An odd title for a post, I know!
The past decade or more of operations has seen the British Army largely operating from fixed locations against enemies with relatively limited indirect fire capabilities. Force protection engineering has evolved to be mostly ‘above ground’, concrete blast walls, Hesco Bastion, Defencell and the Expeditionary Elevated Sangar for example.
All these need substantial quantities of fill material and a not insignificant amount of time.
These collective protection developments have contributed to reduced casualties from direct and indirect enemy fire but as the British Army gets into gear with its ‘return to contingency’ approach, rediscovering neglected conventional manoeuvre skills for example, it strikes me that digging in and working with wood are essential skills that reside in the same category.
Do we have a problem?
Look at operations in Eastern Ukraine, field fortifications, trenching and old fashioned digging in at every opportunity are the norm.
Proximity fused air bursting artillery and cluster munitions are extremely effective, against these, significant top cover is also needed. Russia and her proxies have a range of conventional indirect fire capabilities that can deliver large volumes of fire onto small areas and in this context, a trench without top cover has limited value.
The image below is from the controversial ‘Pains of War’ series, but whether faked or not, is a great illustration of the issue.
Although thermobaric weapon effects are exacerbated by confined spaces the alternative is to stay in the open.
Step back in time a few years.
The image below shows the trials for the British Army’s Milan replacement, MR TRIGAT as it happens, but that is not important.
What is important is the ‘Chatham Arch’ overhead cover.
I can’t recall seeing any image of Javelin being fired from such a construction, so I popped over to the MoD’s extensive image database and tried to find some.
There were five images in total with the search term ‘trench, and none of them showing any form of overhead cover or a Javelin being fired from such.
Most training areas in the UK have digging restrictions, and as we consolidate the Defence Estate even further, the training opportunities for infantry trenches, emplaced command posts or gun and vehicle pits are diminishing.
I also tried to find recent images of British infantry carrying picks and shovels, again, somewhat thin on the ground.
Now of course, this does not mean anything in itself, but illustrative I think.
Talking to a few people it does seem that there is still plenty of emphasis on digging in on various training courses but the general impression I get is that it is very much limited by training environment/time availability and at a more granular level, not enough of going beyond basic shell scrapes and into vehicle pits or larger shelters.
If digging is to be something that is only done seriously in BATUS/BATUK or on a limited range of training courses, can skill levels be maintained?
As a rule, am not a big fan of harking on about the good old days because invariably, they weren’t, and most certainly, times and threats change.
But this area, I think, that might well recognise some of the older approaches still have merit. Some older equipment is long out of service or common use, the MEXE Shelter/Hide or Individual Protection Kit (IPK) for example, and the Lightweight Mobile Digger, nothing but a distant (and unpleasant) memory.
The MEXE hide/shelter was used for covert observation and as a command post or Regimental aid station, it was a pretty clever design, making use of only three components (pickets, spacers and arch sections) and compact in transport. Various layouts were possible, of different sizes and configurations. Additional lining kits were also available. The Lightweight Mobile Digger was used for rapid trenching and excavating for the Mexe shelter, and the IPK, for providing support for top cover in a two man battle trench.
The Royal Engineers have Trojan and Terrier in service, and a huge variety of engineering plant (C Vehicles),and of course, the humble pickaxe and shovel GS are still available to all.
We perhaps might not practice enough but the means of digging holes in the ground is not a problem we have.
But one area where I also think we have potential to do more is with timber processing. Central and North East Europe has many heavily wooded areas and exploiting this resource for defensive works is an opportunity too good to miss.
Aha I may hear you saw (see what I did there), we do have the Supacat AT5-M40 Trailer Mounted Saw Mill and Timber Clamps for the Volvo EC210 and EW180C excavators.
But these are available only in very small numbers and there are plenty of technology options that would enable a dramatic increase in productivity.
Productivity is important because the British Army is not awash with spare personnel, so where we can maximise throughput with specialist equipment, we should look seriously.
Tools and Technology
Field defences are constructed along a timeline, it may be a quick stop hasty defence as part of a wider manoeuvre operation or stop, or, a more substantial construction as part of a planned defensive position.
The tools, techniques and technologies will change depending on this timeline, some will be applicable to a particular application and some will not.
What might be suited to a light infantry unit may not be appropriate for an armoured infantry unit, and vice versa.
Each technology should, therefore, be evaluated for its intended use, owning unit, likely location and training requirement.
The basics don’t change of course; wriggly tin revetment, driven pickets, defensive wiring, sandbags, chainsaws and lots of earth, there is no need for any research and development programme from DSTL. That said, whilst there is some merit in not fixing things that aren’t broken, this would not be a Think Defence post if it didn’t have at least a nod to some technology improvements that might be worth considering.
Small increments and modest investments can often yield disproportionate gains.
I want to look at this from two angles, non-specialist and specialist, in a nutshell, non-Royal Engineers and Royal Engineers. Formations will have attached Royal Engineers Regiments and Squadrons but individual sub units will also need to be able to do their own digging and construction of field defences. Generally speaking, wherever there is engineering plant (C Vehicles) required, the Royal Engineers will use them.
There are training and safety issues, but in general, the more we can push out of the specialist domain, the better.
Timber is a valuable raw material, both for reinforcing field defences and creating vehicle obstacles (even with the advent of HESCO)
Whether it is at an Infantry Battalion or a Royal Engineers Support Squadron level, there are tools and equipment that can be used for processing timber into useful and usable material.
Unit stores will have petrol driven chainsaws but for moving logs, transport will be limited to general service vehicles or trailers. A couple of quad trailer models (SMT 171B and SMT 120B) from Logic are in service.
Neither of which are particularly suited to moving logs efficiently but for those units that are equipped with quads, log trailers are available off the shelf.
Similar trailers are also available for Land Rover sized vehicles as well.
Basic hand tools such as log jaws and lifters make manipulating the finished logs into position somewhat more convenient.
These may seem almost trivial considerations but (together with a chainsaw) allow one man to cut, process and transfer logs quickly and efficiently. There is no need to process logs into sectional timber if only suitable diameter trees are felled.
Moving up the organisational ladder, and making the assumption that this would be a solely Royal Engineers capability, more specialist timber processing equipment would allow the higher volume generation of suitably sized timber for field defences.
Instead of using whole logs, timber could be quickly processed into boards and posts, then transported to the appropriate location and used as needed.
Felling and Cutting to Length
If we can avoid specialist, single purpose, equipment, then that is probably a good thing.
The existing C Vehicle Volvo wheeled and tracked excavators, and possibly the CAT Skid Loaders, can use a variety of attachments to increase the speed of tree felling and initial processing.
They are widely used in the forestry industry and available from a variety UK and overseas suppliers.
A more sophisticated system, whilst still being an ‘attachment’ is the harvester head. These not only cut the main tree limb but also remove branches and cut to uniform length, harvesting and processing using the same device. Some of these devices can also be used on the numerous JCB 3CX and 4CX backhoe loaders.
The forestry industry makes use of a range of specialised vehicles and equipment but for the purpose of generating timber for field defences the devices above should be sufficient.
If only tree limbs of a suitable diameter are processed then there is no need for further processing, they are simply used as is. However, if only large diameter trees are available then breaking down the raw material into smaller slabs allows maximum use from a single tree.
Mobile saw mills can be used immediately after harvesting and cutting.
Post pointers are used to quickly put a sharp point on a post to ease driving when used as revetment or reinforcement.
With harvesting, milling and post pointing devices a large volume of usable product can be processed quickly and with minimal personnel, and best of all, none of this equipment is especially expensive.
Once trees have been converted to posts and timber section, they would need to be transported forward and distributed as required.
The existing vehicle fleet of MAN SV and Iveco self-loading dump trucks would be more than sufficient but one or two improvements could be made to improve throughput and efficiency.
Trailers are a great way of maximising capacity and forestry trailers are available for everything from quad bikes and JCB 3CX Sitemasters to the largest articulated trucks.
A timber clamp for the IVECO Self Loading Dump truck or Truck Mounted Loader would allow for quicker loading and offloading.
Existing trucks can be quickly converted using TimberMaxx bolsters and subframes, another cheap and quick solution.
Finally, hooklift forestry platforms would enable the DROPS/EPLS fleet to be used for transporting logs and processed posts.
The main point with these suggestions is simply to improve our ability to generate usable timber products quickly, with minimal personnel overhead, and at a more than modest cost.
Timber is not necessarily the best product for the job but in many potential operational locations, it is abundant and good enough.
Digging, Filling and Driving
The construction of field defences requires three basic operations, digging holes, filling sandbags or back filling, and driving reinforcement posts or pickets.
The most basic of hand tools are widely issued; Shovel GS, pickaxe, sandbag, post driver, sledge hammer, 6ft steel picket, wire, corrugated steel (CGI) and post driver (monkey)
Falling into the category of not fixing what isn’t broke, these basic defence stores are enduring and universal.
Mechanical assistance is still worth considering, as are alternatives to sandbags. Because they are likely to be used by everyone but trained combat engineers, ease of use and maintenance of skill is a key consideration. They also have to be space efficient and maintainable within units.
None of this is about making things easier, it is about making them faster.
Hydraulic, compressed air or petrol driven post drivers can be used to ‘hammer in’ either wooden posts, steel pickets or T Profile stakes to secure and reinforce corrugated steel or timber revetting. They are mostly used in the fencing industry but they are perfectly suited to defence applications, especially in difficult and frozen ground.
Although petrol is not convenient to handle, a diesel powered compressor or hydraulic powerpack is an additional item of equipment to maintain. Manufacturers include Atlas Copco, Hycon, Petrol Post and Power Post.
Vehicle Dozer Blades
Although armoured units will have an attendant Royal Engineers Close Support squadrons to provide engineering support, if armoured vehicles could dig themselves in, it simply relieves the pressure on a scarce resource.
Pearson Engineering make them for both Warrior (Medium) and Challenger 2 (Heavy), and one would hope, Ajax in the future. They are both available with a quick attachment kit so they can be jettisoned or swapped between vehicles as needed.
Sand Bag Filling
Sand bags are simple, cheap and require no mechanical or electrical equipment to use, just a shovel.
Filling them is time-consuming, though.
Although we have seen the use of traffic cones as improvised filling funnels, BCB make a much more robust and effective device called the Sand Bagger. The British Army actually has some of these in service although making them more widely available is a quick and cheap means of improving capability. A team of 8 can get through approximately a tonne of fill material in an hour.
Concrete Canvas and Roadplates
Corrugated galvanised steel sheeting is simple to use, cheap and readily available, used for revetting and as support for top cover. It is difficult to envisage an alternative that is as cheap or simple to use but a couple of products spring to mind, although not directly analogous
Concrete Canvas is an innovative British product that is a flexible cloth impregnated with concrete that requires only water and air to cure. Although they do make a shelter, the main use us for ground reinforcement, culvert construction and other ground engineering tasks.
Normally emplaced with mechanical assistance, smaller rolls and pre-cut sheets could be used for smaller field defences. It could also be used to reinforce existing or hastily constructed defences, providing additional protection within hours.
A possible alternative to corrugated galvanised steel is injection moulded plastic. Road plates, ground decking, trench covers and plastic sheet piling are typical civilian applications.
Although Hesco is widely known, JS Franklin Defencell is much less known, yet it has a number of advantages over Hesco and several similarities. It is an all fabric system, available in a variety of sizes and configurations including a number that are specifically designed to be man portable and filled with hand tools.
Shown above is the M1, it weighs less than 10kg and provides a barrier that is approximately 1m x 1m x 5m. This is equivalent to nearly 300 sand bags.
The smallest in the range, the Ranger, weighs less than 1.5kg and can be filled with hand tools in less than 10 minutes, yet it provides equivalent protection to 40 sand bags.
Lightweight and re-usable filling frames are available that are designed to keep the top open whilst being filled.
Other geocell type products are also available from a number of manufacturers, commonly used in roadway and slope stabilisation, they would be invaluable in reinforcing overhead cover fill and a quick and easy replacement for traditional sandbags.
The UK has a number of specialist composite armour manufacturers, simple composite sheets and frames could easily be held in unit stores.
FY Composites in Finland manufacture a range of shelter components and a full system called the Rapid Armour Shelter System (RASS)
The panels can be clipped together with the void back filled.
The previous suggestions have centred on hand portable equipment that could easily be held in unit stores but moving slightly up in complexity, a small piece of mobile engineering plant held at unit level may be worth thinking about.
I think the JCB ultra lightweight excavators were withdrawn from the C Vehicle fleet a few years ago. The ‘Excavator Towed Ultralight’ (JCB 801.8) was only available in small numbers, thirteen in total
This is not necessarily a proposal to reinstate that particular model but instead, a lightweight excavator or skid steer loader that can be operated by non-specialists and maintained in units. As long as they can be carried on a lightweight GS type trailer and pulled by lightweight vehicles like Land Rovers, Pinzgauers, Husky’s and whatever comes through as the MRV-P then mobility issues should not be overly concerning.
Training would also be an issue to overcome, not an easy one.
In addition to excavation, they could also provide hydraulic power export for breakers, cutting tools and post drivers, very useful in difficult or frozen ground. This type of lightweight equipment is of course, quite limited in their digging and lifting capabilities, as ever though, it is a trade-off between portability and capability.
In Ukraine, the Corps of Engineers has recently taken delivery of new specialist armoured trenching machines from Autokraz and the Kryukov Railway Car Building Works. It is designed to work at -40 degrees C and provide rapid trenching for deployed forces.
Russian forces also have a similar capability but on a tracked chassis.
Whilst impressive, these machines are very specialised and we can ill afford to maintain specialist equipment.
There are plenty of Western civilian equivalents available off the shelf, the basics of trenching are well known and equipment used in cable and pipeline laying. An excavator attachment for existing plant may be a more sensible option but these tend to be more slitting than trenching devices, only for small pipes and cables.
For these reasons, it is probably better to simply rely on existing plant for mechanical digging.
The hydraulic attachments shown above, such as grapples and shears, could be supplemented with specialist equipment such as pulverisers, drum cutters and rippers for greater efficiency, especially in hard or frozen ground.
We should also not assume that field defences need to be in virgin ground; urban and semi-urban terrain will have plenty of concrete, tarmac and compacted ground that can be exploited. Frozen ground is especially difficult, as shown in the video below.
Digging faster and in more challenging ground conditions with the aid of excavator attachments means a wider range of C vehicles can be used.
A few selected additional hydraulic attachments could make a big difference but only in a number of selected instances, for challenging terrain, such as mountainous or heavily forested, there are also a couple of additional machines of interest.
The first is the Menzi Muck walking excavator.
The Menzi Muck is designed for working on steep inclines whilst retaining all the flexibility of a standard excavator, it really is an exceptional machine. They are available in a number of sizes and capacities and with the usual wide range of attachments and accessories, including those for forestry. They are also designed to be broken down and transported by very light helicopters, those commonly found in mountainous areas.
It is difficult to explain the mobility and flexibility benefits of the Menzi Muck, so probably best just to show a few videos.
Terex and one or two others also make similar machines.
The second piece of equipment is a tracked version of the conventional JCB backhoe loader called the 1CXT. A new machine, it has a number of advantages over wheeled models, although of course, it is less mobile over a wide area. For use in heavily wooded areas, the narrow width of the 1CXT, at 1.8m, compared to the 3CX and 4CX, 2.3m and 2.4m respectively, may offer a number of mobility advantages.
At just over 4 tonnes, the 1CXT, is also within the sling load limits for a Merlin helicopter. The cab is too tall to be carried internally on a Chinook but if a foldable or open frame cab were designed, the 200mm excess height could be mitigated.
The 1CXT is easily carried by C-130, A400M and C17, and is air-droppable on standard Type V platforms. It can also be lifted by the in service Iveco truck Mounted Loader and Terex cranes.
The smallest Menzi Muck’s, the A20 and A40, can be slung load by a Merlin, the smallest is also sling-loadable by Puma. The A20 can also be fitted with a demountable roll cage instead of a full cab and this would enable it to be internally carried onboard a Chinook or even a Merlin.
For any US readers, the A20 could even fit within the confines of the V-22 cargo hold by virtue of its folding wheel legs and demountable roll cage.
All models are transportable by C-130, A400M and C-17. Also, all models can be air dropped using the Type V platform, with the smaller A20 and A40 models capable and being air dropped two wide on a standard platform.
The smallest Menzi Muck models can be lifted by the in service Iveco truck Mounted Loader but the larger models would need the Terex crane. All can be loaded and unloaded using DROPS/EPLS type flat racks.
When the digging is done, revetting the sides, reinforcing firing positions and providing top cover is the next task.
On a conventional battlefield I think our traditional model of casualty evacuation from battlefield to Role 3 Hospital direct and logistics using helicopters, will break down rapidly. The relative immunity of battlegroup, regimental and even brigade HQ’s from indirect fire will be challenged, especially if they are tented.
In such an environment, time will also be a resource in short supply. Units will have to move frequently and extended durations in a single location, the exception.
Using a HESCO Accommodation Bunker (HAB) is a great solution for above ground protection, it requires a great deal of fill material for the walls and is time-consuming to construct.
This is why digging beneath ground level is so attractive, it is quick, and the earth provides the side protection and necessary load bearing structure for top cover.
Low profile also means reduced detectability from observation across the EM spectrum.
Sides and bottoms will likely need reinforcement to support static and dynamic loads as support structures for overhead protection or entrance cover.
If timber is widely available, posts can simply be driven vertically into the ground by weight and force of a hydraulic arm on the excavator used for digging the hole. Backfill and compaction would create a strong load bearing vertical wall onto which the top cover could be placed.
Long steel pickets with corrugated galvanised steel could be used, tied back and windlassed as needed.
Again, none of this is complicated or at the cutting edge!
It does need stores to be established and maintained though and of course, there are a couple of alternatives to make things possibly quicker.
The first of these is a means of increasing the speed of driving either timber posts or still pickets to create the side walls of a shelter. Dedicated pile driving rigs are available but a vibratory excavator attachment is yet another quick and cheap improvement using widely available equipment from the civilian construction sector.
Different capacity devices can be matched to large excavators or smaller plant like the JCB 3CX, or even the lightweight skid steer excavator described above.
Lightweight plastic sheet piling is also worth experimenting with, it is stronger than might be imagined. Short steel sheet piling could also be used in place of post and corrugated steel because with the speed improvements derived from using vibratory piling attachments means it might actually be quicker.
Any post, picket or pile needs to both penetrate the ground from the base of the excavation and support the side walls to ground level so they are likely to be quite long, depending on the depth of the trench and strength required. Those shorter driven pickets will be secured using additional pickets and steel wire windlassed to tension.
One of the advantages of vibratory drivers over more conventional top hammer devices is the piles can be driven in from the side, thus not placing limitations on the height of the excavator’s arm, and this the depth of the pile or post.
It might also be preferred, if using sheet piling, to drive the piles into the ground before excavating.
Short sheet piles are commonly used for trenching
- Vibratory Sheet Pile Driving Attachment
- Wood Post Driving
- Plastic Sheet Piling
- Sheet Piling at Barrow Docks
- Multilok Piling
- Trench Piling
The innovative Concrete Canvas could also be used for side wall reinforcement although it is likely that it would need securing to prevent tipping and intrusion into the excavation.
With the benefit of engineering plant, longer bulk rolls can be used. After hydration it is achieves 80% strength in less than 24 hours.
Using inclined side walls would mean more soil to be excavated and a greater span for top cover but it would reduce the need for side wall reinforcement. For the base of the excavation, concrete canvas would provide useful ground reinforcement, especially in wet conditions.
The second video above shows how the Concrete Canvas shelter can be earth bermed, instead of adding protection on the sides and top, simply burying such a shelter in an excavated hole provides the same effect in less time.
Sandbags still remain a viable construction product although with the benefit of mechanical plant the ‘bags’ can be larger and filled much quicker. Defencell or even HESCO Bastion gabions can also be used for sidewall construction although the more narrow cells could be used.
With a readily available source of fill material, continuous bags can be used. The fill rate is pretty impressive, 300 ft per hour, the second video shows an even more impressive fill rate. Individual sand bags can also benefit from excavator attachments. With the assistance of hydraulics, sand bags are still a very useful means of providing reinforcement.
Finally, if we do have the luxury of time, interlocking concrete blocks can be used, like those from Kite Bricks or Legio (yes, that is correct!)
The second Arch-Lok video is particularly interesting, construction is not as long as one would imagine.
Another now widely civilian system is the ‘trench shield’ or ‘trench box’ used to prevent excavations from collapsing and burying workers. They are simple, two outer surfaces supported by spreaders or bracing, usually constructed of steel and emplaced by cranes or excavator although newer designs are increasingly taking advantage of lighter materials such as aluminium and glass reinforced plastics. They are available in a wide range of sizes and designs can usually be stacked and joined. Inflatable designs are used for shallow excavations.
With the hole excavated, top and sides established (with any combination of the various methods above), the final task is to put the roof on.
Roof construction usually comprises beams, a deck and fill. If steel beams are used, some deck is used to provide a surface onto which to place the fill material. In smaller trenches, steel pickets are used for the beam and corrugated steel, the deck. If logs are used as the roof beams, they can be close laid to negate the requirement for any deck, fill material is imply placed on top of the logs. Sandbags or fabric would normally be used to stop water and fill material falling through the gaps. Approximately 200m of logs or 500m of earth ( 4 courses of sand bags) are generally used for protection against shell splinters with the depth of fill increased to provide greater protection. The composition of this cover material, split between cushioning and buster layers, can be varied, and beams or posts laminated and crossed for greater protection.
HESCO make a ready-made system for bunker roofs called the Lightweight Bunker Roof. It is conventionally used with HESCO bastion as the sidewalls but it could equally be used for an excavation. It is supplied as a kit and can be used for spans between 2.3m and 3.3m. The single kit is 5m long although multiple units can be connected together to make longer structures. 4 personnel and a single excavator can build a single LBR in less than half a day, the fill requirement for the roof is 10m3
The HESCO Expeditionary Elevated and Ground Mounted Sangar products also feature a roof deck that can be used to support a considerable weight of roof fill material.
With the beam/deck in place, the fill material is simply placed on top, often the spoils from the excavation. Geotextiles and geocell type materials can be used to stabilise the fill material, Defencell or other containers for example.
Which brings me on to an essential component of pretty much every Think Defence post, the ISO container.
Burying an ISO container might be seen as a quick and easy method of creating a buried shelter but they are not designed to carry weight across their top surfaces. When stacked, weight is transferred through the corner posts. So, if buried containers are used, they would still need a roof beam and deck to support the top fill material or they would collapse, and collapse much quicker than expected.
There are many variations on the theme, designs for 2 or 4 man Battle Trenches, firing platforms for automatic weapons or missiles, mortars, field shelters and vehicle pits, but the principles of ‘cut, reinforce and cover’ remain.
The biggest challenge we face is that of mind-set, adjusting to the reality of possible conventional high intensity all arms combat after decades of peace enforcement and counter-insurgency. The rest, doctrine development, force generation, training and equipment, should follow.
This first challenge has been addressed.
The British Army is not staffed by idiots, they have recognised the need, instigated additional training and fully understanding of the lessons from Ukraine.
But is it enough, are we going too slow in adjusting?
That is not for me to answer, I suspect the answer lies between two extremes, they often are.
Perhaps a series of self-assessment questions might be asked;
- What percentage of the training estate has significant digging restrictions
- When was the last time a Javelin was live fired from a trench with overhead cover
- What is the G10 stores holdings for picks, shovels and chainsaws per Infantry Battalion
- When was the last time a Trojan or Terrier was used for digging vehicle pits, and how often is this done
- Do relevant courses have content on felling trees and using logs for overhead cover
- When was the last time a Challenger or AS90 live fired from a protective slot
- When was the last time an Infantry Battalion dug itself in using hand tools on an exercise
- Are holdings of pickets, corrugated steel and sandbags sufficient
- How much engineering plant do we hold that is operable in severe cold weather
- Do the Royal Engineers hold any equipment for the high volume processing of logs and for their efficient transport
- What hydraulic post/log driving equipment is available
- Do any courses at the Royal School of Military Engineering include shelter construction using logs
These are just a random collection of questions, but the answers would be most interesting.
As the British Army evolves to the Strike Brigade concept and what is in reality, a light, medium and heavy delineation, with the additional split between the Reactive and Adaptable force, the reality of ‘digging and working with wood’ will not be a one size fits all.
But I think it is an area that needs a lot of thought and a lot of doing, neither of which are easy.
In short, are we doing enough with shovels and logs?
Perhaps the Sappers up at Kinloss, in the heart of the Scottish forestry industry and with access to lots of space and potential for secondments, could take the lead for the British Army?
To end, a treat for those of a certain vintage, with the second video courtesy of our Finnish friends