Defense Media Network

Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp Interview

What is the current focus with regard to the Campaign Plan?

We’re focusing on the operation plans that the districts will have, continuing to work on the human capital plan and two more big pushes. One is individual plans. If you’re on the GS [Government Schedule] system or the NSPS [National Security Personnel System] system, we want your objectives in your individual plan to dovetail with the operational plans and the I-Plans at your division.

To use the theme of professional registration, that means an individual might have a goal of getting their individual engineer registration, which helps the division achieve that action step in its I-Plan. We’ll be able to track down through the goals and objectives of the Campaign Plan to the action steps in the I-Plan and the operation plans, all the way to the individual. I think this really shows you just how each and every person is key to our mission success.

The other thing that we’ve got to encourage all the way through this is to establish an innovative culture where not everyone has to look alike. Let’s adjust the practice of standardization. Where it makes sense, we’ll do it, but I want to create a culture in which people can be innovative. I love the book First Break All the Rules [What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently] by Marcus Buckingham. You’ve got to challenge the old ways of doing business, especially in an organization that has a 234-year history as we do. That’s a part of what we’re doing now.

As priorities shift in Iraq and Afghanistan, how is the Corps responding?

We’ve recently inactivated one of the district offices in Iraq. This fall, we will reduce our footprint even more, by inactivating another district office and the division headquarters as well. We’ll be down to a single district there. This is all workload-driven. If our districts don’t have current projects and programs or planned workloads, they cease to exist. This is actually great news, because it means we are really getting things done over there. From the day the division stood up on Jan. 25, 2004, we have helped rebuild a war-torn nation that had few essential services. We have now completed more than 4,600 projects that are providing electricity, clean water, transportation, police and fire stations, medical care, educational opportunities and – most importantly – hope to the people of Iraq. So, the drawdown of the mission there is a sign of great progress.

The mission in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is growing – so much, in fact, that on Aug. 3, we stood up a second district office. In the fall, we will send in what is essentially a division headquarters. It will be a little different than Iraq in that this headquarters will be what we’re calling the Joint Force Engineering Command. They will have command over all theater-engineering assets, including Red Horse [the 819th Rapid Engineer Deployable, Heavy Operational Repair Squadron] from the Air Force, the Seabees and Navy construction regiments, our two Corps of Engineers districts, and even some other civilian theater-support groups that provide engineering. The district we have already in the northeast part of the country will be called AED North. Now the focus, with the troop increase, is in the south and the west. So our new district, AED South, will be in Kandahar.

This is driven by the workload in Afghanistan, which, by the end of the year, will represent about $4 billion under contract or under construction. Next year, we’ll probably add a billion dollars to that. That $1 billion is about the same as Afghanistan’s GDP [gross domestic product]. That sounds like a lot of money but that’s nothing for an economy on a world scale. Most of the money coming into Afghanistan is coming in from other people. The challenge now is staffing our second district in Afghanistan. A year ago we had 324 people in Afghanistan. By the end of 2009, we’ll have over 800 people there.

One of the initiatives I’m excited about is the new focus on water in Afghanistan. I attended the first-ever water conference held there. That’s going to be key for getting Afghanistan on its feet – getting water in sufficient quantities to the right places, not only for drinking and the use of the public, but for irrigation as well. They need it to help grow the right kind of crops, not just poppies. The U.S. already has many people over there helping the Afghans with agriculture. We’ve begun to do surveys of watersheds and provincial watershed studies. The country really needs reservoirs and the ability to store water to get it to the right irrigation sites. The world is lining up to help if they can come up with some decent plans. The World Bank, the German Bank, the Asian Bank are willing to come in if they see solid plans. I think within the next five to six years we’ll see a number of modest dams being built that can begin to supply water. Right now, virtually all of the water comes from wells.

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...