While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is best known to most Americans for its domestic waterworks and disaster relief efforts, it has always had a primary mission to support the U.S. Army and the nation around the globe. A significant part of that is providing technical assistance overseas on behalf, and at the invitation, of non-Department of Defense (DoD) federal agencies, international organizations, and foreign governments through Interagency and International Services (IIS).
Total IIS services to more than 70 federal customers alone have exceeded $2 billion per annum in recent years, plus a roughly equivalent amount on DoD international projects – most funded on a reimbursable basis. Those services include engineering and construction, environmental restoration and management, research and development (R&D) assistance, water- and land-related natural resource management, and relief and recovery work.
“The nation principally is represented by State [Department] and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], so those are our chief clients in the international domain,” IIS Chief Jim Balocki said. “The people we send downrange are linked into centers of expertise. So if they go in to help in one area but find another problem on which they are not experts, we maintain a virtual capability to provide them with the technical expertise they need with just a phone call.
“We also work with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which does development work overseas, and are now engaging with the World Bank on a limited basis in some areas. That is at the behest and clearance of state and synchronized as part of our nation’s national security and diplomatic strategy. If another agency had a project overseas and needed support in our core competencies, we also would and could partner with them as part of a ‘whole of government’ effort.”
The nations in and with which IIS works, as well as the requesting agencies, range from habitual relationships on an annual basis to once-in-a-decade events. Those include some of the nation’s oldest and closest allies, as well as some with a complicated past, present, and future, such as Vietnam, Russia, and China.
Vietnam involves an international effort to oversee development of the lower Mekong River and multiple requests through the State Department for USACE to provide technical modeling and other consultations. At the same time, IIS provided support to the government of New Zealand after an earthquake that affected the capital city of Christchurch. According to Balocki, there is not a standing mission to respond whenever an earthquake hits, but New Zealand became a one-off response when the government requested post-quake technical help on understanding structural stability.
“We send teams into a country to provide a technical assessment of the problem or do workshops with host-nation organizations and local authorities, all coordinated with our State Department or USAID partners to meet a particular requirement,” IIS Deputy Chief Lindy Wolner said. “We do dozens of those around the world each year. For example, we currently are working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on a flood mitigation problem in Australia, providing technical expertise to support Australia’s request.
“Another country where a growing relationship has developed in the past 10 years or so is China, which is developing at a very rapid pace and has a huge infrastructure and challenge regarding water resources. Through our Civil Works Program, we have a lot of experience in those areas in the U.S., so there is benefit to both sides in a technical exchange. They are developing at a pace and size we cannot imagine, but we have a lot of expertise in transboundary issues with Canada and the development of remote resources.”
USACE also has been involved with post-Soviet Russia, primarily with respect to the U.S.-Russia chemical demilitarization effort and technology challenges the United States overcame in its own demilitarization program. That applies even more broadly with former members of the Soviet Bloc, many now members of NATO, and some now-independent Soviet republics.
Every relationship USACE develops overseas comes with its own special needs.
“Each case is unique. New Zealand, for example, clearly was a one-way dialogue. We really don’t use that as a grading criterion – we look at where we can add value, provide solutions, and be able to help develop and enable, within our core competencies,” Balocki said.
“I would describe the relationship with China as being as purely apolitical as it can get, based entirely on technical exchange and mutual benefit to learning about the practices and challenges for both parties. Some of those are similar to what we did in developing the U.S. West in the past century, so we have a body of lessons learned. But they also have experience in areas we have not seen. So it all is sort of separate from military considerations between the two nations – although still related.”