All Engineering Was Military Engineering

November 11, 2013

For thousands of years, all engineering was military engineering. Technological advances led to a split between military and civil specialties, while modern battlefields present ever more sophisticated engineering challenges.

Engineering itself began as a purely military function; “engineers” built, operated, and maintained siege engines. With new technologies came new tactical roles, expanding the discipline. Civil engineering formally diverged from military in the late 1700s, with Smeaton’s foundation of the Society of Civil Engineers. (We’ve discussed Smeaton’s work before.)

alessandiraThe Roman army was among the first to elevate military and combat engineering as a core strategic competency. In addition to their famed discipline, Roman armies were fantastic builders, erecting nightly fortifications in the field and exerting a nearly unprecedented control over the battlefield environment. Their road system, fortification networks, and logistical engineering enabled them to out-last any enemy they encountered at their height.

Military engineering under the final generations of pagan emperors – especially Emperor Diocletian, the son of a slave, who worked his way up through military service – flowered into a modern discipline. Frontiers were guarded by responsive networks of field fortifications and mobile warfighting units tied together with Roman roads and supplied via dedicated logistics forts at network nodes. Mounted couriers and tower-signaling formed an ancient IT infrastructure.

Much practical knowledge was lost in the period between Rome’s fall and the rise of recognizably modern nation states. Sappers and siege engineers were key tactical players, but medieval military engineering was practically stagnant for hundreds of years. In the 14th century, forced to re-think siege warfare in light of gunpowder technology, military engineering revitalized.

Credit: Virginia Guard Public AffairsBy World War I, wars were won through modern combat engineering, mass logistics, and infrastructure – all the province of military engineers. (The United States started the War with fewer than one thousand military engineers. By its end, 11,000 officers and a quarter of a million enlisted men had served in engineering roles.) Modern nations fielded millions of soldiers and they all had to eat, every day. Mass mobilization placed tremendous logistical burdens on existing road, bridge, tunnel, and rail systems. Dealing with land mines, poisonous gas, and counter-mobility battlefield constructions were added to the engineer’s mission scope as technology progressed.

Modern Military Engineers

Credit: Defence ImagesThe core mission profiles of military engineers evolved in complexity since Roman times, but their place in strategic doctrine remains instantly recognizable. Military engineering missions include, but are not limited to:

  • Mobility and Counter-Mobility, building transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and airstrips, overcoming natural or man-made obstacles, and preventing your enemy from doing the same. Twentieth and 21st century additions to this mission includes disposing of land mines, IEDs, and so forth. Counter-mobility missions are the reverse: denying clear roads and bridges to an opposing force, while seeding obstacles to inhibit free maneuver.
  • Defense is the construction of fortified places and positions, often the province of combat engineers. Vehicle barriers, wire obstacles, and forward operating bases are common defensive military engineering projects. In modern conflicts, this includes providing force protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical threats. Assault mission profiles are the reverse, embodied by the historical sapper.
  • Strategic and Logistical Support The individual warfighter is the end point of a global supply chain. “Big picture” strategic conflicts are won by superior logistics – access to resources, the ability to shift mass, and the infrastructure to distribute that mass.  Physical goods require safe harbors for shipping, good roads, and airstrips to shift them as needed. Intelligence and command run on IT.

Credit: le HaricotAs in Roman times, carrying out these missions is at times difficult to distinguish from civil engineering. The US Army Corps of Engineers’s involvement in flood control, canals, and harbors, for example, is part of its strategic support duties.

The influence of military engineering on the American landscape is sometimes so pervasive as to be invisible. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was designed to support military mobilization: every fifth mile is straight, for use as an emergency airstrip (See update, below), and connecting roads around cities designed with added capacity for civilian evacuation in a nuclear conflict.

Military Engineering Professional Organizations

The multi-theater nature of modern warfare calls for continuous education and professional development. A number of national and multinational support organizations – for engineers, by engineers – exist to support and advocate for careers in military engineering:

  • Credit: Cpl Kowshon YeThe Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) was founded after World War I, to keep engineers who served connected in peace time. The organization continues today, serving as a clearinghouse for networking and information to support engineering solutions to natural – and man-made – disasters.
  • NATO Centres of Excellence are managed through Allied Command Transformation in Virginia. These multinational military organizations exist exchange experience, refine doctrine, and improve cooperation between allied nations.
  • The Army Engineer Association is a combination “honor fraternity and alumni association” for service members and families from the Army Corps of Engineers.
  • The American Society of Naval Engineers not only supports serving military engineers, but provides career guidance and scholarships.

This is a representative list and is by no means comprehensive; we’d need a dedicated page to list all the professional organizations dedicated to training, networking, and caring for military engineers and their families.

If you’re a member of an organization we’ve not mentioned, why not share your affiliation in the comments?


Update:  The “airstrip myth” has circulated since the 50s, making its way into a number of essays and articles about the Interstate Highway System. It turns out to be entirely false. According to Snopes:

Richard Weingroff, information liaison specialist for the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Infrastructure and the FHA’s unofficial historian, says the closest any of this came to touching base with reality was in 1944, when Congress briefly considered the possibility of including funding for emergency landing strips in the Federal Highway-Aid Act (the law that authorized designation of a “National System of Interstate Highways”). At no point was the idea kited of using highways or other roads to land planes on; the proposed landing strips would have been built alongside major highways, with the highways serving to handle ground transportation access to and from these strips. The proposal was quickly dropped, and no more was ever heard of it. (A few countries do use some of their roads as military air strips, however.)

Having seen the myth repeated in a number of sources, I’m embarrassed to admit passing it along to you without critical analysis. Still: “Belief in this crazy idea should fail anyone’s logic test”? Ouch.