By 1st Lt. Joshua Douglas Bartness, USAF
In furtherance of the U.S. Air Force’s mission to fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace, the wartime requirement of Air Force Civil Engineering is to build and sustain bases around the world. Working to ensure these installations are ready and resilient power projection platforms has been carried out through Air Forces Central Command in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and during current operations. Today, in preparation for future conflicts, especially those described by “dynamic force employment” in the National Defense Strategy, developing Company Grade Officers (CGOs) is integral to sustained success.
The 86th Civil Engineer Group, based at Ramstein AB in Germany, is one unit prioritizing the development of young officers through a series of targeted professional growth opportunities. To best hone their skills and become future leaders, CGOs need deliberate training in safe environments; the 86th is making that possible through sharing deployment experiences, troop training projects, and fly-away exercises.
LUNCH & LEARNS
Over the past three years, the 86th has deployed 83 percent of its CGOs, such as 2nd Lt. Gabriel Gavril Houston, USAF, who is leading a hub-and-spoke quality assurance team that travels extensively throughout the Air Forces Central area of operations to ensure all structures are built to proper codes. His team also does design reviews before projects can begin construction. If that was not enough to put on a young lieutenant’s shoulders, he has also been planning potential force beddown sites at four locations. Before Lt. Houston was sent on this deployment, though, there was full confidence that he was not only prepared but would be extremely successful as a result of the training and leadership opportunities he had been part of.
While nothing can compare to hands-on, individual experience, there is much to be gained by learning from the deployments of others. Within the 86th, lessons learned are passed on to the rest of the unit’s officer corps during monthly brown bag lunch-and-learn sessions. In 2018, Capt. B. Paige Blackburn, USAF, deployed to a forward operating base with the 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group and led a 30-person construction team managing $4.9 million of high-mission impact projects. Upon her return, she shared her experience in reconstituting a 98-ft radar tower, renovating deployed living quarters, and other projects she was involved in. Her briefing added to the foundation on which Lt. Houston’s deployment would later build.
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
Recognizing the critical need to develop skills for leading teams and executing downrange projects, the Air Force requires each Civil Engineering unit to conduct a Troop Training Project (TTP) at least once a year. These must be led by a CGO, who gets the opportunity to navigate a team through the entire lifecycle of a project. TTPs force the young officers to get into the details and work with a variety of different crafts in their units.
The current TTP, a project to renovate 4,800-ft² of office space that will provide a new workspace for 34 personnel, is being led by 1st Lt. Jacob Romitti, USAF. The effort has already logged 6,150 man-hours across nine crafts. Clear communication across all levels has been the most valuable lesson on the project to this point. According to Lt. Romitti, almost every problem during the project can be traced back to a communication breakdown.
Learning lessons like these first-hand, especially when forced outside of comfort zones, carries more of an impact and lasts longer than training done in a classroom or computer-based training.
Similarly, I was fortunate to lead the 86th Engineer Group’s TTP last year, which required the frequently seen challenge of navigating multiple stakeholder needs. The TTP opportunity had emerged as leaders with the 86th Airlift Wing sought to co-locate the Medical Group’s Ambulance Service with the Civil Engineer Group’s Fire Department. A team of craftsmen was put together to renovate offices into bunk rooms to accommodate the addition of medical staff. The team then repurposed another section of the building to house the displaced workstations. In the end, the $74,000 project created two private bunk rooms and three workstations for fire shift supervisors. Through t he successful project, he medical response team was able to expand its capabilities to enable 24-hour ambulance response on base.
In military engineering, it is rare to stay with a project from start to finish. Project programmers are often reminded that most projects they program will not even break ground until many years later. TTPs offers CGOs an opportunity to take an idea and manage it through to the end while seeing the pride skilled airman engineers take in their trades.
In military engineering, it is rare to stay with a project from start to ﬁnish. Project programmers are often reminded that most projects they program will not even break ground until many years later. TTPs oﬀers CGOs an opportunity to take an idea and manage it through to the end while seeing the pride skilled airman engineers take in their trades.
As the 86th Airlift Wing focuses on wartime readiness through exercises, the 86th Civil Engineer Group has created additional CGO development opportunities to further their hands-on learning. Working with the wing’s geographically separated units, the 86th Civil Engineer Group added an exercise objective to plan a construction project from the outside and execute it upon arrival—a common wartime civil engineer task. This effort aimed to provide a chance to apply previous TTP training on an even more complex problem set.
To complete the project successfully, teams were needed to perform work at two different sites: Morón AB, Spain, and Lajes Field, Portugal. The Morón team brought HVAC, utilities, electrical, and structures airmen, constructing an emergency eye-wash and chemical shower station, installing food storage and preparation areas, and some quality of life improvements to recreation facilities. The Lajes team completed an airfield marking project to enable activating an assault runway for C-130 training and erected a structure to protect the base’s water treatment plant chemicals.
This type of learning only comes from experience, and it is better to learn during peacetime under low-threat circumstances. The fly-away component of the exercise deliberately advanced CGO development and readiness, and after the exercise, hard-earned lessons were shared with the other officers in the unit at the next brown bag luncheon. Foremost among the lessons learned was that our teams were able to demonstrate that a group of home station engineers can spring into action and show off our ability to bring the fight forward. Moreover, it is apparent that it does not matter how good the plan is, once you get on site and adjust to the conditions, issues will develop and work-arounds will be necessary.
SOLVING THE EQUATION
Engineers know every equation has constants and variables. The equation in this line of work must always equal mission success, and the variables are just that, variable. No one can accurately predict what the future holds or what the variables of the next conflict will be. That leaves just one thing to focus on: the constants.
The military will always need strong leaders who can solve problems on the go, especially problems that require engineered solutions. Leaders today must create opportunities to develop CGOs and impart the skills necessary to equal success when the nation calls on them tomorrow.
1st Lt. Joshua Douglas Bartness, USAF, is Officer in Charge, Construction Management, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the July-August 2020 issue of The Military Engineer.]