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Forces Network: Do Walls Work?

Simon Thornton and David Wells, Forces Network.

This article originally appeared on

Documentary-maker Simon Thornton - producer of Intel, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-focused BFBS video series - explored how walls have been used in defence and spoke to some of the world’s military wall experts to find out if walls work.

Walls Along A Border Are Nothing New. Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, built by the Romans to keep out the Scots, acted as the north-west frontier of the Roman empire for almost 300 years and was built by the Roman army on the orders of emperor Hadrian sometime after AD 122.

That is just one example of the many historically renowned defensive barriers the world over, including what is known as the longest defensive wall in the world, the Great Wall of China.


How Are Modern Military Walls Designed?

There is one design element that all modern military walls have in common, however – they all have more than just one wall.

In Intel, Simon tests the theory as he speaks to military experts, including the team at defensive barrier specialists Hesco, which engineers blockades and wall systems in military establishments the world over, including hostile environments such as Afghanistan.

The HESCO MIL is a modern version of a gabion system – a gabion being a basket or container filled with earth, stones, or other material that has been used in fortifications dating back to Roman times.

Mike Pickup, engineering director at Hesco, said that the concept of a Hesco barrier was easy to transport, it folds flat and is relatively light.

He added: “Once you fill it, and you can normally fill it with almost any fill material that can find, then the performance of the product is outstanding.

“There is a quote by some general saying that it was the biggest evolution in force protection for the last 500 years. It’s something like that.

“Gabions are not a new idea. I mean the Romans used them – they had wicker baskets that they filled in with dirt, so the concept is very old.”

He said that the company had taken it to the next level by creating the 21st century version of that concept.

It might seem like a relatively simple design, but before Hesco, only a few decades ago, soldiers would have to build walls out of sandbags.
Simon Thornton

Intel has explored how this invention changed the way modern armies go to war.

In the film, Simon said: “It might seem like a relatively simple design, but before Hesco, only a few decades ago, soldiers would have to build walls out of sandbags.”

Ben Jenkins, Hesco technical manager, explained how Hesco was developed about 30 years ago.

He said that the Hesco Bastion barrier system was invented and designed by former coal miner James ‘Jimi’ Heselden.

Heselden used his redundancy money from the wave of job losses to hit the mining industry in the 1980s on setting up a sandblasting business.


Barrier Applications

  • Originally developed for coastal erosion 
  • Used extensively by militaries for ballistic protection
  • Can be used to build protective structures and bases, firing ranges and shoothouses
  • Adapted for use as flood protection and in widespread use in the U.S. 

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However, it was during this time, as he experimented in his workshop with engineering and construction, that he also faced losing his cliff-side home to coastal erosion. 

 Mr Jenkins said: “Jimi had a property on the east coast and it was very close to the cliff face which was eroding away.

“He wanted a product that he could install rapidly and effectively and that it would stop further corrosion to the coast.

“He developed the lined gabion unit, constructed it on the cliff face, filled it with cement and then, as a result, that saved his property.”


He went on to patent his collapsible wire mesh and fabric container as a commercial product, initially designing it for use in flood management, to limit erosion.

However, the system soon found favour with the military as it became apparent the Hesco Bastion system provided effective blast walls and barriers which could be quickly constructed. Simon said: “So this invention that started in someone’s garage has really become a whole system that changes the way modern militaries can go to war.”

He said the barriers can be a simple walls constructed by soldiers or a whole barrier can be unloaded at speed out of an ISO container.

“There’s a whole range of products that use this simple structure, to make bigger, more useful things like an accommodation block, or weapons stores, or anything like that.

“It’s allowed for new tactics where forward operating bases can be constructed overnight.”

An Effective Barrier Is Always More Than One Wall

Mr Jenkins said: “Usually, to have an effective wall, it needs to be part of suite of a solution to basically delay or deter an attacker.

“So we would have a solid, earth-filled wall, then usually we would have some form of stand-off which is a distance between the wall and another product, for instance a fence.

“So a potential attacker has to break through many layers of a defence even before he gets to the wall itself.

Intel explores the many factors that need to be considered in creating an effective barrier – that includes more than the length and breadth of the perimeter.

It also needs to take into consideration what kind of assault the barrier might face – would that include vehicles for explosives for instance.

Mr Pickup said: “One of the things that you have to do, even though you’ve got something to physically stop a bomb, or a bullet, a car or a person – you’ve got to physically watch that barrier.

“So you have to watch whatever system you have deployed.”

Find out more about the INTEL series and read this article in full on Forces.Net