The Role of Air Force Civil Engineers in Counterinsurgency Operations

By Brown, Kendall | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Role of Air Force Civil Engineers in Counterinsurgency Operations


Brown, Kendall, Air & Space Power Journal


WHAT IS THE role of the Air Force's general-purpose forces in support of counter-insurgency (COIN) operations? Facilitators of the 2007 Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency posed that question at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, in April 2007. A presentation by David Ochmanek of the RAND Corporation analyzed areas of the world where insurgencies were present-or were developing-and in which the United States might determine that its national interests required US military involvement.1 His analysis concluded that the Air Force does not have sufficient Rapid Engineers Déployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron, Engineers (RED HORSE) and Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (Prime BEEF) squadrons to sustain operations in those COIN engagements as part of the Air Force's general-purpose forces. But what is the role of its civil engineer (CE) forces in the COIN environment? What do they bring to the fight once they've established the base for the air forces supporting the joint or combined mission? Do they have any specialized capabilities? Can we simply outsource that role to a commercial entity or another service? In order to answer those questions, we must review the origins and history of civil engineering in the Air Force, examine its capabilities, and then identify its possible use in future COIN operations.

History of Air Force Civil Engineering

Beginning in 1918, the US Army established specialized units to support the needs of its developing aviation assets.2 During World War II, aviation-engineer battalions and airborne aviation-engineer battalions were established within the Army Corps of Engineers to construct, repair, and defend Army Air Corps airfields in overseas theaters.* After the formation of the US Air Force in 1947, facility construction for Air Force bases remained a Corps of Engineers responsibility.4 However, "to perform combat engineering support, an agreement was reached whereby the Army would organize, staff and train units placed under Air Force operational control for the exclusive support of the USAF mission. Those battalions were designated Special Category Army with Air Force."5 When the Korean War began in 1950, these units had low readiness levels because of their unique status as US Army battalions assigned to the Air Force. Although the aviation-engineer battalions performed tremendous feats during the Korean War, the resource, organizational, and command and control challenges created by this relationship indicated that the Air Force needed organic units with specialized capabilities for airfield construction and repair. World events in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Lebanon in 1958, Berlin in 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962) "demonstrated a need for mobile CE teams ready for immediate deployment to perform construction work during wartime or other emergencies."6 The Air Force created the Prime BEEF team concept in 1965 to give it the capability to respond to such emergencies. As the service became more involved in Vietnam, it once again required heavy-repair capabilities with more equipment, skills, and personnel than Prime BEEF teams could provide; therefore, the Air Force created dedicated CE squadrons-RED HORSE-to address this need.7

CEs have supported Air Force contingency operations throughout the world since the Vietnam War, including those resulting from foreign and domestic natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks. Beginning in the 1980s, a Cold War period in which the Air Force seldom used CEs' contingency capabilities, many of its active duty and Reserve units began participating in foreign-militaryassistance missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. These deployments served several objectives, primarily providing real-world, contingency-like training for unit personnel. Secondarily, however, during these deployments, CEs would construct or repair local hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, or other infrastructure projects, providing significant benefits to the local populace. …

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