411th Engineer Brigade leaves legacy in Afghanistan
January 28, 2013
By Staff Sgt. Derek M. Smith
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Jan. 28, 2013) -- History is written, not in ink, but in accomplishment. It is the legacy left to those who come after. Generations to come will judge the accomplishments of today in context to its effect on tomorrow.
With the completion of its mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 411th Engineer Brigade, home stationed in New Windsor, N.Y., stamps its legacy into the annals of not only Afghanistan's history, but in the military tomes of engineering doctrine.
As Joint Task Force Empire, known as JTF Empire, the members of the 411th Engineer Brigade, headquartered at Bagram Airfield, with technical representative staffs throughout Afghanistan, executed sustained, multifunctional engineer operations as the lead engineer force assigned to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. JTF Empire planned and executed multiple lines of operations, including combat and construction engineering in addition to extensive partnership with Afghan National Army engineers. During its nine-month deployment, JTF Empire continually consolidated military engineer assets in line with force drawdown, ultimately transitioning engineer effects to a single brigade engineer command for the entire Combined Joint Operations Area -- Afghanistan, becoming the fourth largest NATO command element in theater.
EACH STEP IS PART OF THE JOURNEY
JTF Empire began its mission May 17, 2012, arriving in Afghanistan and establishing its operations as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. It assumed responsibility of engineer operations in Regional Commands -- East, Capital and North, relieving the 18th Engineer Brigade, June 4. The brigade managed engineering oversight, planning, and conducted combat, construction and partnership operations throughout the northern and eastern engineer regions of Afghanistan. The members of the brigade focused operations with a single-minded purpose: The key to their success was the partnership with Afghans to enable them to operate independently.
The 411th Engineer Brigade assumed mission command of all units previously assigned to 22nd Naval Construction Regiment, July 31. This transition required 411th to absorb two additional engineer battalions. These battalions, NMCB 11 and the U.S. Army 980th Engineer Battalion, were located in RC-Southwest and South, respectively.
JTF Empire effectively expanded from four construction companies to eight, included the addition of a multi-role bridge company, and increased the size of the JTF by 1,098 Soldiers and Sailors. This set the conditions for JTF Empire to be the single, theater engineer brigade for all of Afghanistan.
"The biggest part of putting this together was realizing the magnitude of the mission and putting Soldiers in the mindset of the complexity of it," explained Brig. Gen. David L. Weeks, commanding general of the 411th Engineer Brigade. "The mission is huge, but it's something we have trained for."
JTF Empire assumed control of all engineer task forces in the entire CJOA-A by the end of October. The JTF consisted of 46 distinct units and more than 5,300 Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen.
The brigade consisted of the 841st, 507th, 20th, 120th and 178th Engineer Battalions; NMCBs 11 and 133; and the 577th and 777th Expeditionary Prime BEEF Squadron, or EPBS, Air Force engineers. The JTF also provide tactical command over 200 supplemental engineers conducting construction projects in various areas of the country. JTF Empire's mission was to provide synchronized combat and construction engineer effects through combined actions in support of ISAF Joint Command, known as IJC, operations to improve security, development, and governance of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. With 55 route clearance packages under its command and control, JTF Empire's combat engineer assets cleared roads of explosive hazards daily.
"The 411th has always been delegated as a theater engineer brigade, and that's the exact role we are serving in right now," said Weeks. "Essentially, we are the only engineer brigade -- one of 17 in the Army Engineer Regiment -- in combat. We became the only engineer command element within the whole theater."
WORKING TOWARD AFGHAN SUCCESS
During the course of the deployment, JTF Empire concentrated partnership efforts with 38 ANA units. The brigade units partnered with approximately 3,600 ANA soldiers in route clearance companies, engineer companies, the ANA Engineer Schoolhouse, the Combined Fielding Center and other organizations to effectively train Afghan soldiers in independent engineer operations. Members of JTF Empire developed its professionalism campaign to standardize training tasks, specific required tasks, as well as forming the first quantitative method of evaluating ANA engineer units.
"We crafted a professionalism campaign that is geared toward individual level proficiency. We're talking sustainment, administrative, [tactical operation center] operations, leadership, and also [military occupational specialty]-specific technical proficiency," explained Lt. Col. Jon Brierton, JTF Empire chief of operations and ANA development officer.
A mere three months after initiating the professionalism campaign, task and process effectiveness were markedly increased and 67 percent of the ANA units were postured for independent operations, nearly four months ahead of the IJC deadline. JTF Empire conducted 1,064 training events and 1,120 combined operations across all six RCs. JTF Empire fielded, deployed, and trained the first-ever 403-man ANA engineer battalion, providing the only organic vertical construction capability in Afghanistan. The JTF set the groundwork for future ANA engineer success by setting conditions for five more ANA engineer battalions, seven mobile strike forces, and the Afghan National Engineer Brigade, as well as assisting with field testing of alternate counter-IED equipment that will equip approximately 200 ANA units across the country.
"We have had an aggressive training program that, to date, has resulted in seven out of the 24 units being validated. They have achieved an independent operation status," Brierton continued. "More than 90 percent of the remaining RCCs (route clearance companies) and engineer coys are at an 'effective with advisor' status. They can conduct operations with limited advisement and are on the glide path to achieve independence by the end of March."
Brierton pointed out that this success was not without its challenges. The ANA's supply system is a hurdle being addressed, but remains a concern to its engineers' effectiveness. Additionally, the rise of green on blue incidents spiked during the height of partnership missions and training. This concern required careful planning in operations under stricter security measures.
"We've changed the scope of the landscape in terms of building ANA engineer capability," echoed Lt. Col. Matthew S. Warne, JTF Empire operations officer. "When you look at how the elements come together, that allows the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) to be successful. That's why we were here. During this time of transition, the ANSF was being placed in the lead through ISAF and IJC. We provided a huge role in that from an engineer standpoint; that being our primary line of effort. The 411th changed that landscape and changed history by allowing them to advance within their system. That will be long lasting and I think overall, that gives the sense of pride for all of our Soldiers that we took on that difficult mission."
"Ultimately, we provided a lasting foundation for the ANA engineers to continue to support their army and the people of Afghanistan," Warne added. "That will help provide the construction effects and develop and support their infrastructure, and enable them to continue to grow not only as an army, but as a society."
"They're definitely prepared," Brierton asserted. "Conditions have been set to accelerate the ANSF into the lead in terms of their ability to operate independently."
CHALLENGE WAS THE NORM
The 411th Engineer Brigade, unlike its predecessor, reported directly to IJC as a theater asset. This change allowed the JTF greater authority in prioritizing efforts and capabilities throughout Afghanistan. During the month of July, JTF Empire brigade staff established their systems and produced a common operating picture.
"I don't think we ever looked at this as overwhelming," Weeks reflected. "We had a very concise site picture of what the mission looked like. We looked at our predecessor's mission and asked 'will we ever be at the level?' Ultimately, we surpassed that level."
Similar engineer command force structures had been attempted in the past with arguably limited success; most recently with the formation of the Joint Force Engineer Command - Afghanistan from 2009 through 2010. All U.S. engineer assets transitioned to ISAF in March, 2010 and the JFEC-A was absorbed and relegated to the USFOR-A Joint Engineer section, supporting only those engineer operations that supported U.S. forces.
"This type of arrangement was attempted a couple years ago by deploying elements of the theater engineer commands called deployable command posts (DCPs)," elaborated Weeks. "However, the DCP arrangement as intended, I do not believe worked. The DCPs from that point forward never served in a capacity of a theater element. What's happened is the DCPs have been fragmented out to different staff elements on an individual Soldier basis rather than a key mission command element."
It may be said that necessity is the muse to success. As the troop drawdown continued, it became necessary to effectively consolidate engineer efforts throughout the CJOA-A. The specter of unsuccessful singular engineer commands of the past did not sway the command of the 411th Engineer Brigade as it meticulously structured operations. This involved standard operations, as well as many staff members stepping outside their typical realms.
Upon assuming command and control in June, JTF Empire published the Engineer Campaign Support Plan. This plan serves as a baseline for conducting engineer operations in support of IJC. As JTF Empire's responsibility increased, the ECSP was continually expanded to meet mission requirements and improve cooperation between the engineers and the battle space owners.
"I would not say the staff or the down trace was overwhelmed or hesitant about the scope," recalled Brierton. "We all went into this deployment with eyes wide open, knowing what we were about to encounter and potentially achieve. As our efforts increased, so did our situational awareness and understanding. We became more experienced, more efficient with the processes that we developed and improved upon."
"We had developed our systems coming out of our validation exercises and synchronized and integrated as a staff," added Warne. "The exercises only get you to a certain level, but that foundation is there; we could build on it and expand our ability to control engineer forces."
"You have to have that ability to project that mission command," Warne continued in regard to a singular engineer theater command. "We did that through setting up three cells and that enable us to develop the future operations picture plus have a connection to the current operations that provided that vision. What made it more difficult was that we had some very strategic and large missions on top of just running normal operations. Managing that work load is a difficult task that we do every day."
"Transitioning that southern part of the theater was difficult in that we replaced the whole brigade with a smaller cell," Warne recalled. "Then we built a cell in the southwest so we had the right command and control ability for the task forces. Though the task forces were running current operations we had to develop systems that were much more streamlined in order to conduct those brigade operations while still conducting the ones to the north and east. It took quite a bit of effort to integrate and synchronize the battle rhythm (of various organizations) and maintain our continuity across the theater."
"We had to prioritize and synchronize the construction effects which were not a part of our predecessor's skill set," explained Warne. "We basically [exceeded] their operational requirements. We picked up more Army construction and a whole Naval construction battalion and then we had to look across the whole Afghan theater of operations to ensure we were working on the right priorities for IJC and the regional commanders based on what resources we had."
Throughout the 411th Engineer Brigade's deployment, there was constant change in its force flow. JTF Empire saw six battalions, 22 companies and four detachments redeploy. The following month of each transitioned unit was predominantly spent training, mentoring, and validating the new battalions while setting them up for success.
Contributing to that success, JTF Empire Intelligence set historical precedent as the first non-battle space owner in the OEF's 11 years to have a seat representing its TFs at the IJC level for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection requirements previously afforded only to regional commands and higher entities.
As part of JTF Empire, the 558th Explosive Hazards Coordination Cell oversaw multiple facets of route clearance support to include a mobile observation team, intelligence reports and explosive hazards tracking, and oversight of the Blow-in-Place Theater-Specific Training Course. The MOTs studied route clearance patrol data and distributed more than 75 weekly and monthly analysis products showing the improvised explosive device, or IED, trends and emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures. The BIP-TST course certified over 404 engineers, better enabling them to clear routes of IEDs.
In response to the drawdown, JTF Empire Logistics, beginning in August, saw the need to organize and reconsolidate the multiple Bill of Material yards throughout the CJOA-A. The brigade sent teams to operational BOM yards throughout the country and organized over $87 million of BOM, increasing material availability and preventing loss.
DIVERSE OPERATIONS ON A KINETIC BATTLEFIELD
The operations under JTF Empire were as diverse as the engineers conducting them. Ongoing base expansions and retrograde kept task force elements busy throughout the country. Route clearance vigilantly worked to keep routes clear for coalition and Afghan traffic. In addition to ANA development, JTF Empire engineers exhibited their own skill sets daily.
During Operation Shrimp Net in July, JTF Empire staff identified the operational need of RCPs being moved from one regional area of operation to another. This coordination better addressed regional requirements as well as overall theater operations through the realignment of eight RCPs. JTF Empire's vision of the whole theater allowed for better assessment and allocation of engineer resources throughout Afghanistan.
Engineers of the 841st Engineer Battalion worked continuously on Camp John Pratt, a primary piece of ISAF's retrograde plan. The camp will serve as an alternative egress staging area as the stream of troops and equipment being removed from the country increases. This project consists of over 23 separate construction efforts and is the largest troop-based construction initiative underway in the region. Approximately 300 JTF Empire engineers from numerous units conducted more than 200 acres of cutting and leveling operations moving more than 687,000 cubic meters of material, and constructed more than 500 structures.
Bridging operations were a major concern in the CJOA-A. JTF partnered with IJC assets throughout the country to maintain bridge crossings open for coalition and Afghan traffic. A signature example of these was Operation Golden Gate. OGG was a RC-Southwest combined-joint engineering mission to construct a bridge complex spanning the Helmand River in southwest Afghanistan. The operation design was to improve mobility at the Sabit Qadam Flood Plain, a strategic crossing linking the Sangin, Musa Qa'lah and Now Zad districts. It was the largest bridging operation of the JTF's command.
In September, JTF Empire partnered with the Afghan Ministry of Public Works, or MoPW, to conduct Operation Mountain Blade.
Engineers and partners completed emergency repairs for the Salang Tunnel and provided technical training to ensure traffic ability between Kabul and northern Afghanistan through the winter. This operation was one of the most prominent and impacting construction projects undertaken by the brigade during the deployment. JTF Empire worked closely with the MoPW to coordinate road closures, improving force protection measures and provided technical assistance and training to MoPW.
JTF Empire assisted the MoPW emplacing a stronger road surface along the route and ensured the Afghans are postured to maintain the Salang Tunnel after the departure of coalition forces. This 2.4 km tunnel enables approximately 9,000 trucks per day that travel unhindered with cargo valued at $104million per month.
JTF Empire engineers designed and built a ford site at Ghormach during October to provide freedom of movement in the western portion of RC-North. The old ford site used by both civilian and military traffic was susceptible to impassability during the March to May snow melt and rainy seasons. In the course of construction, the ford was elevated and armored to provide continuous mobility. The Ghormach ford site, ensured effectiveness of military operations and Afghan economic conditions in the area would not be hindered through improving strategic mobility and commerce traffic.
Members of Joint Task Force Empire officially dedicated the Staff Sgt. Dain Venne Engineer Center at Bagram Airfield, Nov. 19. The Venne Center centrally directs engineer combat and construction operations throughout Afghanistan maintaining the primary focus on management of the training and development of ANA Engineers.
OVERLOOKING THE BOTTOM LINE
During its deployment, the 411th Engineer Brigade tracked and synchronized more than 4,081 combat route clearance patrols, resulting in approximately 700 IEDs found and cleared, making the roads safer for coalition forces and the Afghan populace.
The brigade maintained and tracked the status of culvert denial and crater repair operations in addition to route sanitation and the status of critical bridges. Additionally, the brigade planned, coordinated, and tracked force protection construction, base expansion and closure, and quality of life improvements, all while maintaining meticulous attention to minimum military requirements to ensure proper utilization of Soldiers and materials.
The brigade supported 107 named operations and conducted training for more than 900 Soldiers in theater for critical requirements on new equipment used for route clearance. The brigade also completed more than 120 construction missions, building 350 kilometers of road, and constructing more than 840 structures. JTF Empire sustained 14 KIA and 209 WIA during this deployment.
"The 411th Engineer Brigade, Joint Task Force Empire has done during this deployment what has never been done before; that is a single engineer brigade conducting mission command for the entire theater," said Weeks. "We have replaced multiple brigades and regiments. It's proven that fact that we can do it with a capable staff and I couldn't be more proud of the team. We are the only engineer brigade in combat in all the armed forces. They should be very proud of what they've done and their accomplishments. We actually made history."
The 411th Engineer Brigade cases its colors at Bagram Air Field and formally transfers authority to the 555th Engineer Brigade from Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash., Feb. 3, 2013. During nine months of sustained, multifunctional engineering operations, the engineers and leaders of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 411th Engineer Brigade served in an ever-increasing mission scope that will leave an enduring impact on the history of Afghanistan. Serving as an IJC asset and the theater engineer brigade, the brigade established a solid tradition of aggressively exceeding mission requirements, developing capable Afghan engineer forces, protecting the population, and constructing critical infrastructure.
"The 411th is the premier Reserve engineer brigade and we demonstrated that while in Afghanistan," Warne concluded. "Our ability to command the full spectrum of engineers in a very difficult and challenging theater is showcased through the professionalism of our Soldiers every day. That's an overall accomplishment we take a lot of pride in."
"We did make history here," Brierton avowed. "What sets us apart from anybody else is that we had mission command over combat effects, construction effects and ANA engineer development. We are in the process right now of establishing a mobility cell that will prioritize and ensure the success of the retrograde. There will be a single source for route clearance and that's going to be the theater engineer brigade. In the 11-plus years of operations in Afghanistan, not one other command has been able to do this…and that's history making."
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