SOE News

My engineering journey in The Army

21st Nov 2018

After three gruelling tours of Afghanistan, training exercises in Canada, Germany and Denmark, Engineering Officer Bob Calder is back in the UK. After more than 12 years in the British Army, Bob is moving onto pastures new – a second career in engineering awaits; but he has many memories of a ‘long and varied career’ and reflects on his time in the forces as a huge advocate of REME and The Army.

“The opportunities for young graduates now are just as extensive as when I joined, even though large campaigns, such as in Afghanistan are no longer an option; the Army is now spread out across the globe. Capacity building in Africa, Enhanced Forward Presence in places such as Estonia or Ukraine; there are opportunities for people to see the world but also to have an interesting and varied career. This is the scope you get from a career in the Army; you experience it in few other places, in terms of adventure and interest. It’s so diverse and you’re supported in terms of professional development; technically you are going to get challenged, and you can be ushered along to Chartership, so there’s real progression as well,” said Bob.

First tour

Bob’s first tour of Afghanistan was in 2007, before much of the required engineering infrastructure had been put in place and it would be the first of many tough experiences he would face in the early years.

“The first was back in 2007 - I was a brand-new fresh-faced Engineering Officer with very little training, experience of life or an understanding of what REME was all about. We were given a series of engineering projects, one of them was fielding of the Mastiff armoured vehicle; it was one of the first protected mobility vehicles that was used in Afghanistan. I was part of a fielding team, but as a brand-new Second Lieutenant, I was given a lot of support at that time; which made things less daunting. It was fascinating being part of a small team that was trialling the vehicles and testing them out in the desert environment. Originally, they were designed for tarmac roads, so we had to modify & test the suspension; that was my first project.

“I also had a project to upgrade the air conditioning on some of our small tanks, called Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), which was to do with providing better air conditioning to the operators in the vehicles; as it was getting above 50 degrees Celsius in the cab. We had to take out the chemical protection packs, that were in the vehicles and put in an enhanced air conditioning system; so, a series of hoses went into the crew compartments.

“When you’re new and young, you accept any challenge, so I was volunteering for everything going. We were quite new to Helmand back then, and Camp Bastion was not very well set up; it was quite an austere engineering environment.”


Getting to that stage ‘wasn’t by accident’. The option of joining the Army had always been in Bob’s mind; his grandfather was in the forces. He excelled at maths and science at school, so when the option presented itself; he jumped at the chance.

“For my second tour I went out there as a Company Second in Command, with a group of 100 engineers of different trades”

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until I had a brochure put in front of me; it was for the Army’s Sixth Form college Welbeck, which was specifically gauged towards developing technical leaders in the Army and engineers. So, I applied and went through the selection process and eventually completed my A-levels. It was just the Army’s Sixth Form college back then; now it streams for the RAF and Navy as the Defence Sixth Form College.

“I took my degree in Applied Sciences for Royal Military College of Science at the Defence Academy, part of Cranfield University; but again, it was specifically an Army undergraduate scheme.

I basically came up through the Army’s system since the age of 16, so the Army has been part of me for a while. I went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and gained my commission, and while I was there, I went on all the different regimental visits. Over that five years you get exposure to different career paths and REME, so it’s possible to find your natural fit in terms of skills, engineering and the people. It wasn’t a big decision, it just came naturally. I was funnelled through this process and I’ve not really looked back since.”

Second tour

Bob’s second operation, in complete contrast to the first, took him back to Helmand but tested other engineering skills he possessed but had not yet used outside the training environment. On this occasion Bob was given more responsibility, and with that came exposure to the real dangers of war.

“For my second tour I went out there as a Company Second in Command, with a group of 100 engineers of different trades. I controlled the company operations and the Officer Commanding (OC) did the command part (setting the direction).

“During that period, it was all about Improvised Explosive Devices, they (the Taliban) had developed by that stage and there were vehicles unfortunately getting hit on a weekly basis; so, our role was to try and decrease the repair loop times to as short as possible. We would receive a vehicle that had been hit and if nobody been seriously hurt, we would concentrate on getting those vehicles back on the road as quickly as possible. Sometimes getting spares into Afghanistan was quite difficult, there was no way you could get them over land; so, they all had to come over by air. We started to work with the higher headquarters to develop blast packs, which were spares packs designed from the bottom up; based on experience of what vehicle assembly would be blown off during a blast.

“The team and I would work on defining and developing the blast packs, understanding what spares we would need if a vehicle was hit from the front or from behind. It started to work well, we would place a demand based on a type of blast event and the spares pack would be ready very quickly. Not having to wait for a spare that could be missed during inspection saved a lot of time. We managed to increase the availability of the platforms quite a bit through the project.

“That was a winter operation in Afghanistan, so it was very cold, a very different engineering environment; but by that stage we had new workshop facilities built. I led a team to move the company into that new facility, to get it all set-up so my Company could conduct their repairs in a better engineering environment.”

In part two – published in the January/February issue of SOE News – Bob talks about his role as a STEM ambassador, his final deployment in Afghanistan and becoming a chartered engineer.

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Keith Alaric Welsh

Wednesday, 05 December 2018 10:11:48

Interesting insight

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