“Combined arms” is a military term more often associated with assaults, ambushes and other dramatic actions used to close with, and destroy the enemy. For engineering tasks? Not so much.
This past year in eastern Afghanistan, Fort Bragg-based combat engineers found that a combined-arms approach to sweeping for roadside bombs along the country’s most important highway was the only way to go.
“Outside the FOB (forward operating base), the primary task of our engineers was to keep Highway 1 open,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Brown, commander of 1st Brigade, Special Troops Battalion, a diverse group of engineers and other enablers who support the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Highway 1 forms a ring around Afghanistan. It connects the capital of Kabul in the east with Kandahar to the south and between the two lies Ghazni province.
In spite of Ghazni’s strategic significance, the mountainous, high desert province garnered little sustained NATO attention until March 2012, when the paratroopers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Abn. Div. mounted what was conceived by war planners as the last major clearing operation of the war.
“Insurgent forces previously had free reign in Ghazni,” explained Brown. “When we came in reducing the threat of IED (improvised explosive devices) using a combined-arms methodology, we reduced their ability to employ IEDs in total number of events and total size of events. They no longer had enough materials to make war.”
The main instrument of that success was Company A, the battalion’s combat engineers, partnered with military policemen and maneuver elements from several infantry rifle companies. As the engineer route-clearing platoons swept the roads with state-of-the-art, mine detecting equipment, the maneuver elements, sometimes as large as a company, would operate nearby, either as security, to disrupt enemy operations, or to close with and destroy enemy forces.
A combined-arms approach to route clearance was a natural fit for the aggressive nature of paratroopers and evolved in direct response to the battlefield.
The brigade’s first combat fatality was Cpl. Antonio Burnside, an engineer killed by small arms fire from an ambush that he and his platoon encountered while sweeping the highway for IEDs. Engineers were making contact with the enemy nearly 70 percent of the time they left the wire, according to Sgt. 1st Class Jason Miller, a platoon sergeant on his fifth deployment. In fact, the intensity of the Ghazni operation surpassed all but his first deployment to Iraq when troops were still driving around in soft-skilled humvees, said Miller.
As a result, the brigade mandated that route clearance patrols be coupled with infantry maneuver units that in time became hunter/killers, often using themselves or the RCP as bait to lure in the enemy. The arrangement was so successful that the Washington, D.C. based Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization came to Ghazni to interview one of the engineer platoon leaders to learn the secrets of their success.
“The event (of Burnside’s death) probably saved many lives because we changed our tactics,” said Burnside’s platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Butler, who was on his fourth combat deployment.
As it turns out, there was more to the engineer company’s success than met the eye. For instance, Capt. Michael Natalino, the company commander and former Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., engineer instructor, usually accompanied his engineers on RCP missions to unify control of the various elements at play, which included a company intelligence officer, packable Puma unmanned surveillance aircraft, five dedicated communications technicians, and a combat observation lasing team that provided a fast and reliable link to air and artillery support.
Natalino credited instructors at the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center, in particular former Army 1st Sgt. Larry Driskell, with providing first-rate instruction on near, real-time conditions on the battlefield.
“He would personally come out and train our guys on the equipment to make sure they knew what was going on, such as the difference between going over a root and going over a wire and how that sounds different in the equipment,” said Natalino. “He was out there the entire time.”
Behind the scenes, Brown’s battalion executive officer, Maj. Benjamin Bennett, developed a counter-IED intelligence “fusion cell” that acted as an information hub on everything IED in southern Ghazni. Bennett, who has a Ph. D. in counter-IED network analysis, developed much of his intelligence methodology as part of a counter-IED task force during the surge in Iraq.
In southern Ghazni, Bennett led a team of seven Soldiers dedicated to countering the enemy’s use of IEDs by employing synchronized route-clearance capabilities, aerial surveillance, patrols, and targeting and pattern analysis.
Much of the work was analytical tedium, but Bennett is convinced that it saved lives and, along with the tireless efforts of the engineers out on the highway, led one local insurgent commander to complain, “Why don’t these Americans ever take a break?”
Over six months, Company A, together with an engineer platoon from the 42nd Engineer Company, 54th Engineer Battalion, cleared more routes than any company in theater at that time. The tactics, techniques and procedures they developed resulted in only nine strikes for the 56 IEDs they found and cleared, an 86 percent success ratio that was unmatched by any RCP in theater. By the time 1st Bn., 82nd Abn. Div. departed Ghazni, more than 75 percent of RCPs had adopted their methods.
Additionally, the company has been selected by the 82nd Airborne Division to represent them in the annual Engineer Itschner Award competition for best engineering company in the Army.
“Alpha Company is a model of what the (Army’s) Engineer Regiment represents,” said Brown. “I’m proud to say that no Soldier in the BSTB was killed by an IED.
“Technology has advanced and warfare has changed, but Soldier determination has not changed. Our Soldiers are just as tough, just as innovative, just as intelligent and just as hard working as their forefathers were,” he said.