Expeditionary, Agile and Ready to Deploy

Members of a Forward Engineer Support Team-Advance possess unique skills and capabilities that have been in high demand in support of the warfighter in Iraq and Afghanistan and will continue to help meet the requirements of U.S. forces as future needs surface around the globe.  

 

By Maj. Tobin Flinn, PMP, M.SAME, USA 

 

 

When my brother learned about my job as the team lead of an elite engineering team in the U.S. Army he responded, “Dude, I need to design you a hover craft.” Fast forward several months and my brother, a veteran engineer at NASA, continued to develop state-of-the-art avionics for the new Orion spacecraft as I prepared for a deployment to Afghanistan. I never got the hover craft, but his remark and fascination emphasizes the unique capability that the Forward Engineer Support Team-Advance (FEST-A) offers to the warfighter. 

FEST-A is an attractive concept built around an expeditionary eight-person engineer team capable of working in the civil, structural, environmental, electrical, mechanical and geospatial engineering disciplines in the world’s most austere and dangerous environments. At its core, the team is expeditionary and light, ready to deploy anywhere within 72 hours.34th FEST-A

 

“ENGINEERS ON THE GROUND” 
Members of a FEST-A are engineering generalists in nature, able to operate between civilian and military agencies, but are also the “engineers on the ground” for the most educated and accomplished engineers in the world, many of whom can be leveraged through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Reachback Operations Center. Hence, FEST-A members must know how to think like the expert, even if they are not. There is no other organization that can deploy such an engineering force. 

The pre-deployment workup for a FEST-A resembles that of a Special Forces unit with intensive tactical, engineering, cultural and language training coupled with cutting edge engineering technology developed by USACE’s Field Force Engineering Program. Much of the training is done alongside the joint and combined military community. The individual that emerges from a FEST-A training cycle is not your typical engineer since the contingency environment precludes the luxury of time or a corner office. FEST-A work is comprised of engineers who can rapidly assess a situation and arrive at solutions in challenging conditions. Engineering designs born in contingency environments are constrained to the natural terrain, local labor practices and materials—requiring an engineer to think backward and forward simultaneously. FEST-A engineers must balance battlespace owner requirements and future applications with a thorough understanding of the reality on the ground and anticipated challenges. This forward and backward thinking is learned through experience. Academics alone cannot suffice. 

The 34th Engineer Detachment FEST-A, from USACE Northwestern Division, brought these skills to bear during a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan from September 2013 through May 2014. For the first time in theater, one FEST-A was responsible for three Regional Commands (RCs), including RC-South, RC-Southwest and RC-West. From the borders of Pakistan to the borders of Iran, the 34th FEST-A supported the warfighter throughout the kinetic lands of southern and western Afghanistan. During its deployment, the 34th FEST-A completed 60 projects totaling more than $30 million in design work, assessments and construction management.

While deployed, FEST-As are funded through Overseas Contingency Operation dollars and are in general support to Regional Commands. This allows the team to support the end user at no cost, enabling it to provide rapid support to different services and agencies operating in theater.

 

ASSESS AND REPORT
Within two weeks of being on the ground, the team was called to conduct a structural assessment on the U.S. Consulate in Herat after a massive explosion rocked the building. Two FEST-A civil engineers with extensive experience in construction linked up with a U.S. Agency for International Development structural engineer, David Roebuck, at Camp Arena before traveling to the site. The Taliban had detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive outside the building that blew out virtually every window in the seven-story building. The 34th FEST-A soon was en route. With Mr. Roebuck in the lead, the 34th sketched out a plan to assess the structural integrity of the building that required a room-by-room investigation for cracks and structural integrity. The “pick-up” team had three days to complete the assessment before briefing U.S. Assistant Chief of Mission in Afghanistan, Ambassador David Robinson.

34th FEST-AThe FEST-A’s command post was located at Kandahar Airfield, which acted as the hub for our mission command where we were provided office and network support by the USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District South Area Office. A trip to RC-West to meet the battle space owner uncovered an engineering gap at Shindand Air Base. The base’s operating support integrator, also the garrison commander, had begun right sizing the 850-acre base, but did not have the resident knowledge to support deliberate planning. The plan called for the reduction of the U.S. troop footprint while maintaining force protection and no loss to the base’s primary mission of training the Afghan Air Force. We sent five engineers to RC-West and planted the forward command post there for four months.

The team’s first task at Shindand was to assess the base’s natural and man-made terrain. Using recent aerial imagery, FEST-A engineers Rick Petersen and Allison Bruner traced all existing structures in CAD and geospatial software so that future designs would have current imagery to use as a background. This required the drafter to see the subtle differences between Alaska tent, Large Area Maintenance Shelter, earth-filled barriers, and wood versus concrete structures from aerial imagery. One must have lived in the backwater forward operating bases of Iraq or Afghanistan to perform this task, as it is learned only by roughing it. 

We found that our master planning efforts were of great interest to other agencies such as the Base Camp Closure Assistance Team and U.S. Central Command Materials and Recovery Element, which were both leading the charge on base closure. FEST-A engineer Chris Jarvis also partnered with the prime power contractor to develop an optimization plan that saved $2.5 million.

 

SURVEY AND DESIGN 
In November 2013, the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command Senior Engineer, Brig. Gen. Michael Wehr, USA, tasked the 34th FEST-A to lead the site survey and design phase of an Afghan National Army Trauma Clinic on Camp Shorabak, located in Helmand Province. Although a complete 100 percent design for the hospital was beyond the capacity of the team, we were the “eyes and ears” for the USACE Middle East District (MED) design team located in Winchester, Va. 

The MED team was given two months for design. FEST-A acted as the bridge between the stakeholders by nailing down customer requirements and facilitating communications across the varied time zones and different agencies. The end result was a 100 percent design awarded and contractor mobilization within three months, right on schedule. The 34th later supported RC-West by conducting technical submittal reviews and technical site inspections of the hospital. The team’s knowledge of Dari facilitated this communication and built a trusting relationship with the Afghan Army and local contractor.

FEST-A was called upon to propose engineering solutions that supported Commander’s Emergency Response Program initiatives for Special Operations Task Force-South (SOTF-S). Two of these projects required team members to take part in mounted and dismounted route reconnaissance missions through the Taliban strongholds of Pangway and Maywand Districts. In this situation, the FEST-A breaks out a sophisticated piece of equipment called the Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit (ARRK), which enables the operator to track distance, subtle changes in elevation, angle, and significant features that can later be transformed into a digestible and usable product. The ARRK can also be modified using the Air ARRK camera to conduct a reconnaissance in a rotary wing platform. This is particularly helpful when covering large swaths of land.

During our deployment, the 34th also was prepared to conduct reconnaissance missions on foot if needed, and did so along a stretch of road impassable with the large Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. 

34th FEST-AAlong the route, the security forces uncovered an improvised explosive device that was later detonated during the ground assessment. The mission was completed and the lead engineers, Nick Myron and Michael Suh, submitted three courses of action to SOTF-S leadership and subsequently developed a design to repair the route. FEST-A Noncommissioned Officer-in-Charge Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bamba, USA, orchestrated the logistics and security. 

 

BUILT TO SUCCEED
FEST-A is a force multiplier that bridges the gap between larger agencies and the end user, whether the customer is a battlespace owner or a non-governmental organization providing disaster relief. 

The team’s success is due to the depth of its experience and the breadth of its expertise. Built of engineers—of soldiers and civilians—it is expeditionary, agile and ready to deploy anywhere across the globe within 72 hours.

  


 

Maj. Tobin Flinn, PMP, M.SAME, USA, is Commander, 34th Engineer Detachment, FEST-A, USACE Northwestern Division; 540-686-2699, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..