Tactical and Technical

Enhancing Interoperability of the Australian Defence Force Construction Capability

By Colin Leggett July 24, 2020

‘We are doing what we can with what we have’

General Douglas MacArthur



In 1942, when faced with the urgent challenge of building airfield facilities for 2,000 aircraft on the island of Java, the progress update from the South West Pacific Area Commander in Chief, General Douglas MacArthur was simple. ‘We are doing what we can with what we have’.[1] With the threat near and growing, material and equipment shortages were overcome through an enormous volume of 20,000 native labourers using woven bamboo to form the airfield pavement. The result; a 3,000 foot airfield for bombers built in three days. Almost 80 years later, the Australia Defence Force should now be asking the question of its airfield and general construction capability: ‘Are we doing what we can with what we have?’.

In 2017, the Australian Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper asserted a key policy priority for increased engagement in the Pacific. The aim was to ensure the South West Pacific remains ‘secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically’[2]. Although part of a wider Whole of Government approach, Defence has a significant role to play, with the conduct of construction engineering representing a large part of the increased engagement. Construction engineering works can deliver rapid, tangible and long-term strategic effects on behalf of the Government of Australia, However, current manning and retention issues hinder Army’s ability to deliver and manage this capability.

Supported by allied case studies, this paper outlines how the integration of Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) construction engineering assets would greatly increase Defence’s capability and capacity for the delivery of strategic effect wherever required. 


The Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) has provided the Australian Army with a horizontal and vertical construction engineering capability since before Federation. This capability was grown from the “mother-Corps”, the Royal Engineers, through Colonial times to the present day. Subsequently RAE Sappers have carried out tasks in support of the Army and Government in both war and peace, internationally and domestically. Across a myriad of climates and landscapes, Sappers have constructed, maintained and repaired field defences, tunnels, roads, ports, airfields, railways, bridges, buildings and services of every type.

The RAAF maintains a similar capability, though smaller and more focussed on airbase recovery. This is historically based around the Works Staff at Air Force Headquarters in the very early days of the Army Flying Corps (AFC) and then the RAAF. Air Force construction engineering progressively developed to reach a peak during World War Two with the formation of Airfield Construction Squadrons (ACS) in April 1942. At the close of the War, there were “330 specialist Works Officers, and a construction capability organic to it of about 5,000 officers and airmen on active service in ten ACSs and associated works units[3]. From this very capable peak, the current RAAF construction engineering capability, like those of the RAE, are almost unrecognisable from the units and capabilities of the past.

Decline in Capability

The recent shift in strategic focus to the South West Pacific (SWP) has identified that the organic RAE construction capability has diminished to an undesirable level. The capacity for the RAE construction engineers to quickly deliver tangible and long-term strategic effect has been reduced due to current manning and retention issues, coupled with an increase in medically-downgraded and restricted personnel. The RAE construction trades have struggled to fill existing positions for many years, effectively making the prospect of growth impossible and in turn creating a ‘hollow’ workforce. The development and implementation of PLAN KEOGH sought to address such hollowness through restructuring and removing construction engineer positions across the Corps. This reduction impacted almost all RAE units, with the Combat Engineer Regiments (CERs) being left without a credible organic construction engineering capability to support their respective Combat Brigades.

The combination of reduced positions and retention rates has resulted in construction engineers being repeatedly deployed without any major respite; contributing to low morale, job dissatisfaction and an increase in discharge rates. It should be noted that with only two regular Construction Squadrons (CS) providing support to operations, domestic tasks (e.g. the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme (AACAP) or scheduled major exercises) and HADR readiness, the Army's contruction capabilty is unable to acheive alignment with the Army’s Ready, Reset, Readying cycle. In order to meet the Government's focus in the Strategic White Paper, construction engineering capability needs to grow once again and rapidly.

Growing the ADF Construction Capability

To meet the identified requirement for an increase in construction engineering capability, PLAN MONASH was developed. With its implementation expected to be approved by the Chief of Army in 2020, for the purpose of “enhancing the RAE specialist workforce”, this plan offers a decisive and ambitious long term pathway to support the required growth. PLAN MONASH details the raising of two additional units, including a third Construction Squadron and numerous positions within a new Directorate of Infrastructure – Engineer Operations, proposed to occur over the period 2020-2025. The probability of this occurring within the current timeline will be challenging, especially when the current manning of the 6th Engineer Support Regiment (6 ESR) alone has a vacancy rate for Corporal and below of 27%[4], exclusive of downgraded or restricted personnel.

Raising and manning new units will see maximum capability and capacity reached within the medium to long-term. However, a solution to the issue which is both quicker and with far less financial implications, is to utilise an existing similarly trained and equipped work force to augment, and be integrated with, the RAE capability; RAAF Airfield Engineers (AFENGs). The formation of an integrated joint capability would meet the needs of the Government strategic focus in the short-term; the planned outcomes of PLAN MONASH would provide substantial enhancement long-term.

Construction Wing (CW), School of Military Engineering (SME) currently conducts the majority of all ADF construction engineering training in an integrated environment. Principally staffed by RAE construction engineers, the RAAF provide AFENG manning, comprising a Flight Lieutenant, Warrant Officer, Flight Sergeant and two Corporal instructors; these positions are spread across the Construction Wing tasks of vertical and horizontal trade training, construction engineering promotion and development course conduct, as well as training and resource development. The joint training conducted at SME results in almost identical qualifications at the basic Construction Engineering Sapper/Airperson and Troop/Flight Commander levels, with the remaining training being generally specialist in-nature and development and is based on existing Service roles.

While an integral part of RAE construction engineers’ role is to “be ready to provide discrete, short-notice, independent tactical engineering capabilities to achieve strategic outcomes[5], RAAF AFENGs focus is “to provide air base recovery functions in support of expeditionary operations[6]. However, if all construction engineering training was conducted as integrated joint training the benefits of this change would include:

  • Full interoperability, providing the ADF with a more rapid increase in capability and capacity;
  • A larger, ready and qualified resource pool;
  • An existing, third construction engineering element i.e. 65th Squadron (65 SQN), RAAF;
  • Ability for joint manning e.g. 19th Chief Engineer Works (19 CE WKS), 6 ESR and 65 SQN; and
  • A wider variety of tasks and postings for personnel – potentially increasing morale and retention rates.

With the full manning of both 6 ESR and 65 SQN, and the implementation of joint training, interoperability could be supported with the augmentation of manning by each Service of approximately Troop-plus sized elements. The following shows the potential integrated joint manning breakdown of the major construction engineering units:



Integration of Construction Capability within the Contemporary Era

In recent times, RAE construction engineers and AFENG elements have practised and established integration on both operations and exercises. Domestically this occurred regularly on the early AACAP tasks, internationally on operations and within the international engagement sphere in the Middle East, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

A Joint Rapid Airfield Construction (JRAC) exercise at Bradshaw Training Area, Northern Territory, was conducted in 2007. Lead by 6 ESR, this exercised an integrated construction force that included elements from RAAF AFENGs, US Army, USAF and US Naval Construction Battalions (also known as the SEABEEs). The aim was to rapidly construct a C-17 capable airfield from a green site. The JRAC exercise, a resounding success, was described by the then Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Shepherd, as “a demanding training exercise that required the efforts of personnel from six services and two nations working closely together. The construction of a C-17 capable runway within 22 days and subsequent construction of two C-17 parking aprons using JRAC pavement stabilisation techniques within 96 hours was no small task, and that is before taking into account the unseasonal 70mm of rain that fell during construction. You can all be very proud of this significant achievement and we have reinvigorated an airfield construction capability in the RAAF[7].

Regarding operations, RAE and AFENG elements are integrated under the Joint Task Force 633 Engineer Support Element (ESE), providing the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) a construction project management capability, including camp maintenance teams (CMTs) in key locations. The ESE is commanded by either a RAE Lieutenant Colonel or RAAF Wing Commander, with a mixture of officers, senior other-ranks and tradesmen from both Services.

Allied Engineer Forces

The concept of interoperability through blended joint force units is not new amongst our allies. In the aftermath of WWII, the British consolidated the Airfield Damage Repair (ADR) responsibilities from Royal Engineers / Royal Air Force (RAF) to a sole RE responsibility. Currently a regular RE regiment (39 Regiment (Air Support)) provides the ADR capability for UK. This unit maintains a Lead Air Support Squadron (LASS) on a short notice to move, with the three Field Squadrons rotating through the LASS role approximately every six months, supported by the HQ and Support Sqn.

All active RAF airfields have a small RE contingent posted to them. These contingents are led by a Clerk of Works Garrison Engineer OC, with additional Clerk of Works providing the technical expertise for contracted works around the airfield estate. It should be noted that the RAF has fully divested itself of technical qualified civil engineers and that their infrastructure officer positions are filled from within the RAF personnel administration branch.

The United States Air Force (USAF) is developing an airborne capability for initial airbase recovery. This capability is based around the 82nd Airborne Division augmented by United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), clearing and repairing an airfield with USACE providing key specialist capability. This emerging airborne capability specialises in runway repair and maintenance, utilising light equipment e.g. skid steer loaders and light bulldozers, which are air dropped or delivered underslung. Once the initial base recovery has been achieved, the USAF Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (REDHORSE) will be deployed to return the airbase to full operational status.

Within the ADF, the only units that exercise similar interoperability within this sphere are 4 SQN, RAAF and Special Operations Command (SOCOMD). The construction engineering exercised is confined to very limited works IOT allow up to four aircraft movements on a captured airfield before the follow-up forces conduct more sustained repairs i.e. AFENGs.

The UK and US are far more advanced with the joint operations concept in this field. The size and capability within their respective armed forces enables continual development and the willingness of the individual armed services to combine and share inherent resources is the key. While the individual arms of the ADF “work and play well” with each other, there remains a tendency for Services to act independently, even with similar capabilities. By continuing down this path, the ADF is artificially limiting its capacity by not doing the most with what it has.


Construction engineering has had a long history within the ADF. With such similar training and equipment already existing between the Army and Air Force, the aims of PLAN MONASH could be achieved both more rapidly and cost-effectively through the creation of an integrated ADF Construction Engineering capability. Enhancing interoperability between Services would not result in them losing their individual identity or key roles, but would instead result in the creation of a joint capability with greater capacity. An integrated joint construction engineering force, with similarities to the developing USAF/USACE relationship, would increase capability and enable the ADF to better project strategic construction effects and engagement domestically and across the globe in support of the ADF, Government and Australia’s national interest, thus ensuring that the future ADF is, in fact, doing all it can with all it has.

However, if this is to work then the elephant in the room needs to be acknowledged: are the Army and RAAF willing to share their train sets with each other? 

‘A candle loses nothing if it lights another candle”[8]

Italian Proverb




6th Engineer Support Regiment, 2020, 6th Engineer Support Regiment – Home – Role [DRN], http://drnet/Army/6ESR/Pages/Home.aspx, 13 May 2020.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper [On-line], https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/2017-foreign-policy-white-paper.pdf, 13 May 2020.

Grier, P, 2003, The RED HORSE Way [On-line], https://www.airforcemag.com/article/0203redhorse/, 14 May 2020.

Hogarth, P, SGT, No. 4 Squadron [DRN], http://drnet.defence.gov.au/raaf/AirForce/4SQN/Pages/Home.aspx, 13 May 2020.

Jones, DF, 1945, ‘We are doing what we can with what we have’, Command and General Staff School – Military Review, April, p.10

Johnson, A, WGCDR, 2019, Enhance Regional Engagement – South West Pacific – IE-AF Notes [DRN], http://drnet/raaf/AirForce/DGSP-AF/DIE-AF/Pages/IE-AF-South-West-Pacific-Engagement.aspx, 08 May 2020.

Lenaghan, E, BRIG, 2020, TERMS OF REFERENCE: PLAN MONASH 2020-2028 – HQ FORCOMD [DRN], Obj: HQFORCOMD 2020-1034289/BQ7751691, 14 May 2020.

May III, JT, M/SGT, 2016, RED HORSE elite team compared to real life superheroes [On-line], https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/992980/red-horse-elite-team-compared-to-real-life-superheroes/, 14 May 2020.

McLachlan, FA, MAJGEN, 2017, FORCES COMMAND MODERNISATION (PLAN KEOGH) FY 17/18-18/19 – HQ FORCOMD [DRN], https://drms-vbs2/id:X6857531/document/versions/published, 14 May 2020.

No 65 Squadron, No 65 Squadron- Welcome - Mission [DRN], http://drnet.defence.gov.au/raaf/AirForce/65SQN/Pages/Welcome%20old.aspx, 13 May 2020.

PMKeyS, 2020, Position Status Report – 6 ESR [DRN], PMKeyS Self-service Portal, 11 May 2020.

Price, Steven, 2006, The Best Advice Ever Given: Life Lessons for Success in the Real World, Rowman & Littlefield, America

RAE, 2020, Royal Australian Engineers – A History in Brief [DRN], http://drnet/Army/RAE/Information/Pages/RAE%20History.aspx, 14 May 2020.

Shepherd, G, AIRMSHL, 2007, CAF Update [DRN], 04 Jul 2007 http://drnet/raaf/AirForce/CAF/Documents/070704_CAF_Update.pdf, 04 Jul 2007

Wilson, D, 1998, Always First, The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons 1942-1974’, 1st edn, Air Power Studies Centre publishing, Fairbairn.

Young, A, AC 1st C, 2020, RED Horse/EOD Breaking it down so we can build it back up [On-line], https://www.pacaf.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2106372/red-horseeod-breaking-it-down-so-we-can-build-it-back-up/, 14 May 2020.




LTCOL G Billington

WGCDR M Mailler

MAJ K Hamilton

FLTLT M Heming 

CAPT M Newlin

LT B Kingham 

LT J Sorrensen 

WO1 S Parmiter

WO1 D Parsons

WOFF L Mathews

WO2 G Williams

WO2 G Buckley

FSGT S Clarke


End Notes:

[1] Jones, DF, 1945, ‘We are doing what we can with what we have’, Command and General Staff School – Military Review, April, p.10

[2] Morrison, S, 2018, Speech to 3rd Brigade, 08 Nov 2018 (https://www.pm.gov.au/media/address-australia-and-pacific-new-chapter)

[3] Wilson, D, 1998, Always First, The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons 1942-1974’, 1st edn, Air Power Studies Centre publishing, Fairbairn, p. viii

[4] PMKeyS ADO Download ,  Position Status Report – 6 ESR, 11 May 2020

[5] 6th Engineer Support Regiment webpage, 6th Engineer Support Regiment – Home – Role, Army DRN website - http://drnet/Army/6ESR/Pages/Home.aspx

[6] Hogarth, P, SGT, No. 4 Squadron webpage, Air Force DRN Website - http://drnet.defence.gov.au/raaf/AirForce/4SQN/Pages/Home.aspx

[7] Shepherd, G, 2007, CAF Update, 04 Jul 2007 (http://drnet/raaf/AirForce/CAF/Documents/070704_CAF_Update.pdf)

8 Price, Steven, 2006, The Best Advice Ever Given: Life Lessons for Success in the Real World, Rowman & Littlefield, America



Colin Leggett

Colin Leggett joined the Army in 1995 and is currently posted to the School of Military Engineering as the Wing Sergeant Major, Construction Wing. Colin Corps enlisted into the RAE as an electrician and has served as a tradesman, Construction Foreman, Works Supervisor and Works Manager on exercises and operations, both domestically and internationally.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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