Joint Engineering for the Future

The complex nature of future global challenges will demand key Joint Engineering capabilities and an understanding of how military engineers from each service will fit those requirements to create a whole greater than the sum.
By Col. Timothy O’Rourke, EIT, M.SAME, USA (Ret.)
Fig. 1 - Joint Engineer Capability Framework

In looking to the future, the United States faces a challenge in optimizing more constrained resources to shape a Joint Force that can respond to an ill-defined security environment—one marked by rapidly spreading technology, asymmetric threats and a diverse array of adversaries and competitors.

The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) frames a solution to that challenge based on globally integrated operations, which capitalize on combining the unique capabilities of each service across time and physical domains (land, air and space, and maritime) to produce overwhelming effects and force. For engineers, this implies understanding what are the key Joint Engineer capabilities that need to be brought to bear and how the Service Engineer capabilities fit those requirements in order to employ the right capability at the right place and time.


Understanding the key Joint Engineer capabilities began in 2008 when the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Combatant Commands, the Joint Staff, and the Services used a “Capability-Mission-Task” assessment to identify all the capabilities that make up the Department of Defense. The purpose was to facilitate better planning, programming and strategic decisions based on Joint Capability Areas (JCAs). The Service Engineer Chiefs, in their roles as the principal members of the Joint Operational Engineering Board (JOEB), participated in the JCA development and outlined Joint Engineer capabilities around combat, general and geospatial engineering elements. As defined in the JCAs, Joint Engineering is the art of integrating combat, general and geospatial engineer capabilities in support of the nation and the Joint Force in any mission and environment.

In 2011, the JOEB also completed a Capability Based Assessment of Joint Engineering and refined the Engineer JCAs to cover the capabilities found in all Active and Reserve elements as well as units and institutional components such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Fig. 2 - Service Contributions to Joint Engineer Capabilities

Following the Capability-Mission-Task construct, the JOEB and the Capability Based Assessment traced the engineering JCA elements down through the Universal Joint Task List and Service Task List. This resulted in 13 key capabilities that describe what Joint Engineers bring to the nation and the Joint Force as shown in Figure 1.

Much like the CCJO principle of globally integrated operations, the Joint Engineer Capability Framework highlights how unique Service Engineer capabilities combine to enable the Joint Force.

The JCA Capability-Mission-Task model is reflected in the Joint Engineer capability to the Universal Joint Task List to Service Task List mapping behind the framework. That mapping can be used to build a picture of what each Service contributes by extending the mapping to the units and skills represented in Service Task Lists. The results and how Service Engineer capabilities fit into the Joint Framework is illustrated in Figure 2.


A more detailed look at how Service Engineer capabilities align with the Joint Engineer JCA elements and against the operational environments described in Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, for hostile, unknown and permissive conditions is depicted in Figure 3.

Fig. 3 - Service Engineer Capabilities by Operating Environment

At the front of Figure 3, for instance, the Army capabilities can be seen to cross all the engineering JCAs—but it is important to remember that the JOEB effort looked at all elements spanning Active and Reserve units as well as USACE, which explains why the shading reflects unit capability in light green that mainly covers hostile into unknown conditions and dark green for USACE mainly fits in the operational and permissive environment.

Similarly, Marine Corps engineering capabilities reflect their role in directly supporting Marine Air-Ground Task Forces. Therefore, they mainly appear in the hostile column and into the unknown. Linked to the maritime domain, Navy engineers span from some hostile application to permissive conditions and provide capability depth required by Marine and Navy forces. As with USACE and Army units, there is a shading transition in the unknown column that highlights Naval Construction Force and NAVFAC delineation. Air Force Civil Engineer capabilities complete the picture. This view provides a much better perspective of how each service’s capabilities combine to integrate as the Engineer JCAs. The model also comes together looking from front to back with no capability “gaps” and a purple hue as shown in the central block in Figure 2.

While the model in Figure 3 only directly addresses capability, again, looking at this view from front to back implies a qualitative framing of Joint capacity and potential sourcing for global requests for capacity. Where there is overlap, there also can be a danger that this view implies that in some cases an “Engineer is an Engineer” without any unique contribution by service. However, lessons learned from over a decade of operations prove otherwise.


That “commonness” begins to disappear further when the perspective of operational environment is rotated and replaced by a “level of war” perspective as seen in Figure 4. The view at the front of Figure 4 shows that Army units contribute mostly at the tactical and operational levels while USACE contributes largely at the strategic level.

Fig. 4 - Service Engineer Capabilities by Level of War

Relating levels of war back to operational environments and the Joint Campaign model highlights that early operational phases are largely focused on strategic efforts for shaping the theater and building partner capacity. In that environment there is a large USACE contribution complimented by support from engineer units. The campaign model continues with the middle phases marked by kinetic operations at the tactical and operational level where the predominance of employed capabilities come from units and USACE provides depth and assistance via reachback. The latter phase of a campaign has a switch back to USACE contributions as operations transition back to civil authorities.

In a philosophical sense, that representation points to Army units as more tactically oriented and fitting as an “apprentice” to “journeyman” skill level while USACE brings depth via high-level engagement and very skilled/technical capability. Similarly in Figure 4, maritime engineers start with Marine engineer capabilities that are primarily tactically focused on direct support to combat elements and the Navy brings the operational and strategic depth, and a much more skilled force covering the “journeyman” to “craftsman” level. Air Force RED HORSE and Prime BEEF elements function like an embedded element providing close support to an expeditionary wing or group. Because of their strategic role, Air Force engineers lack long haul communications, heavy weapons and many protective systems for combat organic to other engineer units, since RED HORSE and Prime BEEF draw that from the installation they support. Figure 4 shows Air Force engineers as mainly a strategic element focused on general engineering capability and the “craftsman” level in the capability integration model.


Between a decade of experience with Joint sourcing to meet global demands and the JOEB’s efforts to look at what are the key capabilities, the Joint Engineer community has gained an understanding of its key capabilities and how the Service Engineer capabilities fit. This framework provides JOEB the ability to meet future challenges and the need to enable globally integrated operations with the right capability at the right place and time. Going forward, that ability can be enhanced by ensuring that mission command of engineer elements allows the most efficient employment of the capability. Training and equipping of engineers should be leveraged in a way to define capability and skill overlaps to serve the Joint Force and the nation as resiliency rather than redundancy.

Lastly, however, the complex and dynamic nature of future challenges and global demands for engineering mean the Service Engineer Chiefs and JOEB still face the challenge of translating capability understanding into quantitative capacity terms that also account for how industry and coalition partners contribute in order to assess engineering sufficiency measured against both Service and Joint requirements.

Col. Timothy O’Rourke, EIT, M.SAME, USA (Ret.), is Engineer Capability Analyst, Joint Staff J4 Engineering Division; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..