Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, P.E., USA, became the 54th U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on May 19, 2016. Previously, he served as the first Director of the Army Talent Management Task Force. Before that, he was Commanding General for Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan, responsible for the building of the Afghan Army and Police through management of a $13 billion budget to support a 352,000 individual force. Among his other assignments, he has served as Deputy Chief of Engineers and USACE Deputy Commanding General; Commander, USACE South Atlantic Division; Commander, USACE North Atlantic Division; and Commander, 130th Engineer Brigade and the V Corps Engineer, Hanau, Germany. Gen. Semonite graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. He holds a master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Vermont, and a master’s degree in Military Arts and Sciences from the Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
TME: What are some of your thoughts and observations now that you have been in your position for nearly a year?
SEMONITE: I am excited to be Chief of Engineers. I took this job over on the May 19, 2016, and it is a four-year job.
One of the most important tasks for a new commander is assessing where the organization is and where the organiza-tion needs to go. For the last nine months, I have spent a lot of time on the ground at our districts, divisions, and centers. I have listened to our stakeholders in their communities, and spoken with leaders at the Pentagon and elected officials on Capitol Hill to assess how well we perform and where we could be better.
In this position I wear three different hats, including Staff Engineer for the U.S. Army and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). But the job I hold with the most passion is serving as Chief of Engineers—concerned with 90,000 engineer soldiers in the Active, Guard, and Reserve components. It is incumbent upon me to understand the work of our Brigade Engineer Battalions (which are part of our Brigade Combat Teams); what capabilities they have; and what they need from us to fulfill their missions. These soldiers serve our country—in peace and at war—and they are key to America’s readiness.
TME: What do you see as USACE’s priorities over the next few years?
SEMONITE: My vision is what is in our campaign plan, which is to “engineer solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges.” We deliver, with our partners, vital engineering solutions to secure the nation, energize our economy, and reduce risks related to disasters. Almost everything we’re doing, or anticipate doing, goes back to those three things. The way I see it, everything I do must keep the Corps on track to be a world-class organization now and into the future.
I have a simple framework that portrays the three dimensions needed to ensure USACE remains a world-class organization.
The first dimension is “Strengthen the Foundation.” Before we construct a building, before we start a harbor deepening, ask the question: “Does the Corps of Engineers possess the right capabilities, the right capacities, and the right authorities to complete this project?” Having a strong foundation empowers leaders to think strategically.
The second dimension is to “Deliver the Program.” If we have to construct a building, if we have to deepen a harbor, how do we determine how much it is going to cost and when it will get done? Then, how good are we at delivering it on time, on budget, and at the appropriate quality?
The third dimension is the ability to “Achieve our Vision.” We must anticipate future conditions, challenges and opportunities, then take decisive actions today that will prepare us for any unknown future.
TME: How does USACE realize its goal of securing the nation?
SEMONITE: Within USACE, we will continue to ruthlessly perform, evaluate, and adapt our Campaign Plan, which guides how we organize, train, and equip our personnel; how we plan, prioritize, and allocate resources; and how we respond to emerging requirements and challenges.
Our most important goal is to Support National Security. We have to be innovative, resilient, and tenacious in finding sustainable solutions, whether for the Department of Defense, for our interagency or international partners, or for the American public. In addition to the Army, USACE does a massive amount of work in support of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and other federal agencies. We also support the Combatant Commanders in charge of securing peace, fighting wars, and performing security cooperation missions around the globe. I previously served as Commanding General for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and was amazed at what USACE accomplished in support of the Afghan Ministers of Defense and Interior.
Probably one of the most challenging jobs now is in Iraq. The Mosul Dam has some significant foundation problems that put a great many lives at risk. Our team is doing an outstanding job of making repairs while training Iraqi technicians to take that mission over. Mosul Dam is one of the toughest challenges in the world and our government directed us to take it on.
We also provide support to the U.S. Agency for International Development and Department of State. And we have the authority to work for federal entities that might not have an engineering arm, or need additional engineering assistance, like the Department of Veteran Affairs. We are honored to partner with them to execute medical center and clinic projects for which Congress has appropriated money. Our workload with them is about $5.9 billion.
TME: Can you address the current status of USACE’s Civil Works mission?
SEMONITE: The second goal we have is to Deliver Integrated Water Resources Solutions. This is directly related to our Civil Works Program. It is the ability to keep waterways navigable, but do it in a balanced manner so we are energizing the economy while conserving natural resources. Many of our projects have to consider navigation, flood risk management, ecosystem restoration, and hydropower. Right now, we have about $63 billion in authorized projects (but not constructed). Our normal annual requirement is about $7 billion. Yet we are only funded at $3 billion.
Because the nation has so many infrastructure challenges, we have to find ways of stretching our valuable Civil Works dollars. The Fargo-Moorhead flood risk management project in North Dakota and Minnesota exemplifies the potential opportunity with funding through a Public- Private Partnership (P3). The arrangement on Fargo-Moorhead allows us to use private money to offset some of the federal obligation to make the project a more resourceable solution for the federal government. If we had approached Fargo-Moorhead using conventional means, it would have taken in excess of 16 years to complete, using 28 contracts with a federal cost share of $850 million. Through a P3, we estimate it will take us and our non-federal sponsors 6.5 years to complete, using 11 contracts with a federal cost share of $450 million. This is one way we have been able to modify some of our processes to deliver Civil Works projects that will protect at-risk residents while saving a significant amount of money and time.
The fact remains, however, that more than half of our Civil Works infrastructure is more than 50 years old. Appropriations and cost share contributions must keep pace with pressing capitalization as well as operating and maintenance needs to sustain the safety, security, and prosperity of the nation. Innovation and ingenuity is also critical. We need to find innovative approaches to be able to continue to maintain these projects or they will suffer, and the economy will suffer.
TME: Can you discuss USACE’s responsibility in reducing disaster risk?
SEMONITE: The third goal within our Campaign Plan is to Reduce Disaster Risk. This was not a strategic goal until Superstorm Sandy. When the storm hit, nine of our districts and every coastal state from Florida to Maine was impacted. We have decided to invest heavily in the capabilities that we need to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency, working on an authority where we serve as its engineer for various support functions.
Our investments allow us to deliver support that responds to, recovers from, and mitigates disaster impacts to the nation.
TME: In addition to the day-to-day, how is USACE preparing for the future?
SEMONITE: The fourth goal within our Campaign Plan is to Prepare for Tomorrow. We must make sure we have the people, teams, systems, and processes needed to sustain a diverse culture of collaboration and innovation to remain ready and relevant now and in the future. The main focuses are human resources, research and development laboratories, knowledge management, and information technology.
I want to know that every single day I fought to make USACE a better place. We can get so immersed in the tactical tasks that sometimes leaders are unable to look forward and shape the organization for a brilliant future. We need to be the champions of change, doing everything we can to ensure the Corps remains a world-class organization
We are also thinking critically about our business processes. Are we being effective and efficient? Can we streamline? Have we elevated some of our approval levels too high? I want to make clear, in no way do we want to degrade the level of expertise needed; but if we can find ways of executing in a more rapid manner while maintaining diligence, we must be able to streamline.
TME: What do you see as your legacy three years from now?
SEMONITE: I want to know that every single day I fought to make USACE a better place. We can get so immersed in the tactical tasks that sometimes leaders are unable to look forward and shape the organization for a brilliant future. We need to be the champions of change, doing everything we can to ensure the Corps remains a world-class organization. I want to spend the rest of my time instilling what former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, USA, called “irreversible momentum.” If I can instill irreversible momentum in the hearts of the people within this great organization, all directed toward becoming world-class professionals within a world-class Corps…after I’m gone, perhaps that culture will continue.
The Corps is a phenomenal place, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Every day we need to improve. We must look at what future challenges America is going to ask us to tackle, and be ready before we are asked. This goes back to our vision: “engineering solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges.” If America needs us, we are going to step up and deliver. It is what we do.
TME: How can professional organizations like SAME contribute to the professional development of USACE and the Engineer Regiment?
SEMONITE: Much of a leader’s success is based on possessing technical competence, superior integrity, and a sincere passion for military or public service. Participating in professional organizations and obtaining licensure and credentials can enable professionals to become leaders among their peers. Junior leaders are taking on roles that used to be performed by senior personnel. As such, these newer leaders must mature quickly. They must be able to think critically and creatively, and reason ethically.
I think it is important for junior and senior professionals to build their networks so they can collaborate and share ideas and opportunities in a supportive space. Everything we do at the Corps is part of a collaborative effort that supports our nation’s interests. Professional organizations can help in our efforts.
[Interview first published in the March-April 2017 issue of The Military Engineer.]