First In, Last Out

Well-equipped combat engineering units are a necessity in conventional and asymmetric conflicts

Jaison Deepak

Combat Engineers are an important part of ground unit’s ability to move under fire. The capability to prepare the ground ahead for improved mobility along with fast fuel-efficient vehicles, effective logistics and precise navigation determine the tempo of ground operations especially with offensive doctrines such as that of the Indian Army’s.

Well-equipped combat engineering units are a necessity in conventional and asymmetric conflicts
Army personnel building a bridge during Exercise Sanghe Shakti

This and disrupting the adversary's mobility by slowing, disorienting him and providing defensive positions for the holding units are major responsibilities of Combat Engineering units. Providing the most effective available equipment and training for these ‘First In, Last Out’ units will pay rich dividends in a wide variety of conventional and asymmetric conflicts.

Major General Percy Hobart was the pioneer in military engineering vehicles which were then called ‘Hobart’s Funnies’. Hobart’s Funnies consisted of flame throwers, demolition vehicles, recovery vehicles, dozer, ramp carriers, flails, fascine and assault bridge carriers by carrying out modifications to existing vehicles such as the Churchill, Centaur, Sherman tanks and the Caterpillar D-7 dozer. These variants were instrumental in clearing/demolishing obstacles, trenches, minefields, barbed wire, enemy troops in trenches and bunkers facilitate movement in moist soft ground. Since then the Soviet Union invested in such equipment which came as a rude shock to the Israelis during the 1971 war when the Egyptians used soviet engineering equipment to cross the Suez Canal. Western militaries also followed suit proving their importance in every war after that including the Gulf Wars.

The Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, also called ‘The Sappers’, played an indispensable role in the 1971 war with Pakistan by facilitating mobility under fire. It currently uses engineering equipment from Poland, erstwhile Czechoslovakia, Russia, Germany along with home-grown systems.

Military Bridging Equipment

Multi-span bridges can help negotiate obstacles of higher width but at a relatively slower pace. The Indian Army uses the AM-50 bridge from erstwhile Czechoslovakia which can be used to cross rivers and obstacles and can sustain a load of 50 tonnes. Multiple such bridge layers can be used to increase the span length.

Recent addition is the Sarvatra multi-span bridging system designed by R&DE, Pune and built by L&T Talegaon. It has a short launch-time of 15 minutes which can save critical time under fire and is built with lightweight aluminium alloy and construction methods while having the strength, putting it in a Military Load Class (MLC)-70 tonne. It has a single span length of 15-20 metres which can extend up to 100m for multi-span with piers which can vary their heights according to the varying depths which is a useful capability in crossing the rivers of Punjab. A short span bridging system with a span of 5-10m has also been developed to work independently or to support the Sarvatra bridge.

Bridge Laying Tanks or BLTs are tank chassis modified to carry bridges to negotiate dry and wet obstacles, the tracks offer high mobility allowing them to keep pace with armoured columns, and they lay the bridge in a short time but to shorter spans compared to multi-span bridges. The Indian Army has been using the T-55BLT, the Kartik BLT based on the Vijayanta chassis and recently the BLT-72 which is also designed by R&DE, Pune and manufactured by L&T at Talegaon. All the above mentioned BLTs which are scissor type bridges which can alert the enemy while being laid due to their high silhouette, the MLC-70 BLT Arjun based on the Arjun chassis is a sliding bridge layer which can maintain low signature even during the laying process but it is yet to be productionised. Along with this there are manually launched assault bridges MLAB Class 70 with a span of 31m and width 4m.

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