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Beyond Minefields and Defilade Positions

The U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment developed innovative techniques for integrating Army combat engineers with U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force construction assets in order to complete force protection upgrades in East Africa.


By Capt. Terence Satchell, P.E., M.SAME, USA, and Capt. Edwin den Harder, USA


 Soldiers with D Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, maintain weapons proficiency during a deployment to East Africa.

Soldiers with D Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, maintain weapons proficiency during a deployment to East Africa. PHOTO BY CAPT. EDWIN DEN HARDER, USA


The engineer functions of General Engineering and Combat Engineering often overlap during force protection construction projects. From February to September 2015, the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment (1-77AR) deployed to Djibouti in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). A Combined Arms Battalion assigned to the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which served as the Regionally Aligned Brigade to U.S. Africa Command, 1-77 AR’s largest mission was to provide force protection in direct support of three U.S. installations in East Africa.

1-77 AR’s security elements operated in a true joint environment. The U.S. Navy is the proponent service for two of the installations and the U.S. Air Force is the proponent service for the third. While the joint environment does not significantly impact the principles of security operations, it does complicate the process of integrating survivability and countermobility into force protection.



1-77 AR deployed with limited engineer assets. The battalion’s operations section has an officer as the task force engineer and an engineer sergeant. The battalion received attachment of a combat engineer platoon for the purpose of providing counter-IED training to partner nation militaries in East Africa. The battalion had no engineering equipment or construction assets in its task organization to provide support to Army security elements.

A detachment of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 14 is task-organized to CJTF-HOA and provides the bulk of construction capability within the area of operations. The Seabees receive their tasks and directives from CJTF-HOA’s CJ-44 Engineer Section. Navy engineers run the CJ-44 Section and provide designs, planning, logistics and contracting for all construction projects within the command.  The Air Force assigns a Base Civil Engineer and Civil Engineer Detachment to the Air Force installation, protected by 1-77 AR security. Air Force engineers provide General Engineering capability to the airfield and oversight for all engineer operations conducted on the installation. They report directly to the Air Force’s installation command and coordinate for all outside construction support through CJ-44.



CJTF-HOA, installation commands and 1-77 AR’s maneuver companies assessed force protection posture throughout the deployment and identified areas of improvement for fighting positions, tactical obstacles and entry control points at smaller installations. This presented an opportunity for Army engineers to make a significant impact on the operating environment. 

Army engineers, experts in survivability and countermobility in an expeditionary environment, are well-practiced at integrating with maneuver commanders and understand the principles of fields of fire, sector sketches, and engagement areas. These skills make the Army engineer a key asset to develop the scheme of engineer support to a joint security plan. However, integrating the Army engineer’s support into force protection upgrades in the joint environment requires deliberate action to involve all stakeholders in the planning process.

A best practice developed during 1-77 AR’s deployment is to integrate all stakeholders from the joint environment into force protection upgrades as early as possible. The task force engineer and the maneuver company commander can have a great design for a fighting position, but other stakeholders must have buy-in in order to make the project successful. 1-77 AR’s engineer, the maneuver company commander, a representative from the installation command, NMCB 14, and a CJ-44 representative would work together to develop a feasible and acceptable solution for all force protection improvements. The final step in the process was to conduct a joint site survey with all stakeholders to finalize the design and construction methods.

The design-bid-build method of project delivery models this process. The installation command plays the part of the project owner. The CJ-44 serves as the design firm providing the project specifications. And the Navy fulfills the role of a general contractor.

But where does the Army task force engineer fit into this process? The Army engineer maintains responsibility for several key roles: serving as a consultant to all three entities; making recommendations for survivability and countermobility improvements to the installation; assisting CJ-44 in developing design specifications and drawings; and assisting the Seabees in understanding how construction methods and material choices will impact the completed project.



Survivability is the most important engineer consideration when conducting operations in a sovereign country where there are significant limitations on tactical obstacle emplacement. Conducting survivability in this environment requires the Army engineer to be more creative than simply determining how many defilade positions will protect a tank company.

Many of the existing guard towers and fighting positions, the engineers discovered, were wood-framed structures with little overhead cover. As earth construction with wire-mesh containers has become a popular option during the years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the engineers determined that this method of tower construction would be cheaper, faster, and less resource-intensive than wood framing. Engineers used the HESCO Construction Guide for Engineers in order to develop designs for tower upgrades.

When reinforcing roofs to provide cover, it is important to analyze the existing structure to ensure that it can accommodate an increase in the dead load. Engineers deployed to East Africa used design standards and codes from the Department of Defense Unified Facilities Criteria and the American Wood Council in order to design a safe roof system. CJ-44 formalized all upgrade specifications by creating drawings with computer-aided drafting.



Engineers must conduct countermobility with significant restraint when operating in a sovereign country. Mines and networked munitions are not an option in such operational environments. In East Africa, 1-77 AR employed three key categories of obstacles for conducting countermobility with restraint: wire obstacles, anti-vehicle ditches, and serpentines.

Most engineers are familiar with using wire to construct protective obstacles. Wire also can provide a significant tactical obstacle to create standoff for dismounted personnel approaching an installation’s perimeter. Wire obstacles keep potential dismounted threats at a distance and provide standoff for security personnel. Anti-vehicle ditches supplement wire obstacles to block avenues of approach for vehicles, mitigating vehicle-borne IED threats.

The design of entry control points, for instance, is an important skill that an Army engineer can provide in the joint environment and years of persistent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced significant  resources to guide this function. The publications used to design improvements during 1-77 AR’s deployment were the Small-Base Entry Control Point Guide and the Joint Forward Operations Base Protection Handbook. The serpentine portion of the entry control point is an important tactical obstacle providing vehicle standoff and allowing security personnel to judge the compliance of approaching traffic. While the information contained in the resource documents assists in designing the dimensions of a serpentine, engineers must be able to calculate horizontal curves to ensure that the serpentine accommodates the appropriate turn radius. A serpentine should slow approaching traffic to an appropriate speed (often determined by the design speed of drop-arms and drop-barriers), but also allow the majority of vehicles to negotiate the serpentine. This design methodology ensured that the improved serpentine did not require excessive use of the large-vehicle bypass lanes.



On the surface, joint integration is a daunting task for engineers who have only conducted operations at or below the battalion level. However, it is imperative for engineers to consider how they can provide the protection warfighting function in this environment through enhancing survivability and conducting countermobility with restraint.

In order to maximize effectiveness of the joint team, Army engineers must address force protection with the enthusiasm, coordination and level of detail usually reserved for combined arms breaching. Our combat expertise is a valuable asset when planning construction projects for force protection upgrades in a joint environment.



Capt. Terence Satchell, P.E., M.SAME, USA, is Task Force Engineer, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Capt. Edwin den Harder, USA, is Company Commander, D Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..