Defense Media Network

Interview: Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite on Engineering Revolutionary Change in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Your top priority is to “Revolutionize” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Could you tell us about this initiative and how it’s maturing?

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite: We’ve had a dramatic increase in construction requirements and an unprecedented number of natural disasters in the last three years. The disaster supplementals from Congress, and increasing construction missions from the Department of Veterans Affairs to U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] have propelled our budget from $26 billion to more than $58 billion. We need to evolve to Revolutionize our delivery.

Revolutionize corresponds with DOD’s [Department of Defense] three priorities: readiness, modernization, and reform. I prefer the word Revolutionize over reform, though. Reform has a negative connotation that an organization is broken – that isn’t the case with USACE. We are the world’s premier public engineering capability, but we can’t rest on our laurels.

USACE is going to be to engineering what Uber is to taxicabs. You can go almost anywhere in the world and use Uber Eats to order lunch on your phone from a local restaurant and have it delivered to you by a company that we would never have thought about a few years ago. That’s the level of change we’re looking for to Revolutionize our command.

Think of Google and Apple and how they’ve revolutionized the way we do things. Along with our growth in mission, America’s aging infrastructure requires a new way of thinking about project funding and we need to figure that out. We need to look around, harness emerging technologies and work with stakeholders to find innovative new ways of doing things – then have the courage and drive to implement real change.

USACE Revolutionize Strategy

Image courtesy of USACE Headquarters

Some of these tasks can be done internally – I call those below-the-line efforts. This is a review of our processes to make sure they are efficient. Policies that made sense a few years ago don’t always work as intended down the road … that means constantly streamlining and “leaning down” our processes. 

I’m asking leaders to make risk-informed decisions: We need to take risk with bureaucratic processes that don’t meet the intent of delivering the program. We will not take risk with integrity, law, or concrete and steel. This is about empowering people to get the bigger task done, to deliver the project on or ahead of schedule, at, or below price and never, ever compromising quality. If we can reduce bureaucracy by 50 percent, it will help us deliver the program that is increasing by 200 percent.

Other things we need external help with – I call those above-the-line efforts. Most of what we do is affected by regulation, policy, or law. Sometimes those things slow us down or cost more so there needs to be a conversation that helps us meet the spirit of that policy or regulation while getting the job done. The conversation needs to be: “Hold us responsible, but untie our hands

so we can be more responsive.” I’ll get into more of that later. The bottom line is we’re questioning all of our processes and other agency processes that impact the way we do business, subject to our guiding principles of project management: 1) on or ahead of schedule, 2) at or under budget, and 3) never compromise quality.


Could you give us an example of a below- and above-the-line effort?

We issue a lot of permits and some of the most challenging have been 408 permits. These are for third party changes to a federal civil works project. So, if a municipality wants to install utility poles on a levee we have to review that project to ensure it doesn’t impact structural integrity. Over several years, we centralized approval at the HQ level when the expertise and capability existed at lower levels. By decentralizing, we empowered commanders to approve 408 permits. Ninety-nine percent of 408 decisions are delegated to the district level and the rest to divisions.

We’ve eliminated the need for maintenance and repair permits to our projects which reduced the total number of required 408 Permits by about 20 percent.

We’ve established a public database for stakeholders to track their 408 permit application status ( In the case of hiring additional real estate specialists for the customs and border mission, that was an above-the-line effort. We didn’t have direct hiring authority for that specialty and we didn’t have time to work through the normal hiring process. We reached out to the Army and Office of Personnel Management for some relief. When we don’t control a policy, we champion a change in bureaucratic policy or requirement to better achieve the desired outcome.


As you move forward with the Revolutionize effort, do you have a specific priority?

The highest priority is changing our culture to focus more on delivery. But if there is one internal priority that needs to be first, it’s recruiting and retaining a world class work force. 

So how do you do that? It takes an average of 133 days to hire in the federal government. If I offer jobs to 20 college graduates and tell them to report in four or five months – they’re not going to wait for us. 

So far, we’ve used direct hiring authorities to reduce the overall hiring time by 20 days for about 90 percent of our jobs and expect to have a 15- to 40-day turnaround within the next few years. Direct hiring has been a game-changer.

Another thing about attracting talent – you need to be a great place to work. If we’re going to attract the talent we need, being a great place to work has to become part of the USACE brand.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite (center) and team on a mission to survey the damage of Hurricane Florence in 2018. Semonite's Revolutionize efforts with emergency response include the use of sophisticated technology to stop or channel rising waters away from populated areas and remotely survey dams and levees that are near capacity. (Photo by Lt. Col. Justin Pritchard)

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite (center) and team on a mission to survey the damage of Hurricane Florence in 2018. Semonite’s Revolutionize efforts with emergency response include the use of sophisticated technology to stop or channel rising waters away from populated areas and remotely survey dams and levees that are near capacity. (Photo by Lt. Col. Justin Pritchard)

We looked at the “Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey” [FEVS (] and took the results to heart. FEVS is a tool for employees to share their thoughts about the work place in critical areas like the quality of their work experiences, their agency, and their leadership. We took that feedback and built action plans to address negative comments.

We were ranked 111 out of about 450 federal work places in 2016 and are we have consistently moved up to our current position of 85. Once you’re ranked in the top 100 places to work, it becomes a lot more competitive if you want to continue moving up but I have no doubt we will. The FEVS action plan is an annual requirement for all USACE commanders.

Strong senior executive service [SES] talent is key for long term planning and organizational health. When I arrived at USACE, our SES members were staffed at 72 percent. There are no direct hire authorities for SES-level managers so we have to power through that hiring process. We’ve set an ongoing requirement to fill our SES positions in 30-60 days. We’ve also built an expedited onboarding program to get them quickly into the organization where they can begin leading change and building coalitions.

Oversight of USACE SES succession-planning ensures the executive talent is assigned to new leadership roles every five years. Inviting internal senior civilians to apply and be considered for SES positions is another way to ensure continuity and delivery of critical infrastructure for the nation. SES talent management is key to USACE’s future successes.


Where have you seen the biggest improvement in Revolutionizing USACE?

That would be Civil Works taking care of America’s waterways. Traditional funding and delivery models are increasingly inadequate. New, agile processes and tools are necessary. The administration, Congress, and other agencies are asking for change in both federal permitting and delivery of federal programs. We have a historic level of Congressional oversight engagements – legislators are reaching out and asking us how they can help.

I mentioned earlier that our nation’s civil works infrastructure is aging. We need to re-invest in that. But with many competing federal appropriations requirements, we’ve looked at nonfederal funding to get a project started. In many cases there are state, municipal or federal agencies with a vested interest in the project and they will work with us on obtaining funding.

We’re building on the successful Private Public Partnership (P3) efforts like the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Risk Management project. P3 is a cooperative arrangement between two or more public and private sector partners that’re primarily used for infrastructure development.

A P3 option is going to save the government at least $100 million. It’s going to go from a 16-year project to a six-and-a-half-year project and things like 28 contracts down to 11. It’s just a much, much more efficient way to do it. In terms of below-the-line efforts, Civil Works has implemented concurrent reviews during the New Soo Lock Economic Validation Report to fast track project delivery and decision-making resulted in the completion of the report seven months earlier than expected with potential cost avoidance of about $100 million.


USACE executes billions of dollars in contracts every year. Could you tell us about improvements to contracting under the Revolutionize effort?

Contracting is an essential function for USACE, and yes, we do a lot of it. Again, we have to remember that our executable budget is doubling, so speed and flexibility, especially in procurement, are key to our success. 

We’ve embraced the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative. This is a collaborative process of working with other government organizations to leverage purchasing power, reduce cost, and improve performance; we’ve also made great effort to bring in small businesses to increase competition. You’d be surprised how quickly an established contractor will sometimes revise their estimates when new competition comes to the table.

Our Fuels Program team in Huntsville collaborated with GSA [General Services Administration] on a multiple award schedule that eventually saved several hundred thousand dollars and cut months off their acquisition time. This is another great example of working with other agencies to cut through the bureaucratic process while preserving the integrity of our acquisition process.

USACE Commanding General Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite conducted border-barrier construction site visits near San Diego, California, on July 9, 2019. Border security is part of the growing USACE portfolio that is driving the Revolutionize effort. (Photo by San Luciano Vera)

USACE Commanding General Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite conducted border-barrier construction site visits near San Diego, California, on July 9, 2019. Border security is part of the growing USACE portfolio that is driving the Revolutionize effort. (Photo by San Luciano Vera)

Our partners at CBP requested an unprecedented amount of work on the southern border in 2017. We developed a three-part strategy relying on short-, mid-, and long-term tactics to deliver the mission. For the long term, two large Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract tools, Eastern and Western, would provide up to $10 billion of contract capacity in support of border infrastructure.

While we expedited our acquisition cycles, these long-term contracts would not be in place quickly enough to tackle our near-term requirements. We had to award multiple discrete construction contracts to satisfy immediate program requirements. Finally, our mid-term solution relied on a seldom-used regulatory authority called, Prequalification. The team developed a series of Prequalification of Sources Lists. These lists result from publicly announced full and open competition, the output of which is a pre-vetted list of qualified firms capable of high-quality delivery on the southern border. Together, these short-, mid-, and long-term tactics are the three legs of the border program’s acquisition platform, individually critical and collectively paramount to the overall success of the border infrastructure program.


How are you Revolutionizing financial management?

We just finished a major overhaul of our financial management software. The next generation of software will provide users with quick, real-time access to their financial and project data and offer customizable dashboards and advanced analytics. 

This allows us to use complex scripting functions [bots] to consolidate repetitive work. Following a disaster response, for example, FEMA will ask us for a report detailing each of our expenses. This was initially a manual process that took up to several days, but after implementing the bot, it’s complete in about 30 seconds.

We’re also looking to modify the budget process to provide increased flexibility. Currently the Corps process is to annually justify every project even after initial investment decisions have been made. This is a congressional/OMB requirement. We’re looking at a “one federal investment decision,” where a decision to start a project is a decision to finish the project. The use of a five-year capital budget for Corps projects … can provide visibility and certainty to our team, our partners, and the public. Increased flexibility in reprogramming actions that will allow for funding to be in the right place at the right time, and the ability for us to be more accepting of other people’s money with fewer restrictions and notifications.


How has Revolutionize affected IT in USACE?

USACE has networks connecting more than 1,600 locations around the world. Maintaining secure, fast networks is essential to everything we do and there are a lot of challenges when you factor in floating plants, temporary field structures and deployment areas. 

We’re working with commercial partners to provide 4G/5G wireless throughput. This will provide a solution to remote sites that are currently experiencing challenges with wire connectivity, either because of unavailable infrastructure or excessive cost. Specific technical solutions are required at these locations to provide acceptable connections and throughput.

Greater bandwidth means taking advantage of commercial networks while maintaining network security. We’re developing “cloud access points” that allow for secure integration of our networks with those of commercial partners. Hard wire is the most secure, but it doesn’t always make sense because some locations are harder to lay wire for and also because some locations have a variable cost for data. USACE will continue to leverage cloud technologies and software to modernize, provide scalable solutions, and make sound IT investments.


I’ve heard that drones were recently used to monitor flooding in the Midwest. Could you tell us how that impacted the relief effort?

We call them unmanned aerial systems [UAS] and yes, we are using UASs to collect data in a variety of ways. 

We’re using off-the-shelf technologies to collect data now, but we’re developing some exciting future capabilities. Future UAS will be able to do things like identify invasive species like destructive vegetation or animals. Another technology called reverse bathymetry determines underwater topography using wave patterns. This would allow us to pinpoint rip tides in the ocean or determine the best spot for a [military] amphibious landing.

The alternative to using a UAS was previously helicopters – very expensive – and very dangerous if you’re in a storm. A UAS can be controlled from a safe location on the ground and collect high-quality [4K] video of storm damage, fires, and rising water levels. You can share that video quickly and review it as many times as you like. Whenever you talk aviation, there are a lot of laws and safety measures that need to be observed. We do that and more. We’ve worked with DOD and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to ensure development of an effective program that meets federal requirements and Army cybersecurity requirements while reducing red tape in the field that has prevented timely employment of UASs in years past.

The current program has reduced mission prep times by over 95 percent with most missions being flown within a day of mission need. We’ve enabled the field users to conduct the needed airspace and safety assessments and obtain airspace access through a specialized planning process. This process is captured in our Aviation Policy Letter 19-08, and was cited as one of the best in DOD. 


As the chief of engineers, you are also responsible for about 90,000 combat engineers. How are you applying Revolutionize to the Engineer Regiment?

wThe Army is moving in new directions. For many years the threats we faced were asymmetric, smaller scale conflicts. That’s changing and engineers will be supporting heavy maneuver capabilities that are more lethal. We’re looking at new ways of bridging gaps and breaching obstacles.

With today’s heavy battle tanks, river crossings can be a nightmare. All that weight requires more structural capacity, and we’re always mindful that if units don’t cross rapidly, they become targets in today’s multi-domain warfare environment.

One of the things we’re doing is redesigning force structure to build seven Multi-Role Bridge Companies [MRBCs]. These MRBCs will be fielded with new bridge erection boats that will install a new panel bridge system able to support 68-ton main battle tanks.

Commanders don’t just have to cross rivers though. Our adversaries are very good at placing complex obstacles in the path of maneuver commanders. We’re working closely with Army Futures Command to build new capabilities in this area.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite tries out a set of virtual reality goggles at the Engineer Research and Development Center Innovation Summit. Semonite's Revolutionize effort involves significant use of technology to speed processing of information and quickly gather data during operations.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite tries out a set of virtual reality goggles at the Engineer Research and Development Center Innovation Summit. Semonite’s Revolutionize effort involves significant use of technology to speed processing of information and quickly gather data during operations. (Photo by Lt. Col. Justin Pritchard))

Next year we’ll be highlighting new and enhanced obstacle breaching technologies at the AUSA Annual Meeting. We’re bringing exciting new capabilities to the table. – the Robotic Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), the Robotic Armored Breacher Vehicle, and others, are going to save lives and give commanders more flexibility in combat. Robotics are especially significant, because they reduce the number of sappers directly in the minefield during breaching operations. Robotized equipment is infinitely easier to replace compared with our people, and we expect to have this capability in place by 2035.

We’re also doing a lot with talent management among our officers. We’re working to ensure we have the right officer, right assignment, and right time. We host a quarterly Combined Talent Management Forum on regimental talent management initiatives, priorities, and challenges to synchronize efforts and set the conditions for the future of the Regiment. This also helps us incorporate both the Army Reserve and National Guard engineers in the “big” Army talent management. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The greatest compliment anyone can give us is to choose us, because we provide the best value. The vast majority of our stakeholders get to choose who does their work. They have options and they are choosing us. It means we’re doing our jobs right but it’s also a warning shot because we aren’t structured for growth in our headquarters or our divisions. That means delegating and leaning-down processes. I  want us to continue to be the best choice and this goes back to the whole idea of the vision that “we engineer solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges.” 

If it’s hard, I want them to come to us. It is nice to have easy projects, but when people know they have a problem, they [can] come to the Corps of Engineers. That’s why we did the grid in Puerto Rico, the Aurora Hospital … we now have 15 hospital projects, each over $100 million, and border security. All this new business is a good news story; people like what we do, and we’re going to continue on this path.

We apply our world-class professional skills, committed employees, and most importantly, an unending quest to make America a better place. I extend that challenge to all of the Corps to lean forward, anticipate our nation’s needs and find innovative options within affordable resources to implement solutions to this country’s issues. Engineers are inherently problem-solvers. We tackle demanding issues, fight through the red tape to Revolutionize our delivery, and have [the] passion to solve America’s engineering challenges.

By Bill Costlow, USACE Headquarters

This interview originally appears in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong® – Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces