For all the might of main battle tanks and other fighting vehicles, their progress can be stopped or slowed without the skills and specialist vehicles deployed by engineers.
Combat arms are often the primary focus and priority of armies. Main battle tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery are at the top of the lists in acquisition budgets. Without doubt these systems provide the combat power that decides the outcome of a battle. However, these systems can be compromised by natural obstacles like rivers and ravines or by man-made ditches, mines, and even downed trees. The effectiveness of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan also demonstrated the disruptive impact that such inexpensive actions can have on a modern military force. The denial of mobility can have a decisive impact on the operations of today’s combat capabilities based as they are on vehicles, manoeuvre and firepower. The primary tasks of combat engineers and their specialised equipment is to either to assure friendly force freedom of movement or rob an opponent of their mobility. These critical contributions are often under appreciated. Yet, their work can provide the edge that can compensate for friendly numerical disadvantage, halt the opponent’s momentum, and position them for destruction by fire.
Engineers have been a military force multiplier since the Roman Legions. Their activities facilitate smooth and unhindered friendly movement overcoming natural and man-made obstruction, enhance protection with fortifications and obstacles and even support establishing military infrastructure. The difference today is that many of these tasks are accomplished by specialised equipment. Sometimes these are advances to allow missions to be completed more easily and rapidly, like modern river and gap crossing systems, while others are in response to challenges of new battlefield threats and technologies, such as the IED. It could be said that the commodity of the combat engineer is ‘time’. He is either seeking to buy time by delaying the opponent or to reduce the time needed by friendly force to undertake a desired action. Even force protection can be quantified in “time” as entrenchments make the enemy spend valuable time and effort to neutralise defensive positions.
Technology and innovation have provided improvements in the execution of a number combat engineer’s mission tasks in the areas of gap crossing, counter-mine/IED, and mobility assurance. Let’s examine each in detail.
Just as rivers and other water course, ravines and ditches can halt force manoeuvre, so to can the ready capability to overcome these same obstacle be a significant tactical and operational advantage. Robbing an opponent of their assumed protection, particularly if he is not anticipating it can provide the element of surprise and completely disrupt his defence. Likewise the force that can take these in stride with minimum delay can retain momentum and the initiative. The key is having gap crossing equipment that has both the ability to stay up with the manoeuvre force and to rapidly deploy. The faster the gap can be breached the less time the opponent has to react to oppose the crossing and the greater the crossing attacker’s advantage.
In tactical bridging, the Armoured Vehicle Launched Bridge (AVLB) has been around for many years. Usually these are based on a Main Battle Tank (MBT) chassis with the bridge carried on-top and launched using hydraulic cantilever or scissors design. The challenge for AVLBs today is the 10 to 15 ton increase of the latest combat MBTs. The Chrysler M60A1 AVLB spans an 18m gap for Military Load Classification (MLC) 60, however, the General Dynamics M1A2 Abram’s is MLC 72 and the Krauss-Maffei Wegmann Leopard 2 MLC 70. MLC represents a combination of factors that include gross weight, axle spacing, weight distribution to the axles, and speed. The US Army awarded a contract in August 2016 to Leonardo DRS to provide the JAB (Joint Assault Bridge). This takes the M1A1 hull with heavy (M1A2) suspension and integrates a hydraulic launcher system to deploy the existing AVLB MLB 85 Scissor Bridge. Users of the Leopard 2 MBT will able to use the Panzerschnellbrücke Leguan from Krauss-Maffei Wegmann which uses the Leguan bridge modules from MAN on the Leopard 2 chassis. Its deployment has the bridge ‘sliding’ horizontally across the wet or dry gap keeping a low silhouette. It can deploy in under seven minutes a 26m or two 14m spans, as well as up to 40m using ‘overlapping track layings’. The Leguan design has also been adapted to the M60/M47 for the Spanish Armed Forces, Polish T91/T72 for the Malaysian Armed Forces and to 8×8 MAN and 10×10 Sisu Trucks.
Light armoured forces could be considered to have an even more vital requirement for mobile gap crossing since mobility is critical to their effective employment and survivability. Their light vehicles are also a design challenge for the mobile bridge designer. Three companies – Pearson Engineering in the United Kingdom, KMW in Germany and General Dynamics Land Systems have perfected assault bridges for the light/medium armoured vehicles. Pearson’s spokesperson shared that their “Bridge Launch Mechanism (BLM) allows Combat Vehicles to lay bridges without permanently changing the vehicle’s role.” They have demonstrated BLM on the Stryker 8×8 M1132 Engineer variant. The BLM is installed on the vehicle bow where ‘it retains close contact with the ground, reducing the load transfer onto the vehicle and providing launch stability.’ KMW has also shown a 12m MLC 40 bridge for Striker which can be emplaced in two minutes. The GD Rapidly Emplaced Bridge System is actually designed to provide a 13.8m MLC50 assault bridge that can be transported on a 10-12 ton 8×8 tactical truck or the General Dynamics Stryker or MOWAG Piranha III wheeled armoured vehicles. The US Army fields 20 of the later.
Truck launched bridges offer benefits of lower cost and upkeep but are generally limited to support roles. However, they do replace assault bridges which are typically recovered to accompany forward combat forces. The truck bridges allow follow-on forces to keep up. Russia’s Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) offers the TMM-6 which has a 17m scissor bridge on the rear of a MZKT-7930 8×8 truck. The TMM-6 has the capability of connecting up to six units to cover a 102m wet or dry gap in 50 minutes. KMWs Leguan is also provided in truck launched versions with the benefit of using a common bridge span set. It is fielded on the MAN 8×8 with Norwegian, Dutch and Singaporean Armed Forces and on the Sisu 10×10 for Finland. Truck mounted units have the additional advantage of being readily adapted to disaster response, in fact KWM offers a kit to cover the gap between the treadways for civilian traffic.
Mines and IEDs have surfaced as a primary weapon of insurgents against regular military forces. Detecting and clearing these are arduous and dangerous tasks for the combat engineer who has turned to technology and mechanisation for answers. Mass use of minefields to hinder an attack are usually covered by enemy fires which means breaching them must be accomplished quickly so as to reduce friendly losses. To facilitate this both special fixtures for fitting to combat vehicles and specialty mine clearance vehicles have been introduced.
Pearson Engineering offers a Jettson Fitting Kit that can be installed on medium armoured vehicles that then allows them to mount a number of front end attachments in the field. These include the Straight Obstacle Blade, Surface Clearance Device, and Lightweight Mine Roller which provide organic counter-obstacle capability to the combat units. Similar systems are also available for main battle tanks with rollers or ploughs attached to the bow. However, combat engineers utilise vehicles optimised for assault breaching and path clearance. The US Marines have the M1 Assault Breecher Vehicle (ABV) M1150. Using the chassis of the M1 Abrams MBT it has a front-mounted 4.5m wide plough and M58 MICLIC rocket propelled linear explosive charges that will clear an eight metre wide lane 100m long when fired and then detonated. It can also fit Pearson’s surface mine ploughs, combat dozer blades, rapid ordnance removal systems, and lane marking systems.
Singapore Technologies takes another approach in its Trailblazer Counter-Mine Vehicle (CMV). The 30 ton tracked chassis deploys a rotating cylinder forward with chains attaching hammer-shaped steel heads. These pound the ground like a giant harvester detonating any mines in a 3.2m path. It also has the Kinetics Route Indicator System (KRIS) that automatically marks the cleared lane.
Uralvagonzavod carries on the traditional Russian emphasis on battlefield engineering with a line of both counter-mine and counter-mobility tracked vehicles. The BMR-3MA Vepr (Boar) mine-clearing vehicle fits mine-rollers, mine ploughs and electronic signal jammers (against radio controlled IEDS) on to an Uralvagonzavod T-72 MBT chassis. They also offer the GMZ-3M, also MBT based, which will mechanically lay mines automatically recording through its on-board positioning the location of each.
Counter IED & EOD
The expanding presence of the IED and the diversity of ways that it has been deployed have seen the development of specialised counter-IED vehicles. These are designed to provide specific tools to detect, identify, and neutralise IEDs while protecting the clearance team. The General Dynamics Buffalo is widely noted due its wide use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its armoured Vee-hull provides blast and shrapnel protection while armoured windows offer an outside view. The interior contains blast absorbing seats, signal jammers, space for EOD robots, and controls for its nine metre robotic arm and claw. The arm has thermal and day video cameras allowing the crew to safely check a potential IED. The vehicle increasingly uses small robots which are deployed from the rear of the Buffalo and remotely controlled to a suspected threat. Around 800 Buffalo’s have been produced and fielded by over six countries.
Route clearance is a tedious task, often being accomplished my soldiers on foot with hand held mine detectors. This is slow, dangerous and exposes the unit to enemy fires. The CSI Husky Mk III and 2G Vehicles Mounted Mine Detector (VMMD) produced by DCD Protected Mobility changes this. They have a forward NIITEK’s VISOR 2500 Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to detect mines and explosives with an optional See-Deep Metal Detector Array, and both GPS navigation and path marking. Its running gear, Vee-hull and protection defeat high blast effects. Husky clears a 3m path of metallic and non-metallic mines and IEDs at speeds of up to 50km/h. Husky and Buffalo are often used together in route clearance teams.
The ability to move earth and rock while under enemy fire is an important capability. It allows ditches to be filled, logs, rubble and obstructions to be cleared, and banks to be graded for laying bridges. Construction bulldozers do not have the speed or, even if armoured, protection levels necessary to work with combat vehicles. Dozer blades fit to MBTs offer a solution but for more complex tasks a dedicated engineer vehicle is needed. The MBT has provided the base for Rheinmetall Landsysteme to offer a number of such vehicles. A Rheinmetall spokes person described the latest Kodiak Armoured Engineer Vehicle 3 as “using the Leopard 2 it is equipped with a hinged arm excavator with a quick-change device allowing mounting other tools including such as a universal gripper, hydraulic hammer or concrete crusher. Its expandable bulldozer blade has an innovative cutting and tilt angle but can be replaced with a mine-clearing system”. This last consists of Pearson’s Engineer Mine Plough (EMP), Lane Marking System (LMS) and Demeter magnetic signature device. These optional tools give the AEV 3 the ability to fill a range of combat engineer missions.
Russia’s IMR-1 and -3 series provide a similar earth and obstacle removal role. They are base on the T-72 and T-90 MBT chassis respectively with a 360 degree rotating multipurpose telescopic crane and multi functional bulldozer blade/mine plough. The crane has a manipulator that can perform as a bucket, a pull/push shovel, a scraper, or to grab items like logs, stumps or other heavy items. The Polish Maszyna Inżynieryjno-Drogowa (MID) Bizon based on the PT-91 MBT provides a similar capability for the Polish and Malaysian Armies.
Most armies which have numbers of MBTs have recognised the importance of being able to clear the way for the tanks and the value of combat engineer MBTs in this role. Such vehicles are widely offered based on almost every MBT fielded. The availability of relatively modern surplus AEVs also makes this relatively easy to accomplish. The Indonesian Army, for example, acquired three Pionierpanzer Dash formerly used by the Bundeswehr. Flensburger Fahrzeugbau has also developed the WISENT 2, a multi-purpose, Leopard 2 based armoured support vehicle designed to be converted between an Armoured Engineering Vehicle (AEV) and Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ARV) in only five hours. This is attractive to some armies and Canada, Qatar, Norway and the United Arab Emirates have all fielded the system.
The United Kingdom’s Royal Engineers have chosen to use a medium 30 tonne class Combat Engineer Vehicle for this role. The Terrier, as the spokesperson of the developer BAE Systems confirmed, “has a front high-capacity bucket that can be used to clear obstacles, dig trenches and grab items. It also has a side mounted telescoping excavator arm with 3 tonnes capacity at maximum reach.” The front attachment can also be changed to a mine plough. Terrier has greater protection than the FV180 Combat Engineer Tractor it replaces and can operate in 2m of water.
Engineer Squad Vehicles (ESV)
Combat engineer effectiveness on the battlefield is predicated on their application of special skills and capabilities when needed. Thus, they must be able to move with the force they are supporting where ever it goes. They must have equivalent mobility and protection, as well as, space for mine detectors, explosives, and other equipment. An approach to this has been to reconfigure armoured infantry carriers to the needs of the engineer team or squad. Industry innovation in mission equipment that can be added to existing vehicles, like Pearson’s Straight Obstacle Blade, have allowed these ESVs to become vital engineering capabilities in themselves, as well.
The US Army M1132 Stryker model is an example of today’s ESVs. It matches the Stryker ICV including its Protector (RWS) Remote Weapon Station but is configured specifically for the combat engineer squad and its tasks. It can mount Pearson’s blades and mine clearance devices and it has a support trailer for engineer equipment and materials. It can also tow the trailer version of the MICLIC.
Combat engineers are often called upon when the situation deteriorates whether it is an attack encountering an unexpected obstacle, troops facing a possible IED, or increasingly following the devastation caused by a hurricane or flood. Their ability to quickly and effectively respond and take necessary actions to bridge a river, clear a route, or delay an opponent can be critical to success or failure on many battlefields. Advances in engineering vehicles have enhanced the combat engineer’s importance with today’s ground forces.