Security and Defense: Engineering victory

Setting off explosions, building rocket-proof structures, and testing durability and safety are all in a day’s work for the Engineering Corps.

March 14, 2013 23:51
Blast caused by 300 kilograms of explosives sends debris

Blast caused by 300 kilograms of explosives sends debris 370. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)

Thirty land mines lay hidden beneath the earth in a water pipe, making up a total of 300 kilograms of explosives. Above, an IDF jeep is parked.

This is not a Hezbollah ambush, but rather an exercise held by the IDF Engineering Corps this week in northern Israel. The aim: to simulate the type of threats the IDF will face if and when it has to enter southern Lebanon or Gaza and engage terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas that have employed the tactic of digging tunnels and packing them with explosives.

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“The jeep represents any vehicle that can be targeted,” says Maj. Andras Schenker, head of the Fortification Section at the Engineering Corps.

With the soldiers safely away from the site of the blast, a countdown begins.

Then an enormous explosion tears through the area, sending plumes of dirt and rocks 50 meters up into the air and scattering pieces of the jeep far from the blast site. It takes the rubble more than 15 seconds to fall back to earth.

The soldiers, all of whom have MAs or PhDs in engineering, return to the blast site, analyzing the damages and drawing lessons that will serve the IDF’s offensive and defensive combat capabilities.

“I don’t see the jeep at all,” Schenker notes, searching for its remnants. Eventually, a large black twisted piece of metal is found.

“These are the tactics of the enemy. Hezbollah plants bombs in water pipes. We can see the result. No one sitting in the jeep would have survived,” he adds.

Company commanders who will lead their soldiers into battle are given similar demonstrations in order to increase their battle arena awareness.

“The army is naturally at an advantage on the surface. Subterranean combat places us at a disadvantage.

Hence, we must train other units to uncover tunnels, mark out their lengths, and destroy them,” the officer says. “We hold a number of exercises to train our forces to search for and destroy the tunnels.”

It was not the only blast the Fortification Section would carry out that day. Shortly after the jeep was blown to smithereens, explosives planted along an imposing barbed wire blew a hole through the obstacle.

This test was aimed at ensuring that the Engineering Corps will be able to clear a path for advancing infantry and armored vehicles, as they progress through hostile territory. Urban combat techniques are also an area of specialty for these soldiers, who are tasked with setting up mock villages to provide soldiers with a training area. The Fortification Section will fire thousands of bullets at walls to ensure that they are strong enough for use in live fire training structures.

The Fortification Section, together with the IDF’s Experiments Unit, also develops protection for walls used in urban combat facilities.

“This allows for safe training at the highest possible level, without the need to decrease the intensity of live-fire drill,” says the section’s Capt. Yoel Peretz.

The section regularly inspects training facilities and carries out engineering tests – a process that began after the fatal training accident in 2009 in which Golani soldier Cpl. Mor Cohen was hit by a bullet fired by a fellow soldier, which pierced an urban combat facility wall.

“The most important thing for us in protecting facilities is that such an incident does not repeat itself in any way in the IDF,” Peretz says. The Fortification Section is not just in the business of blowing things up and shooting at materials. Its members are also responsible for a critical function that will play a big role in any future battles.

Using a couple of bulldozers and a bunker that can be built rapidly using large Lego-like pieces, a team of non-commissioned officers can, overnight, construct rocket-proof structures and a logistics center to house an infantry company deep in enemy territory.

The site can be also be used for army forces within their own borders, preparing to launch a ground offensive.

“It’s a real step up in our capabilities. We can build this site in 10 hours,” Schenker says.

The bulldozers are used to dig a large square ditch, and then basket-like cells – purchased from the British defense firm Hesco – are filled with sand and rocks and used to construct protective shelters.

“Even if a shell falls in the middle of this site, we design it in a such way that the fragments from the blast are isolated to one part of it,” Schenker says.

A site housing these types of bunkers was first used by the military during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Hesco structures sheltered soldiers who gathered at the border with Gaza ahead of a potential ground offensive. During rocket alert sirens, soldiers packed the structure. It was uncomfortably crowded, but safe, Schenker recalls.

“We had 10 seconds to get in. When too many soldiers gathered inside, a bottleneck effect developed.

That taught us to create two entry points to the bunker, and that’s how we design them now,” he adds.

The site can house food, fuel and a command center, including sensitive electronic equipment. “We don’t plan on defending ourselves hermetically,” Schenker stresses. “But a certain degree of defense is crucial.”

Peretz, who designs many of the sites, adds, “What makes our branch unique is our ability to create operational solutions. We come up with solutions for protection, explosives and fortifications for the various army forces, and we do this in real time... Long delays cause you to become irrelevant.”

Much like a civilian construction project, a site is planned, and then sent to a “contractor” – in this case, the IDF Northern Command – for construction.

In the civilian world, this process can take months to complete. In the IDF, the process is overnight.

“This type of site provides peripheral protection and defense through depth. We can construct a number of these sites, so that they remain in a single line of vision from one another. We can build them deep in enemy territory, or right on the border,” Schenker adds.

As for threats from above, “The bunker roofs can protect against shells, rockets and missile shrapnel,” he says.

Guard post units are built with three openings from which soldiers can fire.

“If infantry are far from the border, we can ask the air force to parachute the bunkers and the guard post units. One guard post weighs about 400 kilograms, and pilots can parachute them down accurately within a meter of their intended landing spot,” Schenker explains.

With the whole of the country under Hezbollah and Hamas rocket threat, such solutions can also be used to protect IDF bases inside Israel – bases seeking to maintain functionality under heavy rocket fire.

“The threat is only increasing,” Schenker says.

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