In Lithuania, Learning How to Block Tanks With Trees Is Back in Fashion
Abatis are an ancient tactic
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Russia has lots of tanks. Lithuania has lots of trees. It’s not complicated. That’s why Canadian and American troops in Lithuania recently trained to block roads with downed trees — a useful tactic in the event of a Russian invasion.
Tree obstacles, or abatis, are ancient defensive structures. Roman legionaries constructed tree obstacles around their camps. Then, the idea was to slow an attacker’s momentum given the traumatic, disrupting shock of an infantry assault in ancient battles.
Armored vehicles today rely on speed to disrupt and confuse an enemy — cutting off, surrounding and destroying them faster than the defender can react. So while technology has changed to a degree, the basic theories of warfare haven’t. And even some of the tech is still the same.
A NATO video released in late December shows the soldiers building the crude fortifications during the Iron Sword 2016 exercise, which involved nearly 4,000 soldiers from 11 countries.
Soldiers from the Canadian 1st Combat Engineer Regiment and the U.S. 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion downed the trees with explosive charges.
“So we use explosives to blow down the trees basically in kind of a tangled web like this so that it’s also difficult for them to come along after and try and remove these logs,” Sgt. Tyler Doyle of the 1st Combat Engineers said.
In a war for the Baltic States, Russia would likely send fast-moving columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers to overwhelm and penetrate through defensive lines in a race toward the region’s capital cities, attempting to force a capitulation before NATO reinforcements could arrive.
The Lithuanian army has no tanks, but is buying up large numbers of shoulder-fired anti-tank missile launchers including the U.S. made FGM-148 Javelin. Of course, there’s no guarantee any individual group of soldiers will have enough missiles to destroy every tank that comes their way.
So, it’s the NATO combat engineers’ job to shape the terrain and deny an enemy force room to maneuver. Slow down those armored columns, and the Lithuanian army and its allies can choose to fight on their own terms — and buy time for the cavalry to arrive.
Abatis are relatively simple to make, and the tactic is still taught in U.S. military manuals.
First, measure the diameter of a tree to determine how many explosives to use to fell it without snapping it cleanly from the trunk. That makes it harder to move. Do it again and again, felling each tree at a 45 degree angle in a lattice pattern with the branches sticking toward the front.
Finally, booby trap the abatis with explosives.
“It’s very effective if it’s done right,” Doyle said. “Actually, case in point, for this exercise, when the enemy came up to this obstacle, they were actually unable to breach through and they decided to go around so it actually proves to be very, very effective.”
During one mock battle, NATO’s war planners didn’t — on purpose — give a group of soldiers enough anti-tank weapons to defend a village from a mixed, attacking force of armored vehicles and infantry. The abatis stopped the vehicles, but the infantry continued the advance before being tangled up in wire obstacles.
The exercise ended in a stalemate, according to U.S. Army news release.
Abatis remained common during the 20th century in forested battlefields. The Finnish army built them extensively along the Mannerheim Line, the series of defensive fortifications across the Karelian Isthmus that bogged down the Red Army during the 1939–1940 Winter War.
During World War II, the Soviet and Nazi armies built abatis when the terrain allowed for them, and the U.S. Army relied on them to slow down Panzers in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, when the German army attempted a surprise winter offensive through Belgium to split the Allied armies in two.
On the first day of the battle, abatis stymied German units such as the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, which then met tougher than expected American resistance as the Germans sought a detour. “This episode proved to be only one of numerous delays on the Fifth Panzer assault front,” an official U.S. Army history explained.
“And that army, as a result, did not reach its first-day objectives until after midnight of 17 December.”
Those delays, of course, were one reason the Germans ultimately lost the battle.