The Royal Engineers are the multi-tasking hard-cases of the British Army. If a new camp needs building, a bridge needs launching or demolishing or you simply need something blown up, these are the go-to guys. The 20 and 69 Field Squadrons and the Joint Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) group based in Camp Bastion know all about life at the pointy end. Naturally, these men are very proud of what they do.
A spectacular and unforgiving terrain provides the backdrop. Extreme Afghan weather with its misery menu of sandstorms, flash floods and snow is only one of the variables. In this type of environment, it becomes very clear very quickly that the dust-devil is in the detail; getting planning and procurement wrong out here could prove fatal. Something as ostensibly trivial as having enough air filters for working plant in this extreme setting is a challenge.
Sourcing and negotiating the delivery of materials such as wood and stone from local contractors who run the constant risk of being shot while travelling overland to bases would challenge the business acumen of any City trader.
At the Camp Bastion HQ of 20 Field Squadron, Major Gareth Baker (who looks uncannily like James Bond actor Daniel Craig) explains the limits of his group's operational capability: "In 20 Squadron, we are responsible for operations in the south and middle parts of Helmand. Camp Dwyer down in the south is at the limit of helicopter fly-time, so that's also the limit of casualty evacuation and logistical re-supply. So it's fair to say that that really is the southern limit of UK/ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces in the province."
Army resources have, over the past six months, been drawn northwards to shore up strategic positions like the Kajaki dam at the northernmost limit of operations as well as working on the security of areas like Musa Qalah and Gereshk in an effort to shut down critical Taliban resupply routes along the "Green Zone". This is the narrow fertile ribbon of land either side of the Helmand river.
The RE is also operationally limited by numbers. Each of the two field squadrons consists of around 105 men. At any given time however, there are no more than around seven sections (eight men per section) on active service; six of these are deployable to the field. "We've not hit a wall yet in terms of manpower," says, Baker, but it's fair to say we're running on vapours."Then there is the problem of bombs and mines, or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). "If it's there, we'll find it,' that's our unofficial motto," explains Joint Force EOD group OC Major Ben Hawkins. He went on to say that his group has reported an increase of "well in excess of 100% of reported (IED search) tasks in 2007.
"Because our incident response teams can be on-site within one hour of the discovery of a device, we are an important part of the moral (sic morale) component". Hawkins is describing the importance of his team's work to instil confidence in the advancing infantry. The Joint EOD Group deploys by land or air.
Their work does not stop however at bomb disposal. Other contraband such as weapons, bomb-making equipment and narcotics frequently fall within their discovery brief. In these cases they employ forensic information-gathering skills, more reminiscent of the scene of a crime officer. The evidence they collect and document could be used in criminal proceedings.
The EOD group is obviously good at its job. When Pope John Paul II visited the Balkans in 1998, it was the Joint Force EOD Group which carried out the advance security searches. Hawkins' briefing is peppered with parenthetical references to the EOD Group's experience in Northern Ireland and the lessons learned this; these was also taken as an opportunity to highlight the differences between the two conflicts in terms of tactics and material. "While a lot of the IEDs in Northern Ireland were based around homemade explosives, here a lot of the devices tend to be made from old Russian mines," he says. Hawkins also reported an increase in the sophistication of some of the IEDs being found by his team.
This is engineering only bigger, better, faster; so many aspects of the profession find their stark military coefficient in a war zone.
Military engineering however is utilitarian in the extreme. The RE are not there to provoke an aesthetic response. Their first priority is to get the job done, build fit for purpose and if there is an opportunity to make it look good, then that's a bonus.
Unfortunately, the construction industry is one of the few that is giving the military a run for its money in one field and that is in terms of work-related fatalities. In Afghanistan in 2007, the British lost 42 soldiers and a further 47 in Iraq. The most recent full-year fatality figures for the UK construction industry (2006) show 77 men lost.
The answer to the problem might be found in one RE officer's assessment of the dangers of life in the field: "Overcoming complacency, that's one of the biggest problems out here. Everyone is exposed to high levels of danger all the time and this creates complacency and that is when the routine precautionary drills get left out and that's when something happens."
CAMP BASTION IS THE BIGGEST BASE BUILT BY THE ROYAL ENGINEERS SINCE WORLD WAR TWO
The ominous twin-rotored throb of an approaching Chinook got everyone's attention as site manager Paul Smethurst for private contractor G3 Systems gamely tried to start his presentation outside Camp Bastion's new hospital.
Officers, soldiers, private contractors and "tourists" alike throughout the camp watched with grim fascination as a small fleet of khaki ambulances assembled at the edge of the casevac (casualty evacuation) landing site some 400m away. The Chinook swooped in, whipping up great eddies of dust before settling swiftly. NCE was standing outside a gleaming new "tier two" hospital having just witnessed its raison d'etre being drawn into scalpel-sharp focus.
Structures are classified under tier types based on how permanent it is. Tier one is a tented structure and tier two is a prefabricated, semi permanent building. Typically, tier two buildings have a 10-year design life. The hospital had already been handed over by G3 Systems, but was undergoing deep-cleaning before the arrival of patients in early February.
The hospital itself came in modular flat pack format. This was Ikea writ large but as everyone in theatre never tired of saying, 'there's no Homebase down the road', so when parts or material run out or prove unfit for purpose, it is a big deal.
Getting to grips with the byzantine nature of the supply chain is migraine-inducing. Modular flat-packs are shipped from Europe to Karachi and then taken by road through Pakistan, avoiding the southern Helmand border of Afghanistan and approaching Kandahar on the main highway from the south east. They are then sent from Kandahar to Camp Bastion. "We're normally talking about a two to three month lead-in time from ordering with the manufacturer to the modules arriving onsite," says Smethurst. Damage in transit is a constant problem. The poor quality Afghan road network generally does not help but Smethurst explains that they also lost a lot of modules to "IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and Taliban activity".
"Because this a modular design, every module comes pre-numbered; there are around eight different types and each will have wall configurations that tend to be specific to the module in question. When we find damaged components in a consignment, it means we have to re-order and that increases the risk of delays; we could find ourselves potentially held up for weeks in certain parts of the job," he adds.
OPERATION PALK: SETTING UP CAMP KEENAN, IN HELMAND
Within two and a half weeks of arriving in September 2007, 20 Field Squadron were launching bridges under fire and proving instrumental to the success of Operation Palk, the name given to setting up Camp Keenan in the Helmand Province.
The aim of this RE focused operation is to increase the security bubble around Gereshk Đ a strategically critical market town on an intersection of the Helmand river and the Route One highway. Disruption of Taliban resupply lines towards the Musa Qalah valley is the intended outcome.
In its essence, the plan is to bridge a canal to get troops supported by tracked armour across and then build a base in a nearby village in the "Green Zone".
There is a fertile ribbon of land on either side of the Helmand river which has been extended outwards over centuries through a network of canals and ditches.
The military calls it the Green Zone because the area is so lush; "almost like going through Wiltshire" says 20 Field Squadron officer commanding Major Gareth Baker.
"Every treeline has channels and irrigation ditches; this is very difficult terrain for our vehicles to operate through," he said. "Helicopters do not land in the green zone which can make casualty evacuations and resupply extremely problematic."
Aerial reconnaissance followed by a risky night-time close target reconnaissance by the RE, revealed a partially destroyed local bridge as the best place to make the initial crossing of the 22.5m wide canal.
The operation began with an attack to the north by British forces and another to the south of the objective carried out by a small contingent of Danish and Estonian troops drawing the enemy away from the centre.
"H hour" (the start of the operation) was 4am and the REs from 20 Squadron started launching a single storey Medium Girder Bridge (MGB) across the damaged crossing.
The roller beam ends are supported on base plates and each can be adjusted in height. Single-span bridges are launched out on a centrally mounted launching nose. Launching the bridge proved more difficult than during operational training back in Camp Bastion.
"The bridge was designed to be launched from a level surface," explains Baker. "But we had to launch from a massive bund, around a metre and half high. Soldiers ended up standing on the bund and hoofing the bridge out across the canal while being shot at."
With the bridge built, Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) rolled across the canal for troop support. The structure was christened the Violino crossing after Lance Corporal Sean Violino of 20 Squadron who was killed in an explosion on convoy the day before the operation started.
Once the second two-storey MGB was built at Violino crossing, thoughts turned to building what would be Patrol Base Keenan.
"The OC didn't want it to totally dominate the nearby village," offers Baker. It nevertheless needed its sangers (armed watchtowers) to provide wide fields of fire. The elevated platform for the sangers is created with gabion wall units commonly used by the military. Two stacked units are the limit in the field as the available earth-moving equipment does not reach much higher than 3m. The retaining wall encloses an earth-filled ramp and the ensuing platform is used to build the sanger a further two units higher giving commanding views of the village and environs.
Accommodation is a camp bed enclosed by a mosquito net and poncho known as a basher; alright in the summer but winter temperatures at night to -10 degrees C.
The road from the canal bridge to Keenan had several blind spots where devices could be planted. Baker decided to cut out the dog leg by building a straight section of road from the bridge.
But as resources began to get drawn north the plan to strengthen this road ran into some difficulties. The insitu road subgrade was very weak, and needed to be beefed up with some form of geotextile, which was in short supply. Baker says: "We improvised using urban camouflage and Hesco, and digging deeper ditches but it still failed in places, until we were able to acquire the materials we needed."