By 1st Lt. Ander Thompson, M.SAME, USA, George Ohanian, and Capt. Jon Knutson, USAF

At first, it looks like a graveyard. Dilapidated oil barges are strewn across the harbor’s beach. Waves eat away at a corroded fishing vessel. Located 1,500-mi west of Anchorage, Alaska, at the crux of where the Bering Sea meets the Northern Pacific Ocean in the far west of the Aleutian Islands, Shemya Island is infamously referred to as “not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

The island is the home of Eareckson Air Station, a refueling and radar base under the command of the Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center. In March 2020, the U.S. Army’s 7th Engineer Dive Detachment, based out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, received a request to conduct a waterfront facilities inspection of the island’s western harbor and provide a hydrographic survey depicting any impediments within the channel, identify obstructions utilizing the unit’s SCUBA team, and assess the condition of the waterway for navigability.

In carrying out this request, the detachment relied on close partnerships with involved organizations and multidisciplined skills in order to achieve success.

TIP OF THE SPEAR

Army Engineer Dive Detachments specialize in port opening and harbor clearance operations. In fact, the 7th Engineer Dive Detachment, prior to its departure to Shemya Island, worked directly with the Army Geospatial Center (AGC) and the Coastal Hydraulics Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research & Development Center (ERDC) on the development of the Multifunctional Assessment Reconnaissance Vessel (MARV).

Collaborating to develop expeditionary technology based on commercial off-the-shelf technology, ERDC/AGC fabricated the MARV for unmanned surface and subsurface port inspections, obstacle detection, and multi-beam data capture. It was scheduled to replace the 7th Dive Detachment’s single-beam survey set by the end of the year. ERDC/AGC retrofitted portions of the MARV to the detachment’s existing equipment, eliminating any installation issues; expedited the shipping of the equipment; and provided virtual training to the team during the narrow pre-deployment window.

Despite the difficulties of operating during a pandemic and through a five-hour time difference, engineers from ERDC and AGC provided around-the-clock service for technical support. This ability to expediently distribute and train the 7th Engineer Dive Detachment highlights the unique role of ERDC/AGC within the armed forces. Tactical-level units rely on similar partnerships to adapt to mission requirements and remain at the tip of the spear in terms of innovation and modernization.

Maintaining a link to research and development organizations is vital, particularly in austere or atypical locations.

ADAPTING TO AUSTERITY

A military installation’s facilities along the water act as a lifeline for its inhabitants, and this is especially true for Eareckson Air Station, where contractors depend on brief, favorable weather windows to perform resupply and reconstruction operations.

In locations like Shemya Island, seemingly simple problems such as lack of heavy support machinery, restricted access points for boat launching sites, and limited resupply reserves are magnified by inclement weather. The 7th Dive Detachment was able to capitalize on high tides to launch its boats to minimize the effect of the surf break on the boat launch. The team also adapted its waterborne operations around the wind direction and swell height to optimize the survey’s results.

In such an austere environment, creativity and innovation are needed to mitigate risk. To prevent damage to the survey equipment while maneuvering through the break water, the detachment used the pier to lower equipment down to the boat. The soldiers also applied knowledge gained at the Army Ranger School, Army Air Assault School, and Bridge Inspection Courses, and exploited their mountaineering expertise to lash up and safely handle the equipment.

Following movement to Shemya Island, the 7th waited for the turbulent sea state and ripping winds to die down before executing survey and diving operations. The MARV proved highly effective during the survey operation. Its multi-beam system emitted a swath 10-times wider than the water’s depth, decreasing the operating time to survey a 2,400-ft by 1,000-ft area from three days to three hours. In an environment that experiences extreme, sudden weather changes, equipment that minimizes exposure time is essential to safe operations. Surveying in contested and uncontested environments such as Eareckson demonstrated how the efficiency of cutting-edge technology is pivotal to accomplishing the mission.

Additionally, the MARV enhanced the detachment’s ability to produce a technical, professional level product in support of several government agencies. Employing a product that allows the unit to see eye to eye with civilian organizations only enhances the Army’s capabilities. By incorporating state-of-the-art equipment into their repertoire, military entities increase their lethality and effectiveness in working with a variety of experts.

A CRITICAL LIFELINE

A military installation’s facilities along the water act as a lifeline for its inhabitants, and this is especially true for Eareckson Air Station, where contractors depend on brief, favorable weather windows to perform resupply and reconstruction operations. Between freezing fog warnings, 80-mph winds, and an ever-changing sea state, every storm system in the harbor can potentially impact the waterfront infrastructure.

Considering the impact that waterfront support structures have in places such as Shemya, all military services could benefit from possessing a dive unit capable of expediently conducting inspections, surveys, and repairs. Current units’ effectiveness could be augmented through increased training and proficiency of inspections in a range of extreme environments. Providing efficient prevention and response services would be advantageous not only to their own service, but would augment sister services and civilian organizations as well.

The Pacific Air Forces Regional Support and 611th Civil Engineer Squadron maintain a total of 21 active sites throughout the Pacific, the majority of which are coastal. Most of the work on routine and unplanned pier repairs is contracted out. Looking ahead, however, utilizing joint engineer diving assets when appropriate can provide comparable capabilities while eliminating contract costs and providing deliverables in less time.

The undertaking at Shemya Island demonstrated how military diving requires significant interagency, joint, and peer collaboration. Pacific Air Forces established the parameters for the dive team while simultaneously securing military air for rapid deployment. The U.S. Coast Guard provided cold water and ice diving expertise through training on relevant procedures and equipment. At the project conclusion, the dive detachment shared the results of the inspection with the Air Force and Naval Facilities Engineering Command for future reconstruction efforts.

FOUNDATION FOR SUCCESS

Military diving is a key facet to surveying, maintaining, and repairing waterfront facilities. This infrastructure, in turn, is a critical lifeline for military installations that operate in and around bodies of water.

In the current global environment, a period that involves complicated and contested missions in harsh conditions, having strong partnerships between involved organizations establishes a foundation for success.


1st Lt. Ander Thompson, M.SAME, USA, is Executive Officer, 7th Engineer Dive Detachment, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; ander.j.thompson.mil@mail.mil.
George Ohanian is Combat Terrain Information Systems Chief, Military and Civil Engineering & Survey Branch, Army Geospatial Center; george.ohanian@usace.army.mil.
Capt. Jon Knutson, USAF, is Deputy Flight Chief, 611th Civil Engineer Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; jon.knutson.1@us.af.mil. 

[This article first published in the July-August 2020 issue of The Military Engineer.]