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In the post-Afghanistan contemporary operating environment, we are likely to see the lost art of digging in, field defence building and using timber, rediscovered.

The past decade or more of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have 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, concrete culverts used as shelters, Hesco BastionDefencell 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 moves to a ‘return to contingency’ stance, it strikes me that digging in, building field defences and making use of timber are essential skills. 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 secured with windlassed steel wire, 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 technical improvements that might be worth considering. Small increments and modest investments can often yield disproportionate gains.

This article will examine solutions at two levels, specialist and non-specialist.

Digging In, Then and Now 

Look at operations in Eastern Ukraine, field fortifications, trenching and old fashioned digging in at every opportunity is the norm.


Proximity fused air bursting artillery and cluster munitions are extremely effective, against these, a significant amount of 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. Another interesting set of images show a mix of the old and new, timber, concrete, sandbags and Hesco style gabions all used together in the same location.

It is certainly worth looking at potential operating areas, this image shows the tree density in Europe.

And the evergreen ‘fighting in woods’

Working with timber for field defences is a subject we should be looking at.

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.

MR Trigat is a medium range anti tank missile system intended as a replacement for MILAN. The missile has a tandem, high explosive hollow charge which can defeat modern Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) equipped targets. Its general arrangement is similar to Milan and is equipped with a Thermal Imaging sight to allow engagement to maximum range by day or night, in all weather conditions. Range 2000 metres; Missile Launch Weight 18.2 kgs; Firing Post Weight 16.5 kgs; Thermal Sight Weight 10.5 kgs; Guidance Laser Beam Riding SACLOS.

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.

However, since this article was first published, there has certainly been a resurgence in training to build field defences.


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?

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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.

Unit Level

In order to improve matters at a unit level,  any equipment must be sustainable, simple, easy to maintain and quick to employ. There is no point coming up with complex equipment and systems only for them to languish in units stores never to see the light of day.

The most basic of hand tools are widely issued; Shovel GS, pickaxe, sandbag, post driver, sledgehammer, 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.

Moving Earth

We might at first think of better shovels for the infantry, but dozer blades can be attached to many tracked vehicles and wider adoption of these might relieve some pressure on specialist combat engineering resources.


Pearson Engineering makes 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.

At the other end of the scale, light role infantry commonly has access to quad bikes and small ATV’s. For providing light engineering support (excavation, razor wire emplacement and field fortifications) some hydraulic attachments are available.

Towed excavators are also readily available from a number of manufacturers. Providing each infantry company HQ with one of these might be possible. They are certainly light duty, but as stated above, this is about improving survivability quickly, not making life easier.

More robust tracked equipment like ride-on skid steer excavators would need a trailer for road moves and mobility across the battlefield but they are a step up in performance terms from quad bike towable excavators.

Sit on micro-excavators like the Yanmar SV108 have fold-down roll-over protection which brings the height down to about 1,300mm, so with a 400-500mm trailer, this would allow internal carriage inside a Chinook helicopter for example.

In addition to buckets, its hydraulic jib can use breakers, augers and post drivers.

Tracked ride-on loaders like the Bobcat MT55 used for small construction and demolition tasks, can also be fitted with a backhoe attachment.

The Struck Magnatrac Bulldozer and Backhoe is also a very interesting product, again, it is air deployable inside a Chinook.

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 its digging and lifting capabilities, as ever though, it is a trade-off between portability and capability.

Providing greater access to small plant and hydraulic tools for infantry pioneers would relieve pressure on high demand Royal Engineer units but not without moving the training and sustainability burden to non-specialist units who might find them difficult to sustain.

One for a discussion I think.

Timber, Tools and Field Defences

The image below shows soldiers from 75 Engineer Regiment building field defences, shovels, sledgehammers, picks, sandbags, wire and pickets.

These are timeless techniques and tools, they endure because not only are they effective, they are simple and cheap, and easy for any unit to maintain proficiency on. Whilst am always wary of fixing what isn’t broken, this is an area that a few simple additions can make a tangible difference.

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 reverting, or provide secure anchors for barbed wire.

They are mostly used in the fencing industry but they are perfectly suited to defence applications, especially in the difficult and frozen ground where using a manual post driver will be a real challenge. 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.

Sandbags are simple, cheap and require no mechanical or electrical equipment to use, just a shovel. OPERATION OMID HAFT

Filling them is time-consuming, though. Although we have seen the use of traffic cones as improvised filling funnels, there are better options.

Sandbag filling

BCB makes a much more robust and effective device called the SandBagger. 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 loose-fill material in an hour.

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 is 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 sandbags. 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 sandbags. 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.

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.

FY Composites in Finland manufacture a range of shelter components and a full system called the Rapid Armour Shelter System (RASS)

This military certified lightweight fortification wall system is ideal for fast-moving troops. Fortification walls can be built and dismantled in a few minutes allowing troops to be protected even during short stops or operations. Panels protect men or property mainly from fragments, with a protection level of v50 > 600 m/s (1.1 g FSP, STANAG 2920). For bullet protection, a multipanel system with a sand filling can be used

The panels can be clipped together with the void backfilled.

The UK has a number of specialist composite armour manufacturers and the MoD and DSTL recently ran a project to investigate UK solutions.

Within defence and security, protection of personnel is a priority area and deployment of rapid protection solutions for dismounted (on-foot) troops on the front-line is of high importance. This DASA competition seeks proposals to access recent innovations in both materials science and design technologies to provide advanced protection solutions for small groups of front-line troops from impacts such as that from ballistic, blast and directed energy threats.

Williams Advanced Engineering created a series of development concepts.

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.

Even composite decking or aluminium extruded planks (commonly used for dropside vehicles) might provide a useful alternative without breaking the bank.

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.

Logic Trailers

For light role infantry, 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.

Too specialist perhaps but 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. 

Simple strops, trailer hooks, skidding tongs, chains and noses for quad bikes and small ATV’s would also be an effective and cheap addition to unit stores for those operating in wooded areas.

Chainsaws and other cutting equipment would also be relatively easy to maintain in pioneer stores.

Specialist Equipment

All the equipment described above could be held and employed in non-specialist units; infantry, RLC, gunners etc., it is simple, cheap and easy to use. The key consideration would be training burdens and sustainability in those units.

At a more specialist level, in the Corps of Royal Engineers, the scope for more complex equipment is larger. Much of the equipment will simply be extensions or additions to that which is already in service.

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.


Moving Earth

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 is used in cable and pipeline laying. An excavator attachment for the 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 the existing plant for mechanical digging, 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.

Drum cutters can be especially effective here.

Again, this is about speed.

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 terrains, 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.

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 of 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 airdropped using the Type V platform, with the smaller A20 and A40 models capable and being airdropped 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.  

Shelter Construction

The relative immunity of battlegroup, regimental and even brigade HQ’s from the indirect fire will be challenged, especially if they are tented, and whilst the obvious counter of ‘always be moving’ has obvious benefits, I still think we need to consider how to rapidly construct medium and large shelters to provide collective protection.

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. The 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 the 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 sidewalls 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 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 is 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

Sheet piling remains a simple and effective means of revetting.

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, this second video shows an even more impressive fill rate.

Individual sandbags can also benefit from excavator attachments. With the assistance of hydraulics, sandbags are still a very useful means of providing reinforcement.

The innovative Concrete Canvas (also described above) could be used for sidewall 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 achieves 80% strength in less than 24 hours.

Using inclined sidewalls would mean more soil to be excavated and a greater span for top cover but it would reduce the need for sidewall reinforcement. For the base of the excavation, the 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.

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 excavators 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.


Since I wrote the above, we have trialled them, although not for this specific application

Finally, if we do havethe luxury of time, interlocking concrete blocks can be used, like those from Kite Bricks or Legio (yes, that is correct!)

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 simply 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 the earth ( 4 courses of sandbags) 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 bastions as the sidewalls but it could equally be used for 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 required 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. This 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 Arch-Lok video is particularly interesting, construction is not as long as one would imagine.

Our friends in Finland have a very well developed shelter construction capability.

Rough sawn timber and nail plates with compressed air nail guns, cheap, readily available and simple. They can be fabricated offsite or built in-situ.

Timber Processing

We do (or did) have the Supacat AT5-M40 Trailer Mounted Saw Mill and Timber Clamps for the Volvo EC210 and EW180C excavators.


But these are only available in very small numbers.

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.

Tree shears

Ullrich Tree Cutter

Dymax Skid Loader Shears

Just three examples of equipment widely used in the forestry industry and available from a variety of 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 sawmills 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.

Rabaud Post Pointer

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 sections, 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.  


The greatest challenge we face is that of mindset, not only recognising that high-intensity warfare will require protection from high volumes of artillery, but that constant movement to avoid it is not the silver bullet. We are obviously there with the first part but are we devoting enough resources to the second?

Perhaps a series of self-assessment questions might be asked to gauge that resource prioritisation;

  1. What percentage of the training estate has significant digging restrictions
  2. When was the last time a Javelin was live fired from a trench with overhead cover
  3. What is the G10 stores holdings for picks, shovels and chainsaws per Infantry Battalion
  4. When was the last time a Trojan or Terrier was used for digging vehicle pits, and how often is this done
  5. Do relevant courses have content on felling trees and using logs for overhead cover
  6. When was the last time a Challenger or AS90 live fired from a protective slot
  7. When was the last time an Infantry Battalion dug itself in using hand tools on an exercise
  8. Are holdings of pickets, corrugated steel and sandbags sufficient
  9. How much engineering plant do we hold that is operable in severe cold weather
  10. Do the Royal Engineers hold any equipment for the high volume processing of logs and for their efficient transport
  11. What hydraulic post/log driving equipment is available
  12. 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. The reality of ‘digging in and working with timber’ 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 is easy.

In short, are we doing enough with shovels and logs?

To close, a video courtesy of our Finnish friends 



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This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. S O

    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.

  2. crj

    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?”

  3. Shades

    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.

  4. S O

    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.,27.2438715,9z

    test whether embedding works:

  5. Shades

    @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.

  6. Deja Vu

    @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.

  7. S O

    The “Arch-Lok” medium is missing.

  8. DavidNiven

    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.

  9. Think Defence

    I had a look at trench boxes, funnily enough, Mabey do them in all sorts of flavours and colours. Not sure why they didn’t make the final piece, think it was the cross bracing that made me think – pain in the arse!

    Will have to include then now you have said, thanks for that :)

  10. DavidNiven

    Sorry for adding work for you TD ;-)

  11. The Ginge

    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.

  12. TehFinn

    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.

  13. DavidNiven

    @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?

  14. S O

    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.

  15. TehFinn

    @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.

  16. DavidNiven

    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.”’

  17. DavidNiven


    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?

  18. TehFin

    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.

  19. ArmChairCivvy

    @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)?

  20. TehFinn

    @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.

  21. TehFinn
    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.

  22. Shades

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

  23. Rocket Banana

    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?

  24. Rocket Banana

    As for the post… the Concrete Canvas is genius!

  25. TehFinn

    @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.

  26. Chaffers

    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?

  27. Alan Erskine

    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.

  28. Prometheus

    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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