Strong Partnerships a Catalyst for Innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but partnerships are what move inventions from the briefing slide to the battlefield and beyond – turning ideas into lifesaving, life-sustaining, and security-enhancing innovations in the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR).

The U.S. Army Central’s Bunker Retrofit project is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE’s) latest battlefield innovation, and is the result of a partnership between Army Central, U.S. Air Forces Central, the USACE Transatlantic Division, and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). This project, now in its second phase of testing, is designed to increase the protection provided by force protection bunkers throughout CENTCOM’s AOR.

Col. Christina L. Burton, Army Central engineer director, met with Col. William C. Hannan, Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Division commander, and members of their respective teams at Fort Polk, Louisiana, March 10, 2023, to observe the Phase II live-fire experiment evaluating bunker end wall designs and ventilation options fielded by Air Forces Central and Army Central across CENTCOM.

“Army Central is the component command responsible for service members’ safety downrange and we are funding the research needed to ensure the highest level of protections for our Soldiers and service members downrange,” Burton explained.

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“The Army Corps of Engineers has a lot of research capabilities, and they can help us develop these types of innovations quickly. This partnership leads to better, quicker solutions to challenges on the battlefield,” Burton continued.

“Projects like this protect service members on the ground, and they strengthen the Army Central and Army Corps of Engineers partnership, which helps us continue to improve our foxhole in the CENTCOM AOR.”

Bringing together component commands, engineers, technicians, analysts, medical experts, and those who have “been there done that” downrange and handing them a challenge to study and solve is a strong catalyst for innovation. And innovation is vital in the CENTCOM AOR.

“Innovation is important in our AOR because we are still countering violent extremist organizations,” Hannan stated. “And we are also working to compete strategically throughout CENTCOM. The way we keep that competitive edge is to bring in new technologies and innovative ideas and strategies to stay ahead of the enemy.”

“CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla’s approach to the region focuses on people, partners and innovation, and the Bunker Retrofit project showcases all three.”

While this project is front and center at the moment, the real hero here is partnership. Hannan went on to explain how a lineage of strong partnership in the Middle East and the Transatlantic Division’s unique design and construction experience supports mission success across the board for everyone in the region.

Brian J. Blusius, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District structural engineer (center), explains innovative design feature updates on the U.S. Army Central’s Bunker Retrofit project. USACE PHOTO BY CATHERINE CARROLL

“We trace our roots back through two other divisions – the Middle East Division in the ‘70s and ‘80s and the Mediterranean Division back in the 1950s and ‘60s,” Hannan explained. “That’s really one of our biggest strengths, our divisional roots. Going all the way back to World War II, we began working in the Middle East at air bases and military bases upgrading infrastructure and facilities, both for our nation and our allied nation partner’s forces. So we have a really strong and proud tradition of working throughout the Middle East.”

Today, the division partners closely with CENTCOM, U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Central, Air Forces Central, and other commands, as well as U.S. allied host-nation forces, continuing to bring critical cutting-edge innovations into the region.

“Our division is the tip of the spear for Army Corps of Engineers capabilities in this region,” Hannan said. “We know how to go into very challenging areas and circumstances and figure out innovative and creative solutions right in the middle of battle, at the edge of battle, or after battle. We have a great deal of experience working in complex environments under unknown conditions. We may not always know what’s going to happen, but one thing is for sure, the Transatlantic Division has the expertise and the innovative edge to go into these dynamic environments and enable success.

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“Our real strength is partnerships,” Hannan continued. “What the Transatlantic Division also brings to the CENTCOM AOR is a doorway to the full Army Corps of Engineers’ enterprise and all the research and development, expertise, and experience that comes with it. This brings a lot of partnerships and a lot of innovation capability to the table.”

All those partnerships with their combined power and expertise aren’t only focused on finding solutions to meets today’s needs, they are forecasting and overcoming challenges on tomorrow’s battlefields and for the Army of 2030 and beyond.

“Two other key initiatives we are working on with ERDC are an innovative 3D modeling system and a scalable wastewater treatment system,” said Edward “Ted” Upson, Transatlantic Division engineering and construction chief.

“3D modeling is where we take a system to a very remote part of the CENTCOM AOR and use it to map and model the area,” Upson explained. “We can use that to develop a project or to show the terrain and surrounding areas to potential contractors who can’t do a site visit due to remoteness or security situations,” he said.

“We are also working with ERDC to bring in a scalable wastewater treatment system called the Distributed Low-Energy Wastewater Treatment System,” Upson continued. “That is a somewhat mobile system that we can use at bases that are in between expeditionary and permanent basing where we can have something in between a very rudimentary wastewater system and a full-on wastewater treatment plant. This system can bridge that gap.”

Hannan went on to discuss additional ways the Transatlantic Division is partnering to build capacity in the CENTCOM AOR, enhancing security in the region for everyone.

“Our division is unique compared to the rest of the Army Corps of Engineers,” Hannan explained. “We provide engineering, design and construction not just for our nation and military partners, but also for allied nation mission partners through Foreign Military Sales [FMS] and related facilities, and infrastructure design and construction.

“With military construction, we are increasing readiness and modernization through projects supporting the warfighter, enabling steady-state military operations, and sustaining our nation’s ability to fight and win wars,” Hanna explained.

“And through FMS, we are addressing the operational, training, and maintenance needs of our allied nation partner’s military efforts, increasing interoperability and enabling sustainable security and continued stability within the region,” Hannan continued. “For the Army Corps of Engineers, we do approximately 80% of the FMS program. This is about building partner capacity, which ultimately enhances our regional and national security.”

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While waiting on the Fort Polk weather to clear for the Bunker Retrofit experiment, the collective group took the opportunity to review current ERDC designs and brainstorm how they could be applied to current and future needs and challenges.

“Innovation has to happen at the speed of war,” Burton said. “And innovation isn’t just creating something new. Innovation can be taking what we know and what we have and applying it in new ways.”

“The Corps of Engineers has a wealth of knowledge – a lot of scientists and engineers – and they provide us with innovative solutions quicker,” Burton continued. “They are already a part of the Army team and a proven asset.”

The Transatlantic Division has definitely proven itself to be an asset when it comes to directly supporting the warfighter. The division’s transatlantic expeditionary district is the Army Corps of Engineers’ only forward-deployed district, and is in direct support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), which is still in the fight in Iraq and Syria.

“Working with our Iraqi partners and our Syrian defense force partners, we provide design and construction projects, improve force protection at forward operating bases and remote locations, as well as service member and civilian quality-of-life projects, reinforcing the CJTF-OIR mission against violent extremists’ organizations,” Hannan explained.

“Additionally, we support the warfighter on the ground throughout the CENTCOM AOR through major infrastructure projects,” Hannan continued. “We are building a brand-new U.S. officer barracks at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. We are building new modular housing units at an air base in Saudi Arabia. And we are building a lot of new facilities at an air base in Jordan. All these facilities throughout the region are either to support the mission and the operations of the Army, Air Force, Marines, or Navy. These projects are supporting the quality of life and providing protection for those warfighters and civilians working across the AOR to enhance security both for us, and for the region.”

Sgt. 1st Class David Vera, Army Central engineer and facilities and construction noncommissioned officer in charge, was on hand at Fort Polk to watch the ERDC experiment, and shared his thoughts on the overall experience.

“Our team has been with the Bunker Retrofit project from its conception, and there is a lot of personal and professional satisfaction in witnessing how far it has come and how many lives can – and will – be saved,” Vera said. “No one organization can do everything. The better the partnerships, the better the product that comes out of this. It’s a good feeling. We truly are stronger together.”

This article is 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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