Commanding an Engineer Troop in Afghanistan

The EROC (Expedient Route Opening Capability) suite at work. This is obviously very dangerous and often tedious work that demands incredible concentration and energy.
Capt Guillaume Moreau
The multi-purpose Badger using its arm to clear debris. It is also equipped with a blade for earth works and clearance.
Sapper crossing a wadi to clear the other side before the convoy drives through.
appers from 51 Fd Sqn prepare a building for destruction. The building housed an IED making operation.
Publication Date 
01 Mar 2009

Reprinted from Veritas Fall/Winter 2009 Written by 23361 Captain Guillaume Moreau

What an enriching and stimulating experience it is to be commanding an engineer troop in Afghanistan! Each day brings new challenges. On the technical side, while I don’t use my calculator to work on formulas as I did at the College, I do use the principles learned in the classroom. I believe resourcefulness is one of the most important qualities of a troop commander in the field because resources are scarce and everything needs to have been done “yesterday.” At the forward operating base (FOB), it is the troop commander who takes care of all things technical, whether it is in his job description or not. I’ve had to find solutions to unique issues like how to route communications wires, as well as to provide engineer support to the Forces, from traditional protection structures to the design and construction of a lightweight bridge capable of being carried by two men to enable the crossing of wadis. This requires that I constantly coordinate between the various entities in the FOB.

An important part of the job consists of advising my company commander (Infantry Major) with respect to terrain and mobility. It can be interesting to make plans and find solutions to problems in training, but it is during deployment that everything falls in place and the importance becomes extreme.

I participate in company level and above operations. Currently, we regularly undertake 12-16 hour dismounted patrols. I give all my orders to my section commanders before we start an operation and it is rare that I have the opportunity to communicate with them once we leave. At that time, they are completely under the command of the Infantry section commanders – however, I am in charge of the company Tactical Command Post (Tac CP) while the company commander oversees the operation.

Whenever we run into mobility problems or anything to do with explosives, I move forward to advise him.

I love my job; it combines the pleasure of commanding in operations in the company of my very capable sappers. It includes technical work, problem-solving and using initiative. I feel that it is this constant variety and challenge that makes my occupation – military engineer – one of the best. I don’t dare say “job” because that speaks to routine; what I do is anything but.

An engineer troop commander does not lead operations as often as a platoon commander, but on the other hand, the construction of protection works and road clearing certainly provides a lot of command opportunities and tests one’s creativity.

MUSHAN

When I first got my orders, I was stupefied.

After a few requests to higher HQ to change the plan failed, I accepted the task and set out to do as well as possible.

In order to retrieve essential equipment from the police sub-station (PSS) in Mushan, my augmented troop had to clear the road going there and coming back. This road was known to be the most dangerous in the Kandahar pro - vince; in fact, the previous year a decision had been made to not use it at all.

It was very early in the morning when we set out with one of my engineer sections leading with some tanks and rollers, a Badger (armoured engineer vehicle on a tank chassis), and the EROC (Expedient Route Opening Capability) detection suite, accompanied by an infantry section. In all, the convoy consisted of close to 160 vehicles all aligned and sharing a common objective.

The road was very narrow and had rarely been used by large vehicles like tanks or 16- ton resupply trucks. However, since other access routes to the PSS were impassable during this time of year, we had to be imaginative. For example, we had to destroy mud walls in many places to widen the road, along with improving approaches to wadis that cross the road to enable us to cross in shallower water.

For most of the advance, we were mounted in our vehicles, only dismounting on a few occasions to investigate some suspect locations. However, for the engineer section (assisted by a few infantrymen), this road clearance operation included six kilometres on foot walking through vineyards with mine detectors, a very difficult and draining experience.

In the early afternoon, the lead tank hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Fortunately, the crew suffered only minor wounds and the vehicle was able to continue with the advance. The dismounted engineers were also shaken by the explosion. They learned very quickly the need to wear their protective equipment at all times after they were hit in the face by the hot sand from the explosion. Later on during the day we also came across two dummy IEDs intended to slow our progress.

Despite night fall, we continued our advance but at a high price. Many of the vehicles were hitting the walls on either side of the road and had to be pulled out. One of the 16-ton trucks rolled over on its side and had to be towed the rest of the way. The position in a village that was chosen as the stopping point for the night proved to be less than ideal. We had good visibility toward the south, which we assessed as holding machine gun emplacements but we had no visibility to the north on account of trees and buildings. The overall security was not much better.

There were six 60-pound (25 kg) propane bottles less than two metres from my vehicle.

After looking for a better spot, I finally had to resign myself to my position, since there were large quantities of propane bottles everywhere, as well as many 45-gallon (171 litres) drums of some kind of flammable material. On top of that we had to work hard throughout the night with salvage operations and to ensure radio problems were remedied; by the time we finished there was only 20 minutes left before sunrise! On leaving the village just after dawn, the leading vehicle in the convoy took a wrong turn. It was impossible to backup because of the large number of vehicles following closely behind. I therefore tried to make a bypass road in a field of poppies using the Badger with its plow. A tank and two Huskys (recovery vehicle on a Grizzley eight wheel armoured platform) got stuck and it took a lot of ingenuity by the crew of the Badger to pull the tank out.

To complicate matters even more, one of the trailers used to detonate mines broke. In the end, the recovery action took a total of five hours to complete.

In fact, each stuck vehicle prevented another one from moving; did I mention that the Badgers were starting to lose their tracks? Fortunately, all were able get back on the road eventually.

In all, it took us 30 hours to get to the PSS! The work started as soon as we arrived and my engineers were able to catch a few hours of sleep before going out on a night patrol. The aim of this patrol was to find arms and explosives caches in the immediate area with the secondary aim of disrupting the insurgents to prevent them from hindering the work being done at the PSS and to keep the road safe.

Our patrol returned 15 hours later and the work had progressed so well that we were able to prepare for our departure the next morning on the same road.

We left for the return trip at dawn the next morning and soon found our first IED of the day. It took barely 20 minutes to explode it, repair the road and be on our way again. We found a second IED just 40 metres farther down the road; it looked like it was going to be a long day! A few hours later, the 45th vehicle of our caravan hit an IED. Fortunately, no one was injured and the vehicle sustained only minor damage.

Some time later, in a narrow and confined zone between two buildings that the lead vehicle of the convoy hit a powerful IED. It was with astonishing speed of execution that all the rescue steps were carried out; from the egress of the wounded from the vehicle right up to their being loaded onto a helicopter.

Shortly after, I was able to see our Canadian helicopters in action, providing us with fire support against some insurgents who were poised to ambush us.

As soon as our wounded were evacuated, the Badger made a bypass road around the destroyed vehicle right through an earthen building, opening a road for more than a kilometre.

By nightfall, the damaged tank was still in the crater caused by the IED explosion. The Badger and an ARV (a special tank tow truck mounted on a tank chassis) had a lot of difficulty recovering the casualty – particularly as they were trying to do so with the whole of the convoy trying to make its way around the scene.

We spent the night on the road extracting the vehicle from the crater and trying to close the gaps between the moving vehicles.

We travelled the remainder of the road without incident.

We were exhausted by the return trip which was a lot more complicated than the trip out.

Fortunately we can now say: mission accomplished!