A Different MOS for Combat Engineers

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This article was originally published in the December 2006 Marine Corps Gazette.

By Capt William V Osborne

Col James N. Flowers and LtCol David Ottignon, in their respective June 2006 Marine Corps Gazette articles, "Engineer Training and Consolidation" and "Engineers at the Crossroads," once again raised the question of separating combat engineers (military occupational specialty (MOS) 1371) into two distinct MOSs. These two MOSs would likely include one group that would be trained in those engineer skills required to provide direct support to the infantry; the other would focus on construction and bridging. Splitting the MOS is not intended to create Marine combat engineers who duplicate die role or skills of assaultmen (MOS 0351) or SeaBees. Rather, it would allow combat engineers to specialize in one of the two main roles that the community currently fills. One group of combat engineers would normally spend all of their Operating Forces tours in divisional units, while the other would spend theirs in group-, wingor Marine expeditionary force-level engineer units. Because my experience and knowledge is with the division, I'll focus on what changes should be made to entry-level training for division-bound 1371s.

Currently, a sizable gap exists between die skills combat engineers learn at Marine Corps Engineer School (MCES) and Marine combat training (MCT)-the skills our mission essential task list (METL) requires-and the skills needed by the combat engineer assigned to division. Once a Marine finishes training at MCES, he may be assigned to any part of the Marine airground task force (MAGTF). For example, a 1371 may follow a career path similar to this: Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 to 8th Engineer Support Battalion to facilities maintenance at Bridgeport, CA to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion (1st CEB). Obviously, the skill sets needed at each duty station differ considerably. It is quite possible that the platoon sergeant of a platoon in direct support of an infantry banalion deploying to Iraq has no prior experience supporting the infantry.

Currently, only 60 out of 99 (approximately 60 percent) individual training standards (ITSs) for 1371s support the METL of a CEB. The following paragraphs outline suggested duty areas for a new ITS or training and readiness (T&R) manual. They are mostly drawn from existing ITS manuals and unit METLs. A complete task listing would not duplicate any standards required by the Marine Corps Common Standards ITS Manual. All 1371s would complete the School of Infantry's (SOIs) 0311 course before reporting to MCES.

Every CEB platoon rates three M249 squad automatic weapons (SAWs), three M240G machineguns, and three Mk153 shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapons (SMAWs). Outside of the brief introduction provided at MCT, Marines are given no formal training on these weapons. The lack of training standards directly relates to a lack of qualified instructors and ammunition available to CEBs.

Figure 1 lists those weapons-related duty areas that should be included in a new 1371 T&R manual. At a minimum, 1371s should be trained to standard, at entry-level training, on those weapons organic to a combat engineer squad. The standards do not need to be invented. They can be culled from those for riflemen, assaultmen, and machinegunners. The chart lists recommended duty areas, the source of new T&R standards for CEB 1371s, and whether or not the skill is currently taught to 1371s at formal schools.

Figure 2 includes duty areas currently taught to combat engineers (with the exception of rigging). These are engineerunique tasks, including breaching, obstacle construction, and survivability position construction. Engineers traditionally employed ropes for rigging, but the skill has disappeared over time. Engineers can, and should, provide the infantry with rope bridging and vertical and horizontal hauling capabilities.

Figure 3 includes other skills, such as use of supporting arms; nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) defense; communications; and tactical measures. Skilled use of supporting arms-a Marine Corps hallmark-is integral to several engineer operations including breaching and route sweeping. Since CEB squads are often attached directly to supported infantry companies, they should be trained to the same standards in NBC and communications as their infantry counterparts. Regarding tactical measures, a more solid foundation of platoon tactics will ease the integration of the CEB squad and platoon into supported infantry units, as well as help combat engineers better understand infantry tactics in order to provide better mobility, counter-mobility, and survivability support.

Combat engineer platoons are, in theory, motorized. Licensing engineers at the entry level, such as is done with the other motorized part of the division (combined antiarmor team) makes sense. Also, when in support of infantry units, engineers often find themselves either mechanized or embarked on helicopters. Training to conduct these operations should be formalized. The number of tools owned by CEB line companies makes maintenance training an obvious necessity. (See Figure 4.)

Discussions of additional training costs and time, instructor sourcing, and career paths for Marines in either MOS require greater attention than an article of this length can provide. However, most of my proposed additional training mirrors existing ITSs and could be accomplished by sending division-bound combat engineers through the 0311 course at the SOI rather than MCT. The total number of combat engineers of all ranks assigned to division units is only about 1,000, so the long-term impact on SOI is relatively small. A small number of combat engineers would have to be assigned to SOI to offset the additional students. Career path design could resemble that of other smaller combat arms communities like tanks and assault amphibious vehicles.

As the assault breaching vehicle and other planned engineer equipment like the combat engineer vehicle and advanced countermine and counter improvised explosive device systems are introduced, die need for specialized training and resident experience will grow in importance. As LtCol Ottignon pointed out, combat engineers are at a crossroads. Now is the time for the combat engineer community to take a hard look at the costs and benefits of providing specialized combat engineers capable of providing better focused support to the Marine division and, ultimately, the MAGTF.