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Making a home from home

Royal Engineers are preparing to stay longer in Afghanistan than Prince Harry, confirms NCE's Seán Flynn.

Camp Bastion is an impressive feat of engineering. It is, by extension, a statement of Nato's intent to stay the course in Afghanistan. The strategic positioning of the base, in the middle of the Helmand province, makes it a powerful logistical hub for operations in a part of the country where the Taleban is most active.

The Royal Engineers (RE), like the much of the armed forces on Operation Herrick (Army name for the Afghan campaign), are at the limits of their operational capacity.

"Running on vapours" was how it was described to me at one briefing, this frankness being quickly tempered by the caveat that they are coping very well thank you very much, stretched capacities notwithstanding.

The subtext is clear, however: 'With more men and material we could extend the successes we've been having in creating Afghan development zones.'

The inkblot theory of ever-widening security zones sustaining a stable economic environment does seem to be enjoying some success. But realistically, there are too few troops on the ground.

The Helmand Province is roughly the size of Wales. Operation Herrick uses between 7,000 and 8,000 British personnel. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were anything up to 30,000 members of the armed forces serving there.

As in Northern Ireland, Camp Bastion is likewise gearing up for the long haul. The RE UK Works Group project manages the expansion and consolidation programmes that Bastion's role increasingly demands.

The most extensive engineering works on the Bastion site are at the business end of the camp; beefing up munitions storage and the extensive programme of upgrades to the camp's aviation facilities.

The Austere 2,350m runway, capable of landing C-17 Globemasters, was completed in December last year. Camp Bastion now even has its own unmanned aeriel vehicle (UAV) facility to provide an all-weather, persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability over a wide geographical spread. New attack helicopter positions are also under construction.

The new field hospital at Camp Bastion, a temporary structure that will increase the capabilities of the British military medical team in Helmand, was opened by armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth on 6 February.

A water bottling plant, sourced at a well sunk by the RE, is another benchmark project for the army.

The move from tented accommodation continues apace across the camp. Tier two structures – prefabricated buildings with 10-year design lives – to accommodate 400 troops, are nearing completion, with work well under way. But already the debate has begun about whether the use of tier two structures is the way to go in the long run.

The thinking in some quarters tends to the view that if the right fabrication process could be found, a move to concrete structures would get the green light. This would, after all, be cheaper than replacing tier two buildings in 10 to 12 years.

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