As World War II loomed, the importance of airpower at the tactical level was forefront in the minds of many folks in our Army. The Blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France only served to reinforce this school of thought. Accordingly, the Army and the Army Air Forces sought ways to improve US airpower. In many theaters, such as North Africa and especially in the Pacific, the land campaign would serve largely as a means of advancing airfields.
But unlike today, there just weren’t a lot of airfields anywhere. If the Army Air Forces wanted an airfield, chances were, they would have to build one from scratch. The trouble was, AAF didn’t have any capability to build airfields. Enter the Engineers.
The Engineers were in a bit of an odd position during the war. Historically considered one of the Combat Arms, during World War II, they were reclassified instead as one of the services. But it wasn’t as simple as that. The wide range of engineering duties in the war meant Engineer units were to serve with the Army Ground Forces (AGF), the Army Service Forces (ASF), and with the Army Air Forces. The engineers serving with the AAF were generally assigned to Aviation Engineer Battalions (AEB).
An AEB was a relatively small battalion, primarily tasked with construction duties. Lavishly equipped with construction equipment such as graders, sheepsfoot rollers, bulldozes and scrapers. Dozens of AEBs were activated for service in every theater of the war, and they built hundreds of airfields.
The most obvious task in building an airfield is, of course, the runway. After grading an appropriate strip, many had Pierced Steel Planking overlaid to help support the heavier weights of aircraft, especially in areas with lots of rain.
But a runway does not a combat airfield make. There were plenty more engineering tasks besides that. Parking and dispersal areas, maintenance areas, bomb dumps, fuel dumps, housing and messing facilities for the aviators, drainage and sewerage for the field, and improvements to local defenses were also prime tasks. An operational airfield might be build in just a matter of days.
The AEBs also repaired damage to airfields from enemy air raids, and provided limited local defense against ground attack (there’s that secondary infantry role again).
Finally, when they weren’t actively building airfields, the AEBs were used by theater commanders to improve infrastructure. Often this meant building roads from port facilities to airfields.
After the war, when the Air Force gained its independence, it no longer had call upon Army Engineers. The introduction of high performance jet aircraft made the role of AEBs seem superfluous. But experience in Vietnam showed that there was still a role for deployable engineering forces beyond the normal housekeeping capabilities of most Air Force Wings. Accordingly, the Air Force in 1966 activated the first RED HORSE squadrons.
Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers initially provided repairs to airfields damaged by VC attacks in Vietnam, but have since proven invaluable during expeditionary operations in the Post Cold War era.
When the Air Force deployed huge numbers of aircraft to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, the problem became,where to put them? The Saudi regime had built quite a few bare bones airfields. Consisting of little more than a large runway and ramp space, these airfields were swarmed by RED HORSE squadrons and quickly developed into airfields capable of supporting operations. Similarly, airfields in Iraq, Afghanistan and several other of the ‘stans have been improved by RED HORSE to support operations in the War on Terror.