forcing them to fight on multiple fronts‭. ‬

This‭, ‬in turn‭, ‬can weaken their resolve and deplete their resources‭, ‬hindering their ability to continue the fight‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬this strategy involves leveraging the terrain and geographical features‭, ‬such as mountains‭, ‬swamps‭, ‬and rivers to create defensive barriers that can impede or halt the enemy’s progress‭. ‬As a result‭, ‬Russia was able to inflict severe losses on Ukraine by implementing this strategic approach‭.‬

The Impenetrable Wall

Military barriers play a crucial role in Israel’s military doctrine‭, ‬given its lack of strategic and tactical depth‭. ‬Most of its‭ ‬population falls within the artillery range of neighbouring countries‭, ‬including small arms in many cases‭.‬

Additionally‭, ‬Israel faces challenges in rapidly and repeatedly mobilizing reserve forces‭. ‬These factors have led Israel to rely‭ ‬on defensive walls‭, ‬especially when deterrent mechanisms and early warning fail to address security threats‭.‬

An example of this is the Bar Lev Line‭, ‬initiated in 1968‭ ‬and failed by 1973‭, ‬just five years after its construction‭. ‬The Bar Lev Line consisted of around 30‭ ‬fortified points‭, ‬spaced seven miles apart‭, ‬supported by mobile armoured forces stationed away from the canal to thwart Egyptian attacks‭. ‬

Approximately 14‭ ‬of these fortified points were unoccupied and lacked defending forces during the 1973‭ ‬Egyptian attack‭. ‬The manned points had around 15‭ ‬Israeli soldiers‭, ‬but they lacked sufficient ammunition to qualify as strong defensive positions‭. ‬When the Egyptian forces attacked the unmanned units‭, ‬they failed to impede the Egyptian advance or redirect the attack toward easily‭ ‬defensible paths‭. ‬Consequently‭, ‬the Bar Lev Line failed to provide early warning to Israeli forces or thwart the Egyptian assault‭, ‬resulting in Israel’s most significant defeat of the 20th century‭.‬

Despite Israel’s efforts to learn from the lessons of the October 6‭, ‬1973‭ ‬war‭, ‬it became apparent that these lessons were not heeded when Hamas launched an attack on October 7‭, ‬2023‭, ‬against the Israeli Security Fence‭.‬

Israel spent over 1.1‭ ‬billion USD in recent years to build a multi-layered security barrier along its border with the Gaza Strip‭, ‬spanning about 40‭ ‬miles‭. ‬Israel claimed it to be the most fortified fence ever‭, ‬composed of wire‭, ‬steel‭, ‬and concrete barriers‭, ‬standing 20‭ ‬feet high‭. ‬

The‭ “‬smart fence‭” ‬integrated a vast network of cameras‭, ‬motion sensors‭, ‬radars‭, ‬and remotely controlled weapon systems‭, ‬all monitored by dozens of towers‭, ‬making it a highly technologically advanced surveillance and defence centre‭. ‬

Additionally‭, ‬the barrier extended underground to prevent tunnel infiltration‭, ‬covering the entire border with Gaza‭, ‬while the advanced Israeli missile defence system‭, “‬Iron Dome‭,” ‬protects the skies‭, ‬ensuring complete protection against potential threats‭.‬

The Evolution of Israeli Strategic Doctrine

Recognizing its lack of strategic depth‭, ‬Israel has developed the strategy of‭ “‬Operational Depth‭,” ‬consisting of three components‭. ‬The first is‭ “‬Deep Operations‭,” ‬also known as‭ “‬Mabam‭” ‬in Hebrew‭, ‬meaning the war between wars or perpetual low-intensity warfare‭. ‬This is also known in Israel as the‭ “‬Active Deterrence‭” ‬or pre-emptive war‭. ‬The general objective of these wars is to continually pressure the adversary‭, “‬depleting its strength‭” ‬by systematically targeting emerging military capabilities within its territory‭, ‬to delay the next‭ “‬major war‭.” ‬

Technological advancements‭, ‬particularly artificial intelligence and intelligence gathering enable the rapid detection of any hostile ammunition launches and engagement with them through a network of missiles within any military formation of the Israel Defence Forces‭ (‬IDF‭).‬

The second component‭, “‬Frontal Depth‭,” ‬addresses threats coming from nearby regions and distant areas like Iran‭. ‬This involves establishing external bases to defend Israel‭, ‬such as in Azerbaijan‭, ‬Cyprus‭, ‬or other neighbouring countries‭.‬

The third component involves having sufficient reserve forces‭, ‬enabling the IDF to make a qualitative leap from defence to offence‭. ‬In other words‭, ‬the Israeli triad consists of the ability to deploy force‭, ‬absorb threats‭, ‬and conduct ground manoeuvres‭, ‬in‭ ‬addition to airstrikes‭. ‬

This approach aims to inflict severe losses on the enemy‭, ‬leading to the restoration of deterrence by forcing the adversary to think twice before attacking Israel‭.‬

The attack on October 7th has challenged several components of the Israeli strategy‭. ‬The last time Israel engaged in a ground war in Gaza was in 2014‭, ‬lasting 50‭ ‬days‭, ‬causing significant damage and casualties‭. ‬However‭, ‬this did not deter Hamas from launching the October 7‭, ‬2023‭ ‬attack‭.‬

On the other hand‭, ‬Israel failed to limit Hamas’s military capabilities‭, ‬as its strategy of wars between wars to trim the strength of its adversaries proved ineffective against Hamas‭. ‬

The IDF relied on a combination of operational superiority and intelligence to weaken and destroy Hamas’s capabilities and infrastructure‭.‬

The assumption was that periodic use of force was enough to compel Hamas to reevaluate the effectiveness of its attacks‭, ‬at least until it could rebuild its capabilities destroyed by Israel‭.‬

However‭, ‬the October 7th attack revealed that Israel did not anticipate the growth of Hamas’s strength to the extent that it could launch a coordinated attack by land‭, ‬sea‭, ‬and air simultaneously‭. ‬

This attack made it clear that Hamas’s capabilities evolved rather than diminished‭. ‬Furthermore‭, ‬Israel’s sweeping attack on Gaza did not deter other groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon from launching attacks against Israel‭, ‬confirming the collapse of Israel‭’‬s deterrence strategy‭, ‬a fundamental pillar of its defence doctrine‭.‬

Israel’s belief in its technological and military superiority over its adversaries‭, ‬particularly groups like Hamas‭, ‬led to a false sense of security‭. ‬The best example of this is the‭ “‬smart‭” ‬border fence‭, ‬a barrier along the Gaza Strip that is 20‭ ‬feet high‭,‬‭ ‬40‭ ‬miles long‭, ‬and equipped with advanced sensors and remotely operated machine guns‭.‬

The fence‭, ‬also known as the Iron Wall‭, ‬gave Israel a misguided belief that there was no need for a large number of Israeli soldiers on the ground to protect against potential attacks from Hamas‭, ‬which allowed for the deployment of more ground forces to the West Bank and other areas‭.‬

This false sense of security was further exacerbated by the belief that the Iron Dome missile defence system‭, ‬introduced in 2011‭ ‬and designed to intercept short-range and artillery rockets‭, ‬would provide sufficient protection against missile and artillery‭ ‬attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon in the event of a widespread regional conflict‭. ‬

This reinforced the perception that there were no tough strategic choices for Israel to make‭, ‬given its advanced capabilities in‭ ‬intelligence‭, ‬surveillance‭, ‬and reconnaissance‭, ‬which made Gaza‭, ‬southern Lebanon‭, ‬and the West Bank some of the most monitored‭ ‬territories in the world by Tel Aviv‭. ‬Israelis believed that this would provide enough warning to respond to any emerging military threat‭, ‬yet it became evident that Israel couldn’t detect and effectively deal with Hamas‭’ ‬coordinated attack‭.‬

This belief in technological superiority directly influenced the Israeli army’s tactical planning‭, ‬shaping a strategic doctrine‭ ‬that relied more on defence and firepower‭, ‬specifically prioritizing airstrikes‭, ‬rather than conducting ground manoeuvres with infantry forces to achieve military objectives‭.‬

Concerning the other side of the equation‭, ‬the October 7th attack took months of intricate preparation from Hamas‭. ‬This was evident in Hamas launching approximately 5000‭ ‬rockets in a short period against Israel‭, ‬aiming to paralyze the Iron Dome system due‭ ‬to its inability to track and intercept every incoming rocket‭. ‬As a result‭, ‬the system ultimately failed to intercept any of them‭.‬

Simultaneously with the rocket attack against Israel‭, ‬units of Hamas conducted numerous coordinated and direct assaults on 27‭ ‬different locations‭. ‬The furthest point Hamas penetrated was the town of Ofaqim‭, ‬located 22.5‭ ‬kilometres east of Gaza‭. ‬

Hamas used various methods to breach the Israeli border fence‭, ‬such as using bulldozers to demolish parts of the wire-covered fence in lightly guarded areas‭. ‬In heavily fortified areas‭, ‬Hamas units detonated the concrete barrier‭, ‬then attacked heavily fortified Israeli checkpoints‭, ‬killing those within‭. ‬Some Hamas fighters attempted to bypass the barrier entirely by flying over it‭ ‬using paragliders and boats‭.‬

Thus‭, ‬Hamas not only aimed to destroy the Israeli border fence but also to successfully attack Israel’s defensive strategy‭. ‬

On the other hand‭, ‬there is a clear similarity in the failures of October 6‭ ‬and 7‭; ‬in both cases‭, ‬Israel thought its fortifications were impregnable and that it could rely on them to repel any security threat‭, ‬only to be proven wrong on both occasions‭.‬


Upon reviewing the two aforementioned cases‭, ‬it can be asserted that the Russian fortifications facing the Ukrainian army have proven highly effective‭. ‬This is despite the West’s belief that fixed defences are useless‭.‬

The Russian army’s success lies in the organization of extensive‭, ‬multi-layered defensive lines coupled with the successful implementation of a deep defence strategy‭. ‬This strategy exhausted attacking units of the Ukrainian army‭, ‬resulting in significant human and material losses‭.‬

In contrast‭, ‬Israel’s reliance on the Iron Wall‭, ‬advanced technology‭, ‬and its attempt to use a limited number of military forces‭ ‬to encircle and isolate the Gaza Strip‭, ‬ultimately proved unsuccessful‭. ‬

This failure is evident in Hamas’s ability to breach Israeli defences‭. ‬It is also apparent that Israel’s superiority in surveillance‭, ‬reconnaissance‭, ‬and espionage did not meet the expected level of precision‭. ‬Israel failed to foresee the evolution of Hamas’‭ ‬military capabilities‭, ‬which despite its heavy losses in 2014‭, ‬managed to develop its military capabilities‭. ‬Hamas even studied‭ ‬Israeli military capabilities‭, ‬especially in technology‭, ‬and devised tools to confront and overcome them‭.‬

All of this indicates that defensive fortifications can achieve military victory if a realistic and suitable defensive strategy‭ ‬is adopted‭. ‬Such a strategy should be based on precise assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of both the defending nation‭ ‬and its adversaries‭.‬

»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr Shadi Abdelwahab‭ ‬‭(‬Associate Professor at the National Defence College‭ – ‬Abu Dhabi‭)‬

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