The Role of Engineers in the Pacific
During peace and war, engineers are crucial to the ability of the United States to support allies and friends in the Pacific—a theater that spans more than half of the globe and is immeasurably critical to our national security and economic stability.
By Col. Mickey Addison, M.SAME, USAF
Members of Pacific Angel Philippines’ engineering civic action project stand before students from Bartolome Doria Elementary School after finishing repairs to the school as part of Pacific Angel Philippines in August 2015. Military engineers play a critical role in supporting U.S.-led emergency response and humanitarian assistance throughout the Pacific. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY TECH. SGT. AARON OELRICH
The Pacific Theater is a complex, demanding region where America’s vital interests are at stake.
In addition to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California, there are American territories and commonwealths on the west side of the International Dateline: Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Wake Island. A majority of America’s trade passes through the Pacific; five of seven treaty allies are in the Asia-Pacific region; and four nuclear-armed nations ring the world’s largest ocean.
The ability to project power in the Pacific is crucial to our national defense. U.S. forces are forward deployed for the defense of Korea and Japan. Having U.S. territory in the same theater as forward-deployed forces creates a unique challenge for commanders—they have to plan to conduct combat operations against the full spectrum of enemies, from terrorists like ISIS and Abu Sayef to deterring nuclear-armed powers. Trouble in the Crimea is not only a European problem, but a Pacific problem since the United States shares a border with Russia in the Artic. An increasingly assertive China is building islands in the South China Sea—an area large enough to fit the entire continental United States. Conflicting territorial and commercial claims in the South China Sea put Vietnam, China, Taiwan and treaty ally Philippines in direct conflict. Small-scale naval incidents between coast guard ships and commercial shipping in the sea has the potential to ignite conflict.
To keep the peace, and given the enormity of the theater and the limits of American forces, commanders have to plan on rapid mobility to meet mission demands. U.S. Air Force engineers provide a web of bases and operating locations to enable the mobility of air forces across the Pacific—from the Arctic to Guam to everywhere in between.
REGIONAL CHALLENGES EVOLVE
Great Power competition of the 20th Century has given way to a web of interrelated threats today. A nuclear-armed North Korea, Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, piracy, simmering ethnic and political unrest in Thailand, and an increasingly assertive China simultaneously create volatile situations in several areas of the Pacific basin. If political-economic tension and criminality were not enough, natural disasters in the Pacific are an ongoing concern. In three of the last five years alone, U.S. forces have supported the Japanese after the 2011 tsunami, the Filipinos after Typhoon Hainan in 2014, and the Nepalese after the 2015 earthquake. When Typhoon Soudelor devastated the Northern Mariana Islands in August, a joint U.S. military team rushed to provide aid. Adding to the complexity of the Pacific are multiple bi-lateral treaties, several joint sub-unified commands, and of course, enormous distances. It is that “tyranny of distance” that provides impetus for strategies like rotational forces around the theater and the pre-positioning of humanitarian relief supplies in the Western Pacific. Given these complexities, air power has a number of advantages, chief among them its inherent range and speed—factors enabled by air bases that Air Force engineers provide.
The key terrain in the Pacific in 1945 remains the key terrain in 2015. Working with allies and joint partners, the Air Force is establishing a web of locations from which to employ air power for humanitarian, regional stability, and contingency operations. Following a strategy of “Places Not Bases,” Pacific Air Forces engineers are joining with allies, friends, and partners in the region to set the theater for the future. Air Force engineers engage in Theater Security Cooperation missions to strengthen relationships, as well as conduct traditional troop construction and training missions in direct support of Air Force units. Except for purely Air Force-only construction and sustainment support, Air Force engineers function as part of a joint engineer team building relationships and supporting U.S. forces.
Exercises like Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (Korea) and Balikatan (Philippines) strengthen partnerships with allies while civic action programs like Pacific Angel enable airmen engineers to make a direct impact in the lives of people in the region while forging new relationships.
A recent deployment during Balikatan 2015 is illustrative. A joint engineer force of airmen, soldiers, Seabees and Marines worked alongside their Filipino counterparts to build schools on the island of Palawan. The operation underscored the value of joint training, and it was a great opportunity to develop relationships with local vendors and public officials. These relationships are vital should we ever need to support our Filipino allies during disaster response or a contingency situation.
Air Force engineers will need to become more agile and perhaps even more joint by linking the lessons of the island hopping campaigns of World War II and the hub-and-spoke model from Afghanistan and Iraq. Employing engineers in this manner in the vast Pacific will require a new way of thinking about how engineers provide Agile Combat Support.
The ability to project power from air bases throughout the Pacific is crucial to our national defense. Above, a U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress from the 96th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron flies off the coast of Guam during training exercise Cope North 15. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY TECH. SGT. JASON ROBERTSON
LESSONS FROM THE PACIFIC WAR
The primary mission of engineers is to enable the maneuver of combat forces. Because of the size of the Pacific, air bases became crucial to every operation during the Pacific War (1941-1945). When Allied operations shifted to the offensive, engineers were key to that advance. Often working with local labor, U.S. Navy Seabees and U.S. Army aviation engineers (forerunners of today's Air Force Prime BEEF and RED HORSE engineers) built air bases in all corners of the Pacific to support logistics and combat operations. When complete, American land-based aircraft maintained air supremacy and supported land and naval operations. In the Central Pacific, long-range bombers operating from the Hawaiian Islands conducted strikes against Japanese garrisons before moving forward to other island bases. Air bases in the Mariana Islands became the launching pads for B-29 strikes against the Japanese Home Islands—an air campaign from distributed locations that ultimately ended the Pacific War.
The strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese Home Islands also has two important lessons for 21st century planners.
First, it was a joint and combined arms operation, very similar to how we operate today. Marine and Army units secured the bases. Army Air Force bombers flew from multiple airfields/islands in the Marianas and rendezvoused with fighters at Iwo Jima that escorted them to the targets. Navy subs, ships and aircraft provided security for the island bases and served as search and rescue for aviators who had to go into the water. Seabees and Army engineers worked in unison to construct and operate the bases.
Second, the action was distributed among several locations. Space was the driving factor for dispersed operations in 1944. In 2015, the need for dispersal remains—including the need to be able to maintain an operations tempo despite typhoons and other planning considerations such as security or political concerns.
Employing engineers in this manner in the vast Pacific will require a new way of thinking about how engineers provide Agile Combat Support.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, Prime BEEF and RED HORSE units utilized a hub-and-spoke method of delivering tailored engineer support simultaneously to multiple locations. Importantly, these units were the bulk of the construction capability in theater, and supported the entire joint force. Using the Air Force doctrine of "Centralized Control - Decentralized Execution," engineer commanders task-organized forces to accomplish specific missions with great efficiency. Additionally, just like during the Pacific War, engineer leaders in the Pacific today use that same approach for daily operations and Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response, and plan to operate that way during contingencies. The main difference, of course, is the distances involved.
The Pacific Theater has its peculiarities, but shares many similarities with other combatant commands. Like in Central Command, there are multiple sub-unified commands, joint and special operations task forces, and several regional actors with significant military capacity. A single, theater-wide command coordinates activity across the spectrum. There also are some glaring differences. Notwithstanding the occasional exchange of fire across the Korea Demilitarized Zone, the Pacific remains in an uneasy peace whereas the Middle East is in active conflict.
As engineers increasingly become a high demand/low density asset, shepherding engineer units to be used decisively in the expansive Pacific Theater will require us to think of the main operating base not as an island unto itself, but more like a network node. We already think this way in logistically sustaining the aircraft fleet. There are some distinct benefits to thinking about engineers similarly. All engineer units need not have exactly the same capability; they can be mutually supportive. A network of hubs and spokes would optimize that support and place the entire engineer force under a single engineer commander responsible to the Theater Joint Forces Air Component Commander and in support of the wing commanders.
Pacific engineers should plan on multiple hubs with overlapping spokes, a Theater Engineer Network where the Theater Joint Forces Air Component Commander Engineer coordinates with air commanders, the Pacific Command Engineer, and the other services to meet specific needs. Multiple hubs—perhaps two or three—would be sufficient to cover the entire theater and enable engineers to be responsive to the maneuver units. Each hub could be as small as a squadron and as large as an Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group. But regardless of size, the engineer commander would have the ability to maximize engineer support efficiently as part of a network.
The hubs would not replace Prime BEEF units at each installation, rather, simply optimize engineer units into mutually supporting nodes in the Theater Engineer Network. We already have a structure in place ready to accept the role: the Numbered Air Force staff. Empowering the Numbered Air Force Engineer and formalizing the relationships with the base level units and the Theater Joint Forces Air Component Commander Engineer could optimize engineer support to air forces in the Pacific. It is important to note the term "air forces" includes the entire joint team.
TO SUPPORT AND SUSTAIN
Enormous distances, volatile and complex regional politics, a spectrum of human conflicts, and the ever-present threat of natural disaster means military engineers must begin to rethink how we support and sustain airpower in the Pacific.
Drawing on lessons from the previous conflicts as well as current contingency operations is a good place to begin.