Roads to peace

December 2005 » Feature Articles
From Baghdad to the east coast of Africa, military engineering battalions, sometimes supported by civilian engineering firms, are involved in the fight against terrorism. In some areas, such as Iraq, the engineering and construction projects support combat missions directly.

Military engineers support efforts to combat terrorism.

BY BOB DRAKE

From Baghdad to the east coast of Africa, military engineering battalions, sometimes supported by civilian engineering firms, are involved in the fight against terrorism. In some areas, such as Iraq, the engineering and construction projects support combat missions directly.

However, in Yemen, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Seychelles - the Horn of Africa - military engineers are engaged primarily in infrastructure improvement and training missions to help stabilize emerging democracies. According to terrorism experts, the Horn of Africa is fertile ground for establishing al-Qaidalinked terror groups.

The Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was organized in October 2002 and currently comprises a joint command of about 1,500 soldiers from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as from all countries participating in the Global Counterterrorism Task Force. “CJTF-HOA's primary focus,” explained Staff Sergeant Phillip Eugene, media engagement team officer with U.S.

Central Command Public Affairs, “is to improve the infrastructure, security forces, and health of the host nations, backed up by information operations to deprive terrorists of an environment that is conducive to extremist ideologies.” Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs) from the U.S. Naval Construction Force (Seabees) are among the military engineering units involved in the CJTF-HOA. From a U.S. camp in Djibouti, the battalions have been involved in a variety of projects. “They need everything here,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Haddocks with NMCB-1 based in Gulfport, Miss. Projects undertaken by NMCB-1 during its last deployment included constructing a landing facility and cargo staging area for Navy hovercrafts, renovating a Djiboutian police firing range, building a school library, constructing helicopter pads, and training Djiboutian military engineers.

“This instruction shares our knowledge of construction techniques to make them self sufficient,” explained Haddocks, a certified instructor with 19 years of construction experience. “We are here as a partnership. We have a presence here to help deter terrorists and in turn help Djibouti by boosting their economy, teaching them new skills, and helping repair and build new facilities.” A bridge replacement project provided the venue for training a class of 10 Djiboutian soldiers. A 100-foot-long bridge spanning a shallow ditch was destroyed two years ago by a flash flood.

Starting with existing Navy course material acquired online, Haddocks developed a seven-course curriculum that included surveying, equipment operator math (computing volumes), dozers, loaders, graders, rollers, and excavators.

“I would teach something, and we would go out into the field on the project site and do it,” said Haddocks. “Then we would go back to the class, and I would teach them something else such as math and why they would need it. I tried to keep it as basic as I could. It took them a while to get it, but once they got it they were locked on.” Petty Officer Jose Diaz, a Seabees equipment operator, assisted Haddocks in the military-to-military training. “They had basic knowledge,” he said. “But when it came to seeing the big picture and what was going to be the end result, it was kind of complex for them. They would question us, and we would give them reasons for the things we were doing such as the order of [doing] things.”

Designs and logistics

The CJTF-HOA has an engineering team that, according to Eugene, designs each project based on research of the terrain and available resources. However, in the face of time constraints, material shortages, and inadequate equipment, the designs sometimes undergo revision in the field. “The scope of the project, in some cases, is overkill,” said Haddocks. “In some cases, it's underkill. Sometimes the person who engineered it either didn't have enough time to visit the site or to consider [the project] from a different perspective.” In one project for example, designs prepared by civilian engineers called for excavating 12 inches of asphalt, digging footers, and using No. 4 rebar to construct each of six, 25-foot by 35-foot concrete pads for 70,000-pound helicopters.

However, the battalion did not have the proper equipment to excavate to the specified depth efficiently or to bend rebar easily, and also had to work around flight operations that allowed construction on only one pad at a time.

Haddocks said that to save time, they proposed excavating only 8 inches of asphalt and eliminating the footers. The engineers concurred that the less robust design would suffice.

Construction materials acquisition also can be a “logistical nightmare,” according to Haddocks. In addition to working through military channels, local suppliers often cannot meet specifications.

“In the States, you can just go to the Home Depot or somewhere and get the materials,” said Diaz. “Here, if they don't have it, you have to figure something else out.” Diaz said that material quality also affects projects. “Culverts and block are not as sturdy,” he said.

For some projects, however, it's not the design or the materials that create a hardship as much as it is the remote location.

An upcoming Seabees project involves renovating an airstrip in Kenya. “I received the surveyor's report and it noted that there were no fences around it,” said Haddocks. “They had seen bulls, elephants, and lions in the area, which makes surveying interesting. When the guy is out there holding the rod, he's looking over his shoulder waiting for something to come after him.” On the front lines Military engineering units working in Iraq also have to look over their shoulders, but not so much for wildlife. “We are combat support,” explained Captain Jon St. John, company commander of the 659th Engineer Company, a 150-member Army Reserve unit from Spokane, Wash., that is serving at Camp Anaconda, Iraq.

“We thought our main focus coming over here was going to be pavement. We found out that wasn't necessarily the case.” In addition to paving projects, the 659th has been involved in demolishing buildings, sometimes conducted to support offensive operations in towns such as Falujah, and in transferring equipment via convoys from Camp Anaconda to or from other forward-operating bases.

But the company's primary expertise is asphalt paving. As a stand-alone construction support unit, St. John said, the 659th has five platoons - headquarters, quarry, asphalt, equipment, and maintenance.

The company is under the 30th Engineer Brigade based in North Carolina, which provides designs for projects.

“They will line out all the scope of work, drainage plans, and all that stuff,” said St. John. “When I get those plans, I pretty much just have to look at what it's going to take to get it prepped and how much asphalt it's going to take to lay down and finish the project.” During its current deployment, the reserve unit has been involved in paving projects such as a taxiway for unmanned aerial vehicles, maintenance pads for Blackhawk helicopters, and an approach to a pontoon bridge. The bridge approach project was not on a U.S. base and required special security. “When working on projects off the base, we always travel in convoys with enough forces to secure the construction site,” said St. John. “Most of the time, we've gone into areas where the population is very considerate.” However, as in the Horn of Africa mission, obtaining appropriate construction materials in Iraq can be difficult. For example, aggregate is purchased from Iraqi or Turkish vendors.

“We never know what we're getting,” St. John said. “We can tell them we need 3/4- inch-minus rock, but we may get a hodge-podge. We could have stone as large as 2 inches.” Dealing with variable construction materials requires extra preparation time, for example to re-crush and screen aggregate. And remarkably, in the middle of an oil-rich country, obtaining high-quality asphalt cement (AC) is not easy. “The AC40 asphalt cement comes in [55-gallon] drums,” said St. John. “They're usually open drums with the tops cut off, with dust and trash in the drums. We have to heat the AC to get it out of the barrels and pump it into a holding tank.” The engineers have adapted their processes and asphalt mix designs to the available materials, but they also have to deal with the hot climate. “It is so warm so many days out of the year that any type of asphalt - it doesn't matter how well it sets up - during these hot months, it's going to soften up,” said St. John. “Sometimes we have to let lifts sit three to four days [before] you can put another lift on it or just to have traffic drive on it.” But even with extra time and effort, high-quality pavement is difficult to achieve. “There were some projects completed before we got here (February 2005) that are starting to get pretty rutted,” St. John said. “If you can get a year to a year and a half out of some of the projects - maximum two years - you're going to be looking good. With the heat and the amount of traffic, it's pretty amazing that they stay up as long as they do.” Although some of the roads may crumble in a few years, the Seabees and other military engineering units continue their long-term efforts - through both peaceful and combat missions - to fight terrorism throughout the Middle East.


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