BY BILL COSTLOW
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite is the 54th chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Previously, he established the Army Talent Management Task Force and served as its first director. In this role, Semonite was responsible for reforming the way the Army acquires, develops, employs, and retains a talented workforce. Prior to these duties, he was the commanding general for Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, responsible for the building of the Afghan army and police facilities through management of a $13 billion budget to support a 352,000-person workforce. Semonite is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a registered professional engineer in Vermont and Virginia.
You’ve been in this position now for about 2.5 years. How have your priorities for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) changed since you took command?
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite: When I took command in 2016, I assessed our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and how we are perceived by our partners, stakeholders, and critics. I listened, observed, and collected enormous amounts of data to inform the “three dimensions” of my leadership framework.
The first dimension of this framework was strengthening the foundation. This dimension focuses on performing routine functions to a high standard, in a routine manner. It also means ensuring we have the right people, processes, and a values-based culture to carry out our public service mission. Operating with a strong foundation frees up our leaders at all levels to think and act strategically. We’ve come a long way and I’m happy with that.
The second dimension is to deliver the program. This is our current focus and our credibility relies on our ability to deliver on our commitments. Our diverse portfolio of programs is comprised of highly complicated projects, often with challenging requirements. We are proud of the quality we deliver, but we continue to orient our process improvement and innovation initiatives towards the constraints of time and budget, and set accurate expectations upfront with sound estimates.
The third dimension of my leadership framework is to achieve our vision. While we have a long track record of accomplishments, we have to be forward-thinking and push the envelope in terms of innovative delivery. Anticipating future conditions, challenges and opportunities and taking thoughtful decisive action today will prepare us for the unknown future.
USACE also provides support for other federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the U.S. Agency for International Development, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and others. What can you tell us about the extent of USACE support to interagency partners such as the VA?
The Corps maintains a presence in about 130-plus countries worldwide, addressing challenges of national and global significance related to water resources, disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and environmental protection. Domestically, we are proud to team with our interagency partners such as the departments of Energy, Interior, and Veterans Affairs; the Customs and Border Protection agency; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Bureau of Reclamation to name just a few.
A current example of our partnering efforts is our work with the Department of Veterans Affairs. We’re honored to serve as their design and construction agent, which currently encompasses [a] workload valued at about $5.9 billion to address 14 major construction projects in eight states.
In support of the Department of Energy, we have a five-year Memorandum of Agreement with the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] at a value of $4.5 billion that allows continued support to the development of NNSA’s aged infrastructure.
Another example is our continued work in support of the State Department, Defense Department [DOD], U.S. Agency for International Development, and the government of Iraq at the Mosul Dam – a major piece of infrastructure that is at a much greater risk of catastrophic failure than any in the U.S. The government of Iraq requested the Corps to oversee emergency repairs and train a cadre of Iraqis to handle future repairs. To accomplish this mission, the Corps assembled a voluntary task force of experts who originated from our 43 districts, and deployed them to an austere environment. Each day, their efforts are reducing the risk to thousands of Iraqis who reside downstream of the dam.
We are very proud to team with our international and interagency partners to achieve important outcomes. I think we will continue to see growth in this area due to challenging fiscal environments and finite technical expertise available to deliver high-tech facilities.
Much of the nation’s infrastructure is more than 50 years old. What’s necessary to improve it?
When it comes to infrastructure, many people think of roads, rails, and runways … they often forget about the role of our rivers, waterways, and ports. Our water resources infrastructure is one of America’s greatest assets, and offers us a tremendous economic advantage. No other country in the world can connect raw materials, imports, and exports to the interior nation [where the nation’s breadbasket and manufacturing bases exist] with the most economical mode of transport in existence like America can. However, most of our water resources infrastructure was built out in the 1960s and 1970s; based on cost, replacing these facilities is unrealistic and we must focus maintenance to keep them operational. In fact, more than 50 percent of our national infrastructure, valued at more than a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars, is more than 50 years old – so the magnitude of maintaining our aged water resources infrastructure is monumental.
Making the aging infrastructure more resilient requires a collaborative effort between government agencies, industry and public/ private partnerships. The Corps is strongly committed to working with our interagency partners and integrating public private partnerships into our business processes. Projects that were single purpose now require a multi-purpose, systems approach. As integrators, we work with our partners (local, state, federal) to determine and implement most effective solutions, including structural and environmental or a combination of both, to solve infrastructure challenges. We also have to work with partners to articulate risk and notification procedures and the importance of evacuation routes and better building techniques.
USACE is known for civil works, but what can you tell us about your support to national defense?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers exists to support national defense; our mission is to deliver vital engineering solutions, in collaboration with our partners, to secure our nation, energize our economy, and reduce risk from disaster. The Corps is a globally recognized leader in civil engineering, military engineering, and science, and we apply our diverse range of capabilities in support of worldwide requirements to support diplomacy, defense, and development – the three pillars underpinning our “National Security Strategy.” Our unique authorities, international and interagency partnerships, integrated civil-military capabilities, and expeditionary mindset serve to directly support [the] Army, our geographical combatant commands, and the nation. We continue to do a lot of security engagement throughout all of the combatant commands.
Executing our military programs portfolio is one of the most important ways we support defense readiness. In fiscal year 2018 alone, our military programs are valued at about $21 billon, including $10.9 billion in military construction; about $1.4 billion in environmental programs; nearly $4.5 billion in installation support; $1 billion in real estate; $2.2 billion in Interagency and International Services; $3.9 billion in host-nation/Foreign Military Sales; and just over $1.01 billion in other military mission support.
Military construction plays a vital role in national defense by providing engineering, construction, and environmental management services for the Army, Air Force, other government agencies, and foreign governments that significantly contribute to our nation’s security and energizing the economy. A great example is the construction of the Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Georgia. The Corps will deliver about 70 different buildings at a cost of about $2 billion over the next 12 years. The new facility will draw together the Army’s cyber operations, capability development, training, and education in one collaborative environment to support the next generation of the Army’s cyber force. There are countless other examples ongoing around the world.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District first designed and now is building a one-of-a-kind $1.2 billion facility that will allow U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Base, Nebraska, to continue their mission of coordinating the necessary command and control capabilities of the nation’s global strategic forces.
Last year we completed of Davis Barracks, the first new barracks at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point since 1972. This design-build project incorporated many affordable environmental and energy-use enhancements to assist the academy in its aspiration to become a net zero [energy] installation.
We support the Missile Defense Agency in Redzikowo, Poland, with the construction of a ballistic missile defense complex consisting of a fire-control radar deckhouse and an associated Aegis command, control, and communications suite, improving the defensive coverage against medium- and intermediate-range threats.
At U.S. Army Garrison [USAG] Humphreys in Korea, the Corps is delivering a 418,572-square-foot USAG Humphreys hospital and ambulatory care center, comprising a 68-bed in-patient wing and an out-patient clinic wing. The new hospital will replace and enhance the functions and services of the existing Yongsan hospital by providing a full range of health care services to the expanded population at USAG Humphreys.
And finally, our Military Program portfolio also includes delivery of state-of-the-art 21st-century schools in support of the Department of Defense Education Activity. In this area, we’re on track to execute $4.2 billion of construction for 88 schools worldwide, in addition to 23 schools delivered to date.
While the Trump administration has pledged support for improving infrastructure, that doesn’t always translate to appropriations for USACE. How do you resource projects when the federal appropriation doesn’t provide the funds? Could you talk about that?
Because the nation has so many fiscal requirements, we have to find additional ways of stretching our valuable civil works dollars. Innovative financing, such as public/private partnerships, may help with leveraging private money to offset some of the federal financial obligation. These mechanisms are likely to assume greater importance in the future, particularly in our efforts to transform civil works and reduce disaster risks.
A great example is the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Risk Reduction Project along the Red River on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota. This area has flooded 10 of the last 11 years, affects about 200,000 people every time it floods, and has incurred millions in flood damages over the years. If we were to construct this project in the conventional manner, it would have taken 16 years, but through the use of a public-private partnership, we think we can complete the project in 6.5 years. If, in fact, we did it conventionally, the federal share would have been on an order of magnitude of $850 million, but with the use of a private partner, the federal share would only be $450 million. From an efficiency perspective, the conventional method could have employed as many as 28 contracts, but the current proposal would only employ 11 contracts.
So this is a way that we can be fiscally responsible in how we deliver civil works projects – an innovative approach that will allow us to continue to protect thousands of residents of this area while at the same time saving a significant amount of money and saving a significant amount of time. We aim to explore many similar opportunities across our other business lines across the country.
Construction work and development can be a threat to nature. How does USACE minimize damage and leave the smallest footprint?
The Corps takes our obligation to the law, and to the safety and wellness of our fellow citizens seriously. In large part, our operations involve water; water is critical to sustain life, and clean water is what supports a high quality of life. Development is critical for our economic well-being; conversely it has the potential to negatively impact our precious resources, so a challenge always exists to keep in balance. We value working in partnership with government and non-government partners, and stakeholders to make risk-based and science-informed decisions that are in the best interest of the public good.
The Corps also has a broader regulatory role and issues approximately 80,000 permit decisions annually to public and private applicants. These permit decisions enable billions of dollars of economic development, thus advancing job creation related to critical transportation, energy, and other infrastructure development projects nationwide. We work to efficiently and effectively provide permit decisions to the public to ensure projects are carried out in an environmentally sound manner.
USACE has been heavily involved in disaster response operations in Guam, the Carolinas, and Hawaii. What can you tell us about USACE’s approach to disaster response and recovery?
We’ve basically been going all out since late August with three major storms that all hit at about the same time. It was quite the challenge for FEMA and DOD to be able to not only take care of the storm you’re working right now, but to be able to look forward at that next storm, and to be able to forecast requirements and have the right teams to be able to react.
So when we come into these disasters, we normally do at least five major functions: Port opening. You’ve got to be able to get logistics into these areas to get supplies back in. We come in the day after the storm, survey the ports and enable dredges and barges to be able to continue to get materials in and out.
- Debris removal. For the other support teams to be able to perform their missions, they must have mobility. So, we come in with big contractors that go out and immediately start picking up debris and putting it in large trucks to transport to sorting areas.
- Blue roofs. If you have a house and 50 percent of the house is still intact, then we will come back in and put a blue tarp over the roof to really continue to be able to protect that house.
- Infrastructure. After the storm, we go back in and assess that infrastructure. We have programs that if a police station gets wiped out, we can rebuild a temporary building. We can go back in and help get a school up and running.
- Electricity. Our strategy here is four-fold: (1) provide temporary power until the grid is restored, (2) enable power generation capabilities, (3) assist with the re-establishment of transmission systems, and (4) facilitate distribution to individual buildings and homes – what we call “the last mile.”
We have more than 50 specially trained response teams with pre-awarded emergency contracts to perform a wide range of public works and engineering-related support missions. In 2017, USACE had 5,731 personnel deployments in response to 59 emergencies.
USACE conducts its emergency response activities under two basic authorities – Public Law 84-99 (Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies) and when mission assigned by FEMA under the Stafford Disaster and Emergency Assistance Act.
Under Public Law 84-99 (Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies), USACE provides disaster preparedness services and advanced planning measures designed to reduce the amount of damage caused by an impending disaster.
Under the Stafford Act, the Corps supports the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency in carrying out the National Response Plan, which calls on 30 federal departments and agencies to provide coordinated disaster relief and recovery operations.
In any disaster, we have three top priorities: Support immediate life-saving and life-safety emergency response priorities; Sustain lives with critical temporary emergency power and other needs; and Initiate recovery efforts by assessing and restoring critical infrastructure
What can we expect from USACE in the near future?
The mission of each of our 34,000-plus people is to deliver vital engineering solutions, along with our partners, to secure the nation, energize our economy, and reduce risks related to disasters.
Almost everything we’re currently doing, or anticipate doing, goes back to those three things – secure the nation, energize our economy, and reduce risks related to disaster. Some of our perilous missions might not necessarily be ones we want to take on, but we must take them on. Why? Because our vision is to “engineer solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges.”
We have abundant evidence, 243 years’ worth, that demonstrates we deliver on our commitments, and I intend to make sure we continue to deliver. We’ve got to deliver the program today, and also must look at what future challenges America is going to ask us to tackle and we’ve got to be ready, willing, and able to step up to help, before we’re asked.
I believe we will continue to play our full part in promoting our nation’s peace, prosperity, and sustainability through our science and engineering expertise and leadership. What they do, day after day, contributes significantly to mission success and the achievement of our vision in support of national interests. Everything we do supports the Army and our nation’s readiness. We need to keep setting the example of what right looks like. Together we will continue to engineer solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges.
This article was originally published in U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: BUILDING STRONG© 2018-2019 By Faircount, LLC