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Article – Atrophy of a Proud Capability or a New Definition: Australian Army and Its Construction Capability

Supply and engineering are the sinews of war (Gaius)

Since the construction of Watson’s Pier on the beaches of Gallipoli, the Australian Army has had a long and proud history of employing construction engineers to support operations. This capability reached its peak during World War II, before the evolution of corporate ‘civilianisation’ of estate support roles which has resulted in significant change. It is proposed that with such change has come a diminished capability available to our forces. However, this decline has been masked to a large degree by the quintessential Australian characteristic of a ‘can do attitude’ mixed with a proportion of good luck.

As the nature of ADF operations continues to change, the Australian construction sector is on the path to a once-in-a-generation peak labour demand scheduled for the mid-2020s. Concurrent to this is a construction industry that continues to evolve in terms of legislative, policy and technical complexity. Factors such as unions contributing to enhanced safety standards, the advent of national building codes, environmental regulations, Commonwealth procurement requirements, and developing construction methodologies and technologies are all influencers of incremental change. The Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) construction capability is not isolated from these influences and the feats of the past can no longer be relied upon as a road map for the future. This conflation of factors all support the case for candidly assessing the RAE construction capability, comparing what is expected of it and identifying opportunities to modernise

The greatest challenge for those within the RAE construction fraternity is to convey a wider understanding of a capability that provides a useful, common, and often enduring and essential benefit. This concept of infrastructure as a pre-existent ‘free good’ that is simply ‘there’, rather than a Fundamental Input to (Operational) Capability (FIC) or a trade that creates an operational ‘effect’, encourages a level of blissful ignorance that the collective capability is in need of attention.

Through a brief summary of contemporary RAE construction history, a review of the role of military construction engineers and a discussion of modernisation opportunities, this paper is intended to stimulate further discussion and debate of where this capability should be directed beyond 2020.

Background

During the post-Vietnam period (1980 – 1990) the RAE possessed an enviable construction capacity. The backbone of this capability was provided through three regular Construction Squadrons (17th, 21st & 22nd Construction Squadrons) each with a typical strength of 240 – 300 personnel. Additionally, Field Squadrons (the precursor to today’s Combat Engineer Regiments [CER]) held up to 30 qualified tradesmen. This body of tradesmen was supported by a pipeline of up to 60 apprentices and a further 10 – 12 adult trade trainees in training at any one time. Finally, this collective field and trainee population was rounded out by a variety of domestic and overseas postings within the precursor to today’s Estate and Infrastructure Group (E&IG) and International Policy Division. This workforce supported and trained through small to medium construction tasks conducted on both training areas and barracks. By illustration, many of these works at RAAF Scherger, Lavarack Barracks, Kapooka and Puckapunyal were designed and constructed by the RAE and remain in use today.

The release of the 1987 information paper, Defence of Australia, spawned the establishment of the Commercial Support Program (CSP). From the early 1990s, the CSP sought to advance national self-reliance and enhance Defence efficiencies through the increased use of contracted support arrangements over uniformed personnel. The breadth of scope in this program included many estate maintenance and construction functions, ultimately resulting in the need for RAE to identify efficiencies in manning and inadvertently contributing to the disbandment of the 22nd Construction Squadron in 1990[1].

The implementation of the CSP in its various forms, has in part reduced scope for RAE to undertake small-to-medium projects within barracks and training areas. Concurrently the disestablishment of near region overseas postings in locations such as PNG (11th and 12th Chief Engineer (CE) Works), Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga has reduced the scope of employment options for RAE tradesmen and professional engineers. Collectively these changes resulted in a reduction of approximately 50% of construction professionals across the Corps.

It is somewhat ironic that as positions declined, the demand for RAE construction professionals has grown with the introduction of the Army ATSIC Community Assistance Program (AACAP[2]) in 1997 and a constant operational demand since East Timor in 1999. The increased demand and personnel reductions have both contributed to a cadre of fatigued construction professionals. This has reached the point that such expertise is concentrated in two Construction Squadrons within 6th Engineer Support Regiment (ESR), reduced trade sections within each CER, and a limited design and management capacity within 19th Chief Engineer Works. With a total trade workforce numbering approximately 400, it is a far cry from the early 90s.

This atrophy of the construction capability is increasingly concerning noting the current geopolitical pressures in the South West Pacific. This is not suggesting that previous RAE postings within the region would have significantly shaped current geopolitical influences; however, the ADF now lacks a physical International Engagement mechanism for the sake of saving a comparatively meagre quantity of salaries. While contemporary strategic influence actions have focused on large scale public infrastructure projects, the RAE historically focused on an inclusive indigenous capacity building program that yielded equally tangible physical results through construction.

As illustrated, the ‘golden days’ of construction capabilities have passed as the result of progressive cuts and restructures. This atrophy has resulted in the loss of technical expertise and increased reliance upon industry support with a miniscule number of specialist Army Reservists available to provide limited professional engineering and construction trade support. At best, the RAE retains a generalist design and project management capability supported by soldiers skilled at the individual level. Yet this is rarely practiced on large scale collective construction projects requiring specialist disciplines external to the military.

Despite such workforce reductions, the question remains as to whether this simply represents an evolution in capability rather than absolute demise.  To this proposition, we must first consider the question of what the Australian Army needs from its construction capability.

 Role of Military Construction Engineers

British doctrine relating to infrastructure on operations articulates purposes of infrastructure development as being:[3]

  1. To support and maintain the deployed force and therefore acts as a logistics (J4) function. Contemporary ADF examples include the development and operation of Multi National Base Tarin Kot over many years of ADF operations in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.
  2. Where applicable, to assist stabilisation and restoration of essential services and other infrastructure (including the development of indigenous infrastructure for the civil population) to perform an operations (J3) function. Contemporary examples include the delivery of schools, clinics, government facilities and route enhancements across Uruzgan.

Within this dual hatted J3/J4 capability, a plethora of doctrine and opinions exist as to the specific duties, and therefore required skills, of the military construction engineer. A concise approach is to consider the specific construction role and include tasks such as the construction, repair, maintenance and operation of infrastructure, facilities, lines of communications and bases.[4]

The first point at which construction engineers can have significant influence is phase zero. In this pre-operational phase, within a larger Whole of Government International Engagement framework, construction engineers provide the military with the ability to engage and shape partner forces through a common language of shared or transferred artisan skills. Furthermore, the objective of such activities in itself leaves a tangible and identifiable physical structure for future use by the recipient nation.

So what specific tasks does a phase zero operation require RAE to perform? Based on contemporary history and current requirements, it is suggested that tasks can reasonably be expected to include:

  • Construction or refurbishment of single or double storey working accommodation buildings to house headquarters, messes or other administrative functions
  • Construction or refurbishment of security focused facilities such as armouries and magazines.
  • Construction or refurbishment of industrial style shed facilities to support logistics and workshop related functions.
  • Construction or repair of sealed and unsealed roads, airfields, low level causeways or minor bridges
  • Support to minor ports (e.g. Pacific Patrol Boats) and airfields, most likely through contracted solutions
  • Support to the enhancement of existing security force camps and barracks, including master planning, engineer services and ICT systems.
  • Support to partnered training, indigenous capacity building and regional influence, either in construction skills or engineer logistics to enhance long term peer relationships.
  • Project management, through either a RAE or contracted workforce for all of the above.

In the event of operations beyond phase zero, the second element is support to the war or campaign itself (or in fact whatever the action of the day is). In this situation, the requirements are likely to be dynamic and range from the expedient (forward patrol base) to semi or near permanent (Sea or Air Point of Disembarkation (SPOD / APOD) or main support base). This phase is perhaps the best illustration of construction engineering concurrently performing both a J3 (support to the battlefield) and J4 (support to the campaign and force) function.

Regardless of the stage or location of the requirement, it is reasonable to expect that construction personnel will be required to support camp design and development, point of entry enhancement and maintenance, force protection works, and route establishment, enhancement and maintenance, including the assessment of existing infrastructure such as bridges and other pre-existing indigenous facilities. Furthermore, such professionals also have a key role to play in the commencement of combat operations, both to facilitate construction and mitigate unintended damage to civil infrastructure. Ultimately at a defined point a significant portion of whatever has been established will most likely be deconstructed, disposed of, or returned to either a civilian or security force partner.

Finally, construction engineers have a crucial role to play in the post-conflict or reconstruction phase of any campaign. It is arguably this phase that rouses the most evocative of images in a media saturated landscape. Images of collapsed bridges, destroyed buildings and lack of basic services resonate in the public mind and conjures romantic images of rapid restoration of a life before conflict. While some small wins can provide a degree of positive media for militaries keen to demonstrate progress, the reality of reconstruction is that it is a generational process with the vast majority of tasks being better suited for execution by civil industry within a non-military framework.

Despite the scale, there remains a role for the military engineer to aid in facilitating planning, execution and the financial investment in a degree of construction activity, even if such works are comparatively temporary compared to future investment. Here military engineering professionals can be expected to work with allied, host nation and non-government organisations to support Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) objectives. This also includes working with civil authorities and contractors to facilitate the injection of funding to support economic reconstruction. Ultimately, the overarching objective should be to expedite the transition from a post conflict environment managed by the military to one that is managed by civil authorities.

In this open ended phase, there is a need for the professional engineer to develop flexible technical solutions through the combination of first principles technical design and prior professional experience thereby contributing to broader lines of effort. It is most probable that investment will be directed at a combination of ‘new’ replacement facilities and the repair or enhancement of pre-existing indigenous infrastructure. Examples of specific requirements may include:

  • support to water and sanitation engineering
  • reconstruction of communications networks
  • restitution of power networks
  • building structural assessment
  • re-establishment of transport networks such as roads, bridges and possibly rail networks
  • re-establishment of civil airport facilities
  • support to the re-establishment of specialist health centres
  • support to the re-establishment of facilities that support economic stimulus.

For the professional engineer, none of these tasks are in themselves a single discipline. All require multiple disciplines, technical skills and extensive time simply to plan, let alone deliver an effect.

All of this is positive. However, unlike major coalition counterparts the ADF lacks the depth and capacity of uniformed engineering skills to deliver an effect at anything more than the simplistic end of the spectrum. The RAE contributes the majority of personnel and equipment to the ADF’s construction capability, with the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) contributing the remainder. However, the RAE’s minnow-like nature, diversified capabilities and at times confused sense of direction, coupled with a lack of a formal reachback capability, simply does not offer the same capability as coalition peers. This lack of uniformed capacity would leave the ADF wanting should the need to establish a theatre level engineering framework arise. Even with RAAF contributions, and significant contractor augmentation, the capacity to establish and lead a theatre-engineering framework for a sustained period would be challenging. Quite simply, the capacity for a long-term effort does not exist.

Arguably, the ADF cannot mount a sufficient weight of effort to support a theatre level reconstruction co-ordination effort without augmentation from allies such as the UK Royal Engineers or US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) supplemented with civil industry. Even then, co-ordinating such a holistic and wide ranging effort for a sustained period of time (greater than 12 months) would most likely stretch the ADF to a point whereby such efforts are almost certain to fail, leaving a void of desired effects and a sullied reputation, both amongst the local populace and internationally . The Army, and by extension, the ADF should therefore acknowledge that such an effort is in reality a ‘bridge too far’ and to initiate, lead or sustain such an effort is an endeavour that should not be contemplated.

With this premise providing the context for further analysis, the question is how niche modernisation efforts should be focused to best develop and enhance RAE’s and, by extension, the ADF’s construction capability so that it can best lead or contribute to broader engineering effects within a theatre structure.

Lines of modernisation opportunity

Putting aside the argument of simply “growing capacity through more positions”, the following four lines of effort are proposed as opportunities for development to support and enhance the ADF construction capability.

Line 1: Intellectual modernisation

The concept of intellectual modernisation is synonymous with the role of a professional engineer. Without engineers who understand their role, and how to exercise technical skills long after they are awarded formal qualification, the whole foundation of the capability is at risk. For the Army, the Land 8140 project must be the beacon of this concept.

Although centred on the title, ‘Deployable Force Infrastructure’, this project presents an opportunity to more effectively integrate materiel focused undertakings with appropriate constructed infrastructure and to set the framework for short and long term intellectual growth within the engineering field. Like medical professionals, engineers need ongoing professional development to not only maintain base skills but to also enhance and maintain best practise skills for the military environment. As such, a review of the ‘one size fits all’ General Service Officer (GSO) career model is considered necessary. Concepts may range from a more construction orientated model to an elective technical engineering professional ‘streaming’ concept. Coupled with such a review is the question of non commissioned officer (NCO) trade structure, size, training models and retention concerns. Both officer and NCO streams warrant further consideration and should form the basis of ongoing corps trade structure reviews.

Line 2: Joint Service integration

The historical lineage of construction engineering being developed and maintained along Army and RAAF service lines is out-dated and irrelevant[5]. The World War II model of RAAF airfield engineers constructing bases from which to operate the ADF’s high technology aircraft in the Pacific Islands is gone. It is no longer feasible, nor is it likely to be necessary, to undertake such activities.[6] The scale of construction assets required and the modern requirements of new aircraft have rendered this function obsolete. Given the commonality of land based infrastructure engineering support and the joint nature of operations, there is no apparent reasoning for this role not to be merged with a commensurately broader remit of duties assigned to the joint capability. This notion is not a slight upon the professionalism and skills of either Army or RAAF capabilities, but simply reflects a more efficient and pragmatic way of responding to the contemporary needs of an integrated and joint ADF.

Line 3: Enhanced Technical Support

Unlike the UK Royal Engineers, with their 140 year old Staff Corps technical reach back capability, or the technical support provided to US service people via USACE, the RAE has limited formal mechanisms for in-theatre technical professionals to seek assistance from niche specialists. Historically, support has been obtained through either an informal network of peers or ‘case by case’ engagements of industry services. This approach limits the functionality that such a capability can offer, stifles innovation, delays responsiveness and provides no consistency to the deployed engineer.

It is unrealistic to propose that the Army develop and maintain the required quantity and capacity of technical professionals to provide this function. Any attempt to do so is likely to be fraught with skill degradation and be uneconomical from a resource allocation perspective. In lieu, an established and sufficiently resourced standing commercial arrangement is proposed. A model similar to that established by 19 CE Works and Defence Legal Services in 2017 should serve as a starting point for the establishment of a suitable framework contract.

Given contemporary experiences in this field collated over the last two decades, it is considered that a suitable range of likely scenarios, location and task requirements could be used as the basis for procurement without a specific project at the time. The specifics of such a commercial arrangement are beyond the scope of this paper. However, technical design, certification, data and archive management of military construction tasks in current and future theatres of operations would be at the forefront.

Short-sighted procurement, a perceived fear of industry partnerships, and funding silos within the ADF may initially limit the appetite to embrace such a concept. However, when the need is real and present, the benefits and effects yielded are almost certain to rapidly overtake any previous misgivings. To not take this approach is akin to emailing for an Ambulance rather than calling ‘000’. The help will arrive eventually and the standard of care will still be high: however, the response time will leave those needing help at risk.

Line 4: Land Data Collection and Management

The final proposed line of effort for modernisation is the way in which Army surveyors and architectural draughtsmen are recruited, trained and operate. In construction these two trades form the foundation of all infrastructure planning and execution. Despite their miniscule numbers, their importance cannot be understated.

Individuals within these trades thrive in technological advanced and challenging roles, yet are frequently hampered by a sluggish Defence procurement process that can take several years to procure a commercial software and hardware suite that is outdated before it can be enacted. These trades have the unique benefit within Defence that commercial solutions can be employed without the need for military modifications. However, implementation remains at the mercy of a protracted process and must be a point of improvement between Army and CIOG. It is hard to be an innovative ‘Army in motion’, when such motion is dampened due to delays in solutions that could be implemented by a commercial organisation within days. Similarly, the wider construction capability would benefit significantly from implementing security appropriate contemporary industry construction systems and technologies.

Putting aside such procedural bureaucratic process, the subsequent focus should extend to modernisation of the capability using commercially available tools. Industry already uses laser scanning technology, either fixed to land based platforms or via Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), to undertake land survey and data capture for the purpose of engineering design. This is not a ‘new’ technology. This gathering process, if enabled through the right training and ICT solutions, can then feed engineering design, scenario / route simulation and engineering intelligence. It is not inconceivable that more advanced systems will in due course be able to gather data relating to land, water and air contamination for analysis and on forwarding into the planning process.

None of these ideals are beyond the realm of possibility. However, simply having the latest hardware will be pointless unless the Army has people structured and trained to support land data collection, processing and therefore enabled to demonstrate the ingenuity required of the Engineer profession.

Way forward

The obvious question is ‘what next’? The loss of the RAE Force Engineer Branch is without a doubt a step backwards in mapping a path forward for the ADF construction capability. As a Corps, we are essentially willingly walking backwards into a minefield. There is a possibility the path will be forged without consequence, however a lack of clear vision makes this only a slight probability. As a result, the RAE currently risks being rudderless at a time of increasing demand for construction support.

With this loss of the Corps’ subject matter ‘champion’, there is a case for a focused ‘tiger team’ or independent Senior Leadership strategic review to develop a multi-faceted capability roadmap for the future of construction. The solution to this complex problem is not singular, and silos of excellence spanning recruitment, career management, training, materiel, ICT and policy must come together to form a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for the future. Without a coordinated and dedicated approach, the Army risks either spectacular failure or further atrophy at best.

Conclusion

This paper has provided an overview of the RAE construction capability and its atrophy over multiple generations. Outlining the role of construction engineers has illustrated the enduring need for this capability, regardless of operational nature. Finally, the paper has provided four lines of effort for modernisation and a means of mapping future capability development.

The Australian Army has, through decades of progressive cuts, reached a point-of-decision crossroad. Continued atrophy will ultimately lead to the capability being ineffectual through lack of skills and depth. This in turn will limit force employment and engagement options for the Government. Alternatively, comparatively modest investment and redirection through strong leadership offers the opportunity for a new definition to be forged for this proud capability.

Acknowledgements: 

I wish to acknowledge the contributions of COL Leonard Rouwhorst, LTCOL Nick Bosio, LTCOL Gavin Cooper, MAJ Andrew Oxlade, MAJ Andrew Hansell, MAJ Kirsty Hyde, WO1 Ian Hancock and WO1 Darren Parsons to the preparation of this paper . The ready willingness to invest time in this endeavour by so many is, in itself, a testament to shared concerns.


About the author: Glen Billington is the Commanding Officer and Chief Engineer of 19th Chief Engineer Works, responsible for domestic and international projects along with the responsibility for developing and maintaining the Australian Army’s managed works capability.

In addition to the 19th Chief Engineer Works, he has also completed postings as a Project Officer within Infrastructure Division, Divisional Officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Infrastructure Staff Officer at Army Headquarters and has completed a civil construction industry placement in the United Kingdom.


[1] The 22nd Construction Squadron was based at Irwin Barracks, Karrakatta, and served as the well-drilling capability for Army, and as a general purpose construction squadron which included support to the maintenance of selected barracks and training areas. This unit was responsible for building among other facilities Campbell Barracks, Bindoon Training Area, and the Irwin Barracks Officers Mess.

[2] Following the disbandment of ATSIC, this program was later retitled the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program in 2004.

[3] Joint Tactics , Techniques and Procedures 4-05 – Operational Infrastructure (2nd edition), 2012

[4] Rusten SG, ‘The role of military construction engineers in hybrid war’, (http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a624030.pdf), p10.

[5] No equivalent land based engineering trade exists within the Royal Australian Navy.

[6] This is not to suggest that the construction, maintenance and restitution of existing or expedient airfields in support of rotary, fixed wing or even unmanned aircraft will no longer be required.

3 thoughts on “Article – Atrophy of a Proud Capability or a New Definition: Australian Army and Its Construction Capability

  1. Great article. Being posted to 19 CE Works from 1984 to 1986 as the Chief Clerk, I considered this posting as the most satisfying in my 30 year RAE career. Being there at its peak was an eye opener for the amount of work a small unit could produce and at such a high standard was a true indication of what the Corps could achieve it utilised fully.
    I found the article to be very informative of way the system never takes advantage of it most important assets, it’s trained professional Engineers.

  2. I really enjoyed the article and note that the civilian population is also suffering a drain on numbers for new young tradies. While this is a separate issue, it should be cause for consideration. Perhaps a thought may be that the trades of RAE align or come under DMO, aligning the FIC will see the trades stream utilised in the implementation of new equipment whether that be building/maintain of structures used for testing of weapons or other material. A possible link to DFAT could be maintained to ensure that Australian Embassies are capable of maintaining However maintaining a deployable force is vital to ensure that TTP are not lost forever. Many should consider that the construction of force protection measures are vital, trades can also ensure that the material used for force protection are fit for purpose and safe.
    Continued atrophy of the trades will also lead to a reduction of the NCO, SCNCO and Officer ranks. Which will ultimately lead to the demise of all trades which will be a sorry day for RAE and the ADF.

  3. Great article. While on deployment myself and my works supervisor (SGT) completed six of the eight phase zero tasks itemised under the ‘Role of Military Construction Engineers’, so the insight here definitely hits the mark.

    The concept alluded to under Intellectual modernisation – “from a more construction orientated model to an elective technical engineering professional ‘streaming’ concept” – and the insight of “anything more than the simplistic end of the spectrum” also hits home. The skills degradation experienced by civil/structural engineering educated General Services Officers is significant, so much so that many officers in this category would struggle to design, for example, simple slabs and footings, retaining walls, mezzanine floors, portal frames, pavements etc.

    The focus of training, both holistically and targeted, tends to be weighed towards ‘construction engineering’ or ‘construction management’ with opportunities such as industry secondments (e.g. to JHG) and defence funded tertiary study in Project Management. This has seen a significant number of civil engineer GSOs attain CPE status in the Engineers Australia Leadership and Management College. This is good, and necessary, but expansion of the secondment program, to something similar to the UK RE model, is needed: one officer per year just doesn’t cut it.

    But what about CPD and skill retention for the technical engineering skill sets that we spend 4+ years at university studying? How do we fix this? Well, much of the onus to maintain these skills rests with the individual and can be achieved through, for example, short courses and a general willingness to ‘have a crack’ at design tasks at every opportunity. Perhaps industry secondments to design consultancies are necessary, manning shortages considered.

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