Irregular Warfare and the New Normal

As the nation’s military focus evolves, it is clear that Air Force Civil Engineers will be called upon to support many new non-traditional roles and responsibilities.

Sgt. 1st Class Brian Lancey (left) and Sgt. Lucas Simmons of the Rhode Island Army National Guard, who performed security operations for the Provincial Reconstruction Team, spend time with local kids in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. RYAN CRANE, USA

Air Force Doctrine Document 3-34, Engineer Operations, specifies that U.S. Air Force (AF) engineers “provide, operate, maintain, and protect sustainable installations as weapon system platforms through engineering and emergency response services.”

However, since 9/11, Air Force Civil Engineers repeatedly have been called to fill much farther-reaching mission sets. As President Obama has stated: “We will continue to rebalance our military capabilities to excel at counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations…while ensuring our force is ready to address the full range of military operations.” Therefore, as warfare continues to evolve, all U.S. military personnel can anticipate supporting joint-service teams with irregular warfare missions such as stability operations.

If this is the direction we are headed, then the question we must continually ask ourselves is, “Are we ready?”


Military Doctrine drives our current and future investments in equipment, manpower and training. The shift toward irregular warfare is evident in the increasing role engineers and other support personnel have played in stability operations. Stability operations are missions conducted in coordination with host nation organizations to strengthen legitimacy, establish security, aid reconstruction efforts and provide essential governmental services. A number of Department of Defense (DOD) and joint and service publications define the organizational roles and responsibilities within stability operations. Each document places an equal emphasis on stability and combat operations. None is more succinct than the 2009 DOD Instruction 3000.05, Stability Operations, which states: “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct with proficiency equivalent to combat operations.”

Capt. Jonathan Polston, USAF, (center left) and Master Sgt. David Vinatieri, USAF, (right) Provincial Reconstruction Team, with the director of the Agricultural University in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. RYAN CRANE, USAF

Over the last decade, one of the primary units executing stability operations has been Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). PRTs typically total 60 to 90 members, composed of U.S. and international military, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other civilian personnel. Historically, six of the 12 U.S.-led PRTs were staffed by Air Force personnel. PRT members advise and assist the host nation and bolster host nation governmental agencies with economic, infrastructure, military, political and any other assistance. Most of this assistance is provided on the ground, in harm’s way, and fostered through relationships built over time in face-to-face meetings, village councils and other daily interactions.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force support personnel have been called to operate within the land domain—but outside their traditional and doctrinal air-installation support roles. These operations have stretched engineers and challenged education providers and combat trainers to keep pace with their ever-evolving readiness needs and prepare them to conduct stability operations with a “proficiency equivalent to combat operations.”


The gap in education and training between traditional and non-traditional roles begins at the tactical level. New airmen are educated on and assigned to Air Force units where they perform traditional Air Force missions using the traditional Air Force way of doing business. As they progress, their training broadens to focus on how to enable and operate the tenets of air power, and how the U.S. military, and, more specifically, the U.S. Air Force is structured to conduct wars and support the National Security Strategy. When airmen individually deploy as part of a PRT or other advisory role in a stability operations unit, they are forced to operate in a completely new operational domain.

Wartime planners have responded by developing and mandating a host of pre-deployment courses. Airmen are instructed on combat-related topics such as counter-improvised explosive devices, use of force, and weapons qualifications during pre-deployment training. Cultural basics, awareness, and other forms of culture and advisory training seek to inform personnel on how to operate in-tune with local customs. These courses are intended to provide a foundation in land-based operations, but little time is spent training the actual execution of integrated stability operations. Those skills require years of continued preparedness and education. One cannot learn the intricacies of stability-operations overnight, nor be expected to master them all via a whirlwind of non-stop just-in-time training. This expectation belittles the on-the-ground challenges, and puts airmen at risk of mission failure.


Capt. Luke Donovan, USAF, meets with local workers at Police District Istalif, which is north of Kabul, Afghanistan, while he was working as the Afghan Nation Police Engineer for Regional Support Command-Capital. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. AIR FORCE

In 2009, in an attempt to overcome this shortfall, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen established the Afghanistan Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands Program to “develop a cadre of experts who speak the local language, are culturally attuned, and focused on regional issues for an extended duration.” Airmen were hand-picked for the first teams and given highly specialized training to perform stability operations full-time—alternating a year in the field and a year at home-station conducting training for four-year assignments. By 2011, the AFPAK Hands Program had approximately 250 personnel, with 20 percent Air Force sourcing. While successful in fostering the ability to focus solely on a stability mission, the program has been unable to ensure that airmen assigned to traditional home-station support functions are not called upon to perform alongside AFPAK Hands personnel in PRTs and as host-nation trainers and partners elsewhere.

These non-traditional responsibilities continue to be the norm, and not just for a select cadre but for a considerable number of Air Force support personnel. Consequently, perhaps the time has come to include stability operations training in both initial skills training courses and as a part of ongoing annual requirements. For Air Force Civil Engineers, training would focus on contracting support, project oversight, planning and execution of new construction projects, and village- and provincial-level maintenance planning. Additional instruction would be needed to prepare them to train host and partner nations.

While the development of such ongoing training programs is no small task, once implemented they would reduce pre-deployment training cost and time impacts on existing forces. Still, a shift to preparedness in both the land and air domains would challenge educators and trainers to develop programs that ensure the retention of even more information beyond the current baseline. This engineer-force-wide baseline of knowledge could provide a broader pool of personnel to select from for future stability operations.


As the focal point for Air Force Civil Engineer continuing education, The Civil Engineer School at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, is well-situated to lead the change and connect engineers with the resources and education they need to succeed in non-traditional environments.

Over the past decade the school has been forced to look beyond the traditional classroom to meet non-traditional just-in-time training requirements. It has created new lessons, exercises and entire courses for deploying engineers; hosted classes; placed course material on the web; and mailed material out on DVDs to engineers already in the field. In addition, partnerships with sister-service engineers have led to the development of the Joint Engineer Operations Course, a week-long course offered six times a year, and faculty instruction of contingency construction and inspection training at the Provincial Reconstruction Training Course at Camp Atterbury, Ind. What these and other similar courses do best is provide space for conversations between engineers of all services and with varying levels of experience. Additionally, since Air Force Civil Engineers often deploy not as a unit from a single installation, but as individuals from across the Air Force, best practices and lessons learned in the classroom quickly can be disseminated worldwide upon returning to home station.

The frenetic pace of deployments for more than a decade has created a cadre of highly capable officers and enlisted airmen with a vast range of non-traditional experiences and capabilities. For them, learning how to perform stability operations and how best to oversee, and teach others to oversee construction projects and the maintenance of national infrastructure oftentimes took place through trial and error. Thanks to their lessons learned, courses and training programs have caught up with the need and established a robust network for the transfer and sharing of best practices. The challenge is to ensure that level of experience is maintained going forward.

Throughout combat operations draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation’s leaders have made it clear that the U.S. military will continue to use the tenets of irregular warfare to achieve national security goals.

As the irregular becomes regular, and non-traditional roles become the norm, we must continue to learn, practice and prepare for whatever—and wherever—comes next.

Capt. Luke T. Donovan, M.SAME, USAF, is Architectural Engineering Instructor, and Capt. Timothy D. Callahan, P.E., M.SAME, USAF, is Course Director & Instructor, The Civil Engineer School, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. They can be reached at 937-255-5654 Ext. 3552, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and 937-255-5654 Ext. 3539, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.