DARIEN, Ill. - Duct tape is a wonderful invention. It's strong. It's durable. It holds things together.
That's what the Army Engineer community hopes to achieve with ENTAPE: To hold together a very complex engineer community as a unified front.
ENTAPE is actually not tape at all, but hopefully its ideas are sticky enough to motivate leaders to carry out the plans.
The acronym stands for Engineer Total Army Planning Exercise, the second one of its kind. It's a three-day conference that brought engineer leaders from across the Army community - Reserve, National Guard and active component - to figure out ways to work together and overcome common challenges.
The conference was hosted in Darien, Illinois, from June 19-21, by the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC), which is an Army Reserve command.
"It's great that we have our partners here from different organizations," said Maj. Gen. David Conboy, commanding general of the 416th TEC.
"It's important that we're working together as a team to accomplish our nation's mission. ... We can't accomplish that vision, the tough solutions for our nation, without working together. Certainly our nation has lots of tough challenges," he said.
The bulk of the officers who attended were colonels, but ranks varied from captain to major general, plus their indispensable right hands: senior noncommissioned officers.
So. Great. Army leaders hosted another planning conference, but how is this newsworthy?
The entire global community will be affected by the ideas shaped during this conference, because Army engineers are everywhere.
"I think what's very unique about the engineer community is ... engineers always leave something better than (how) they found it, and that's really the case here because what we're doing is nothing less than building our legacy," said Col. Adam Roth, chief of staff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, living in Crystal City, Virginia.
The Army Reserve has roughly 23,000 engineers across the states and the National Guard has 38,500. The number of active duty engineers is harder to pinpoint due to ongoing and aggressive cuts. However, it is estimated that the combined reserves own more than 80 percent of all engineers.
They're not just building "stuff" at military training sites, but doing construction projects in Africa, humanitarian missions in Central and South America, building waterways in the Middle East, and the list goes on and on.
"That's some pretty amazing stuff that we're doing," said Roth.
For years, they've been executing projects that improve the lives of their global neighbors. But here is where it gets complicated, because the Army is a very complex institution.
Throughout the world, the Army has various commands in charge of large geographical areas. These are known as Army Service Components Commands (ASCC), not to be confused with college football conferences with similar acronyms.
ASCCs work with international governments and their militaries on different missions. In order to accomplish those missions, they request support from troop units to do the work. To get the work done, it's not as simple as tagging a Reserve company from North Dakota, a National Guard battalion from Texas and an active brigade from Washington to work on a project.
There are chains of commands and structures involved. The challenge is that the chain of command in the Reserve is different from the Guard, which is different from the active component. Even though they are all Army, each component has a different culture. So the goal is to figure out how to get units from across the force to work together as a single entity.
Additionally, the ASCCs are not the only party involved with engineering missions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employs 36,000 civilian and military engineers for projects throughout the U.S. on public and government lands. Sometimes they handle international missions, which causes overlap with ASCC. Then there's IMCOM, which stands for Installation Management Command. IMCOM handles construction projects for military installations and bases.
None of these report directly to one another.
So when all three organizations need support on a combined mission, who is in charge of whom?
That's hard enough to answer, but wait, it gets more complex.
Aside from ASCC requests, the Army Reserve and the National Guard engineers already have partnerships with international countries. Except, their alignments differ from one another.
For instance, in the National Guard, each state partners with one (sometimes two) specific country under the State Partnership Program. Maryland, for instance, partners with both Estonia and Bosnia. These partnerships revolve around humanitarian aid, civil assistance and building infrastructure.
The Army Reserve does its partnership differently. It matches its major commands to various ASCCs. So the 416th TEC handles North America, South America and the Middle East, while the 412th TEC partners with Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific countries.
So here's the challenge: While the 416th TEC has units in Ohio, and it could decide to send them to the Dominican Republic, the Ohio National Guard actually partners with Hungary and Serbia, on the opposite hemisphere.
Not only is that confusing for the average person to follow, but it's just as complex for the Army to manage its global missions. On top of that, engineers don't have the authority to reinvent the wheel. They must work within the same Army structures already in place.
For this very reason, ENTAPE hopes to establish a few solutions.
The primary solution is making sure all three components train together during major exercises. The second is to integrate their efforts in real-world missions around the globe.
"We'll look at troop construction. We'll look at regionally aligned forces. We'll look at exercise and look at training and validation. (We need) people that will be the champions for that cause," said Roth.
Warning: More Army acronyms ahead.
The ENTAPE leaders will draft a Training Integration Working Group (TIWG). The TIWG will be an umbrella organization that coordinates engineer efforts. Whether that's construction, training or whatever, TIWG will oversee the entire engineering landscape. The group must be able to understand the infrastructure across all components and identify missions or projects that could integrate their efforts. They will also shape the training of engineer units.
Another step to achieve integration is to partner brigades with one another across components. That means an active duty engineer brigade will be paired with a National Guard and Reserve one. The challenge is that the National Guard and Reserve have more brigades in the U.S. than the active component does. While there are three active engineer brigades in the continental U.S. (plus one in Germany and one in Hawaii), there are four in the Reserve and seven in the National Guard. These brigades are not always next to each other. One partnership between three brigades links an active duty unit in Washington state to a Reserve one in Minnesota and a National Guard one in Missouri. Plus, while a National Guard brigade keeps all of its units within the same state, the Reserve does not. A brigade in Texas could have units in Colorado, Arizona and others.
To throw in another wrench into the mix, paired units might not follow the same training cycle. That means they might have different or even conflicting priorities form one year to the next. The goal will be to synchronize and level out the training field.
Already there has been improvement since the engineers met last year at the first ENTAPE. For one, a total of 80 leaders met this time around, including more involved parties to the discussion. Additionally, the first ENTAPE was geared more to theory and strategy, while this one expect to produce actual plans.
"We've convened a much broader audience than last year," said Brig. Gen. Miyako Schanely, deputy commanding general of the 412th TEC, headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi. "We've been able to bring in more people together to try to prioritize and synchronize the efforts of the whole engineer regiment."
This includes the total force in ways that enhance the training of all the different components, Soldiers and units while also achieving the nation's priorities around the world, she said.
"I think this is going to be huge," said Schanely.
As the conference concluded, Conboy stressed the importance of continued engagement among the participants after they return to their commands to keep building on the progress ENTAPE achieved.
None of those plans will be worked out overnight, and it might take one or two more conferences to resolve all the current issues. The problems the engineers face are not neat and tidy and mathematically simple to equate.
But that's what engineers are for:
"That's what we tend to do as a regiment, because quite frankly, as engineers, we solve things. That's what we like doing," said Roth.