The evolution of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has mirrored the nation it serves. One of the most enduring themes of the two-century history of the Army Corps of Engineers is that as technology has developed, USACE has embraced it, reflecting its advance in the systems and facilities it has constructed to meet America’s challenges. Whether facing natural disasters or realigning military infrastructure, USACE has always built to order.
“The Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time,” said John Lonnquest, chief of the USACE Office of History. “What it has done has changed based on what the nation needs.”
In the 20th century, the United States’ needs grew exponentially. A burgeoning economy, population, and sense of ambition dictated the construction of a civil and military infrastructure to support it all. America’s maturation as a nation and as a world power was inextricably linked to the water.
Missile and Space Programs
Coastal fortifications mark not only the first military construction projects taken on by USACE, they also signify its role in building the bulwarks of homeland defense. By the 1950s, heavy masonry and gun emplacements had long been superseded. The world had entered the nuclear age, and defending the country required a response to new technology.
Though the Nike missile program had its origins in World War II, its development was spurred by Soviet deployment of the atomic bomb and the Korean War. It became the world’s first successful, widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Nike missiles were a “last ditch” line of air defense for selected areas within the continental United States, held in reserve in the event that Air Force long-range fighter-interceptor aircraft failed to destroy any attacking bombers at a greater distance from their intended targets.
Between 1954 and 1958, USACE built 265 Nike missile batteries, largely along the East and West coasts. Washington, D.C., was protected by no less than 16 such batteries. However, at the same time the Nike program was taking shape, a new technology, long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads, emerged as a mainstay of the nation’s strategic deterrent. The Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBM programs required numerous launch and housing facilities, construction of which USACE began in 1957. Over the next 15 years, USACE would build 1,200 long-range missile facilities in an effort whose urgency was paramount.
“It was round-the-clock work,” USACE’s chief historian explained. “We had well over 20,000 people working away in all kinds of weather. One of the things that got John F. Kennedy elected in 1960 was the so-called ‘missile gap’ that the Air Force and Corps of Engineers rushed to close. The program was pushed full-bore, with contractors pouring concrete in North Dakota in wintertime.”
The intense pace and scope of ICBM infrastructure construction gave USACE valuable experience in building facilities with characteristics that would suit another national challenge, Lonnquest stated.
“When the nation decides to develop a civilian space program, the Corps of Engineers is probably the world’s foremost missile engineering firm. NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] turns to the Corps to build all of its missile test and deployment facilities.”
Doing so eliminated the need for NASA to establish its own construction organization. USACE built NASA facilities all along the Atlantic Coast, including the Kennedy Space Center. Owing to the size of the Saturn booster and other spacecraft and launch equipment, USACE also built locks and canals linking NASA facilities together for water transport.
The Big Dam Era – Postwar Civil Works
Postwar USACE civil works were in many respects a continuation of the building boom of the 1930s. Nothing better exemplifies USACE’s role in ambitious civil works projects than the dams it built during the 1950s and ’60s.
The postwar boom was accelerated by two additional factors. The Flood Control Act of 1938 had authorized a raft of big dam projects but local funding requirements remained onerous, curbing the start of many projects. In 1941 and 1944, Congress passed legislation lowering the financial contribution local authorities were required to provide.
As fiscal constraints eased, the recognition that hydropower could aid in meeting the nation’s growing energy demand took hold. The vision of multipurpose water resources management initiated in the 1920s expanded. What began as a regulatory role in hydropower grew far bigger. By mid-century, USACE emerged as the largest constructor and operator of federal hydropower facilities.
Dam construction took off with projects like the John Day, Chief Joseph, and Folsom dams transforming the landscape. USACE had more than 20 multipurpose projects under construction by the mid-1950s. By 1975, the energy produced by USACE hydroelectric facilities was 27 percent of the total hydroelectric power production in the United States and 4.4 percent of the electrical energy output from all sources.
But the power came with an environmental cost, and the late 1960s witnessed a backlash that all but halted dam construction. The environmental movement’s influence was such that just a handful of dams were completed into the 1970s. Even so, USACE never got away from its water resources management role, and other multipurpose uses including water storage and recreation became a focus.
The Big Dam era is largely over. Garber pointed out that 400 large dams were built across the country from the 1930s through the 1960s. “They mark a distinct era, bordered on one side by the Depression and on the other side by the environmental movement.”
Not surprisingly, USACE adapted to environmental concerns and in 1990, Congress directed the secretary of the Army to include environmental protection as one of USACE’s primary missions.
The War on Terrorism
The aftermath of 9/11 resulted in a significant increase in USACE’s military construction, much of it overseas. However, few Americans realize that it began almost immediately following the attacks.
After the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, approximately 1.5 million tons of debris was removed from the site, trucked to Lower Manhattan, and put on barges headed for the Staten Island landfill. There, every bit of debris more than one-quarter inch in size was physically inspected. But New York City was struggling to move the process forward until USACE stepped in to help.
One of USACE’s standard missions is cleanup following natural disasters. As such, it has a close relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and what it calls “Advanced Contract Initiatives” with large firms that specialize in cleanup. USACE called on contractor Phillips and Jordan, which designed a system to inspect the debris. Based on this massively detailed inspection, New York City police identified the remains of scores of people.
In the fall of 2001, the U.S.-led coalition went to war in Afghanistan, and the following year USACE was called upon to build facilities there for the new Afghan National Army. USACE initially stood up an Afghan area office that later became a full-fledged engineer district and ultimately two USACE districts – north and south. It was not the first time USACE established an overseas district staffed by civilians; precedent was set in 1947 when the first foreign district was set up in Greece, where the government was battling a communist insurgency.
USACE projects in Afghanistan expanded to include construction of facilities for the Afghan National Police as well as roads, dams, and water management facilities in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Following the spring 2003 Iraq War, USACE flowed forces into that country, standing up a provisional command in the summer of 2003. In 2004, the Gulf Regional Division (GRD) was established, dividing Iraq into three USACE districts: south, central, and north. Military construction for U.S. and coalition forces was a large part of GRD’s workload, and over six years it built dozens of barracks, runways, and other maintenance and support facilities. USACE also played an important role in the reconstruction of Iraq, completing 8,500 construction projects valued at $15.5 billion, including water treatment and power generation plants, 300 roads, 112 railroad renovations, eight port reconstructions, 27 aviation projects at five airports, and reconstruction of 1,100 schools.
More than 5,200 USACE civilians worked in Iraq, with more at regional staging facilities in Kuwait and Qatar. Sadly, several were killed in the midst of the work. The Iraqi effort wound down in 2009 and USACE activities in Afghanistan are likely to decrease as the American presence in that country shrinks. The war on terrorism remains, however, and USACE will undoubtedly be engaged in it for years to come.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Department of Defense (DoD) began to streamline operations by closing surplus military installations and consolidating similar functions and activities at the remaining bases. The latest round of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process began in 2005. In addition to closing military facilities, BRAC 2005 also reflected three new DoD initiatives: Army force structure changes that resulted from transitioning the service from a division- to a brigade-based force; the Integrated Global Presence and Basing Strategy that pulled American forces back from overseas locations to bases in the United States; and the expansion of the Army to respond to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In support of BRAC 2005, USACE designed and constructed $18 billion worth of new facilities for the Army, Navy, Reserve, and Air Force. Planning for the program began in 2004-2005, and the congressional legislation required that it be completed by September 2011. That ambitious schedule, coupled with a firm budget ceiling, prompted USACE to adopt new work processes to complete the work on time. The changes encompassed in that new methodology, originally referred to as Military Construction (MILCON) Transformation, now serve as the foundation for USACE’s MILCON Business Process.
The goal of the new MILCON Business Process was to provide well-built, adaptable, and sustainable facilities in less time and at a lower cost for USACE’s military customers. The approach was predicated on three principles: the standardization of business processes and facilities; establishing standard requirements; and adopting commercial best practices. The hallmark of BRAC 2005 was the $4.5 billion Fort Bliss, Texas, expansion program. Ultimately, the USACE BRAC 2005 construction program included approximately 275 projects involving more than 1,000 buildings.
Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history and one of the five deadliest hurricanes. It put USACE’s disaster response, cleanup, and water resources missions back at the top of its priority list and it made USACE front-page news.
USACE had more than 3,000 employees respond to the hurricane. As a part of the recovery process, USACE and its support contractors installed 193,000 temporary “blue roofs” (coverage of damaged roofs with blue plastic tarpaulins), cleaned up 50 million cubic yards of debris, repaired more than 1,000 public buildings, provided tons of ice and water, and rebuilt 220 miles of levees in nine months.
The initial recovery amounted to $5 billion in effort and a federal construction investment of $14.5 billion. With completion of the new system, USACE provided the people of New Orleans with sorely needed hurricane protection. The 2005 hurricane was also a reminder that comprehensive systemwide water resources management is not just a strategy, but a necessity.
The Stimulus – American Recovery and Reinvestment
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was one more piece of a historically large workload for USACE. Commonly referred to as the “stimulus,” it was a response to the great recession of 2008. It was in many respects a return to the New Deal policies of the 1930s, aimed at providing jobs, investment in infrastructure, education, and health. Unlike the New Deal, it included an emphasis on “green” alternative energy.
For USACE, it presented the challenge of quickly initiating an array of “shovel ready” civil works projects with no concomitant increase in staffing. By finding more inventive ways to accomplish the mission and adopting effective commercial practices, USACE put the $4.5 billion allotted to work and largely completed the stimulus program in three years.
The demands of stimulus work again forced USACE to rethink and improve its processes, an exercise the organization has undertaken since its inception. The exercise will carry on as USACE faces a near-term future of fiscal austerity.
The nation’s demand for water is increasing and its infrastructure continues to age. USACE will be forced to address these challenges by again partnering with states and municipalities. As it faces these new demands, USACE will adapt as it always has, creating engineering solutions built to order.
This article originally appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2012-2013 Edition.
Part I – Answering the nation’s historical challenges: Panama Canal to World War II