Counter-Terrorism: High Speed Sandbags


December 6, 2016: While Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan thought they had a decisive weapon in suicide bombs for men on foot (explosive vests) or in vehicles the usefulness of these weapons was greatly reduced by the simple expedient of placing concrete and earth/sand barriers around the most critical targets (bases, key facilities.) Then, for the terrorists, it got worse with the development and rapid adoption of portable bomb-proof barriers. These were generally variations on an ancient protective device; the sand bag.

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. But since the 1980s there have been several variations on the sandbag and the current war on terror led to more of them. The ability to quickly (in less than an hour) build bomb-proof fortifications proved their worth in Iraq, Afghanistan and soon throughout the world. The most annoying (for the terrorists) version of this was the HESCO barrier. This was a lightweight collapsible wire mesh container with a heavy duty plastic liner which, when filled with sand, provided protection from even large truck bombs. Empty HESCO containers could be manhandled by troops but once they were opened up it did not take long for a front end loader to fill it with sand (dirt or gravel). A wall of HESCO barriers was nearly as good as concrete blocks. Originally introduced in the 1980s 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 invented it 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 using shovels, 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. 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 were shipped collapsed and very compact. 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. The HESCO barriers have prevented thousands of casualties among troops in Iraq (and now Afghanistan) and done wonders for morale.

By 201o an Israeli firm has come up with yet another variation on the HESCO approach that involved a variation on the sandbag and enabled a miniature fort to be quickly built (within four hours) 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.

In Iraq and Afghanistan Western troops would also bring in (by truck or helicopter) empty cargo container and add HESCO or sandbags as needed. By 2005 this evolved into armored shipping containers. Some of these came equipped for specific missions. One version was basically a hospital emergency room in an armored, and air conditioned, shipping container. These shipping containers are being used for living and work space, and are popular because the containers are sturdy, and easily transportable. Thus these containers, which only came into general use during the 1960s are changing the face of warfare.


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