By Col. Martin Jung, P.E., PMP, M.SAME, USA , and Dean Ash, M.SAME
As the global environment continues to change, the U.S. Air Force must respond with forward projection platforms in contingency locations. Those platforms require suitable airfield pavements—and recent experience in the Middle East proves that successful contingency airfield pavements require flexibility.
Contingency engineers need to understand that airfield construction is more than providing a 50-year runway, it is about providing a capability to the warfighter. The costs of design and construction delays equate to diverted aircraft, increased flight hours, increased Air Force operational costs, and decreased resources into the fight.
A DELAYED START
Repairs on the North Runway project at Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait, were delayed two years due to disagreements on materials, mix design, and placement method. The delays led to a nonoperational portion of the runway that pressed against the timeline of the Kuwait Eurofighter taxi-way. At this point, the Air Force was looking to divert cargo aircraft to other airfields at a reported cost of $10,400 per C-130 flight-hour and $28,811 per C-17 flight-hour. Additionally, the delays pushed the concrete placement window into summer, where daytime highs were above 130°F and nighttime lows barely dropped to 96°F. On top of high temperatures, this time of year also held consistent dust storms, high winds, and low humidity—poor conditions for concrete placement.
Base course and mix design concerns stemmed from the type of aggregate available in Kuwait. Specifications required the mix design to be provided by the contractor through a registered professional engineer. The contractor proposed a mix design that had ¾-in aggregate as the largest size, which is common in Kuwait. In the Middle East, aggregate is typically shipped from United Arab Emirates to the respective country, then crushed, graded and stockpiled at local “quarries.”
The quarries only crush the aggregate to ¾-in sieve size, but this single discrepancy caused consistent rejection of the base course and mix design. Along with small aggregate size, the specifications require concrete with a total air content of 4.0 +/- 1.5 percent. The reason for this specific air content is that airfield pavement specifications are largely geared towards airfields used in the United States, where freeze thaw cycles are common. This is not a problem in Kuwait. Upon a several-weeks investigation by a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), three quarries confirmed the same result: the preferred larger 1-in to 1.5-in aggregate size would not be available in Kuwait. The challenge now was to agree on a solution that deviated from the Air Force and USACE master specification.
TAKING A BOLD MOVE
Although the project problems appeared technical, the real solution was, to borrow from Jim Collins’ Good to Great, “get the right people on the bus…and in the right seats.” USACE realized the imminent need to change the project team and build credibility with stakeholders. Among the changes, USACE brought in experts from the Transportation Systems Center of Expertise, hired subject matter experts as paving quality assurance (Tiger Brain Inc.), conducted a materials and batch plant field assessment, and set up a paving workshop with the contractor, Al-Ghanim Combined Group Company (AGCO).
The deputy commander then held a Diwaniya (Kuwaiti social gathering) for personnel with USACE, the Air Force, consultants, and contractors. Since tensions had been high nearly two years, the purpose of the Diwaniya was to get out of the work environment, break the ice, build rapport, set expectations for the following week, and set a unified vision for overall success. The unified vision, perhaps the most important part of teaming, was applied numerous times to focus all sides on keeping the project moving. Given the fact this was warranty work, the contractor had several assets (batch plant and slip-form paver) sitting on the project during the two-year delay. Yet despite having out-of-pocket costs, the company owners were committed to completing the project once they saw the equal commitment by the government’s senior leadership and project management teams.
For the next several months, the team encountered nearly every challenge imaginable but overcame them through collaboration, teamwork and cooperation. Since the project was vital to the 386th Expeditionary Mission Support Group, base access and security force escorts were often prioritized above other projects. Having direct weekly engagement with the 386th proved to smooth a number of issues requiring Air Force coordination.
Language barriers posed a distinct challenge during batching and paving operations. The batch plant and slip-form paving operators spoke Turkish, the consultants spoke English, leadership with AGCO, the project manager and superintendent spoke English and Arabic but not Turkish. A translator was brought in to converse between the Turkish, English and Arabic speakers, but this still took a great deal of patience as translators do not usually speak in technical engineering terms. Frustrations would get high, but all sides cooperated extremely well to fine-tune the batching operations during each placement.
Through trial batching, both the Transportation Center of Expertise and the contractor realized the labor crew would need to practice and refine operations enough to pass test-section requirements. The contractor agreed to several practice paving sessions before starting the test-section. Once the team achieved test-section approval, it was now into the hottest part of the season. With daytime temperatures consistently above 130°F, the team took drastic measures to keep placing concrete.
As conditions worsened, the contractor and consultants met regularly to adjust paving and batch-plant practices in order to meet the critical timeline. All operations shifted to night work. The contractor added in-line chillers, built a special apparatus to spray aggregate 24 hours prior to a placement and eventually turned to icing the aggregate for the remaining six hours prior to batching.
In order to control the critical surface evaporation rate, the contractor proposed a mobile wind-block using vehicles and wind screens while misting the air to bring up the humidity level in the arid summer winds. On top of the technical issues, USACE quality assurance personnel continuously reinforced work practices to the foreman and superintendent, who managed the inexperienced work force. Soon, the site management and labor force became well-trained and even resolved several issues themselves.
The unified vision, perhaps the most important part of teaming, was applied numerous times to focus all sides on keeping the project moving.
Ali Al Salem AB experienced sandstorms weekly. These occasionally turned into total brown-outs complete with base closures. While it was nearly impossible to keep aggregate piles clean during the brown-outs, even the lighter storms introduced foreign materials into the aggregate. To overcome this, the contractor covered aggregate as much as possible and built sieves on site to clean it using manual and mechanical means. At times, initial beam breaks (seven and 14 days) were low due to the fine aggregate problems, however, it was determined that acceptable bearing strength, over time, would still be achieved. Given the compaction of the base course and thickness of concrete, with extremely hot placement conditions, surface wear was a higher concern than flexural strength. Although the schedule slipped days with every sandstorm, the team managed to complete the placement during the hottest part of the summer. All these activities occurred while a majority of the runway remained operational.
The entire construction process took constant coordination and teamwork. Planning, staffing and force protection levels adjusted with each changing condition. “Flexibility” demonstrated by partnering, cooperation and dedication is what solved the myriad of challenges faced by harsh weather conditions, less-than-ideal materials, and a moderately trained work force.
The subject matter expertise and decades of field experience brought in were key ingredients to success, but it took USACE senior leadership, a cooperative and team-building project engineer, trusting Air Force personnel on the ground, and a willing contractor to truly complete the mission.
Ultimately, the lesson learned is rigid airfield pavements need a little more “flexibility” to be considered a success for the warfighter.
Col. Martin Jung, P.E., PMP, M.SAME, USA, formerly Deputy Commander, Forward (Kuwait), USACE Middle East District, is Army Facilities Components System Program Manager, U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center – Construction Engineering Research Laboratory; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dean Ash, M.SAME, formerly Project Engineer, North Runway, is Chief Office Engineer, USACE Alaska District; email@example.com.
[This article first published in the May-June issue of The Military Engineer]