DIGGING FOR VICTORY
By Shaun Connors
27 Aug 10. The ubiquitous backhoe loader, or JCB to most, first appeared back in the 1950s and it wasn’t long before this most versatile of construction machines was attracting deserved military interest, often being seen as a cost-effective part-replacement for expensive and highly complex military-specific construction and engineering equipment.
A case in point here might be the British Army’s Thorneycroft Nubian-based Light Mobile Digger (LMD). The LMD was a ludicrously complex contraption designed at the height of the Cold War by a group of bored bearded boffins at the then MEXE (Military Engineering Experimental Establishment) for digging trenches and other associated field fortifications. On paper this self-deployable (truck chassis-based) and air-transportable machine had a phenomenal work rate, easily outperforming something like a backhoe loader. However, in reality this overly complex piece of ‘Heath-Robinson’ machinery spent more time broken down and in pieces than it did working, and when eventually pensioned off a green-painted JCB backhoe quickly proved to be a far cheaper, viable, and above all else reliable, replacement.
However, while for certain military roles a green-painted commercial machine is perfectly acceptable, for tactical-type roles, and for all their many virtues, almost all commercial construction-type equipment is of limited use. Ignoring the obvious vulnerabilities brought about by commercial design origins and usage considerations, in any vaguely tactical situation the value of such commercial equipment is usually negated by a limited travel speed, and the reliance on other vehicles for moves of any distance this limitation dictates.
Using the tractor-like backhoe as a straightforward example of this, the overall compactness of the design and lack of suspension and rigid rear axle that all combine to make it such an effective work machine, are precisely the key factors in reducing its speed both on- and off-road. And it is this lack of speed that ultimately makes it a tactical liability and one that is reliant on third-party transportation over any reasonable distance.
To ordinarily deploy a backhoe loader (or any similar piece of equipment) over any distance it requires the combination of transport equipment (either a truck and trailer or a low-loader) and at least two personnel. The transport equipment would have to be coordinated for the move, could very often be redeployed once the initial move is complete, so to then redeploy the backhoe the transport equipment then has to be recalled. This type of process may work within a structured commercial construction environment, but within the tactical military sphere its continued acceptance for so many years should perhaps be elevated to the status of one of life’s great unsolved mysteries!
Around the time of the Vietnam conflict the US Army made some inroads into addressing this problem, replacing a large amount of very slow moving tracked construction equipment with not quite so slow moving wheeled construction equipment. However, what it and the world’s armies really needed was something that effectively filled the obvious capability gap between a piece of commercial construction equipment and an armoured engineer vehicle (AEV).
As far back as 1984 the Canadian’s are understood to have contemplated the advantages of self-deployable plant and construction equipment of the backhoe-type, and given the size of Canada this probably shouldn’t be a surprise. It would, however, be the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the end of the Cold War, and a post-Cold War emerging need for lighter more deployable peace-keeping/enforcing style forces that would ultimately lead to the development of today’s truly high-speed and deployable backhoe loaders.
Interestingly though, with both strategic and tactical mobility rapidly moving up the scale of importance for any new vehicle and equipm