Not the concept of dropping bulldozers from the sky. The Army has been doing that for decades.
The 27th Airborne Combat Engineer Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has perfected the art of loading an aircraft with Soldiers, weapons and earth-moving equipment, and dropping them into enemy territory. They come in like a wedge to make an opening for heavy conventional forces.
This capability isn’t new; but it is low-density. According to Maj. Randy Summerhill, operations officer for the 27th Eng. Bn. (C) (A), the 27th has the only two companies in the Army that can drop a 17-ton bulldozer from an aircraft and use it after landing.
“We have a very niche capability,” he said. That capability requires the 27th to maintain extraordinary agility, speed and self-sufficiency.
But these qualities do lead to something new when combined with the King-Kong size engineering capability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The concept had its genesis in the mind of Col. Daniel Hibner, commander of the Corps’ Savannah District, the day after Hurricane Florence mulched North Carolina with destructive winds and 30 inches of rain.
The Defense Department took offense at Florence’s wind, primarily because one important Army installation was in the cyclone’s path. After landfall officials realized this key logistical facility was crippled; a facility designed to transport ammunition and other explosives to combat operations overseas. The Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point in North Carolina – referred to as MOTSU – suffered flooding, road washouts, rail erosion and wharf damage -- all threatening to halt its quiet but crucial output operations.
In the words of one battle-hardened operations sergeant: “If this place were to be compromised the troops down range would be [in a bad way].” This from Sgt. 1st Class Eric Bradford with the 27th Eng. Bn. (c) (a) – and a beneficiary of MOTSU in numerous combat deployments.
When Hibner accepted the mission to restore MOTSU he knew the damage was significant. It required the heavy-lifting of USACE expertise and major contracts; contracts that needed to be designed, negotiated, put out for bid, and awarded. Hibner’s team refined this process to just under two weeks – breakneck speed in the construction contracting world, which would normally take up to six weeks or more. But this wasn’t fast enough. MOTSU had six days to get its infrastructure in functional order.
So, at the request of USACE, U.S. Army Forces Command task organized Fort Bragg’s combat engineer battalion under Hibner’s command, and the 27th Eng. Bn. was on the ground at MOTSU less than 12 hours after ordered to go.
“Adding this airborne engineer battalion to our recovery process enabled us to begin repairs immediately without waiting on contracts,” said Hibner. “We had Sappers out here clearing large trees off roads and rails – 30 trees a day until they wore out 12 chainsaws. Then they took hand saws and axes went at it like Samurais.”
The Sappers from the 57th Combat Sapper Company, Combat Airborne Rough Terrain are specialized airborne Soldiers trained to breach terrain obstacles, among other roles.
According to Spc. Dylan Britton, a Sapper here with the 57th CSC under the 27th Eng. Bn., his unit is trained to jump from aircraft into trees, firebreaks and other rough terrain and clear large areas for landing zones.
“Lethal lumberjacks,” said Hibner, “that jump out of the sky.”
Downed trees were MOTSU’s first obstacle because they blocked container movement. Britton said rapidly clearing trees is a big part of what they’re trained to do. And he said few things could keep him from it.
"I love my job. Love dealing with explosives. Love jumping out of planes," said Britton. The Army he said, rescued him from his former life and gave him purpose. Now he’s committing to a career as a Soldier, and it’s apparent by the kind of energy he puts into clearing trees at MOTSU.
But the fallen trees were only the beginning of MOTSU’s problems. Florence flooding eroded large portions of roads and railway. In several cases floodwaters washed away entire sections of road with their culverts.
So accompanying the Sappers were specialized airborne paratroopers trained to jump from aircraft with earth-moving equipment and repair airfields. They came in armed not only with equipment, but determination.
"We're going to bring this base back to 100 percent operational [status],” said Spc. Angie Mercado, 161st Combat Engineer Support Company (A). “The entire company is motivated to do so."
Mercado is a native of Colombia in South America, who said she is a career Soldier because, back where she’s from women are prohibited from serving in the armed forces. When talking about putting MOTSU back in order, her body shifted and her face hardened. It seemed the same determination that made her a Soldier was animating her personal interest in repairing MOTSU.
Not to mention the other 92 paratroopers at MOTSU, who each brought personal drive to the table for a fast recovery.
MOTSU demanded this kind of resolve if it was going to be put back in order. The 161st was facing 19 road washouts, some of them so vast that larger equipment was needed, equipment that is impossible to deploy by air.
Therefore, Summerhill said when the 161st arrived they were using the same methods they would use to do an airfield damage repair when structural fill isn’t available. This enabled them to get the roads functional immediately, but until they got structural fill material their repairs were temporary.
“They were squaring the holes and using sand grid, (which keeps material regardless of its compaction rating),” said Summerhill. “This rapid repair is what enabled MOTSU to continue with its critical mission requirements without impacting operations overseas.”
Bradford, who seems like he’s everywhere all at once, embraced the struggle, saying it’s good for the Soldiers to muscle through it.
“You're not going to know how to push your limits until you get the stressors [of the challenge],” he said.
The three benefits
A boxer in the ring will typically come at his opponent first with a series of jabs. These jabs serve to groom his rival before delivering the knockout punch.
The 27th Eng. Bn. (A) rolled into MOTSU delivering engineer jabs, mitigating Florence’s damages enough to keep cargo flowing to critical areas overseas. This enabled USACE, which is the Army’s engineer gorilla, to position itself for a knockout.
The arrangement was the first of its kind for the Army, and Hibner pointed out three ways the nation benefits.
First: The task organization of a combat engineer battalion under a Corps of Engineers command demonstrated incredible speed and efficiency for disaster recovery. The 27th Eng. Bn. gave Hibner’s experts the space they needed to assess damages, draw up scopes of work, design repairs and negotiate contracts.
Relying on the battalion to deliver the jabs, the Corps’ experts put their full weight behind the major contractual efforts. And these contracts were executed in record time; less than two weeks from assessment to construction.
“No one has ever executed a process like this in less than two weeks,” said Tracy Hendren, Savannah District Engineer Division Chief. He added that the normal time to organize comparable efforts is typically measured in weeks or even months.
Given these remarkable results, experts will likely be referring to MOTSU’s recovery in future disaster responses – and this makes the nation more resilient.
Second: The vast repairs executed by the battalion added zero cost to the effort.
“There's no overtime for us,” said Summerhill. No lodging costs, no per diem costs. “We brought our tents, our food, our equipment. It is costing the government no more to have us here operating under USACE than it would if we were training at Fort Bragg.”
Indeed, since the 27th Eng. Bn. arrived, all 93 Soldiers have been living in one of the parking lots on the installation, full combat style in tents and eating MREs (meals ready to eat).
Mercado shrugged over this, merely saying this is what they do. "We're given a space, and we occupy that space with our own living arrangements."
So it saves taxpayer money.
Third: The MOTSU experience sharpened the Soldiers’ capability; they are now better equipped combatants.
“This mission has most certainly helped the Sappers get better at what they do,” said Britton. “There are five new people in the company and clearing the trees has given them the experience they need with the chain saws and other tools.”
Bradford said it also sharpened their mobility. “We brought everything with us. We pack it in, we pack it out. It's good practice setting up and tearing down in a parking lot.”
What Soldiers got out of MOTSU
There are other benefits less tangible in Hibner’s mission to secure MOTSU. Many Soldiers said they hadn’t heard of MOTSU before Florence due to its quiet operation. But they said when they realized its strategic significance, when they heard how the MOTSU recovery was a Defense Department priority, it was something they’d put their backs into.
“Securing this place, to protect this place, it’s an honor,” confessed Bradford. “This mission is special knowing what this place is and what it does. Being able to help Soldiers down range, needing the product this place provides … it hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.”
Mercado agreed. It wasn’t just the extent of the damage, she said. It was working while dealing with gators, snakes and mosquitoes, the mud and quicksand, and smaller equipment.
When it got tough, she said she remembered: "We're not here for us. This is to help contribute to relief efforts for the sake of other people. It's what we do."