We have spent considerable time over the years discussing the infantry-artillery team in combat, and likewise, the infantry-armor team (and when we discuss them, by implication, we’re also discussing artillery supporting them in the same matter as the traditional infantry-artillery team).
One supporting arm we haven’t discussed as much as we should is the Engineers. For most of the Army’s history, the Engineers were at the top of the food chain. They were the intellectuals of the Army. From the founding of West Point, to the cusp of World War II, virtually all of the top graduates of the Military Academy served in the Engineers. Indeed, from its founding until 1866, the Corps of Engineers ran the academy. Unlike the other arms and services, who were focused solely on their wartime missions, the Engineers also had another role outside of wartime, providing the expertise to build the nation’s infrastructure for defense and commercial operations. Virtually every canal, navigable waterway, and port in the United States has been a Corps of Engineers project. Many of the Works Progress Administration programs of the Depression Era were supervised by Army Engineers, often of astonishingly junior rank. Even to this day, the CoE has a nationwide mission in developing flood control projects and similar activities upon the nations waterways.
When I think of the Engineers, I tend to think of the Combat Engineer battalion assigned to divisions to act as part of the combined arms team. Traditionally, the three missions of the combat engineer units were mobility, countermobility, and survivability.
Mobility, from where I was at the bottom of the food chain, was generally understood to be the reduction of natural and manmade obstacles to combat units on the battlefield, such as bridging rivers, breaching minefields and wire obstacles, and making emergency repairs to roads on the forward edge of the battle area.
Countermobility was just the opposite, not surprisingly. Emplacing minefields, wire obstacles, anti-tank ditches, cratering roads, and demolishing bridges to deny them to the enemy.
Survivability meant to assist in the construction of fighting positions for armored vehicles, dismounted troops, and artillery, and digging in command posts, and supply dumps. Given the relatively small number of engineers assigned to a division (and the similarly small number assigned to today’s Brigade Combat Teams), that’s a pretty full plate.
Further, Engineers are the only organization that have a stated mission to be prepared to fight as infantry. Now, every soldier, and every unit in the field, is expected to be able to fight to some extent. But those units are expected only to be able to provide a limited self defense capability. They are not expected to mount attacks and defense a given sector against the main body of the enemies forces. And it is a foolish commander that uses his valuable engineering assets in this manner in anything other than an emergency. But the fact remains that combat engineer battalions are organized and equipped to fulfill that mission should a critical need arise. In effect, they are a built in reserve for the unit commander.
But the Engineer mission is far more than merely breaching obstacles at the front. They have a mission that extends from the very tip of the spear to the most rearmost echelons any theater the Army might find itself in. Indeed, until the Engineers get crackin’, there IS no theater of operations.
When the US began building up forces in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Desert Storm in August of 1990, the region was very austere. While there were some port facilities and airfields already extant, the infrastructure was nowhere near capable of supporting the massive force eventually deployed. The combat elements of a modern army are quite capable of moving off road, but the logistical elements need a somewhat more robust road port, road and depot network to sustain large forces with the massive amounts of fuel, ammunition, rations, spare parts and other sundries a modern army requires. Simply providing potable water to 400,000 troops in the desert is a massive challenge. The Army’s Engineers built or contracted for the needed infrastructure in record time. Similarly, as the US built up its forces in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the Engineers were there to provide the network of roads and bases that comprised the supply chain sustaining US forces in theater. We Americans have long taken pride in our troops abilities as fighting men (and women). But we should not forget that it is our institutional ability to build and sustain forces in the field that truly sets our services apart from the rest of the world, and the Army Engineer’s role in that ability.
We’ll shortly take a look a historical look at Engineers in World War II, especially one of the more remarkable types of organizations, the Engineer Special Brigades, and the key role the ESBs played in both Normandy and in the campaigns in the Pacific Theater.