In the first of a regular series on the work of the Royal Engineers in Afghanistan, NCE reports on work to rebuild a vital infrastructure link in Helmand province.
Taming Afghanistan was never going to be an easy job - in the last 171 years the country has only had 40 years of relative peace.
Three wars with the Afghans between 1839 and 1919 resulted in the deaths of thousands of British troops, with the worst loss of life in 1842 when Ghilzai tribesmen wiped out the 16,000 strong Kabul garrison during its retreat to India.
Today it is Taliban fighters who are harrying Nato forces and making the job of bringing peace and security to the country’s 28M people so hazardous.
The Royal Engineers’ role in the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) mission in Helmand province has been to provide support for combat troops and to develop and build crucial utilities and infrastructure for the local population.
First road since the 1970s
Earlier this year 28 Engineer Regiment completed Route Trident 7.6, the first road to be built by the RoyalEngineers under fire and in the face of the enemy since British operations in Dhofar in the early 1970s.
This revolutionary project, the first of its kind within Afghanistan, has spawned a whole new approach to road construction.
The 7.6km long road runs through territory where Operation Panchai Palang (Panther’s Claw) took place in mid-2009.
“The Taliban frequently attacked the area with improvised explosive devices and it quickly became apparent that a new road had to be built”
When 28 Engineer Regiment arrived in Helmand last September, there was an urgent need to build on Operation Panchai Palang’s success.
Safe access along the only trafficable roads in the region was always dangerous.
The Taliban frequently attacked the area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and it quickly became apparent that a new road had to be built to join up new military patrol bases, built to provide the security needed to allow reconstruction and development to flourish. That task fell to 23 Amphibious Engineer Squadron.
The support troop of 23 Amphibious Engineer Squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Helen Ladd, was tasked with being the military construction force.
The Military Design Authority was led by Major Adam Foley, officer commanding 64 Headquarters and Support Squadron.
Foley took on the role of principal designer with site supervision support from military plant foreman Staff Sergeant ” Bernie” Winter.
Construction of the road began in mid-December 2009 in the heart of the village of Gholam Dastagir Kalay and quickly passed through the adjoining village of Hajji Jamal Kalay before heading off through agricultural and desert areas in Malgir.
The construction supervision was presented with three key challenges, says Foley.
“Firstly, how to keep the cost of the road within the £3.5M budget; secondly, to ensure that the road and its path were secure routes for ISAF and the local Afghan people; and thirdly, how to cross the 300m-wide Suf Mandah Wadi,” he says.
Due to insurgent activity the cost of aggregate in Helmand is disproportionally high and varies from $250 (£164) to $650 (£427) per cubic metre, so it was crucial to minimise its use in building the road.
The team conducted trials in Camp Bastion using varying fill materials and tested differing road make-ups. PRS’ geotextile Neoweb is the key foundation to the project, explains Foley.
“The road is having an incredible effect. In the short time since its completion, a market and even a doctor’s surgery have sprung up along its route”
The honeycomb geotextile concertina can be pegged down and backfilled with locally dug soil to form a stable base that is then capped and overlaid with high quality wearing course aggregate,” he explains.
“This type of construction reduces the cost per metre of road by about two-thirds compared with normal road building methods.
Royal Engineers Captain Dick Gale was deployed to Afghanistan specifically to manage the project.
He led a team of specialist road builders that included Ladd, Foley, Major Brian Johnston and a team of dedicated and industrious Sappers.
Afghan plant operators and many local labourers complemented the construction team, working under Ladd’s direction.
Although the going improved, the threat from insurgents increased and the Support Troop was frequently fired on.
Added to this were the countless IODs that were found and cleared by Army bomb disposal experts. Most of the planning and route reconnaissance was conducted on foot, with the engineers fully armed and taking precautions such as camouflaging their survey equipment to prevent extra attention being paid to them.
The most technically challenging part of the build was entrusted to Foley. He had to ensure that the 300m-wide crossing of the Suf Mandah Wadi went without a hitch. Known to the team as the “Shawaddy Wadi”, it crosses two main irrigation canals feeding the agricultural irrigation system. Making a mistake was not an option as the local population relies on the maintenance of the flow of water down the wadi for the irrigation of their crops, which are their only means of income.
Winter supervised the construction of two large box culverts and a floating road - again using Neoweb - across exceptionally waterlogged ground, which was previously impassable to vehicles.
Particular attention was paid to the proposed route at this stage. It was vital to ensure that the patrol bases along the route could see down its course to prevent insurgent interference.
On 10 March the first resupply convoy passed down Route Trident into Patrol Base 4, unhindered by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes. Rather than taking 36 hours to move along this route as before, the journey time is now less than 30 minutes.
“The effect Route Trident is having on the local population along its length is already quite astounding,” says Foley. The road was completed on the 12 March and was immediately used by ISAFsaf troops taking essential re-supply items to Patrol Base 4.
“This convoy moved unhindered and unopposed along the new road in just 25 minutes proving its concept to be an undeniable success,” he says.
The road is also having an incredible effect on the local population’s’ quality of life.
In the short time since its completion, shops and markets have sprung up along its route and even a doctor’s surgery and school are being built.
The design and construction techniques developed on Route Trident are now being used by the Royal Engineers across Helmand.