By Staff Sgt. Jason HullMarch 18, 2016
The stark sunlight dulled the natural contrast of colors, subduing the myriad clothing of the large crowd of Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and civilians. They listened intently to the droning roar of the concrete saw, the pulsing thud of the hydraulic hammer, and the curt commands of the noncommissioned officers to the equipment operators. Moments passed while the crowd observed as the airborne engineers demonstrated the first step of an airfield crater repair.
Only the Paratroopers conducting the demonstration were close enough to appreciate the satisfying crack of the large chuck of concrete cleaving apart. Their task completed, the Paratroopers retreated from the pad, returning the M400 skid steer loader to its display configuration. They fell into the position of "parade rest," as the dust settled. The demonstration's narrator seized the audience's attention again, launching into an explanation of the next display.
For the past three weeks, U.S. joint military and civilian engineers teamed up at Sicily Drop Zone on Fort Bragg, N.C., to train on and observe innovative capabilities for airfield damage repair (ADR) techniques in support of joint forcible entry operations. Nearly 50 engineers from the 82nd Airborne Division, 20th Engineer Brigade, and the Army Reserve 844th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade from Tennessee, participated in the training. The 173rd Airborne Brigade sent observers from Vicenza, Italy. The training also drew Air Force and Marine spectators.
"It's a joint, as well as an Army Total Force Partnership, training event, said Col. Jayson C. Gilberti, commander of the 20th Engineer Brigade headquartered at Fort Bragg. "The Air Force … is going to place their aircraft on the runway that we, as Army engineers in concert with the combined arms team, restore to minimum operating capacity."
The XVIII Airborne Corps units that specialize in contingency response missions maintain ADR capabilities to enable the buildup of combat power on a distant objective. Whether to gain a foothold in an enemy-held area or as a logistics hub for a humanitarian mission, rapid deployment forces train to be able to seize an airfield and then begin air lands of equipment, supplies and personnel. Holes on the runway could significantly deter that critical stage of the operation.
For the training, active duty and reserve Soldiers repaired craters in concrete slabs while weighing the practicality of several construction equipment sets and gaining familiarization with a new, redesigned fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) matting system that anchors over the repaired crater.
"It's a significant event in the evolution of joint forcible entry engineering capabilities," said Gilberti. "Both the 82nd Airborne Division and 20th Eng. Bde. have been working shoulder to shoulder throughout the process since we both have joint forcible entry engineering capabilities."
Gilberti, who worked crater repair early in his career as a lieutenant in the 82nd Abn. Div., called ADR, "one of our bread and butter missions for all airborne engineers."
After more than a year of planning and work to set the conditions, the training began late this February, with its first week dedicated to familiarizing the Soldiers with the new capabilities and equipment. Week two focused on testing the airfield damage repair solutions, deployment of the new airfield matting, and the different tools to bring to the fight. Finally, on March 17, the training culminated in a demonstration with distinguished visitors and stakeholders from the joint services and the Department of the Army civilian community.
Within the Army, the capability is not limited to just the conventional forces.
"The 20th Eng. Bde. has joint forcible entry requirements, both for general-purpose forces such as the 82nd Abn. Div. as well as Special Operations Forces," said Gilberti. "This is a constantly evolving capability that needs to stay always-ready."
The advanced capabilities and training oversight came from the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). According to ERDC's website, the organization is "the U.S. Army Core of Engineers' research and development for civil and military engineering, geospatial sciences, water resources, and environmental sciences for the Army, Department of Defense, and civilian agencies."
"We're training them, not only on the use of new equipment sets, but also some new materials," said Dr. John Rushing, a research civil engineer at ERDC in Vicksburg, Miss. "The interactions and feedback that we've received has been great."
He stressed his philosophy that ERDC works for the warfighter.
"We can try to come up with great ideas but until we give it to the Soldiers and get them to use it, it doesn't do any good," he said. "If something sits on the shelf, that's a wasted effort for us."
The mix of active duty and reserve engineers throughout the effort supported the Army's Total Force Policy (ATFP), which directs component commanders to integrate for collaborative training to maintain readiness for the total force.
"It's so important for us to have total force partnership in this event because approximately 20 percent of the engineer regiment resides within the active component," said Gilberti. "Our Army could not function without the reserve and it's integral that even in training events like this, that we share this knowledge, this experience, and these opportunities to be stronger as one Army."
For the future, ongoing cross-component training is in the works for both the 20th Eng. Bde. and 82nd Abn. Div.
"We're going to take this and this summer, in June, conduct a training event up in Wyoming, with the Ohio National Guard, focused on airfield damage repair," said Gilberti.
In April, the 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Abn Div. plans to do similar training in Fort Pickett, Va.
"We'll jump onto a concrete FLS and conduct a repair with a lot of the components from this new kit, and we'll do some training with the Virginia National Guard as well," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dustin Nistle, the 37th BEB S3 construction technician.
He explained the importance of the training to establish commonality for engineers working at the tactical level.
"We get a unified understanding of what's expected of us and what the capabilities of the new kit are. As long as everybody's on the same page, we can develop the same [standard operating procedures]."
Equipment, innovative kits, and standard operating procedures are the tools that allow the engineers to get a flight landing strip up and running. The training is crucial for mission success.
"At the end of the day, it boils down to the Soldier," said Gilberti. "That's who is going to make or break it. It's not some technological evolution, which helps; it's the Soldier's ability to think critically, creatively on the objective with the tools that they have available to ensure mission success."