Port security technology – are we rebuilding the Maginot Line?



Raymond Gibbons, Managing Director, Sentinel Maritime Ltd, Oxfordshire, UK


Recently, Sentinel Maritime conducted a live-exercise in a major European container terminal. The terminal was equipped with state of the art barrier fencing and CCTV coverage. The guards were well trained and highly alert. A sophisticated biometric access control card system was in use.

Nonetheless, when faced with this Maginot Line of defence, our team of three “aggressors” easily walked through the front gate and up the gangway of the ship we had targeted for “attack”, carrying concealed replica firearms and a simulated explosive device. The terminal security system didn’t fail to do the job it was specified to perform. But, the assumptions underlying those specifications had weaknesses we were able to exploit. I do not believe this is an isolated case.

I believe we will have to take a harder look at the assumptions we use when constructing defensive strategies for our own ports and terminals, or risk repeating the
mistakes of the Maginot Line. Specifically we need to look at assumptions about the threats we face and the conditions which exist at the boundaries of the defensive systems we design. What can we learn from the Maginot Line?

When France was overrun in a matter of weeks by the German Army in 1940, it was clear something had gone horribly wrong with the defensive strategy anchored on the 600 km network of defences’ known as the Maginot Line. The Line itself did not fail. The Line was designed to prevent a frontal assault and to force any invading army around the defences and into a narrow channel. And that’s precisely what happened. So, what went wrong?

A failure in the assumptions about the system boundaries The strategy depended on the Ardennes providing an “impassable” anchor on the flank and for the Belgian defences on the extended flank to be able to delay any attack for at least the time needed to mobilise the full French Army. The invaders didn’t find the Ardennes impassable and the flank collapsed. A failure in the strategic understanding of the threat

The strategic nature of the threat had changed from the trenchbased war of attrition experienced in World War I to the mechanised/aerial war of manoeuvre that was to characterise World War II. That historic shift is easy to see now, in hindsight, but was not nearly so obvious at the time.

When the flank was turned, the invading army was able to advance at a hitherto unknown rate of  speed to exploit the breach in defences before France was able to
fully mobilise and deploy the bulk of its resources to the front.

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