Engineers At The Crossroads

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.

The engineer community is at a crossroads. Regardless of which part of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) you consider, combat engineers are stretched too thinly across a wide variety of missions that have diluted the abilities of the collective whole. Moreover, we have forgotten that Marine Corps combat engineering is a function of both logistics and maneuver, lauding capabilities to support combat logistics battalions while marginalizing die combat engineer battalion's (CEB's) ability to support infantry and maneuver units. What makes this picture even bleaker is the belief that engineer advocacy has not lived up to the expectations once believed in the late 1990s. How do we shore up Marine Corps engineering so that it remains relevant and its contributions to the force beneficial in aspects of expeditionary maneuver warfare and distributed operations?

How We Got Here

To frame a response we must look deeper into what has occurred in the community to bring us to this juncture. Over the past decade engineer units have seen a decline in structure, yet mission sets have not been altered to accommodate the leaner force left in place. More than 1,000 table of organization line numbers in the engineer community have been realigned to the aggregate Marine Corps. At no time in the history of the Corps has this realignment been more prevalent than during die past several years. Engineer units were the bill payers for increased structure in the antiterrorism (AT) brigade (now adjunct to U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MarSOC)), the growth of infantry battalions, the growth of light armored reconnaissance companies, and increased structure for the explosive ordnance disposal community. The impact of this realignment fell on deaf ears in the community and, as a result, disproportionately increased the number of supported units without compensating structure of supporting engineer assets. Recent operations in Iraq revealed that the decentralized employment of Marine engineering assets left the MAGTF desperately short of general engineer support to provide base construction, main supply route maintenance, and the destruction of captured munitions.

The microview of supporting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Djibouti is most revealing. CEB is spread thinly across operations, and its sustainment is problematic. Engineer platoons on both coasts are in constant rotation to support maneuver units. It is commonplace to rotate engineer . platoons back to the theater in less than 7 months, creating DWELL (a term used to refer to the ratio of deployed time to time on station) issues. During a first-term enlistment, more than half of CEB Marines will see three combat deployments. High-demand/low-density military occupational specialty (MOS) skills, such as electricians, equipment operators, and mechanics, are even more likely to see short time at home station between operational deployments. Exacerbating this rotation is the staffing of CEBs. Large overhead is carried; e.g., nondeployable Marines due to impeding end of active service limitations, and this overhead competes with the assigned staffing goals Marine Corpswide for CEB. To highlight this situation, 2d CEB has more than 2 ½ platoon's worth of Marines ineligible to deploy as a result of service limitations. Throughput of Marines from Service schools has not increased but rather competed with the growth of other MOS skills to meet the staffing requirements for newly formed units. Unfortunately, this is not just a CEB-centric problem; other engineer units face similar challenges. Recent suggestions to increase staffing goals of engineer units for a particular element of the MAGTF fail to recognize that Marine Corps engineering is a zero-sum game without increased manning and/or structure across the MOS.

What Do We Need To Do?

The question remains, how do we shore up Marine Corps engineering so that it remains relevant and its contributions to the force beneficial in aspects of expeditionary warfare? There are several propositions that have circulated among the community for years but have never been brought to fruition, primarily as a result of the aforementioned advocacy of Marine Corps engineering. First, Marine Corps engineering must resolve its identity crisis. A single entity must serve to advocate, direct research, promote doctrine, synergize joint engineering, and refine capabilities. Currently, all Marine Corps engineering advocacy is relegated to the Deputy Commandant, Installations and Logistics (DC I&L). Despite resident liaison billets within DC Plans, Policies, and Operations and DC Aviation, the community lacks synergy to champion integration across engineer priorities, functions, and development of new technology.

The newly formed Combat Development and Integration Branch at Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) has considered initiatives to create an engineering directorate as a battle function that can horizontally cross logistics, maneuver, force protection, and the like, while retaining its ability within engineering to direct and integrate engineer support of the MAGTF. 1 It recognizes that engineering resides in each element of the MAGTF and recognizes the necessity to have one repository for all things engineering across the spectrum. This is a positive step in the right direction toward solving advocacy. Nested within the Capabilities Development Directorate (CDD), MCCDC, an Engineer Integration Cell (EIC), led by a colonel 1302 (combat engineer), would serve as the focal point for Marine Corps engineering. Its focus and purpose would serve to integrate, monitor, facilitate, and execute the overarching plans, concepts, and strategies across the battlefield functions as they relate to combat engineer support to the entire MAGTF. Most importantly, it would ensure a complementary engineer effort across all battlefield functions requisite within CDD. As a result, advocacy would migrate from I&L to MCCDC under CDD, which in turn would have the responsibility to consolidate positions and prioritize engineer initiatives across the Headquarters Marine Corps advocates, the Marine Corps Engineer Center of Excellence, and Marine Corps Systems Command. Most importantly, EIC would facilitate a focused effort toward aligning resources and solve a large part of what is failing the community.

Interwoven in the above is the community's lost identity. As achieved by the first pioneer battalions, Marine Corps engineering is first a function of combat support rather than combat service support. Today's engineers are disproportionately weighted in the latter and often at the expense of providing sufficient combat engineer support to maneuver units. As we have seen in the past year, more and more infantry units are utilizing their 0351 (assaultman) MOS Marines to conduct combat engineer missions, to include urban breaching, facilitated by the over-abundance of off-the-shelf metal detectors provided to conduct sweeps for captured munitions. Mechanized and wheeled reconnaissance units are woefully unsupported by trained sappers in sufficient capabilities to ensure freedom of movement, reconnaissance, and force protection. All is attributed to the lack of engineers supporting maneuver units. In the coming years CEB will gain the assault breacher vehicle (ABV) and joint assault bridge QAB). The ABV is an MlAl configured for engineer mobility missions, and the JAB is the modernized armored vehicle launched bridge, yet zero structure has been afforded to operate and maintain these pieces of equipment. Our lost identity can't be solely attributed to misplaced advocacy, but as a result of its alignment to logistics, combat engineering has moved further away from its core competency rooted in combat support. Senior Marine engineers are vectored away from operadons in lieu of logistics, competing requirements to support combat maneuver are seldom advocated outside the ground operational advisory groups and, most importantly, there exists no single leadership mechanism to champion combat engineering. All contribute to our identity crisis. While attempts by I Marine Expeditionary Force to consolidate engineering across battlespace functions are commendable, they have yet to resonate across the Marine Corps.

Secondly, the community must come to the realization that its mission essential tasks across maneuver and logistics outnumber resources. If the hypothesis of uncompensated structure holds true-that is, the community will not realize additional structure toward an overall end strength in the MAGTF-then the conclusion must be that an alignment of structure and resources is necessary to achieve the most essential tasks, of which combat support should be heavily weighted as a core competency. A deliberate and exhaustive study must be commissioned to determine what we can afford to realign and what must be reinforced as we face new threats in the decade to come. One such premise would be to eliminate the 1371 (combat engineer) MOS from the Marine wing support squadrons and AT brigade (MarSOC)2 and reinvest that structure back to engineer support battalion (ESB) and CEB. Not to discount the tremendous abilities of engineers in these units, but if we are to seriously align uncompensated structure, wouldn't an ESB have the ability to support expeditionary airfields? Does the MarSOC really need a full up combat engineer platoon? Is it feasible to consolidate ESB and CEB under an engineer regimental concept that would flatten staffs, eliminate redundancy, and return structure to platoons and detachments? The same questions can also be applied to the capabilities afforded by civilian corporations and the Navy SeaBee community. The partnership between Marine engineering and the Navy SeaBee community has always been strong. The naval construction regiment fills a large void in deliberate civil engineering as well as expeditionary construction. Yet, the SeaBee community is also under pressure to realign its structure commensurate with its associated mission essential tasks. Corporations, such as Kellogg Brown and Root, have taken on large areas of responsibility in cantonment, civil engineering, bulk liquids, and waste management. Over the past several years this outsourced engineering capability has supported operations in the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Marine Corps must determine, in conjunction with the Navy, to what extent the naval construction battalion will support future "green side" operations. Do cost benefits exist in outsourcing expeditionary engineering to afford additional opportunities to realign Marine Corps engineering and the reinvestment of capabilities left uncovered?

Finally, the combat engineer MOS is considered a combat arms MOS, yet it is more closely aligned with combat service support from manpower to advocacy. Engineers who find themselves in Marine divisions must be able to understand the geometry of fires and battlespace, the capabilities of mechanized and indirect fire weapons systems, and the specific details of mines and explosives. At the conclusion of their tour or, better case, at the conclusion of multiple tours in the ground combat element, one could argue that the return on the investment for the Marine Corps is better aligned toward affording a select few the ability to remain in the operational/maneuver realm. As a community, the most senior engineers migrate to the 9904 (colonel logistician) or senior logistician MOS. The direct result is the loss of senior engineer colonels who are operationally minded and focused on combat support. Affording such opportunities would greatly bolster the lopsided view of engineering and quite possibly attract mid-level engineer officers to consider extended service beyond 20 years.

In 2004 the Marine Corps Requirements Oversight Council approved the charter for an Engineer Master Plan (KMP). The KMP was designed to address many of the issues discussed here as well as employment of engineering over the future years defense program. While this plan continues, advocacy remains its largest hurdle as no singular voice has been mustered to communicate a precise community position. If Marine Corps engineering is to remain relevant, it must solve this single vexing issue. It must recognize its own limitations in the absence of uncompensated structure and align resources to prevent the diluted capability spread across the MAGTF. This will inevitably lead to the conclusion that some capabilities will be lost and, therefore, require alternatives to be sourced jointly or through civil corporations. Most importantly, Marine Corps engineering must be rooted in the expeditionary nature of our Service and weighted toward combat sup port vice combat service support.

There should be no question that Marine Corps engineering remains a force multiplier. These past several years during the war on terrorism have proven the versatility, adaptability, and need for combat engineers. As one infantry battalion commander alluded to following the fight for Fallujah, the only problem with his combat engineer platoon was that there were just not enough of them.


 

How do we shore up Marine Corps engineering so that it remains relevant and its contributions to the force beneficial in aspects of expeditionary maneuver warfare and distributed operations?


 

Our lost identity can't be solely attributed to misplaced advocacy, but as a result of its alignment to logistics, combat engineering has moved further away from its core competency rooted in combat support.


 

Notes

1. Marine Corps Engineer School and the Division Combat Engineer Operational Advisory Group proposed this concept in the fall of 2005.

2. With the retiring of AT battalion. Total Force Structure Division, MCCDC aligned the engineer platoon associated with the Marine expeditionary brigade to the newly formed Foreign Military Training Unit under Mar-SOC.