Getting the Elephant in the Room to the Front Lines: Engineer Sustainment at JRTC

Sustainment. It’s always the elephant in the room; the thing that “warfighters” don’t want to talk about. Neglect it, however, and maneuver suddenly ceases, combat support can’t support, and the whole operation collapses. So how do we get that elephant from the brigade support area to the front lines?

Let me start, right off the bat, by saying that I am not a logistics, transportation, quartermaster, or ordnance officer, and so am in no way qualified to talk about sustainment as an expert. Which would then mean that I’m basically relegated to an amateur, since apparently amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics. I’ll take my chances.

In all truth, however, it is more vital for those who are not by nature sustainment officers to be involved in the discussion of sustainment, because we are generally the ones who need the most instruction on it. As an engineer, I found that over half my JRTC fight involved coordinating and synchronizing sustainment effects.

For those that don’t know, JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) is a massive military exercise designed to test the capabilities and readiness of a brigade combat team (BCT). It is located in charming, delightful Fort Polk, Louisiana, aka, where your soul goes to die. Getting onto post is a little like crossing the River Styx except that Charon is a bored nineteen year old MP who really doesn’t care about you at all.

As the task force (TF) engineer for a light infantry battalion, I foresaw my role as purely maneuver-focused: get the pointy end of the stick through whatever obstacles the enemy threw in the way while also denying the enemy the ability to smash the stick, by putting up obstacles of our own. What quickly became apparent was that I was going to have to bridge the gap – pun intended – between the maneuver world and the sustainment world. Maneuver folks like to do what I call the “Jedi mind trick” when it comes to sustainment. We’ve all seen it. The S-4, usually a maneuver officer who’s been given a thankless job, stands up and says, “During this phase of the operation, we’ll conduct resupply of the following classes of supply at this point,” accompanied by a hand wave. As if to say, “These are the classes of supply you’re looking for.” Everyone nods sagely and then gets back to the fun part: destroying the enemy with massed fires and maneuver, synchronized in time and space.

Synchronization of battlefield effects is all well and good, but if you do not synchronize sustainment, you will fail. As an engineer, this is even more important. Where maneuver only needs to think about the top three (food/water, ammo, fuel), engineers are reliant on a lot of equipment: heavy earth moving equipment, explosives, mines, and building material, to name a few. We don’t travel light. Expecting a maneuver battalion S-4 to take into account all the various engineer-specific sustainment issues is a bridge too far. One of the key tasks for the TF engineer, then, is to build relationships across the brigade in order to facilitate sustainment: the maneuver S-4, the attached forward support company, the brigade support battalion, and the brigade engineer battalion. Each of these entities will play a key role in bringing about success on the battlefield.

Enablers need to pay specific attention to task organization and command relationships through each phase of the operation to identify who is responsible for coordinating resupply operations. As a rule, engineers need to dual report for both personnel and equipment needs to the supported unit as well as the brigade engineer battalion (BEB). The BEB is going to be the organization that actually understands the specifics of engineer sustainment and can provide the liaison support needed between the maneuver element and the sustainment element (BSB, CSSB, etc).

Prior to an operation, the engineer – or any attached enabler, really – needs to go over their equipment list with the supported unit’s S-4 to provide the nomenclature of all vehicles and heavy equipment. This will enable the S-4 to have an understanding of how that equipment supports the commander’s intent and prioritize it for maintenance and spare parts. They will also need to know things like fuel consumption rates so that they can properly forecast for resupply. This is also important for the FSC commander to know so that they can allocate the proper recovery assets if and when engineer equipment goes down. Which it will. This creates a common operating picture for all those involved and prevents awkward conversations like “The enemy just destroyed two bulldozers, is that important?” when you’re four days into an operation, no one has actually slept, and everyone is getting an itchy trigger finger.

Once the operation is going, the TF engineer cannot simply assume that supported units are taking care of the sustainment tasks that are needed – one does not simply walk into Dar Alaam, after all. Part of the job entails daily checks on the engineer elements to ensure that the maneuver company first sergeants are providing meals, water, fuel, and ammo support to the attached engineers. The TF engineer also needs to pay close attention to the expenditure rates for explosives and initiators, as these can get used up rapidly during offensive operations. Engineer platoon sergeants and platoon leaders must be looking 72 hours out at all times to ensure that they have what is needed to support any planned breaches or explosive obstacles. This is fed back to the TF engineer who provides a dual report to the maneuver S-4 and the BEB.

Heavy engineer equipment can be a nightmare to manage at JRTC. Hiding a flatbed with a bulldozer on it is not an easy thing in the woods and swamps of Louisiana, and commanders are tempted to leave this equipment as far back from the forward line of troops as possible. However, this becomes an issue when blades are needed to create fords, dig in survivability positions, or construct obstacles. Conversely, putting them too far forward makes them a tempting target for the enemy. There’s nothing like going into the defense with no blade assets because they got smoked during an enemy air or artillery attack. However, this is getting into the protection lane – so enough about that. For sustainment, the TF engineer needs to always be aware of the maintenance status of all engineer equipment to be able to provide accurate and timely recommendations to the maneuver commander.

Engineers come with a lot of “stuff.” “Stuff” can be anathema to the maneuver commander who just wants to keep pushing forward. There can be a temptation to call for “stuff” at the last minute. Do not fall into that trap. Especially when it comes to Class IV obstacle construction material. At a minimum, Class IV needs to be in place 24 hours prior to the engineers going to work to create engagement areas. The TF engineer needs to work closely with the maneuver commander and S-3 to identify the obstacle intent that they desire, pre-build palletized packages of Class IV, and work with the FSC, BSB, or CSSB to identify how exactly those pallets or flatracks are getting from the brigade support area to the combat trains command post to the area where obstacles will be constructed. This needs to be planned down to the point where Class IV dumps are established close to the front where engineers can take over control of it from the transporting unit. Control of each Class IV dump needs to be controlled by the engineers on site, since the maneuver units are going to pilfer the hell out of them for their own defensive positions if they can. And why not? Free stuff is always good.

The same rule applies to mines and minelaying equipment. Because these are so engineer-specific, the best bet is to utilize the BEB to fight the battles in the rear areas to get these to the front at least 24 hours before obstacle construction begins. Once again, the TF engineer needs to know which units have the responsibility to bring these forward. Failure to properly synchronize the delivery of engineer Class IV and V will result in time being wasted on the defense. And you really never have enough time for obstacle construction.

All of this is in addition to the other roles of the TF engineer – advising the maneuver commander, building the obstacle synch matrix, developing a protection list of critical assets, and task organizing the attached engineers as needed throughout the operation. However, coordinating sustainment is one piece that can often get overlooked. The TF engineer needs to attend every sustainment rehearsal or briefing in order to understand the concept of sustainment by phase and ensure that the engineer assets are part of the plan. Hand-waving sustainment results in an unsupported operation and ultimate failure. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a well-rehearsed sustainment plan at your side, kid.


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Cover photo: A Soldier assigned to the 84th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, uses a backhoe to dig a fighting emplacement at Fort Polk, Louisiana, on Feb. 16, 2018. The Soldiers are providing support to the 25th Infantry Division during its annual rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Armando R. Limon, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Armando Limon)