Q&A with Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon assumed duties as the 55th chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on Sept. 10, 2020, after most recently serving as the USACE deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations.

Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers CEPA PHOTO

Spellmon, a native of Bloomingdale, New Jersey, is a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He holds a Master of Science in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana and a Master of Science in national security strategy from the U.S. Army War College.

Spellmon’s command assignments include commanding general of USACE’s Northwestern Division, where he oversaw an annual program of more than $3 billion in civil works, environmental restoration and military construction in 14 states, primarily within the Columbia and Missouri River basins; commanding general of the U.S. Army Operational Test Command, Fort Hood, Texas; commander, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Fort Polk, Louisiana; commander, 317th Engineer Battalion and 3-3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, both as part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Spellmon’s key staff assignments include executive director, Office of the Chief of Engineers, Headquarters, Department of the Army; chief of staff, U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; engineer intelligence officer, Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, Rheindahlen, Germany; and observer-controller, Combat Maneuver Training Center, Hohenfels, Germany.

Spellmon’s operational deployments include Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm; Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan. His military awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Action Badge.

What is the greatest challenge you see facing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) during the next several years, given the recent increase in funding and authorizations?

Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon: Workload – it’s our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity.

We have embarked on one of the most historic – and perhaps important – missions in our 246-year history. As the United States faces economic and global security challenges at home and around the globe, along with the international instability we’ve witnessed recently, we are uniquely positioned to provide an array of solutions across the civil, military, and research and development fronts.

Staff Sgt. Patrick Duncan, assigned to Alpha Company, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, conducts a power assessment at a water lift station in Fort Myers, Florida. Without the assessment and possible generator install, water was not able to get to some residents of the community. PHOTO BY JAY WOODS, LITTLE ROCK DISTRICT PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Let me give you an idea of what we’re facing. Between our normal civil works appropriations, emergency supplemental appropriations, the 2021 passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and our normal yet massive military, interagency, and international efforts around the globe, our program responsibility has ballooned to more than $92 billion.

The challenge with that is we are structured, we are organized, and we are staffed, for what has historically been a $20 billion to $22 billion annual program.

This challenge also poses an opportunity, and we’re taking it. We are transforming our organization and decision-making processes to safely deliver this historic program while finishing quality projects on time within budget and doing it safely.

To accomplish this, I have laid out four priorities: people, readiness, partnering, and innovation.

And it all starts with people. We have 38,000 professionals stationed in 39 different countries working on projects in 110 countries. The men and women of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Engineer Regiment have served our nation extremely well, and we owe them the best training, the best education, and the best technology so that they can stand up and deliver on their full potential.

I am committed to serving our workforce by providing them with the tools and products they need to succeed every day, and more importantly, to continue to shape a culture of flexibility.

When I speak at engagements, I highlight the USACE mission to deliver vital public and military engineering services, none of which would be possible without a world-class workforce. Without our people, nothing gets done.

Readiness is the second priority. The most important thing we can do for our Army and our nation’s readiness is to deliver on our engineering programs and projects. The facilities we build in support of DOD [the Department of Defense] and our allies have a deep and lasting impact on national defense, here and abroad. In order to meet that mission, leaders at all levels must be empowered to be open to new ideas and new methodologies, so that we can finish quality projects, on time, within budget, and do it safely.

USACE also has a huge emergency management mission and a foundational part of that is our Readiness Support Center in Mobile, Alabama. They have developed training programs to facilitate a knowledge-sharing culture within our emergency management community to increase both our preparedness for contingency response and our effectiveness in support of the nation.

Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, 55th chief of engineers and USACE commanding general, and Col. Jamie Booth, Jacksonville District commander, assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, Oct. 3, 2022. Hundreds of USACE personnel were on the ground supporting emergency response operations such as temporary emergency power, infrastructure assessments, and Operation Blue Roof. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY MAJ. GRACE GEIGER

We have several sets of authorities to respond to emergencies: Public Law 84-99, Emergency Response to Natural Disasters, the Stafford Act that places us in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and we also work as part of the DOD emergency response team in support to U.S. Northern Command.

Partnerships are my third priority. Engineers are always part of a larger team. Our role is indispensable, but so are the roles of our partners. Our relationships with industry, with academia and project sponsors are as important now as they’ve ever been, especially given the historic levels of investment our nation is making in our infrastructure.

Last year we published our Partnership Philosophy to guide our relationships across the enterprise and into the future.

But partnering is more than a series of discreet events that take place during the construction phase of a project. It is a mindset which embodies a set of behaviors that shape how we interact with each other and our stakeholders. These behaviors are rooted in three interdependent and mutually supportive elements: Commitment, Communication, and Collaboration.

A key part of building relationships is listening. In the last year, we’ve hosted a number of important listening sessions with industry to help share new information on important laws, such as environmental justice, while also hearing from them on what key decisions we can make to help accelerate project delivery.

I want to highlight just a few of the outcomes.

In May, I signed a partnership charter with the Association of General Contractors of America to enable collaboration to overcome obstacles and increase innovation, resiliency, sustainability, agility, and efficiency.

In April, we published a “Construction Partnering Playbook,” developed in coordination with our industry partners and key practitioners in the field, that is filled with first-hand construction project partnering knowledge and experience. It provides guidance, best practices, and scalable tools and processes that should be used to implement partnering on all USACE construction projects throughout the delivery life cycle.

And we’re not done. We will focus our collective efforts towards further advancing our partnering practices and have awarded a contract to industry to assist in development of additional training and templates to support successful partnering on jobsites.

Finally, innovation is the fourth priority. During the past several years, we’ve fundamentally changed our project and program delivery methods so that we can continue to provide engineering solutions to our nation’s greatest challenges.

One of our initiatives is an alternative delivery program: the Public-Private Partnership [P3] that we can use for large infrastructure projects that are more than $50 million. P3 is a program where a non-federal government partner takes on more responsibility that helps accelerate project completion while saving tax dollars.

Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon met with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and administration leadership to discuss Hurricane Ian and to brief President Joe Biden on USACE activities, Sept. 30, 2022. USACE PHOTO

Using this process, we partner with non-federal entities such as a city, state, or port authority who are willing to take on more responsibility in delivering the projects that benefit them. This partnering approach allows for the use of local contracting and financing that results in streamlined implementation of the project. In exchange for more responsibility, the non-federal entities take on more risk, which helps to reduce the risk to the federal government.

For example, the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Risk Management Project in North Dakota is a $2.8 billion effort, and our partnership has saved over $330 million in taxpayer dollars, and accelerated project completion by 10 years. The project will be complete in 2027.

Another example is the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Project, which includes water quality and recreation features, restoring 11 miles of the Los Angeles River while maintaining existing levels of flood risk management. It’s a $1.4 billion effort, and the city of Los Angeles is contributing about 33% of the cost, including land acquisition. The project should be complete in 2028.

Speeding up how USACE does business will save millions of dollars and complete projects sooner.

We’re not going to be able to engineer our way to success, and we can’t use the same processes we had 10 years ago. It’s surprising how quickly things speed up with delegation and transparency.

It was only a few years ago that companies like Uber and Lyft revolutionized the taxi industry. We don’t have to go stand on a street corner for long periods of time hoping an empty cab will happen to come by: now the taxis come to us. Pushing more information to the public web, for example, allows stakeholders to find career opportunities with us, apply to Operation Blue Roof in the aftermath of a storm, or even to check on the status of a permit request.

People have a growing interest in the environment and the use of natural materials and nature-based processes in civil and military construction. How did this effort develop and how do you see it impacting future projects?

Nature-based solutions are particularly attractive because they are often less costly, self-maintaining, and offer a range of co-benefits associated with natural habitats, like habitat for threatened and endangered species and recreational opportunities.

In spite of the fact that natural materials and nature-based processes are great for the environment and have obvious benefits, they aren’t always the best solution for every project. Most of our successes are water management projects or projects adjacent to a body of water.

One of our early successes, for example, was Horseshoe Bend Island in Louisiana. The New Orleans District strategically placed dredged sediment in the Atchafalaya River, above a persistent sandbar. They placed the sediment in such a way that it washed downstream and eventually built the sandbar into a 35-hectare island that became an avian habitat. An added benefit was that the island increased waterflow through the navigation channel, reducing shoaling, and maintenance dredging costs.

Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon met with Maj. Gen. Adel Al-Hafedh, the Kuwaiti Air Defense commander, and his staff, at a Kuwaiti base on Feb. 1, 2022. The air defense site is a Foreign Military Sales construction project, managed by the Middle East District. Spellmon was in Kuwait reviewing USACE projects and meeting with key leaders and stakeholders. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY RICHARD BUMGARDNER

Of course, we didn’t do this alone. We worked with numerous partners, including the Port of Morgan City and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And this wasn’t done overnight. It took nearly 15 years for the island to form and the habitat to grow. Working with nature often requires more time than a normal civil works project, but the benefits are undeniable.

This project won several industry awards and was also certified in 2017 as a World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure “Working with Nature” project.

Since then we’ve started numerous projects using natural and nature-based processes. One of the most notable is in support of Tyndall Air Force Base.

I think we’re going to see increasing use of natural and nature-based solutions as people become increasingly aware of climate change. We’re also going to see an increase in designing multiple benefits into projects.
– Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon

It wasn’t that long ago that most civil works projects had a single task: for example, dams stop water, levees channel water away. Now we’re analyzing the possibility of additional functions to our infrastructure. Can we build hydropower capability into that dam? Can we build habitat along that levee? Is there another organization we can partner with to help resource the additional expense of adding more benefits to that project?

I believe the future of construction will be more partner-oriented. Not just for USACE, but communities across America as they upgrade their infrastructure.

As we build the Army of 2030, how do you see the Engineer Regiment fitting into Multi-domain Operations (MDO), and how will emerging doctrine affect combat, general, and geospatial engineering missions?

Army doctrine is shifting to Large Scale Combat Operations across a five-domain model: air, land, sea, space, and cyber. We will field divisions as the “Unit of Action” capable of engaging in Multi-Domain Operations. The Engineer Regiment is designing a force structure that will be flexible enough for division commanders to weight the main effort and apply capabilities to support combat priorities, in addition to close support for brigade combat teams [BCTs]. The types and number of units assigned to armored 2030 and joint forcible entry divisions, along with standard heavy and light divisions, will be optimized to each formation, but will include combat, construction, bridging, and geospatial engineering capabilities.

For several years, Army senior leaders have endorsed enhancements to the Army’s capability to cross wet gaps [river crossings] by creating additional active-duty multi-role bridge companies, along with appropriate engineer command and control headquarters to execute this complex mission set. While we have a solution for that critical need, there are also capability gaps in terrain shaping, breaching, and other areas. As Secretary [of the Army Christine E.] Wormuth mentioned at the recent Maneuver Warfighter Conference, engineers must be capable of rapidly advancing with and enabling other close combat forces to maneuver, cross gaps, and execute combined arms breaching. She also called out the importance of modernization and engineer unit redesign to the Army of 2030.

The Army continues to field the Joint Assault Bridge and Assault Breacher Vehicle. However, many engineer units are still equipped with M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, M60-based Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges, and other obsolete systems. These units must be fielded with modern M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley-type vehicles to keep pace, communicate, and fight with the units they support. While we are making progress in developing the next generation explosive breacher and terrain-shaping capabilities, we must sustain current equipment sets to bridge the gap until full modernization occurs. Engineer units should be modernized at a pace and level matching the BCTs and divisions they support.

Echelon above brigade engineer units will continue conversion to more capable and flexible combat engineer companies optimized to support armored and infantry units [CEC-As and CEC-Is]. For instance, CEC-Is will add a third “Sapper” platoon and rapidly emplaced bridging capabilities. Clearance companies will combine route and area clearance capabilities and streamline equipment assets for a more capable and efficient company.

Engineer MDO doctrine will evolve to align with the new FM 3-0 as well as adapt to optimized unit designs, modernized equipment, and emerging capabilities. It will align with the “2022 National Defense Strategy,” the secretary of the Army’s six objectives, the “Army Campaign Plan 202330,” and the Army’s foundational priorities of People, Modernization, and Readiness. It will be shaped by the Army’s Arctic and Climate strategies, as well as emphasis on a data-centric Army that leverages analytical tools to optimize Mission Command.

Commanders will need and expect our engineers to provide advanced geospatial products and services across all security domains and mission command systems, from strategic base to the frontline troops, while operating in disconnected, intermittent, low-bandwidth environments to ensure decision advantage. In the future, engineers will leverage robotics, artificial intelligence, tele-operation, virtual/augmented reality, directed energy, alternative power, and other cutting-edge technologies to maximize efficiency and effectiveness while reducing risk to exposed personnel. Engineer units will continue to provide exceptional combat, general, and geospatial engineering capabilities that impact all six warfighting functions and enable commanders to fight and win across every domain in 2030 and beyond.

During the last several years, we’ve seen devastating natural events around the world, from tragic flooding in Pakistan, to wildfires out West, and the recent destruction by massive hurricanes like Fiona and Ian in Puerto Rico and Florida. What is USACE doing to address these types of events?

Obviously, climate change and resulting severe weather events have had a tremendous impact on communities across our nation. I believe that we are unique in how the technologies, innovations, engineering, and science within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – as well as our diverse, talented and geographically dispersed workforce – is prepared to support communities both on and off post, at home, and abroad.

I like to call it a “Whole of USACE” approach to fighting climate change.

First off, hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, or any other extreme weather events don’t care if they impact the neighborhood community, a city, or Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

So, we view climate change as a threat to both our Civil Works infrastructure – think dams, levees, waterways – around the country and Army’s camps, posts, and stations – CONUS and OCONUS – from which we mobilize and deploy our forces.

We are addressing climate change with two complementary efforts: first through adaptation, meaning how we plan for future climate change impacts to projects we design and build, to ensure they are ready for future conditions.

The second is through mitigation. These are the behaviors and actions we can take today on our own USACE-managed lands and facilities, in support at our Army’s posts, camps and stations, and through project planning and design with our stakeholders to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

And to better enable resiliency, adaptation, and mitigation, our Engineering Research and Development Laboratories are hard at work helping us understand how climate change may impact our projects and our communities, and we are working with our partners to share expertise and apply lessons learned so we can be ready and, if impacted, bounce back quickly.

In USACE, we have five actions that drive our ongoing efforts to adapt and mitigate for climate change:

Our first action is to modernize USACE programs and policies to support climate-resilient investments. For us, that means updating our practices to leverage new knowledge and new technologies as we design for the environment of tomorrow.

Our second action is managing USACE lands and waters for climate preparedness and resilience.

The Corps of Engineers owns and operates more than 700 dams across our nation and territories. When we talk about how extreme water events impact communities, it’s imperative that we use the latest actionable climate science and engineering practices to ensure we operate our dams in the most effective way possible, so we have capacity available to prepare for a flood, and we can hold as much water as possible during times of drought.

Our third action is really all about sharing information with state, local, and tribal government partners to improve preparedness.

We have several key programs that allow engineers and community planning experts to engage in key dialogue with us and our partners as well workshops to engage with the public.

Our fourth action is all about the tools and technology on the projects we build for civil works and military communities.

We use and make freely available information on historical and current conditions and projected future climate changes. This is critical data that policymakers can use to counter climate threats to projects, and mission areas.

USACE Commanding General Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon visited the Flood Risk Management Rio de la Plata project in Dorado, Puerto Rico, Oct. 11, 2022. During his visit, Spellmon was briefed by Wimel Varela, resident engineer, North Resident Office, USACE Antilles Office, on current status and performance of the project after the landfall of Hurricane Fiona. COURTESY PHOTO

As a service provider to the Army, Air Force, and other agencies, we are providing sustainable solutions to our partners and our stakeholders across the entire spectrum of our capabilities, from engineering, design, construction, and environmental services.

Finally, our fifth action directs our agency to plan for climate change-related risks to missions and operations, so that when climate and weather events strike, we are ready to absorb that impact and continue to deliver the mission.

This includes actions like continuity of operations plans, cross-training, and data backup so we can keep delivering even when one of our offices is affected by disaster.

What didn’t I ask about that you’d like to share while you have the forum? Any other challenges, opportunities and/or Corps achievements we should discuss?

We’re hiring! We are always looking for strong talent, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] disciplines. Being able to complete our projects on time, within budget, safely means that we must attract and retain top notch talent.

How do we do that? First, we make sure USACE is a great place to work so we can attract talented people. We’re in the top 100 best places to work in the federal government, and our leaders are actively engaged in moving us up that ladder of great places to work.

We turn vacancies into developmental opportunities within our workforce to diversify skills and provide a challenging workspace that is inclusive, diverse and team oriented. Black Engineer of the Year Awards named us the No. 3 top recruiter at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

We have some of the fastest onboarding times in the federal government. Most of our new hires begin in less than 90 days and we’re working to reduce that even more.

Onboarding time remains one of our greatest challenges. Industry can bring new hires onboard in a few days. We, as part of the federal government, have extra checks and balances like security clearances to work through. Most of the time, talented young people won’t wait for us.

Finally, while we focus on the mission today, we also have to proceed with an eye to the future. To that end, USACE is also making a significant push to add more teammates to better accommodate this growing mission, and in particular, in STEM disciplines.

We believe that there will be about 3.5 million STEM jobs in America that need to be filled by 2025. So, we owe it to ourselves and to our nation to do everything we can to expand and diversify our current and future pool of talent.

In November, I was proud to join Sarah EchoHawk, American Indian Science and Engineering Society president, in signing a partnership agreement that provides Native American students with formal access to Army STEM job and educational opportunities.

By signing this Memorandum of Understanding, we are literally opening the doors to the Corps by providing opportunities to better engaging with Native Americans through job fairs, career days, engagement with the USACE workforce, and access to projects, labs and research.

It also provides for employment opportunities for indigenous people to contribute their passion, talents, and ingenuity towards enhancing the USACE workforce.

This interview featured in the 2022-2023 print and digital edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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