U.S. Army Reserve engineers with the 671st Engineer Company and 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade cross the Columbia River aboard an Improved Ribbon Bridge raft system  during a wet gap crossing exercise on Aug. 17, 2021, at the 555th Engineer Brigade’s Yakima Strike exercise, Yakima Training Center, Washington.
U.S. Army Reserve engineers with the 671st Engineer Company and 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade cross the Columbia River aboard an Improved Ribbon Bridge raft system during a wet gap crossing exercise on Aug. 17, 2021, at the 555th Engineer Brigade’s Yakima Strike exercise, Yakima Training Center, Washington. (Photo Credit: Sgt. John Weaver) VIEW ORIGINAL

As the Army continues to refocus its efforts towards conducting large-scale combat operations (LSCO) in a conventional warfare environment against peer or near-peer actors, two essential capabilities of the combatant commander are the capacity to breach enemy obstacles and conduct wet gap crossings at a division-level or higher. These capabilities are provided by the echelons above brigade (EAB) engineer battalion, which may be deployed to conduct these activities to enable mobility of maneuver forces on the battlefield. These operations may prove decisive if the Army fights another major conflict overseas.

While the Army continues to refine its doctrine for engineer operations, the ability of Army logisticians to sustain these operations becomes essential to their success. Most of the internal sustainment capability for EAB engineer operations comes from the forward support company (FSC) assigned to each battalion. These FSCs are tasked with maintaining Headquarters and Headquarters Company/FSC vehicles and possess a distribution platoon responsible for transporting Class (CL) I, III, IV, and V to engineer forces. Engineer FSCs operate under a heavy workload as the only internal sustainment elements within an engineer brigade. However, it is important to note that for a division-level breach or wet gap crossing operation to be successful, additional sustainment assets will be participating within the task force.

The sustainment implications for a breach or wet gap crossing are similar. They both involve large maneuver elements moving quickly through a limited, defined space on the battlefield to rapidly expand the forward line of troops on the far side. Army Techniques Publication 3-90.4, Combined Arms Mobility, focuses primarily on the operational procedures necessary to complete these maneuvers successfully. However, several listed sustainment tasks within the publication include movement control, bulk petroleum distribution, recovery operations, maintenance, and field trains are responsible for crossing the gap and returning to the near side in coordination with the task force engineer and crossing area commander. Most of these sustainment capabilities are provided by forces that are external to the engineering element.

Movement Control

Movement control is perhaps one of the greatest sustainment assets for the maneuver commander while the task force prepares to conduct a breach or gap crossing. Movement control teams work at the direction of the crossing site commander to ensure a steady flow of traffic from the near side to the far side of a gap. They help the crossing area commander determine the number of crossing sites established based on terrain and the number of forces to be moved across. These assets prevent a backlog of traffic at the crossing site, which is necessary to push the correct maneuver elements forward and enable field trains to cross the gap while conducting logistics package (LOGPAC) operations.

Bulk Petroleum Distribution

Bulk petroleum distribution remains an essential task in crossing site development as well. Refueling points are established in battalion-level staging areas leading to the crossing sites. These refueling points will need to be established by brigade support battalions within the brigade combat teams preparing to conduct a crossing. Fuel points must also be made available at the crossing sites themselves to refuel bridging vehicles and rafts utilized to build a bridge or to transport forces across a gap. The petroleum distribution section typically establishes these fuel points within a multi-role bridge company, internal to the EAB engineer battalion.

Maintenance Operations

The field maintenance team is the commander’s most effective maintenance asset on the far side of a breach or crossing. These teams can repair vehicles on-site using parts on hand. Once a vehicle has crossed the far side of a gap, it must either be repaired by the field maintenance team or recovered to the rear for any fault requiring additional equipment or parts to repair. Ensuring the proper CL IX is on hand before crossing will maximize the number of repairs that can be completed without significant hardship.

On the near side of a wet gap crossing, rapid maintenance of bridging vehicles and rafts is essential to preserve traffic flow to the far side. While the field maintenance team can conduct the majority of this within a multi-role bridge company, this also means that sustainment planners must prioritize CL IX parts required to repair these vehicles. They must be readily available on the near side of a gap crossing to ensure these repairs can be rapidly completed on site. Ensuring these systems remain mission capable is crucial to maximizing the number of forces that can be positioned forward.

Recovery Operations

Recovery operations will need to be prioritized according to battlefield conditions by the maneuver commander. A return trip across a breach or gap crossing will prevent another element from utilizing that crossing site to push forward simultaneously. Recovering an armored vehicle from the far side of a gap to the near side for field or sustainment level maintenance has the potential to be a timely endeavor. It may need to wait for the bridgehead to expand in depth beyond the crossing site to be worth the investment in time needed to complete it. Once the bridgehead is established, the maneuver commander will have an opportunity to conduct recovery and maintenance operations for non-mission capable vehicles and equipment damaged during the wet gap crossing or breaching operation.

Field Trains

Field trains perform the backbone of sustainment operations delivering all supply classes on the far side of the gap following a successful breach or wet gap crossing. These field trains must be carefully coordinated with the crossing area commander. They must be prioritized based on battlefield conditions relative to all other friendly elements that must make a crossing. Field trains may also have the added requirement of a return trip to the near side of the gap following a successful LOGPAC mission, providing a further consideration for movement control planners. This return trip requirement will last for a wet gap crossing until the bridgehead on the far side of a wet gap crossing or a breach extends 12 to 19 miles. At that time, the crossing brigade combat team would have the depth required to jump its brigade support area to the far side of a gap.

Higher Echelon Sustainment Planning

Each of the above sustainment tasks are performed by elements spread throughout various echelons, from brigade combat teams, sustainment brigades, EAB engineer battalions, and others. The sustainment coordination of these elements must be carefully planned by the G-4 section within the headquarters conducting the crossing, whether at the corps or division level. They must also be carefully coordinated by the support operations officers within the sustainment brigades and brigade combat teams at the echelons conducting a breach or a wet gap crossing. These sections provide recommendations to the crossing area commander regarding sustainment priorities relative to the situation on the battlefield.

Breaching and wet gap crossing operations will become necessary during any continental conflict the Army may have to fight, whether in Europe or the Pacific. Planning sustainment for these EAB engineer operations will prove essential to the success of division or higher-level maneuvers within a LSCO environment. Sustainers will play an active role in ensuring operational success for maneuver elements forging across barriers, whether manmade in breaching operations or terrain based as in wet gap crossings. As sustainers, it is key we continue to plan to support maneuver forces as they prepare to forge these obstacles on tomorrow’s battlefield.

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Capt. Garrett M. Curry serves as the commander of Forward Support Company, 5th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. He previously served as a 12B Combat Engineer before commissioning as a logistics officer through Army ROTC at the University of North Texas. He holds a Master of Business Administration from West Texas A&M University.

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This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Army Sustainment.

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