More Combat Engineers in Theatre

A typical engineer clearance operation on foot with mine detectors at a ford or crossing place.
Capt Michelle Whitty meeting Her Excel - lency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada early on in her tour.
A sapper conducts a check for mines and IEDs with a mine detector.
Capt Whitty carries Maj Yannick Pépin's beret at the ramp ceremony. Maj Pépin was killed by an IED 6 September 2009 along with Cpl Jean-Francois Drouin. Both were members of 5e Régiment de Génie du Canada, stationed at Base Valcartier, Quebec.
Publication Date: 
01 Mar 2009

Article originally posted in Veritas Fall/Winter 2009

By Captain Michelle Whitty

Few would argue that the general perception of combat engineers changes once you have been on the ground in Afghanistan. Engineers are everywhere doing everything; they are in constant demand and there are never enough of them. In poor, remote, and often dev astated conflict zones, if the engineers can’t find a solution to a problem, no one can. I will try and demonstrate what engineers on the ground accomplish and why they are an essential part of the combined arms team.

I am currently deployed to Kandahar Airfield (KAF) as the Battle Group Engineer Plans Officer. The Battle Group is the largest, but it is only one of several Canadian military organizations in theatre. The Battle Group is based around an Infantry Battalion and has sub-units from all other arms attached to it; Engineers, Artillery, Armoured, etc. Therefore, although I am posted to 5e Regiment de Genie de Combat (5e RGC) in Valcartier, once work up training began, 51 Field Engineer Squadron became part of the 2 R22R Battle Group.

WHAT IS A COMBAT ENGINEER FIELD SQUADRON IN THEATRE?

A deployed Field Squadron consists of approximately 150 people and 50 vehicles … some 20 different types. The squadron is divided into three field troops and a support troop. The field troops provide integral support to the three infantry companies. The support troop consists of detachments of armoured engineer vehicles (AEV/ Badger – a tank chassis with an arm and a blade among other things), the heavy equipment section, 16T trucks, and the EROC (Expedient Route Opening Capability) suite. The majority of the squadron comes from 5e RGC in Valcartier. However, the AEV Detachments are from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment (CER) in Edmonton and the EROC suite from 4 Engineer Support Regiment (ESR) in Gagetown. The squadron also has numerous civilian K-9 (sniffing dogs) teams that provide explosive detection capabilities.

ROLES OF THE COMBAT ENGINEER FIELD SQUADRON

As engineers, we have to complete innumerable tasks that all somehow have the highest priority! The field troops’ main focus is usually mobility and close engineer support to their respective affiliated infantry companies (i.e. engineer detachments and sections patrolling with the platoons in their respective areas of operations). This is mainly conducted during normal framework operations or the less frequent deliberate Company or Battle Group level operations. During the larger operations, the engineers concentrate on their Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) search capabilities, while the infantry ensures their protection. They destroy all IEDs and IED-making caches found upon discovery. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams are the only ones permitted to do this work because of the inherent danger of booby traps. The exception to this rule is when EOD teams are not available, and the field engineers will “blow in place” or BiP the device. Field troops also have the capability to conduct a post blast investigation following an IED strike to gather the essential information needed to avoid future strikes. EROC and the Badgers provide the mechanized mobility support. EROC, our version of the route clearance package, ensures freedom of movement throughout the area of operations by continually sweeping the roads for IEDs. During the larger operations, the Badgers are especially useful because they are able to breach fields with their plows, destroy walls, recover vehicles, and much more.

Another role of the combat engineers is information gathering which includes reconnaissance (recce) of all types; route, site, and infrastructure recces are conducted by the field engineers. The information gathered is either kept at the Battle Group level for planning purposes or sent to task force engineers for a wider distribution. The heavy equipment operators within the squadron provide the internal resources required to build new theatre infrastructure or to conduct Forward Operating Base (FOB) improvements.

Finally, a section is detached to the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT) to mentor newly minted ANA Engineers during FOB construction projects.

AN ENGINEER PLANNER IN THE BATTLE GROUP

I’m not the only RMC grad in 51 Engineer Squadron, some of you may know the three troop commanders; 23381 Capt Joel Rubletz, 23361 Capt Guillaume Moreau, and 23639 Lt Jonathan Martineau.

These individuals live and work out in the FOBs with the Infantry companies. I have a very different story than most of the young officers that are deployed to Afghanistan; I have the KAF perspective, and as everyone who has passed through here knows only too well, it is definitely a different world around here! As the Plans/Operations O, my job is to conduct a significant portion of the coordination needed to help things come together on the ground.

I do the planning for the upcoming Battle Group level operations. We follow the Operational Planning Process (OPP) and therefore all planning is done in close coordination with the rest of the Battle Group staff. As the engineer, my first concern when a plan is being developed is what limitations will the ground and the IED threat have on the overall plan. Is it a grape field or a wheat field? Canalizing ground or open desert? Small dirt paths or paved roads? Where is the IED threat and what type of threat is it? I sit down with the geomatics (terrain analysis specialist) sergeant and the engineer intelligence sergeant to determine the answers needed to allow me to develop the plan with the rest of the Battle Group staff. While we’re all at the table developing the plan, it is then that the engineer assets have to be carefully distributed to the sub-units. Who needs an AEV? Where is EROC going to patrol? Does Recce Platoon (Infantry) need dismounted engineers to clear their Observation Posts? Who needs the K-9 teams? Is there a Counter-IED team available and where will it be used? I initially answer all these questions during the planning phase but the Squadron Commander makes the final decisions. As a staff officer, I only have the power to recommend. Once the groupings have been determined it is time to plan how we are going to move what, to where, how, and when it will happen!

OTHER ENGINEER ORGANIZATIONS

The Field Squadron is by no means the only engineer organization in theatre. At the top of the list is our higher-level headquarters, Task Force Kandahar (TFK). The Task Force level is where the senior engineer, 17576 LCol Mike Gilmore, in theatre works with his staff. My planning counterparts at that level are 22214 Capt Nils French and 22863 Capt Graham Macmillan. There is the Construction Management Organization (CMO) who is responsible for most of the construction outside the wire in cooperation with local nationals. Their counterparts are the Construction Engineers (CE) who handle all the construction and maintenance inside the wire (on KAF and on the FOBs). There is also the Counter-IED Squadron, under which the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams and Tactical Exploitation Teams (TET) work.

A LITTLE SOMETHING I NOW UNDERSTAND THAT I PROBABLY LEARNED AT RMC

I’ve only just scratched the surface in describing how large and complex the organization and the operations conducted are in a deployed theatre of operations. That being said, the actual job is the easy part. Dealing with people on KAF and on the ground, from all organizations, headquarters levels, rank, trade, and nationality is the challenging part.

The two most important things I have learned since I arrived in theatre are that it’s all about communication and time management. In both operations and planning, things can get complicated pretty quickly. It is essential to learn that picking up the phone or talking in person is the way to solve issues that arise; emails aren’t always the solution. As well, there’s always more work to be done, and pressure to get it done quickly and well. It’s by setting priorities and being realistic that somehow it (almost) all gets done!

The formal part of RMC gives us the education for the job, an introduction into personnel management and a peek into the military side of things. However, it’s what you do with your free time while you’re at RMC that will prepare you for working in a high-stress environment with people from all walks of life. The important question I had when I was at RMC was “What can I do to prepare?” My answer is “To keep busy.” And if you think you’re already really busy and don’t have time to do everything, well, join another team or club, go out for a drink (even if you don’t have time!) and do things you never thought you’d be able to do. All you really need is confidence, empathy, be able to manage your time, and develop problem-solving skills. That’s all! Everything else you learn along the way.

Editors Note: Shortly after Michelle sent us this piece, her boss Maj Yannick Pépin, the Officer Commanding 51 Field Squadron was killed 6 September 2009 by an IED along with Cpl Jean-Francois Drouin. To date, 12 of the 130 Canadians who have died in Afghanistan have been sappers.