Like several Army employment categories at present, Army’s civil engineers are at a critical point: there are insufficient numbers to fill essential (let alone desirable) positions, and experience in fundamental civil engineering is at an all-time low. Unlike most other employment categories, these particular low-density but high-demand technical specialists are part of the generalist engineer officer workstream, the inclusion of which obscures the poor health of the civil engineer component of the category.

In the absence of substantial expeditionary operations, and with easy access to technical consultants, most civil engineering skillsets are contracted to industry rather than undertaken ‘in-house’. This has resulted in a loss of civil engineering expertise within Army, and an emerging gap in capability to respond across the full spectrum of military engineering required to support the Joint Force, particularly as we approach the conflict end of the spectrum.

Retention of junior civil engineers is also impacted as the job satisfaction expected from undertaking civil engineering tasks becomes evasive and draws them towards exiting the Army for civil industry. A spiral of capability erosion exists which must be unwound before it is too late.

This article will analyse the civil engineer workforce from the perspective of one who has been fortunate to employ many of his civil engineering skills in both peacetime and on expeditionary operations. The article will be broken into four sections:

  1. Introducing civil engineers and the capabilities they bring.
  2. Arguing why Army and the Joint Force needs civil engineers.
  3. An overview of factors contributing to the erosion of Army’s civil engineering capability.
  4. Options to remediate the civil engineer workforce and be Future Ready.

The proposed options will include workforce structure and remuneration, technical education and training, and increasing opportunities to practice – although other workable solutions are also likely available.

It is hoped this article will generate discussions within Army, specifically regarding civil engineers but also on related issues with other branches of engineering and how Army uses the hard sciences. Noting the current state of civil engineers, it is further hoped the recommendations will be implemented with relative urgency, including informing the Military Engineering System capability review to be undertaken in 2023.

Who are Army’s civil engineers and what capabilities can they bring?

All military engineers are soldiers first, sappers second, and specialists third.[1] Civil engineers are specialised engineer officers and are part of the Corps of Royal Australian Engineers (RAE). Although RAE is considered a ‘technical corps’, the majority of engineer officers do not hold an engineering degree – but are highly trained and qualified in planning and managing most military engineering tasks. RAE officers ‘assist in maintaining the mobility of our own forces, deny freedom of movement to the enemy (counter-mobility), and provide general engineering support.’[2] While all engineer officers can develop engineering solutions to military problems, there are a wide range of tasks for which a civil engineering (or similar) degree is required.

A good starting point for defining civil engineering and the potential civil engineers offer Army is the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), the institution charged with training most of Army’s (and Air Force’s) civil engineers. The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Canberra Handbook identifies ‘Civil Engineering takes its name from the division of engineering in the Middle Ages between military and civilian works.

Present day civil engineering has maintained strong commonality with military engineering – the design and construction of facilities such as roads, bridges, airfields, buildings, water supply and waste treatment facilities, structures of all types, and the associated planning and management of projects.’[3] A degree in civil engineering provides Army officers with ‘professional engineering design, construction, and management skills.’[4] The qualification of Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) – or BE(Civil) – is what provides the doctrinal capability of ‘technically qualified engineer’ (colloquially ‘tech eng’).[5] In civilian terms, civil engineering is a ‘Profession’[6] with Army civil engineers and members of the profession of arms.

The graduate outcomes from the UNSW-conferred BE(Civil) at ADFA provides an overview of the technical capabilities civil engineers provide to Army and the Joint Force. Some of the key graduate outcomes are:

  • Relate a quantitative, theory-based understanding of the sciences and engineering fundamentals of civil engineering (encompassing structural analysis and design, infrastructure planning and design, water and environmental technologies, and construction materials, technologies, and project management).
  • Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of design and construction techniques and standards.
  • Synthesise engineering design practice, contextual factors, norms, and accountabilities in – and the limitations on – civil engineering.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in applying systematic engineering synthesis and design processes, and in critically evaluating and effectively communicating the results and implications. [7]

The focus on analysis, design, construction techniques, and applied knowledge of systematic engineer problem solving are the key technical skills that differentiate civil engineers from the non-technical RAE officers. These skills, however, are rapidly perishable if not applied as a junior officer and without ongoing professional development. If civil engineering skills and knowledge are not applied and atrophy too far, Army’s more senior civil engineers can lack the confidence to volunteer their skills to address engineering problems.

Once found relatively abundantly in most military engineer units, Army civil engineers are now largely confined to the two Chief Engineer Works (12 and 19 CE Works), Army Headquarters, Security & Estate Group and International Policy Division. The Officers Commanding a Combat Engineer Regiment (CER) Support Squadron, as well as the Reconnaissance/Works Officer and usually a Troop Commander, were formerly filled by civil engineers. Likewise, in the Construction Squadrons of the 6th Engineer Support Regiment (ESR) the Officers Commanding, the Construction Officer, Plans Officer and Troop Commanders were all civil engineers, while the Regimental Works Office contained several technical engineers.

The dwindling number of civil engineers has resulted in only ‘essential’ positions in the Gazette requiring ‘Technical Officers’, although even these approximately 50 positions (which should be at least 75) are now not able to be filled with civil engineers. Even the commanding officers of the Chief Engineer Works and 6 ESR cannot always be filled with a technical engineer officer.

The elimination of ‘unfillable’ civil engineer positions from most engineer units has reduced the ability of civil engineers to apply their fundamental skills and has denied field force engineer commanders ready access to civil engineering expertise. It has also removed redundancy as well as senior engineer supervision and mentoring. More broadly, in domestic infrastructure delivery, it has lessened Defence’s ability to be an informed client. Is this an issue? Does Army and the Joint Force need technically proficient Army civil engineers?

Why Army and the Joint Force need civil engineers

Civil engineers have historically played important roles on military operations. RAE civil engineers have served with distinction in both World Wars, Malaya, Vietnam, East Timor, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, as well as served in peacetime roles delivering strategic effects in remote Australian indigenous communities and throughout the Indo-Pacific, and on humanitarian assistance missions. It is this hard-won experience, as well as contemporary demands and anticipated future needs that provides the basis for Australian Army doctrine for employing military engineers.

Australian Army doctrine for military engineering, as well as Australian Defence Force (ADF) doctrine for Infrastructure Engineering and Maintenance, frequently refer to ‘qualified technical engineers’. For design tasks, this is defined as a ‘person who has completed a Bachelor of Engineering in civil or structural engineering and is competent in [the relevant type of] design.’[8] In general doctrinal usage, this term refers to a competent person who has a BE(Civil and/or similar) qualification and is skilled in analysis, design, construction techniques, and systematic engineer problem solving.

A range of military engineering tasks require a technical engineer to be undertaken including intelligence and reconnaissance, mobility, force protection, and infrastructure delivery. These tasks can be tactical, in support of theatre-level operations, in direct achievement of strategic objectives, or supporting capability generation.

The doctrine Engineer Operations in Support of Formation Tactics provides a useful overview of military engineering support to brigade-level and below tasks and activities. Regarding engineer reconnaissance, the spectrum of ‘tactical’ to ‘technical’ demonstrates when a combat brigade needs technical engineers. These technical reconnaissance tasks, as a prelude to military engineering support, include complex route and bridge assessments, building damage assessments, infrastructure assessments and surveys, and airfield assessments.[9]

Historically, these assessments are routinely undertaken on expeditionary operations, be they combat operations or humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) missions. The Combat Engineer Squadron’s integral reconnaissance assets would normally conduct both technical and tactical reconnaissance tasks while support or construction squadrons would generally only be focussed on technical tasks.[10] Combat brigades, however, currently possess limited organic technical engineer capabilities to provide most technical reconnaissance functions.

More broadly in doctrine, technical engineers are required for design, assessment, and quality assurance tasks across the spectrum of operations (from Campaigning in Competition to high-end warfighting) and at all levels. Doctrinally, Army’s civil engineers are required for a wide range of tasks including the design and/or certification of non-equipment bridges; the design of roads, airfields, and wharfs; the design and certification of force protection structures, including many field fortifications; the assessment of existing buildings and essential infrastructure (damaged or otherwise); and the design of new infrastructure, including essential services (water, sewerage and power) for deployed forces.

Structural failures have occurred on operations through lack of supervision by technically competent engineers. Even the construction of large capacity military equipment support and line-of-communication bridges must be supervised by a civil engineer (as was the case in response to the 2013 floods in Bundaberg).[11] Likewise the use of damaged equipment bridges requires a technical engineer’s certification – the latter was a task undertaken by the author in an exercise ahead of an armoured battle group fighting withdrawal over a fixed-modular bridge damaged during night construction. At the strategic level, the technical authority to accept design changes to infrastructure projects being delivered across the Indo-Pacific rests with a competent and qualified civil engineer colonel.

Finally, Technical Control (techcon) of military engineering forces and tasks necessitates civil engineering advice. Techcon is the ‘provision of specialist and technical advice by designated authorities for the management and operation of forces.’[12] In an operational setting for military engineering, techcon ‘constitutes engineer advice to maintain technical standards, comply with legislation, meet explosive hazard reduction policy and generally ensure the most effective employment of engineers.’[13]

With regards to operational infrastructure, ADF doctrine emphasises techcon ‘constitutes advice on infrastructure inception, design, delivery, operation and maintenance and disposal matters with compliance, safety, and environmental management’ and ‘personnel with authority to exercise techcon are to ensure that the procedures and processes being employed comply with the approved Defence [Quality Management System].’[14]

The lack of experienced civil engineers has also meant our technical processes and quality management systems do not receive the focus needed to remain contemporary. Regardless at which level techcon is held (higher tactical through to strategic), a competent civil engineer is required to provide the techcon authority specialist technical advice on civil engineering matters – particularly involving standards and legislation.

Often those with the ability to influence the civil engineering capability do not understand the complexities surrounding the scoping, design, construction, and certification process. The complex and technical work completed by Army’s civil engineers (or consultant engineers) is completed in the background and is not visible to senior leaders and decision makers. The removal of the force engineer position and current lack of centralised control of military engineers has exacerbated this issue.

Unfortunately, expeditionary operations requiring such technical engineer support have not been required for nearly 15 years, less several HA/DR operations (although Reserve officers have sometimes been brought in to provide technical engineer support). Similarly, unless included by a CER commanding officer with technical engineer experience, Army collective training exercises almost never include training serials that require technical engineer support.

International engagement activities are the biggest employer of Army civil engineers; however, this is usually in a project management role. This means the need for, and opportunities presented by, civil engineer support is not well understood across Army and the capability has severely degraded. This is a significant risk for future joint operations in a contested environment and in difficult terrain where industry and civilian engineers are likely not available. Understanding why the Army’s civil engineer capability has diminished will enable remediation options to be proposed.

The factors contributing to the erosion of Army’s civil engineering capability

The fundamental skills of Army’s civil engineers have been eroding in a spiralling manner for over two decades. Up until the 1990s, and even into the early 2000s, Army civil engineers regularly undertook design tasks for infrastructure projects on the domestic estate, in Papua New Guinea, across the Pacific and as part of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP). Until more recently, Army’s civil engineers also directly managed a wider range of construction tasks including airfields, bridges, multi-storey buildings (including timber, steel, concrete and masonry), sewage systems, and simple port facilities.

Now, and likely due to over-tasking the limited RAE civil engineer workforce and compressing delivery timeframes, most of these tasks are contracted to civilian industry with comparatively inexperienced Army civil engineers filling the role of principal or client’s representative. This has resulted in almost all Army civil engineers who reach the rank of lieutenant colonel not having significant design or construction experience; instead, they are experienced project managers and contract administrators.

It is observed the types of people who are often attracted to engineering are intelligent, curious, driven, and creative problem-solvers who are physical learners and enjoy getting their hands dirty on a task. Gaining experience only in project management and contract administration does not satisfy many of the engineers (although some enjoy this type of work) as they are not able to use their natural traits. As a result, many depart Army while looking to continue working with Defence on projects as a civilian consultant, as this is currently the only way most believe they can get the civil engineering experience they seek.

The spiral of erosion is created when successive cohorts of graduate civil engineers do not work for or with experienced civil engineers, thereby generally not using or enhancing their technical skills, before promoting to more senior ranks where they are insufficiently experienced to mentor the next generation of graduate civil engineers. This lack of applied civil engineering design and construction skills has also resulted in infrastructure project managers who lack the experience and confidence to quality check and challenge industry contractors. While suitably qualified as project managers, the benefits of civil engineering knowledge, insights, and experience once gained as junior engineer officers has been lost to Army and Defence, who are not getting as great a return on investment from their ADFA civil engineer graduates.

There are several compounding factors that have led to the poor health of Army’s civil engineer capability. These factors are the lack of structure for the capability; lack of remuneration commensurate with professional requirements; no Army-coordinated or sponsored technical education or training after graduating from ADFA; and limited opportunities for ‘in house’ design, assessment, and construction tasks that are associated with significant expeditionary operations.

These factors will be explored in more detail so that the problem set is fully understood. It should be acknowledged that RAE centralised its technical engineer capability in response to an Army-driven adjustment, and elected not to buy-in fully to the Technical Engineer Review; both short-sighted ‘sugar hits’ that have contributed to the present non-agile situation.

As noted above, all military engineers are soldiers first, sappers second, and specialists third.[15] This is no different for Army’s civil engineers who form part of the engineer officer workstream and are not differentiated from any other RAE officer. Remuneration is the same despite the need to remain technically proficient and assume higher levels of risk associated with assuring the integrity of engineer works.

The lack of differentiation in the engineer officer workstream means there is no way to track the health of the specialisation nor a sustainable career model for civil engineers that considers what skills they should use and develop at different times throughout their career – some positions are suited to more experienced civil engineers (such as strategic project officers), while others are steps to these advanced positions.

This means the ill-health of civil engineers is lost in official reporting. Army people capability reporting of engineer officers shows consistency in the trained asset against establishment at nearly 100 percent – an apparent healthy category.[16] This does not show the number of civil engineer positions that are filled by ‘non-tech’ engineer officers that should not indicate a healthy specialisation. Further, Career Management has indicated the exit rate of civil engineers has been consistent; however, if this exit rate has resulted in the loss of civil engineers across engineer units, then the rate should be lowered. The problem of civil engineer health is out of sight and lost in the noise of general workforce reporting.

The lack of workstream differentiation also means Army’s civil engineers follow the typical ‘balanced’ Army officer career path and complete the combat engineer-focussed career courses: the Regimental Officer Basic Course (ROBC), the Engineer Officer Operations Course (EOOC), and the Combat Officers Advanced Course (COAC). While these courses are necessary to be an effective engineer officer who can provide advice on the full suite of military engineering capabilities, the lack of any further civil engineering courses does not align to Army’s approach to education and training.

Army’s civil engineers are deficient a formal process for professional development: ‘the pursuit of professional mastery through training, education, and experience.’[17] Noting Army’s civil engineers are Professionals (big ‘P’), an absence of structured professional development – common in almost every industry organisation employing civil engineers – is detrimental to force generating this Army capability and being Future Ready.

There are few opportunities for civil engineers to practice their craft, particularly in design and construction management. Unlike during expeditionary operations, where delivery is within days and weeks, ‘peacetime’ projects since the turn of the century are larger scale with delivery taking place in terms of months and years. The increasing scale and volume of these projects – both domestically and as part of international engagement / security cooperation – combined with a shrinking workforce over the past two decades, has resulted in an almost complete shift to contracted technical services.

While 12th Chief Engineer Works was re-raised in recent years to support the delivery of Indo-Pacific Enhanced Engagement projects (after being removed from the Army’s order of battle in 1999), several unit establishment reviews tried to similarly remove 19th Chief Engineer Works in the preceding decade to free up positions for elsewhere in Army. The 6th Engineer Support Regiment, who provide force-level engineer effects including construction, have only undertaken limited horizontal design in recent years and junior engineers are receiving less and less exposure to construction planning and quality inspections.[18]

These practices in project delivery and training have resulted from an aggregate of decisions over many years but are partially or fully reversible if it is agreed Army civil engineers are required for more than large-scale, peacetime project delivery and are integral to ‘enable the Joint Force in peace and war’[19].

Options for remediating Army’s civil engineering capability

The three factors contributing to the degradation of Army’s civil engineer capability – workforce structure and remuneration, technical education and training, and opportunities to practice – all need to be systematically addressed. While the Military Engineering System capability review should look at this matter holistically, some of the following proposed remediation options could be implemented earlier. Early adoption would be a matter for RAE commanders who are responsible for force generating the capability.

Overall, however, remediation will take many years – a new entry to ADFA will take five and a half years to reach units and then another seven years to reach the rank of major (where they are senior project engineers and officers commanding). A director-general will take 28-30 years to generate, so Army’s attention should be turned to this matter at the earliest possible opportunity.

Firstly, a trade and career model for civil engineers must be developed within the engineer officer workstream to include remuneration. All civil engineers should be qualified engineer officers (a view not shared by all) – we have insufficient numbers to provide military engineering advice across Army without them – but the trade needs to be reviewed from first principles and structured for long-term capability generation. The trade model needs to include all Army civil engineer positions across Defence – including in Security & Estate Group and International Policy Division – and must look at where civil engineer expertise is required across the spectrum of operations, from peacetime competition through to high-intensity conflict.

These positions must extend from lieutenant to brigadier to ensure a sustainable and healthy model is developed. A longitudinal career path should be mapped consisting of increasingly complex roles upon which to develop and improve technical experience, ensuring junior civil engineers are not overwhelmed and discouraged. Two captain postings need to be in a civil engineer role. The positions of commanding officer in 6 ESR and the CE Works (and construction engineers more broadly) need to be seen as on an equal footing as the CERs for attendance at a Command and Staff Course and in promotion boards.

The remuneration of technical engineers needs to consider the requirement to remain technically proficient and assume greater levels of professional risk than most general service officers (as well as the need to be registered in most states). A solution somewhere between a pilot and lawyer/doctor should be considered. A trade model can then be monitored for health by Army People Capability, both as it is rolled out and then when it reaches a sustainable level, like other technical trades[20].

Secondly, formal technical education and training must ensure that knowledge and skills from graduate to senior project engineer are current and best practice. Such an education continuum must commence upon entry to ADFA and continue through to senior captain or junior major. ADFA students must have a tailored program with greater practical application of engineering theory to ensure graduates are able to work with reduced supervision and mentoring than that found within civilian consultancies. Holistic design of simple structures and civil works, as well as specialist military-focused electives such as blast design, are key graduate skills. To achieve this, greater investment in the UNSW@ADFA External Advisory Committee is essential.

Junior officers should attend a two- or three-week Civil Engineer Intermediate Course that uses external training providers to teach a series of sequential short courses on earthworks, timber design, masonry design, steel design, composite material design, scheduling, and other technical one- or two-day courses. Prospective senior project engineers should attend a one-week course that includes construction law, negotiation skills, and more advanced construction management techniques.

Like the specialisations for Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps officers (petroleum operations, ammunition, and parachute rigging), a qualified senior officer (colonel) sponsor supported by an advisory body is required to provide oversight and direction for the professional development of the civil engineer capability. Such a professional development continuum will ensure Army’s civil engineers are current and competent masters of their profession, with appropriate remuneration to acknowledge the additional expertise and technical training.

Finally, Army’s civil engineers need greater opportunities to practice design, technical assessments, and construction management. This will require centralised planning and coordination from the tactical to the strategic levels across Army and Defence. For International Policy Division projects, 12 and 19 CE Works should be used for smaller scope projects that can be designed (and even constructed) by Army while the larger projects (such as the Blackrock Camp in Fiji[21]) can use industry project managers/contract administrators (PMCAs), possibly with an embedded Army engineer.

Alternatively, a joint Army-industry PMCA approach could be taken where Army designs some scope items. Similarly, smaller scope items for the annual AACAP projects – such as large portal-frame structures – should be designed ‘in house’ by 19 CE Works. For the domestic estate, scope items such as roads (including culverts and small bridges), airfields, grenade ranges, camps, and training shelters can be designed and delivered by 6 ESR and the CER support squadrons. During collective training, technical civil engineering serials (such as bridge assessments and construction, force protection, and building damage assessments) should be included rather than just using construction engineers for ‘out-of-exercise’ support tasks such as road remediation and damage control.

These types of projects and training serials are equivalent to those that may be required on large-scale expeditionary operations when time and/or threat does not allow for the use of consultants and contractors.

Successfully undertaking such civil engineering tasks cannot wait until both the trade model and professional development continuum have been established. It must start now; however, there are risks brought about by the lack of current experience. To reduce this risk, Army should engage qualified and experienced industry professionals to be ‘synthetic mentors’ until the civil engineer workforce has suitably matured and is self-sustaining.

Where possible, our experienced Army Reserve civil engineers could be used; however, it would require consultants engaged on a full-time or part-time basis. The CE Works and
6 ESR should each have a full-time professional to advise on design, assessments, and construction management while a separate technical mentor should be engaged to support the training of our CERs on exercise. Additional industry placements should be considered for junior captains. Such support will be required for the period it takes for the first lieutenants to become majors, at which time the system should be self-sustaining.

Conclusion: redesigning and reconstructing Army’s civil engineers cannot wait

Army and the joint force need the technical skills of civil engineer professionals at all levels – from supporting brigade-level manoeuvre to delivering strategically important projects – and across the spectrum of operations – from competing during peacetime to expeditionary, high-intensity conflict. Army civil engineers can use their grounding in first principles and technical awareness to diagnose and design the simple, proficiently deal with the immediate, and skilfully guide the specialist.

The health of our civil engineer workforce has deteriorated significantly over the past two decades and is a bit like concrete cancer[22] – invisible from the outside but liable to structural failure with limited warning. Army’s civil engineers have gone from practiced designers and construction managers to experienced project managers and contract administrators. While the latter are needed and do require some civil engineering competences, it is the skills of the former that Army and the Joint Force need when time and/or the threat environment do not permit the use of industry.

The pending Military Engineer System capability review must consider the civil engineer capability holistically (as well as other hard sciences). The review must develop a sustainable trade and career model that appropriately employs and remunerates civil engineers across Army and Defence commensurate to their skill and experience level. Supporting the model must be a professional development continuum that provides post-graduate technical education and training on the types of design, assessment, and construction tasks Army civil engineers are required to undertake in support of the joint force.

A qualified colonel, supported by an advisory body, should provide oversight and guidance to both the trade model and the professional development continuum. Finally, Army must start re-employing their civil engineers on design, technical assessment, and construction management tasks rather than exclusively contracting industry. Reconstructing the civil engineering capability will take considerable time and require our Army Reserve and industry partners to provide synthetic mentorship until the trade is self-sustaining. Action must be taken immediately before the spiral closes and all experience is lost – lest we lack the capability when it is needed most and Australia is in a dire security situation.