Have we lost of the art of digging in and building field defences?

A look at the re-emergent need for digging in and using timber for field defences

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.

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.


Table of Contents


Do we have a problem?

Equipment for digging

Equipment for field defences

Equipment for timber processing




Change Status

Change Date Change Record
 01/03/2017 initial issue




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[…] Digging and Working with Wood […]

October 2, 2016 10:20 pm

My (2004/05) Jane’s book on logistics also mentions the French CNIM Soldier fighting cover, the Bulgarian DUGA light framework shelter (by KINTEX), Swedish Kockums SMAC shelter, Swiss Type 88 field shelter. The internet seems to be devoid of all of these.

October 3, 2016 1:08 pm

Vintage stuff TD, many thanks. The answers to your concluding questions would be interesting to see, would an FOI request be in order? Also interesting would be to correlate those answers against the average time in uniform for squaddies, nco’s and juniour officers various. ie, “how much expertise resides in the British Army in the art of digging holes in a timely fashion?”

October 3, 2016 4:41 pm

Bearing in mind in the next couple of years, we’ll be rotating a battle group[?] into Estonia on an ongoing[?] basis, do they need to have pre-prepared defensive positions? Assuming: (i) their role would be ground holding rather than counter-attacking; (ii) Russian lines of advance can be reasonably predicted or strategic objectives anticipated.

October 4, 2016 12:37 am

Shades, look at a map; Estonia is actually a quite large territory. The Northeastern bottleneck (less than 40 km width) between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea is about the only area where permanent obstacles and field fortifications make at least a little bit sense.


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October 4, 2016 7:19 am

@SO Yes, that neck of land would appear to be one of the main potential lines of advance. The other one would appear to go through Tartu. Even around Tallinn itself.

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
October 4, 2016 10:47 am

@TD Good Post

One of your Twitter followers mentioned the use of explosives.

Explosive aid to trench digging involved burying three small charges along the centre line of the standard trench (are they still 1.83 m long ?) Unfortunately for the infantry it does not blow a neat rectangular trench but takes the pickaxe work out of the digging especially in hard or frozen ground.

If ground is broken Shovel RE will be more effective (RE stands for Round Edge)

My understanding is that in Gulf War 1. the US used thermobaric bombs on the Iraqi field defences covering their oil filled ditch as well as the ditches and the result was to destroy the obstacle and the field defences and kill the occupants. Does anyone know what affect they have on an AFV battened down.

I have a feeling that that thermobaric bombs can be used to set off the pressure plates on ATk mines.

This may explain the lack of interest in digging in and laying ATk minefields.

We built a MEXE shelter on my TAYO course in the late seventies at RSME Chattenden. The hole was dug by a LWT in an elegant ballet by a very experienced plant op. Due to limited time we only windlassed one joint each* and did not cover with soil.

*I note a distinct lack of wire and windlassing in your photos without it the cross pieces can be pulled off the posts in a back blast leading to collapse of MEX shelter.

October 4, 2016 12:32 pm

The “Arch-Lok” medium is missing.

October 5, 2016 7:58 pm

Do you not see a role for trench boxes TD? quicker than wriggly tin and windlassing with minimal training required to use and some of the newer light weight ones can be lifted in by hand, or maybe our good friends at Hesco could make a trench liner for us (although to be honest you could probably bodge some panels together if you had half a brain). The larger trench box types could be used to provide larger shelters without the need for specialist piling kit.

I would say that ‘digging in’ at the scales that we practiced prior Iraq is a very faded skill at the moment within the army.

October 6, 2016 10:15 am

Sorry for adding work for you TD ;-)

The Ginge
The Ginge
October 6, 2016 3:56 pm

Great article again TD.

However it does make me more convinced (and I hope the Army are doing this, no need for us to know) that the British Army needs to be taking a hard long look at itself in light of the events in Ukraine. That actually the assumptions about Air Dominance, The use of Technologically Advanced Equipment such as GPS and Data links needs to be looked at. As per previous articles you have written the British Army is outgunned in Artillery and lacks robust missile equipment (ie two blokes jumping out of a Warrior does not make an armed anti-tank weapon ) etc etc.
Maybe instead of buying lighter 8×8 vehicles, just maybe the Army needs to say “Do you know what, the biggest threat we face is Russia or China and they have some pretty advanced and powerful weaponry” rather than hankering after the 8×8 they felt they needed for the last two Wars. Because I really can’t see any British Government in the next 20yrs sending boots in to Sandy Soil and to be honest we have enough Mastiffs etc with a few extra upgrading in main weapon caliber are adequate for that. But the Armies number one priority has to be Russia and the Baltic States. It may mean back tracking on stated equipment buys and Strike Brigades but as one famous Prime Minster said “events dear boy, events” . Better to go heavy and armoured up than light and slaughtered.

October 6, 2016 5:21 pm

The Finnish fortification concept is as follows: wartime commanders make plans how they want to fortify their area, give the plans to fortifications office which makes contracts with civilian firms to build such fortifications in case of war. The civilian contractors build them and troops finish them. The Finnish Army has conducted trials against the new type of fortifications and LFXs show that dug-in troops suffer 50 times less casualties than non dug-in troops. The new type of fortifications are made of readily available materials, easily manufactured parts and they are STANDARDIZED. A “platoon” of civilian contractors can built dozens of fighting positions with over head cover that protect against 155mm PRX and quick fuse in a day. In a nutshell: within 24 hours of giving the order an infantry company can have fighting positions with over head cover.

October 6, 2016 7:20 pm

@The Ginge

An 8×8 is not the product of our last two operations but the culmination of experience including ops prior to Telic and Herrick. If we had an 8×8 in service prior to Iraq would we have procured Mastiff? An 8×8 is very usefull for the full spectrum of operations we have participated in since the fall of the Berlin wall, if anything it’s the light units (especially the cheap British ones) that need to be culled as they have proved to be less versatile.


What is the policy for the Finnish armed forces when deployed on operations such as UN peacekeeping? Do you rely on prefab equipment such as Hesco and defence cell etc?

October 6, 2016 8:26 pm

Overhead cover isn’t going to help much against TOS-1 bombardment with thermobaric munitions.

I’m sceptical about prepared fighting positions, but some quick frag protection for outdoor bivouac may be interesting because even unguided artillery rockets go past 80 km nowadays, and it would hurt enough if a salvo of such rockets by a single MRL took out a mere per cent of a battalion in bivouac each.

October 7, 2016 4:31 am

@DavidNiven, same as everyone so Hescos it is.. @SO and there are about 24 of those in total. For troops like towed mortar and artillery companies/batteries dug-in firing positions enable them to endure innately inaccurate counter-mortar/battery fire. Having multiple dug-in positions enables shoot&slowly scoot into secondary/tertiary dug-in positions.

October 7, 2016 8:52 am

Thanks TD this piece has had me thinking about our current capabilities when facing off with a peer opponent. As with the proliferation of the IED as a means for a less technologically advanced military to inflict casualties and deny freedom of movement to a superior force the lessons learned from what the Russians are doing in the Ukraine will be taken on board by all our potential adversaries and adapted for use to their own needs and capabilities, so we may not see an exact doctrinal copy of the Russian way of doing things but the general theme would be the same.

To my mind this has raised a few questions:

When was the last time we as an army practiced not only digging in, but counter mobility in all it’s forms such as anti tank ditches etc and what is our mine laying capability now?

‘Since maneuver battalions are operating on traditional brigade-sized frontages up to 40 km wide, Russia employs battalion tactical groups composed of one armor company, three mechanized infantry companies, one anti-tank company, two to three companies of self-propelled artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, and two air defense companies. These organic assets provide the battalion tactical group commander the lethality, maneuverability and protection to operate in the dispersed and decentralized environment.’


We know that we are over matched by the Russians in terms Artillery ( in range, quantity and munition types ), air defence and probably ECM, but are we lacking the Engineering and logistical capabilities as well to implement a mobile defence with all the mobility and counter mobility requirements that it entails?

‘The Ukrainians report that “when they see certain type UAVs, they know in the next 10-15 minutes, they’re going to be rockets landing on top of them,” Hodges said. This isn’t precision fire, but heavy bombardment. “It shreds light-skinned armored vehicles,” Hodges said, citing studies by Potomac Foundation president Phillip Karber, who’s extensively visited the Ukrainian battlefront.

Russian cannon and rocket artillery causes 85 percent of Ukrainian casualties, Karber told the AUSA conference, his slides showing columns of burnt-out transports and rows of body bags. The Russians use scatterable submunitions that Western nations have renounced for doing too much collateral damage, he said. They employ thermobaric weapons that create enormous fires. They have precision weapons that target the thinly armored tops of armored vehicles.

“In a three minute period… a Russian fire strike wiped out two mechanized battalions with a combination of top-attack munitions and thermobaric warheads,” Karber said. Western militaries need to start planning for massive casualties again, he warned. “You lose commanders, you lose your medical staff, people are screaming around on fire. There is no airlift to move out one or two casualties, you’re dealing with hundreds.”’

October 7, 2016 9:01 am


Thanks, I was just wondering as you seem to rely on civilian contractors for defensive positions on your home soil what is your organic engineering capability when deployed on other operations?

October 7, 2016 9:49 am

Depends on deployment. Largest single current deployment abroad is a partial infantry battallion in Lebanon and their base has been built ages ago. Were finns to deploy some where no one has ever been before they would probably bring their own hescos and hire locals to fill them.

About organic capabilities. Battlegroups have engineer company and support company which both have the capability o build fortifications and/or move earth. INFBATs don’t have organic capabilities but brigades have engineer and support battallions. Depending on whether battlegroup has tractors, XA-180/5 or bandvagen as vehicle they can build various fortifications. Tractors of course can be used in various ways to build earth. Also all support troops, mortar companies, ARTBATs, engineer troops have organic tractors. The finnish army is made of tractors.

October 7, 2016 9:57 am

@DN, thanks for the Russian BG composition, most sources for it tend to be too old:
“Russia employs battalion tactical groups composed of one armor company, three mechanized infantry companies, one anti-tank company, two to three companies of self-propelled artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, and two air defense companies.”

As the armour carries there own guns, mech. infantry and supporting fires are matched 1:1. And assuming both AT and AD are missile based, even they are thrown in at a similar ratio.

TD’s video had the DAG putting in 150 rounds a minute, but we don’t have a division anymore, not to mention a DAG configured to support it (and the ratios in place pale in comparison with the fire power outlined above… that’s even before we start to speculate about the types of munitions).

@TehFinn, for the comment next to DN’s: A fairly recent notice of purchase of kevlar shields for the Finnish army I read as being (not for crowd control, but) for Finnish artillery men when moving from one preprepared position to another, to provide “instant” overhead cover at a weight that can easily be handled (in addition to all other kit, while moving position).
– I wonder if this is the plan (or was I just engaged in idle speculation)?

October 7, 2016 10:41 am

@ArmChairCivvy, you are correct. We’ve procured light ballistic covers for mortar and artillery units. They can also cover the troops in transport. Personnel cover was shot at with 130mm 40+ times and there were 100+ hits and 4 fragments penetrated.

October 7, 2016 1:37 pm

The link shows images from PROTECTION 2013 excercise and you don’t need to know finnish to enjoy the pictures. Raskas ballistinen suoja = heavy ballistic cover. It can be constructed in less than two hours and protects against direct hits, yes direct hits, from 130mm delay fuze. The bottom picture is the cover that Civvy mentioned.

October 7, 2016 1:40 pm

And the entire link… please paste this into the earlier comment if you can

October 7, 2016 2:46 pm

@TehFinn – any chance you could send a few thousand of those to the Ukrainians?

Rocket Banana
October 7, 2016 3:11 pm

What do people think about us dismantling the six C-RAM we have to put Phalanx on QEC/POW?
Would they not be better as the original Centurion systems?

Rocket Banana
October 7, 2016 3:13 pm

As for the post… the Concrete Canvas is genius!

October 7, 2016 6:08 pm

@SO, when most simple fighting positions can be built in less than 15 minutes and bit more complicated in couple of hours, after a few days there can be hundreds of holes dotting the aerial photos. You can lose entire companies with enough many positions over large area. Mobile defence benefits greatly from quickly built fighting positions: ambush from such positions, break contact, move into rest positions (accommodation underground) and rally some where to ambush again from different hastly built positions. Enemy reconnaissaince will be flooded with fighting positions and any of them could have infantry ready to fight.

October 13, 2016 1:44 pm

Not sure how accurate this is but it’s relevant: (japanese field fortifications) https://youtu.be/SXSSGTJTGeI

November 1, 2016 2:56 pm

Interesting that the Ukraine has become very trenchy, though one does wonder what effect thermobarics would have. Has anyone seen any evidence that the design of the Ukrainian trenches has changed to combat them or are we merely assuming that trenches are either effective or ( obviously) more effective than nothing?

Discovered some individual protective kits in a particularly dusty part of the company stores once and asked the colour about them. “You can have one if you like but we don’t use them anymore, there’s only one training area in the UK where we can still dig” was pretty much his answer.

Lots of picks, shovels and the like at company level in the TA however they are for aid to the civil authorities rather than for digging in. The closest I ever got to feeling dug in was firing from a slit trench on the range. On ops it’s hesco, hesco, some more hesco and concrete blast walls.

The real subject here though is artillery. Real time targeting and ICM in particular. If the elephant in the room is Russia then frankly I vote that we don’t. We aren’t equipped ( 100 AS90s left?), prepared and have little experience of this form of warfare save watching documentaries. You could I suppose try to be so mobile as to make a difficult target though not sure this has ever been our strength. I’m not saying we’re crap at it but would have to be emplaced in a foreign military who was worse to truly believe that we aren’t. Or you could dig in and hope your meagre artillery assets weren’t overmatched within, shall we be generous and say hours, by either the Russians or anyone who has extensively bought their kit. Hmmm..

Course that does leave the number one most important asset for defensive operations, the mine. God bless Lady Di and all who sailed in her, we are pretty much fucked there too.

So a few pretty much obsolete and unreliable tanks, little artillery none of it heavy, a logistics trail which has traditionally creaked, an army who wouldn’t know digging in from a trip to Ikea and no mines….

Doesn’t leave much does it?

Alan Erskine
Alan Erskine
April 18, 2018 11:35 am

Don’t forget mini loaders like the Dingo (and its many copies) series from Australia or the Avant series from Finland – light; tough; versatile and extremely useful machines. Not just for field fortifications, but also latrines; post holes etc.

June 5, 2018 1:45 pm

Have We Lost Of The Art Of Digging In And Building Field Defences?
No, we just too lazy to dig and we want fast results with JCB ilke fast food hamburgers.LOL!!!!!

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