French troops in northern Mali recently constructed a fortified camp outside the port town of Labbézanga on the Niger River. This area had been the scene of heavy fighting for several years as it is where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Several Islamic terrorist groups, including ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) operate in the area, often using bases in Burkina Faso and crossing the border to make attacks in Mali or Niger. These groups increasingly attack military camps with suicide vehicle bombers, RPGs, rockets or mortars. The new French camp seeks to neutralize many of those attack methods by building the camp using high sand walls.
The shape of the Labbézanga camp is described as in the style of famous French 17th century military engineer Vauban. This is the second such star shaped camp the French have built in the area. The first one was built in 2018 at the northeast edge of huge (1.75 million hectare/4.3 million acres) Ansongo Ménaka Partial Wildlife Reserve. Few people live in the game reserve, which suits the Islamic terrorists. No aerial or satellite photos of the Mali fort are available yet but there are aerial pictures of the 2018 Menaka fort showing the classic Vauban design. The star shaped design eliminates blind spots and minimizes the number of troops needed to man the walls. In some respects, these two French forts are in construction similar to the quickly built forts that proved their worth in Iraq. A common building in Iraq, and now Mali was the HESCO barrier. This is a collapsible wire mesh container with a heavy-duty plastic liner. These provided protection from large truck bombs. Once the HESCO containers were opened up a front-end loader was used to fill it with sand (dirt or gravel). A wall of HESCO barriers was nearly as good as concrete blocks. Originally designed for use on beaches and marshes for erosion and flood control, the "HESCO Bastion", as it is officially known, quickly became a popular security device even before September 11, 2001. The device is named after the company that developed it over a decade ago, a British firm called HESCO.
For the military the HESCO barrier was a big improvement on the sandbag. The labor-saving angle is very popular with the troops. Before the HESCO barriers, troops filled sandbags, which was slow. One soldier could fill about 20 sandbags an hour. Troops using HESCO barriers and a front-end loader can do ten times the work of troops using sandbags. This is what French troops appear to be doing in Mali. The HESCO barriers come in a variety of sizes designed for military work. There was also a special "bunker kit" for building bunkers. Most of the barrier units could be stacked. The barriers are very compact when shipped collapsed. You quickly pull them open and fill with sand or dirt. Filled with sand, 600mm (24 inches) of barrier thickness will stop rifle bullets and shell fragments. It takes 1.5 meters (five feet) of thickness to prevent penetration by an RPG round (although these usually do not hit at the right angle to need that much thickness but just explode creating a lot of fragments). About 1.2 meters (four feet) of thickness will protect against most car bombs and the French appear to be using these. The HESCO barriers have prevented thousands of casualties among troops in Iraq (and now Afghanistan) and done wonders for morale.
There were subsequently other variations on the HESCO barrier. An Israeli firm has come up with yet another variation on the sandbag. For several centuries troops have used sand or earth filled bags small enough to be moved by one man and shaped to be stacked in a protective wall. In the last few decades there have been several variations on the sandbag but the latest one, adopted by the Israeli Army after 2011, enables a miniature fort to be quickly (within four hours) built without the use of special heavy equipment (like a front-end loader or forklift). The new system uses large collapsible one-meter mesh cubes, each weighing 20 kg (44 pounds). Men can carry these, set them up, and then shovel in sand or earth. There are special panels for placing sand filled cubes on the roof. All this enables a bullet and RPG proof fort to be erected quickly. The boxes can be emptied and put back on vehicles even more quickly.
HESCO barriers take a day or so to remove and Iraqis got rid of most of the HESCO barriers after 2011. But in Mali the new French forts may last a bit longer.