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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.


Table of Contents


Do we have a problem?

Equipment for digging

Equipment for field defences

Equipment for timber processing





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Richard Avening
Richard Avening
July 17, 2017 5:50 am

“GS shovels are available to all”… who have a vehicle, at the scale of one per waggon. Your image is a 1958 Pattern shovel, which was issued – when we were serious about the OS threat – at one per 2 soldiers. The other guy had a 1958 Pattern pick axe. The ETH maintains the pretence of a digging tool, but I know what I’d prefer if facing real artillery.

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