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"There are/were never enough engineers"

... was Wellington's experience in the Portugal Campaign 1812, MacArthur's conclusion of the engineer war in the Pacific 1941-1945 and even todays CG's USAREUR LTG Ben Hodges assessment on enabling requirements for NATO's level of ambition (LoA).

The term "(military)-engineer" came in use in the 19th century and replaces the former "sappers", "miners" and "pontooneers" as specialists who had replaced contracted civilian artisans and labourers working under the oversight of a few commissioned officers as subject matter experts.

Military Engineering

Military Engineering from the Encyclopedia Britannica is the oldest of the engineering skills and was the precursor of the profession of civil engineering. It's the art and practice of designing and building military works and of building and maintaining lines of military transport and communications.

Modern military engineering can generally be described with three main tasks:

  1. combat engineering, or tactical engineer support on the battlefield,
  2. strategic support by the execution of works and services needed in the communication zones, such as the construction of            airfields and depots, the improvement of ports and road and rail communications, and the storage and distribution of fuels and,
  3. ancillary support, such as geospatial and the disposal of unexploded bombs, mines, and other warheads. Construction, fortification, camouflage, demolition, surveying, and mapping are the province of military engineers. They build bases, airfields, depots, roads, bridges, port facilities, and hospitals. In peacetime military engineers also carry out a wide variety of civil-works programmes.

For NATO's purpose Military Engineering will be defined in accordance with the upcoming MC 560/2 "Policy for Military Engineering" as a function in support of operations to shape the physical operating environment.

Military Engineering will enable or prevent manoeuvre or mobility, develop, maintain, and improve infrastructure; protect the force and provide life support. Military Engineering incorporates areas of expertise such as engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, environmental protection, military search and management of infrastructure, including contracted civil engineering. Military Engineering contributes significantly to C-IED especially in the fields of defeat the device and prepare the force.


New wording for the eternal and everlasting content which means the traditional military engineering roles mobility, counter-mobility, survivability and sustainability are still valid from the beginning of the use of military forces in history till today.

So far so good. Why then back to the future? After two world wars in the first half of the 20th century with large formations manoeuvring across states and continents and in particular with the use of huge battle tank units as decisive elements in battle, military engineering support was adapted mainly to mobility and counter-mobility.

Evolution of engineering since Cold War...

Till the end of the 1980s NATO nations possessed engineer formations on all levels from Battalion to Corps; focussed on mobility including amphibious bridging and River Rhine ferries and counter mobility with the capability of laying antitank mine fields against a peer adversary with large tank assault armies. The anticipated DEU battlefield was shaped/prepared in accordance with the General Defence Plan with peacetime prepared obstacles, pre-planned demolitions and pre-planned minefields. The author himself was participated in his service years from sapper to Company Commander in the 80s. All training and exercises were directed towards demolitions, laying minefields and supporting mobility by bridging gaps with the DEU hollow-deck-pontoon system.

With the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the end of bi-polarity world rule NATO and nations shifted their focus to stabilization operations all over the world which led, due to the complete different scenarios and terrain, to the reduction of those capabilities required against a peer adversary in conventional war in collective defence.


The impact on the engineer forces was severe. Most capabilities to support combat and manoeuvre were reduced or completely given up. Due to humanitarian rights development landmines were more or less banned and the need for future counter-mobility systems was no longer evident. Mobility could be provided under peacetime conditions by civilian companies or could be contracted. Large scale manoeuvre operations in a peaceful world were not foreseen so that force enablers for larger formations like division and corps were also disbanded. The long lasting stabilization missions with a contingent system in a static area of operations switched the military engineering focus back to supporting infrastructure works and management, supporting force protection with field works and conducting and supporting route clearance and military search. An exaggerated view of this is engineer combat forces have slowly degraded into armed aid agencies concentrated on civil construction tasks.

...up to modern times

The Russian Federation then demonstrated with hybrid warfare backed by large conventional land forces and area access denial capabilities freedom of manoeuvre to occupy the Crimean peninsula and to control parts of eastern Ukraine.

NATO's member states responded with the Readiness Action Plan at the 2014 Wales Summit and tasked enhanced advance planning towards emerging threats as required. NATO's level of ambition as stated in the Political Guidance 2015, with the renewed emphasis on deterrence and collective defence, set the requirement of the full range of strong, credible and usable conventional forces and capabilities to deter any aggression and, when necessary, effectively defend against any threats.

Future Challenges

It soon became obvious that to achieve this goal there was a need for transformation and adaptation of forces to and to enhance and renew capabilities of the existing engineer forces. There are no military engineering enabling force packages on theatre level division, corps or component command remaining. Again not enough engineers and those left, not equipped with the sufficient capabilities for mobility and counter-mobility, which means for the engineer forces, back (cold war) to the future. The remaining equipment fielded to support these roles is mostly outdated and requires at least an upgrade but in fact they really require complete new solutions.

What is the understanding of a principal capability statement "able to conduct counter mobility tasks"? For amphibious bridging the capability requirement is more precise. It's more a question of really existing quantities and quality to cover NATO's LoA.

It's up to NATO to set the requirements and the nations to provide the capabilities. But these capabilities cannot be bought off the shelves. Although nations committed themselves with the Wales Defence Investment Pledge, nations will not be able to close military engineering capability gaps in the short term as urgently required. Solutions as Framework Nation Concept, unfortunately no MILENG Cluster at the time being foreseen, or common funded Capability Packages should be considered. The challenge remains that military engineering is not a planning domain in NDPP and its counter-mobility and mobility capabilities are not assessed as main or priority shortfall areas by the relevant NATO Military Authorities.

But they should be aware that STRATCOM and CYBER won't help them across the river and won't stop a conventional attacking MBT force in a combined arms operation. The simple combat engineer with his platforms is not replaceable with buzz words.


The operational and tactical manoeuvre commanders must advocate the military engineering requirements for mobility and counter-mobility to NATO and its member states. They must clearly state without sufficient military engineering enabling capabilities in quantity and quality on all levels, they will not be successful in achieving NATO's aim to swiftly terminate armed conflict or aggression, while maintaining or restoring the integrity of Alliance territory.

Military Engineering must go back to the future to be ready to respond to the mobility and counter-mobility challenges. Military Engineering has to deliver the necessary range of forces and capabilities to undertake the Alliance's full spectrum of missions in the most demanding scenario, to conduct one very large scale war-fighting Collective Defence campaign against a peer state actor.

MILENG COE as the main promoter and facilitator for NATO's MILENG capability development and policy, concept, doctrine standardisation driver, will do it's very best to support these efforts to mitigate the ever enduring wisdom:

"There are never enough engineers" for the benefit of NATO and its member states.