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"There are/were never enough engineers"

... was Wellington's experience in the Portugal Campaign 1812, MacArthur's conclusion of the engineer war in the Pacific 1941-1945 and even todays CG's USAREUR LTG Ben Hodges assessment on enabling requirements for NATO's level of ambition (LoA).

The term "(military) engineer" came in use in the 19th century and replaces the former "sappers", "piooneer", "miners" and "pontooneers" as specialists who had replaced contracted civilian artisans and labourers working under the oversight of a few commissioned officers as subject matter experts.

Military Engineering

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, military engineering is the oldest of the engineering skills and was the precursor of the profession of civil engineering. It's the art and practice of designing and building military works and of building and maintaining lines of military transport and communications.

Modern military engineering can generally be described with three main tasks:

  1. Combat engineering, or tactical engineer support on the battlefield;
  2. Strategic support by the execution of works and services needed in the communication zones, such as the construction of            airfields and depots, the improvement of ports and road and rail communications, and the storage and distribution of fuels;
  3. A​​​ancillary support, such as geospatial and the disposal of unexploded bombs, mines, and other warheads.

Construction, fortification, camouflage, demolition, surveying, and mapping are the province of military engineers. They build bases, airfields, depots, roads, bridges, port facilities, and hospitals. In peacetime military engineers also carry out a wide variety of civil-works programmes.

For NATO's purpose, Military Engineering will be defined in accordance with MC 560/2 "Policy for Military Engineering" as a function in support of operations to shape the physical operating environment.

Military Engineering will enable or prevent manoeuvre or mobility, develop, maintain, and improve infrastructure; protect the force and provide life support. Military Engineering incorporates areas of expertise such as engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, environmental protection, military search and management of infrastructure, including contracted civil engineering. Military Engineering contributes significantly to C-IED - especially in the fields of defeat the device and prepare the force.

A new formulation for an eternal content, which means that the traditional roles of military engineering - mobility, counter-mobility, survivability and durability - are still valid from the beginning of the use of military forces in history to the present day. 

So far so good. Why th​en back to the future? 

After two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, with large formations manoeuvring across states and continents and in particular with the use of huge battle tank units as decisive elements in battle, military engineering support was adapted mainly to mobility and counter-mobility.

Evolution of engineering since Cold War...

Until the late 1980s, NATO nations had engineer formations on all levels from, battalion to corps; focused on mobility, including amphibious bridging and ferries on Rhine, and counter mobility, with the capability of laying anti-tank minefields against an opponent with large tank assault armies. In Germany, the planned battlefield was shaped/prepared in accordance with the General Defence Plan with obstacles prepared in peacetime, pre-planned demolitions and pre-planned minefields. All training and exercises were directed towards demolitions, laying minefields and supporting mobility by bridging gaps with the German hollow-deck-pontoon system.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar world, NATO and nations shifted their focus to stabilisation operations all over the world. This led, because of different scenarios and other types of terrain, to the reduction of those capabilities required against a peer adversary in conventional war, in a collective defence setting.


The impact on the engineer forces was severe. Most capabilities to support combat and manoeuvre were reduced or completely given up. Due to humanitarian rights development, landmines were more or less banned and the need for future counter-mobility systems was no longer evident. Under peacetime conditions, mobility could be provided by civilian companies or could be contracted. Large scale manoeuvre operations in a peaceful world were not planned; so force enablers for larger formations like divisions and corps were also disbanded. The long lasting stabilisation operations with a contingent system in a static area of operations switched the military engineering focus to supporting infrastructure works and management, supporting force protection with field works, conducting and supporting route clearance, and military search. As an exaggeration, one could say engineer combat forces slowly degraded into armed aid agencies concentrated on civil construction tasks.

...up to modern times

The Russian Federation then demonstrated by using hybrid warfare, supported by large conventional land forces and area access denial capabilities, that they could obtain a freedom of manoeuvre to occupy the Crimean peninsula and to control parts of eastern Ukraine.

NATO's member states responded with the Readiness Action Plan at the 2014 Wales Summit and tasked enhanced advance planning towards emerging threats as required. NATO's level of ambition as stated in the Political Guidance 2015 - with the renewed emphasis on deterrence and collective defence - set the requirement of the full range of strong, credible and usable conventional forces and capabilities to deter any aggression and, when necessary, effectively defend against any threats.

Future Challenges

It soon became obvious that to achieve this goal there was a need for a transformation and adaptation of forces and to enhance and renew capabilities of the existing engineer forces. There are/were no military engineering enabling force packages on theatre level division, corps or component command left. Again, not enough engineers and those that were left were not equipped with the sufficient capabilities for mobility and counter-mobility. This means for the engineer forces, going 'back to the Cold War' to go foward into the future. The remaining equipment used to support these roles is mostly outdated and requires at least an upgrade; in fact, it sometimes requires entirely new solutions.

What does it mean to have a principal statement like "being able to conduct counter mobility tasks"? In contrast, for amphibious bridging, the capability requirement is more specific. It's more a question of existing quantities and quality to cover NATO's LoA.

It's up to NATO to set the requirements, and to the nations to provide the capabilities. It's not just a matter of purchasing capabilities 'off the shelf'. Although nations committed to the Wales Defence Investment Pedge, closing the military engineering capability gaps urgently required will be challenging. Possible solutions such as the Framework Nation Concept (in which unfortunately no MILENG cluster was planned), or common Capability Packages should be explored. It should, however, be noted that military engineering is not a planning domain in NDPP, and its counter-mobility and mobility capabilities are not recognized as priority shortfall areas by relevant NATO Military Authorities. STRATCOM and CYBER capabilities won't be sufficient in helping troops cross rivers, won't stop a (conventional) attacking force in a combined arms operation, ... The combat engineer's role cannot be replace with buzz words.


Operational and tactical manoeuvre commanders must advocate for military engineering requirements for mobility and counter-mobility to NATO and its member states. They need to emphasize that without sufficient military engineering enabling capabilities in quantity and quality at all levels, achieving NATO's aim to swiftly terminate armed conflict or aggression while maintaining or restoring the integrity of Alliance territory will not be successful.

Military Engineering must be ready to respond to mobility and counter-mobility challenges by delivering a necessary range of forces and capabilities for the Alliance's full spectrum of missions, including conducting a large-scale war-fighting Collective Defence campaign against a peer state actor.

MILENG COE, serving as the primary promotor and facilitator for NATO's MILENG capability development, and policy, concept, and doctrine standardisation driver, will make every effort to support these endeavors. So, we can still say:

"There are never enough engineers" ...  for the benefit of NATO and its member states.