Military and International Operations: USACE’s Founding Mission

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is an agency built to serve the U.S. military.

Its original mandate – to protect and enable Soldiers of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War – has evolved and expanded considerably since Col. Richard Gridley, the Army’s first chief engineer, ordered the construction of fortifications at Breed’s Hill, near Boston, in 1775.

The range of expertise contained within USACE today – some of it literally found nowhere else in the world – remains focused on supporting the armed forces. USACE helps the U.S. military and its allies maintain readiness, ensure national and regional security, and respond to contingencies with either lethal or life-saving efficiency, as circumstances dictate.

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Today’s Corps of Engineers supports the Army’s Engineer Regiment, headquartered at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The Army engineers in this regiment compose units that perform combat engineering, rescue, construction, and other specialties, and all fall under the command of the Army chief of staff. The only uniformed unit that falls directly under the command of USACE is the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power), which provides commercial-level power to military units and federal relief organizations in time of need.

Most of the Corps of Engineers’ support to the military is conducted outside of the command structure. USACE performs this work as directed by Congress, and often as a service provider to interagency or international customers. Maj. Gen. Kimberly M. Colloton, USACE’s deputy commanding general for Military and International Operations, oversees this extensive portfolio, which is delivered by more than 11,000 men and women around the world.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District is extending the 16/34 runway that runs north to south at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The $309 million project will add an additional 2,500 feet and allow the installation to have two functional runways of about 10,000 feet. The runway will significantly increase the Air Force’s capability as a force projection platform to further advance the national defense strategy, while providing continued support to U.S. military members serving in the Arctic. Constructing the expansion will require 170,000 tons of asphalt paving, 57,000 linear feet of utility piping, and 280,000 cubic yards of topsoil. It is the largest construction contract the district has awarded to date, and is the largest construction project in the U.S. Pacific Air Forces’ area of operation. USACE PHOTO BY CAPT. CHARLES BIERWIRTH

“We build clinics and hospitals, barracks, operations facilities, and schools, to only name a few,” said Colloton, “which provide quality services for our active-duty military, veterans, civilians, and their families at hundreds of installations, camps, posts, and stations worldwide.” The knowledge and skills developed over decades of performing and refining this work have made the Corps of Engineers a uniquely capable service provider for the Army, the Department of Defense (DOD), and a growing number of non-DOD customers at home and abroad.

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Military Programs

The program of Military Construction (MILCON) and installation readiness remains one of USACE’s chief responsibilities, encompassing the design, construction, management, and upgrading of facilities and infrastructure for the Army, Air Force, the Army and Air Force Reserves, and other Department of Defense and federal agencies. These projects vary widely in size, scope, and purpose. Recent examples include:

    • A runway extension project at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. In October 2022, the USACE Alaska District began excavating 12 million cubic yards of soil to lengthen and widen a runway, and add taxiways and new shoulders. The largest Pacific Air Forces project to date, it will result in two 10,000-foot runways at the base, allowing safer ascents and descents through Anchorage’s busy airspace, and increase the military’s ability to project power into the Pacific Theater.
    • A Joint Training Center for the Puerto Rico National Guard at Camp Santiago, Salinas, Puerto Rico. The new facility will have a total of 17 buildings, including 10 barracks buildings, administrative offices, equipment storage rooms, arms vaults, training areas, meeting rooms, maintenance areas, and a dining facility, totaling 80,890 square feet. USACE Jacksonville District held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project in February 2023.
    • The construction and management of every Army and Air Force Reserve center in the United States and Puerto Rico. The Louisville District is national program manager for the Army Reserve and Air Force Reserve MILCON Program, which consists of 109 active projects for the Air Force Reserve, and 86 active projects for the Army Reserve – all of them in various stages of study, design, or construction.

USACE’s broad construction expertise qualifies it to administer highly technical and specialized projects, such as the replacement hospital project at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Overseen by the Kansas City District, the new hospital, which is scheduled to be completed in early 2024, will serve 5,700 active-duty personnel, 20,400 trainees, and 3,500 military retirees.

U.S. Army Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command, listens to Jeremy Pianalto, the chief of facilities and construction for U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command, during a visit to the forward operating site in Powidz, Poland, Aug. 10, 2023. The key purpose of Williams’ visit was to tour Powidz and discuss the forward operating site’s future. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SGT. DEMETRYSEAN LEWIS

Some of the agency’s most ambitious projects are built overseas, and partially funded by international partners. The Yongsan Relocation Program in South Korea is a historic joint effort between the United States and South Korea to move DOD facilities to a new state-of-the-art base of operations, Camp Humphreys, near the city of Pyeongtaek – a sprawling complex that will encompass command headquarters, family housing, office buildings, barracks, a shopping center, and a golf course. In September 2023, USACE’s Far East District broke ground on a new elementary school for children of service members – a program overseen by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) – at the new installation.

The building and recapitalization of DODEA school facilities in Germany and Belgium is a major undertaking of USACE’s Europe District, whose wide-ranging mission involves not only designing, building, and upgrading facilities for U.S. forces – such as the renovation of Army Prepositioned Stocks (APS) sites that support readiness for NATO forces at several Western European sites – but also projects that have increased the value and capacity of Allied bases. Several recently completed air base improvement projects in the Baltic States, for example, have benefited the air policing capabilities of rotational NATO wings. Recent project deliveries have likewise improved the capacities of Campia Turzii Air Base in Romania and Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Bulgaria, and similar air base improvements are scheduled for projects in Hungary, Slovakia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Denmark,

Grafenwoehr Elementary students join distinguished guests and leaders from across the military community and Department of Defense Education Activity to cut the ribbon for the new Grafenwoehr Elementary School in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Sept. 12, 2023. Officials from the Department of Defense Education Activity, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria, 7th Army Training Command, and more participated in the ceremony for the new school. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY RICHARD PUCKETT

While MILCON and installation support comprise two of the largest pieces covered under USACE’s Military Programs umbrella, the Corps of Engineers performs several other services in support of the nation’s military readiness:

      • Real estate: USACE’s real estate experts buy, sell, and manage about 25 million acres of land for the Department of the Army, and execute about 46,000 real estate transactions every year.
      • Environmental work: Every year, USACE performs about $2 billion in environmental remediation work in the military operations realm, and provides technical expertise in cleanup and environmental restoration.
      • Contingency and forward support: USACE’s program of overseas support to combatant commands and allies is coordinated largely through its Field Force Engineering (FFE) program, which deploys expeditionary teams of military and civilian specialists. “We deploy Forward Engineer Support Teams in support of our combatant commands and Army service component commands to enable our warfighters, secure access and bring engineering expertise to remote and contingency locations,” Colloton said. “We support our partners and allies with security assistance, technical expertise, protection and deterrence capabilities, which also strengthens our own national security.”

The largest of the six FFE teams is the Forward Engineer Support Team-Main (FEST-M), which averages about 36-38 Soldiers and civilians with expertise in electrical, mechanical, civil, and environ- mental engineering, as well as in logistics, contracting, and resource management. Forward Engineer Support Teams-Advance (FEST-A) provide engineering planning/design support and limited infrastructure assessment. Several other FFE components provide expertise in real estate, contracting, environmental support, logistics support, and base camp development.

Interagency and International Support

Another major USACE military mission is known broadly as Interagency and International Support (IIS), through which the Corps of Engineers provides approximately $4 billion in technical assistance annually to about 70 non-DOD federal agencies, state and local governments, tribal nations, foreign governments, NGOs, and private U.S. companies. This includes USACE competencies in disaster response and humanitarian assistance – expenditures that vary from year to year, depending on need.

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The Corps of Engineers also provides design, construction, engineering, and training to these non-DOD customers – including the design and construction of 22 projects for the Department of Veterans Affairs, for whom USACE’s medical-facility expertise often makes it the provider of choice. In the USACE Sacramento District, construction of the Stockton VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic in French Camp, California, is scheduled for completion in early 2024, and will provide Central Valley veterans with primary care, mental health care, prosthetics, and other vital services in the Stockton area. Follow-on projects at the same site will include a 120-bed Community Living Center and an engineering logistics building to support both medical facilities.

The Louisville District recently began executing the construction of a new 910,115-square-foot VA Medical Center in Louisville, Kentucky, a mega-project that will include a 42,205-square-foot central utility plant, a regional laundry facility, and two parking garages, as well as roadways, sidewalks, and other site improvements. The new 104-bed, full-service hospital will provide world-class health care for more than 45,000 veterans in Kentucky and southern Indiana.

USACE administers a portfolio of projects in dozens of other countries. Europe District, for example, manages robust humanitarian assistance construction programs in support of both the United States European and African commands (EUCOM and AFRICOM) – working with local U.S. embassies to deliver potent and efficient solutions across both continents. Projects include school construction and renovation, medical campuses, and specialized facilities, such as a new National Malaria Reference Laboratory in Lakka, Sierra Leone, that will support broader efforts to combat that deadly disease there.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District Commander Col. Pat Dagon presents a ceremonial key to Nigerian Air Force Chief of Policy and Plans Air Vice Marshal IG Lubo at Kainji Air Force Base in Nigeria during a ceremony celebrating recently completed base infrastructure improvements there April 27, 2023. They participated in ribbon-cutting ceremonies highlighting the completion of several construction projects supporting recently delivered A-29 Super Tucano aircraft. The construction was part of the historic $500 million U.S. foreign military sale to Nigeria, which also includes the delivery of 12 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, munitions, and training. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY CHRIS GARDNER

These low-cost, high-impact projects introduce USACE expertise to a wide range of countries – and not just in Europe and Africa. The Kansas City District recently partnered with U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the Mexican government to design and build a three-story disaster response training facility, the National School for Civil Protection, in Mexico City. The project marks the first collaboration between USACE and the Mexican government.

It’s not just USACE’s construction expertise that’s exported internationally, however. The agency’s mature and sophisticated emergency management program, which played a leadership role in both response and recovery efforts after wildfires ravaged communities on the Hawaiian island of Maui in August 2023, is in demand among allies. In March, USACE partnered with the Maryland National Guard to lead a crisis communication workshop in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which more than two dozen participants from eight organizations developed an all-hazards communication plan and learned how to combat misinformation and enhance the functionality of social media in a crisis. With the help of subject-matter experts from USACE and other agencies, Bosnia and Herzegovina government personnel were able to improve public information capabilities that will be used when responding to disasters.

According to Colloton, USACE expertise has proved useful in every corner of the globe: “Working in partnership with the combatant commands, Army service component commands, and the Department of State,” she said, “we’re training our partners on military and civil operations and crisis communications. And we’re executing dozens of projects across Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central Asian states to enable security and increase access to education, health care, food, shelter, water, and help fight deadly diseases. Overall, our efforts promote stability, which reduces conflict while advancing global prosperity.”

Adapting to an Uncertain Future

An emphasis on sustainability in building facilities, and on adapting existing infrastructure to the risks presented by climate change, empowers USACE to ensure readiness now and into the future. At sites from the Pacific Ocean to the Middle East, increased flooding and storms, sea level rise, and prolonged periods of intense heat have increased the vulnerability of service members and allies to a changing climate – and prompted the Army and the Department of Defense to identify climate change as a critical national security threat.

Several initiatives and policy directives – including the “Army Climate Strategy” and USACE’s own Sustainability and Climate Action Plans – have had a tangible effect on the approximately $25 billion in construction-related services the agency executes annually. “We help secure our future through investments and collaboration on innovative research, development, and engineering that protects our environment from the harmful effects of climate change,” said Colloton.

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As directed by Congress in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, USACE has undertaken a pilot program focused on the use of sustainable building materials that will lower military infrastructure’s lifetime carbon emissions by at least 30%. USACE is also focusing on reducing energy consumption and waste at these facilities.

Examples of projects being built in the Sustainable Building Materials Pilot Program include Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where USACE is managing the construction of a new barracks, and a three-story consolidated communications facility at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida. Each project is designed to reduce both its upstream and downstream effects, lowering energy consumption, water intensity, and carbon emissions.

USACE is armed with institutional mechanisms that will help to guide its military and international programs into the future. Its Environmental Operating Principles reinforce its roles and responsibilities in the sustainable use, stewardship, and restoration of natural resources – and all decisions, across all programs, are viewed with these principles in mind. USACE work considers not only the environmental impacts of a project, but ensures that those actions are sustainable into the future, using instruments such as the USACE-developed Climate Assessment Tool. Under the umbrella of the USACE Climate Preparedness and Resilience Community of Practice, experts are focused on planning for several futures, within a range of possibilities projected by the agency’s sophisticated models.

“I’m excited that a lot of the work USACE does bolsters the development not only of this generation,” said Colloton, “but also of future generations. With each state-of-the-art classroom designed and built, Reserve or training center renovated to meet energy-efficient and resilient standards, or recruiting facility leased, we are equipping generations of engineers, architects, scientists, and Soldiers to ‘be all they can be’ and provide quality environments where they can thrive and continue to solve our nation’s toughest challenges.”

This article originally featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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