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Engineers Breaking New Ground in the Sustainment Brigade

In June 2006, the 3d Sustainment Brigade began its transition from a division support command (DISCOM) to a sustainment brigade under the new modular concept. With this transition, the sustainment brigade gained an engineer element that was not available in the DISCOM. As the brigade engineer, I fell under the support operations section and was colocated with the plans cell.

In preparation for the 3d Sustainment Brigade’s deployment, the brigade commander decided to change the composition of the engineer section in anticipation of its role during the deployment. The first change made the engineer a separate S-staff, designated as the S–7, aligned with division and corps engineer cells. The second change was to add several personnel to the cell. For the first 10 months of the deployment, the cell had an engineer major and a lieutenant; for the last 5 months, the cell was also assigned two noncommissioned officers.

3d Sustainment Brigade Engineer Functions

Most Army branches are categorized as being operations support; maneuver, fires, and effects; or force sustainment, but engineers have mission sets within each of these categories, particularly in areas such as mobility assurance and construction. Operations support engineers advise the maneuver commanders on the effective use of terrain, construction efforts, and the improvement and maintenance of routes, bridges, and airfields.

However, the 3d Sustainment Brigade did not own any engineer assets, so all requirements for engineer support were coordinated through engineer brigades, division engineers, or corps engineers. The sustainment brigade engineer’s primary responsibility during the deployment was coordinating for the maneuver enhancement function with engineers of combat heavy battalions and bridge companies.
An engineer in a sustainment brigade has two main missions: assured mobility and construction project management.

Assured Mobility

Mobility is the ability of military forces to move in time and space while retaining the ability to fulfill their primary mission. Assured mobility is a relatively new doctrinal term. The imperatives and fundamentals of assured mobility enable friendly forces to exploit superior situational understanding and therefore gain unsurpassed freedom of movement. Assured mobility is vital to the success of convoys that operate on some of the most dangerous supply routes in Iraq. It involves coordinating with route-clearance assets, air weapons teams, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. Being able to synchronize convoy schedules with these assets ensures the safety and security of our troops.

Not only did the 3d Sustainment Brigade serve as the brigade in charge of sustainment operations in Multi-National Division-North (MND–N), it was also responsible for mayoral duties on Contingency Operating Base (COB) Qayyarah-West (Q-West). As such, the brigade engineer, in conjunction with the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program contractor, the facilities engineer team, and the battalion-level mayor’s cell, provided oversight of all construction initiatives on the base.

The 3d Sustainment Brigade transported supplies and commodities in long convoys that traversed main and alternate supply routes daily. An immediate challenge to our freedom of movement was the emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in culverts. This particular enemy tactic was one of the more effective attacks on our logistics convoys because a deeply buried IED could potentially result in an underbelly attack with catastrophic results. This type of attack was of particular concern because over 1,500 culverts in MND–N were vulnerable to such enemy exploitation.

Addressing Culvert Threats

In July 2007, shortly after the 3d Sustainment Brigade took the reins from the 45th Sustainment Brigade, an IED blew up a large culvert on an alternate supply route that the sustainment brigade frequently used. This experience highlighted the importance of linking sustainment with the engineers. For this particular situation, the affected unit reported the incident and gave an initial serious incident report. The sustainment brigade engineer then coordinated with the engineer brigade, which assigned one of its subordinate companies to repair the damaged culvert. The engineer company deployed to the site to assess the battle damage and determine if it could create a bypass sufficient to accommodate logistics convoys. The company then allocated the resources needed for repair and established a timeline and completion date for the repairs. This experience gave me the insight that I needed for future assured mobility issues.

As soon as a significant mobility issue arose, the sustainment brigade engineer would call the engineer battalion to alert it of the impending serious incident report. From this, the sustainment brigade engineer learned that giving the engineer battalion specific information, such as the impact on impending missions, enhanced its situational awareness and aided it in prioritizing the mission among the various demands on its assets. Engineer support is generally limited to one engineer battalion that can respond to mobility issues in an area of operations, making such prioritization essential.

By contacting the engineers directly, the brigade engineer also established points of contact for working on future assured mobility issues and receiving crucial updates and even photos of the battle damage. Taking this approach allowed the sustainment brigade engineer to give the commander and affected subordinate units instant feedback, which enabled the commander to visualize the damage, determine the impact on the mission, and decide on a course of action.

To deal with the colossal number of culverts and reduce the threat, the engineers accelerated the effort to make all culverts unusable for IEDs, starting with the main supply route and eventually branching out to the alternate supply routes. Various methods were used; however, the most effective method was to weld steel grates onto the culverts. This not only denied the enemy’s access to the culvert but also left the culvert functional. Although these methods of denial were highly successful, the enemy still tried to breach the denied culverts in an attempt to place IEDs.

The enemy’s attempts to breach the denied culverts resulted in an important lesson learned. Given the limited number of engineer assets in theater, the application of assured mobility was performed by all branches, not just engineers. Logistics convoys traveling on the main and alternate supply routes detected the attempted breeches, documented the grids, took photos of the tampered-with culverts, and passed this information to the S–7. The S–7 immediately sent this information to the engineer brigade and started coordination for reconnaissance and repair. The S–7 also documented the incident, started a brigade tracker for all mobility issues, and immediately sent the information to all subordinate battalions.

As with the culverts, IEDs placed in previous blast craters were particularly problematic for logistics convoys. MND–N had hundreds of craters that added to the psychological effect on our Soldiers. The enemy would also bury large amounts of homemade explosives by digging on the side of the road, placing the material just underneath the pavement, and then backfilling with the same dirt to make the area seem innocuous. The enemy also marked the craters to make them appear as if they were marked by coalition forces. The difference was that our logistics convoys had become savvy enough to know what to look for. All suspicious craters were promptly documented, photographed, and reported to the S–7 for action.

The Engineer Daily

As additional mobility issues began pouring in, and after receiving numerous emails requesting information on mobility issues affecting the brigade, the S–7 decided to create the “Engineer Daily.” The Engineer Daily addressed all engineer issues affecting the brigade, such as route clearance schedules and missions, engineer construction at various contingency operating bases, airfield information, route status, culvert and crater repair missions, route sanitation missions, bridging information, and any other mobility issues affecting the brigade. As more units became aware of what engineers brought to the fight, the S–7 began to receive requests from subordinate units for engineer support, which the section coordinated through the engineer brigade.

The Importance of Points of Contact

In addition to the challenges posed by the numerous culverts and craters, we were also faced with the daily threat of attacks. We encountered hundreds of attacks during our rotation. This unfortunate situation would provide the section with yet another crucial lesson learned—the importance of establishing good points of contact and having open and honest dialog with the engineers. During a crisis is not the optimal time to establish contacts. When relationships are already established, problems tend to get solved more quickly because the engineers are more familiar with unit requirements.

Continuous attacks on our logistics convoys caused the S–7 to become intimately familiar with both route clearance engineers and explosive ordnance disposal personnel. To help mitigate the daily attacks on our logistics convoys, the route clearance engineers and the S–7 worked closely to coordinate route sanitation to complement convoy movements. Explosive ordnance disposal and route clearance representatives became permanent fixtures at sustainment brigade meetings and provided invaluable input.

Route Clearance

The S–7’s first experience in coordinating with the engineer brigade for route clearance was brought on by an IED concealed in bushes in the median. This experience demonstrated the importance of synchronizing route clearance. The S–7 coordinated with the engineer brigade to have some shrubs and trees removed from the area. This was a somewhat tricky venture because we wanted to use a technique that would not allow the shrubs to return easily. Burning was considered but rejected because some locals felt that we were destroying the beauty of their country. Other techniques were tried to remove not only the shrub but also the roots. We ultimately succeeded by using a bucket loader. The lesson learned from this experience was to be proactive and aggressive in getting issues of this type to the engineers.

Construction Project Management

Compared to the section’s assured mobility challenges, construction projects were uneventful. The heavy construction engineers were stretched thin as they built life support areas at combat outposts, erected traffic control points, conducted major runway repairs, and surrounded the entire city of Mosul with a berm that forced traffic into the traffic control points. The heavy construction engineer section’s primary responsibility was to coordinate vertical support with the construction assets for units at Q-West. The major projects that the section coordinated included the new brigade tactical operations center, passenger terminal, and troop medical clinic. As for the traffic control points and berming operations, the section’s task was to alert units that the engineers would be working in those areas and let them know how the work would affect operations. This was particularly important for the airfield because the runway was closed during repairs. The key lesson learned from the engineer’s construction projects was to get on the engineer brigade’s distribution list to receive their construction schedule. The S–7 simply inserted the slides received from the engineer brigade into the Engineer Daily and sent them to our subordinate units and roughly 100 other individuals who requested to be put on the S–7’s distribution list for synchronization purposes.


Although the section’s experiences with construction were relatively uneventful, its challenges with military bridging were anything but. Engineers are doctrinally responsible for gap crossing. The primary technique used for gap crossing was normally one of four types of bridging: armored vehicle launched bridge, dry support bridge, assault float bridge, or the Maybe Johnson bridge. In total, insurgents blew up five bridges in the 3d Sustainment Brigade area of operations: Alqwair Bridge, Taji Bridge, Mosul Dam Bridge, Badoush Bridge, and Qayyarah Bridge, which was closest to home and had the most profound effect on the brigade. All of these bridges were successfully attacked twice within a relatively short timespan. After the second attack on the Taji Bridge, military bridging was emplaced at the Mosul Dam, Badoush, and Qayyarah bridges.

The engineer section gained most of its experience and lessons learned while coordinating for bridge support for Qayyarah Bridge. Following the Qayyarah Bridge explosion, the brigade was immediately cut off from an alternate supply route, which forced it to either delay or cancel logistics convoys. The primary staff did extensive mission analysis and worked well into the night to determine a course of action sufficient to ensure continued support to outlying forward operating bases. The S–7 was center stage as the section fielded wave after wave of questions concerning the capabilities of military bridging and other bridge-related questions. Most of the staff had never seen or heard of the kinds of bridges that were being proposed. Once again, the S–7 relied heavily on the engineer brigade to provide information concerning the pending battle damage assessment, the extent of the damage, and an estimated timeline for repairs, all of which would factor into the mission analysis to determine a course of action.

The Qayyarah Bridge was eventually over-bridged with a dry support bridge and later replaced with an assault float bridge. The assault float bridge is a tactical bridge with a low silhouette that is not necessarily designed to remain in place for a long time. The Qayyarah assault float bridge was open to both military and civilian traffic. The bridge went down for repairs at least once a month because of conditions such as low water level, vehicles hitting the bridge, or extensive flooding. The average time for repairs was about 2 to 3 days. Perhaps the biggest challenge the bridge presented occurred in March, when the river flooded after several days of continuous rain. Most of the bridge’s interior bays sank just below the surface of the water. Although this brought military traffic to a standstill, it did not deter the locals from wading across on foot.

The Future for Engineers in Sustainment Brigades

Undoubtedly, the most critical mission for an engineer in a sustainment brigade is coordinating assured mobility assets. The ability to synchronize the movement of logistics convoys throughout the area of operations was vital to the success of the mission and the safety of our troops. An engineer must know the location of every bridge, culvert, and crater within his sustainment brigade’s movement area because each presents a significant vulnerability to mobility. Just as important is the relationship between the sustainment brigade engineer cell and the division- and corps-level engineer assets. The sustainment brigade engineer must know who to call and coordinate with for various assets, such as route clearance; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support; and crater and road repair.

The 3d Sustainment Brigade had never had an engineer officer assigned; the engineer section was in uncharted waters with no template to serve as a guide. It faced many engineer challenges in construction and assured mobility during the 15-month rotation and managed to come through undaunted. The engineer section learned many invaluable lessons during the deployment and, if it is called on again, those experiences will undoubtedly serve the section members well.

Major Anne V. Taylor is the brigade engineer for the 3d Sustainment Brigade. She holds a B.S. degree in education from Texas Southern University and is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College.