Published on September 25th, 2015 | by admin


Capabilities: The Corps of Engineers

From Liberia to Chad, Kosovo to Lebanon, Syria to the Glen of Imaal and Eritrea to Athlone, the breadth of work which is carried out by the Defence Forces Corps of Engineers (COE), or in which they have a direct input, is revealing considering the size of the Corps and the straitened resource envelope in which they work.

“Our work spans a very broad spectrum,” says Colonel Burke, in his office at McKee Barracks. “That’s typical of a small sized military in a small country where resourcing is always a challenge. The role of the COE is to support the Defence Forces at home and overseas, and my role as Director is to coordinate that effort.” The Director of Engineering controls budgetary elements in excess of €20 million. “My work also involves giving advice to the General Staff and the Chief of Staff on engineering matters,” he adds. The current strength of the COE (approximately) is 400 military engineering personnel, supported by a civilian engineering staff of 300.

What do the Corps of Engineers do?

The spectrum of COE activity does not just span combat engineering activities. “We traditionally conducted a large volume of Aid To Civil Power (ATCP) tasks. Although these have reduced due to the improving security situation on the island, we nevertheless need to maintain these capabilities at a high level of readiness. Our Aid To Civil Authority (ATCA) functions, such as interventions in the case of extreme weather events, flood relief, bridging capabilities and to act as an emergency resource in times of industrial action in vital services, remain in place when required,” adds the Colonel.

For those within the Defence Forces, or for those who have observed their operational activities, the activities of the COE in terms of overseas deployments are particularly impressive. The transformation of a derelict hotel into fully functioning battalion strength base in Liberia, the construction of a large base from scratch in a remote region in Eastern Chad and the conversion of a chicken farm to Camp Clarke in Kosovo are just a few examples. The UNIFIL mission in Lebanon saw the construction and maintenance of more than two dozen posts during the course of the Irish mission there, which still continues. Recently, during instability on the Syrian/Israeli border, affecting the UNDOF mission – COE personnel saw their roles change from maintenance and real-life support to Engineer Specialist Search and Clearance (ESSC) duties. The dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of the Corps work demonstrates its achievements, but is also at the core of the challenges it faces.


Engineering is an integral part of almost every overseas deployment. “The nature of the work we do means that the demands are heavy, particularly in start up phases which require a ‘surge’ effort by many different aspects of the Corps, and utilising our diverse skills” explains Colonel Burke. As well as being combat engineers, COE personnel possess fundamental technical skills which are required to support Defence Forces units at home or overseas. In broader combat engineering terms, the Corps functions involve mobility, counter-mobility, survivability and general engineering.

The fact that the Corps does so much means that they are very much in demand. So how do they address the challenges facing them in terms of resourcing and manpower?

“It’s a major issue for us as our philosophy is that as we are very small in numbers we must be agile and multi-skilled. We focus particularly on the quality of our people, and ensuring that they are provided with training that can stand comparison with any army in the world, and indeed it does,” says the Colonel. “We prioritised training for the past 10 years even during the upheaval of the Defence Forces re-organisation of 2012 when we were under pressure from a numerical point of view. The return from this substantial training effort has been the consolidation of the engineering skills pyramid. This pyramid comprises of a base layer of fundamental military skills and a middle layer of military engineer skills common to all members of the Corps. The pyramid is topped off by high level technical engineer skills acquired by each individual”.

“Maintenance of these high level technical skills and corporate knowledge is without doubt our biggest challenge, one that’s not unique to our Corps of course,” he adds. There is a process underway in relation to clearing obstacles preventing the recruitment of new officer entrants into the COE. The Director is hopeful that a 2 year process of discussion and negotiation is nearing completion. “We haven’t been able to recruit officers in 3 years so we need to get this resolved as it takes a year to train up the new people who join the Corps. New entrants with different outlooks and updated educational knowledge are essential if we are to maintain the vitality of the DF engineering effort.”

Compounding the challenge of retention is the fact that COE personnel possess high levels of technical skills that are in demand by the private sector and external agencies. “Like other elements of the Defence Forces, and indeed the broader public service, we do have people leaving. This has benefits in terms of renewal once we can recruit similar people to replace them, but at the moment that hasn’t been happening. “At present we are down to about 33% of establishment of Technical Officers due to retirements and overseas commitments. As such, an induction of the Officers in to the Corps is urgently needed to restore its technical strength”.

So with the challenges of fulfilling all assigned roles, are there also opportunities inherent in the necessary dynamism which the Corps has to display in order to achieve its objectives?

“What the current system necessitates is communication,” explains Commandant Fran O’Grady. “The Corps has prioritised mentoring and Continuous Professional Development (CPD), and all knowledge sharing is reinforced by scheduled Corps events. There are three main training exercises each year, and in addition there are two Corps Conferences which all engineer officers are required to attend. These regular conferences afford the opportunity for Corps personnel to sit together with a view to critically and collectively examining key issues of a training, logistical, or technical nature” he adds. “At the heart of these processes is knowledge sharing, and open debate.” Commandant O’Grady adds. This ethos of developing personnel has been recognised and validated by external agencies, such as Engineers Ireland, who recently accredited the Corps for CPD for 3 years, the longest possible term it can provide accreditation for and also awarded the Corps the CPD Policy and Strategy Award in 2014.

With this culture of Corps Conferences and knowledge sharing, it’s obvious that the COE has a system which runs parallel/ horizontal to the classical vertical military hierarchical system. “One of my roles is to navigate that relationship, to ensure we continue to deliver optimally as a Corps while always recognising our roles as part of the DF chain of command and the broader Defence Forces structures,” explains Colonel Burke. “Everything we do must be relevant to how it would work alongside other Defence Forces elements. Arising from themes discussed at our conferences, for example, we then establish Corps working groups on key issues, such as for example in 2014 on sustainable energy, Engineer Specialist Search and Clearance Doctrine and CPD. We structure all our work to make our activities relevant to the Brigades and other formations throughout the DF. Our personnel also participate in Brigade level exercises, which are vital to ensure that engineering tactics don’t develop separately from others in the DF, thereby avoiding a ‘stove-piping’ situation.”

Since the last White Paper on Defence in 2000, COE personnel have undoubtedly become more highly qualified, with high end technical skills. But they have also focused on deployability skills, and have accomplished a decisive shift in philosophy from a garrison mentality to a deployable mentality. “We now have a generation of personnel in the COE who have come in since 2008 and the current culture of deployability, rapid response and realistic training events is now the norm for them. There has been a huge change in concept and mentality since 1998,” says Colonel Burke. “Someone who served in the Corps before 1998 would find it a very different place in 2015,” says Commandant Fran O’Grady. “For instance, the planned use of our CPD Scheme to increase the number of Corps members who are Chartered Engineers rather than an over reliance on personal initiative to develop technical knowledge. The majority of COE officers, between 60 – 70% are now Chartered Engineers.


In line with the integrated nature of the Corps involvement in Defence Forces operations and deployments, at what level and to what extent are the Corps involved when it comes to planning the deployment of a mission?

“There’s no common answer, it is dependent on the individual mission,” says Colonel Burke. “In terms of lessons learned, some of the most beneficial plans we’re involved in are in relation to missions that did not eventually deploy, but the plans still had to be done and put in place,” he adds. “There have been past issues in relation to some of our current missions in terms of redeploying our troops within theatre without sufficient analysis of the engineering, financial and logistical requirements. There are always lessons to be learned.”

“Cost has to be always taken into account, particularly these days. I think there have been many instances where we have been consulted properly and others where more consultation was needed in the planning phase, but overall it’s a process of learning from both past achievements and past mistakes. From my perspective, it’s important that relevant concerns get aired, even if inconvenient. Cost-effectiveness is now accepted as an essential component in the resilience of any military capability especially those of a technical nature and this is now in the planning of all DF engineering activities”

In terms of what has gone right in the past, can we point to missions such as Liberia or Chad in terms of best practise as to how things can be done?

“Again, there is no simple answer in that, it is dependent on the mission,” says Commandant O’Grady. “I would look forwards and backwards in order to answer that question. When comparing the Liberia and Chad deployments, there were a lot of tangible improvements from an engineering perspective. Everything from how materials are sourced, transported, offloaded, what sort of generator system would be required, sewage, water, accommodation, medical facilities, kitchen facilities, fire safety, drainage systems, and many more. When comparing these elements, Chad was an improvement on Liberia as a result of a lessons learned process where people got together as a Corps (at all levels). The caveat of course is that those two African deployments were two situations which were comparable, but comparing Liberia to Lebanon would be an entirely different process, as they are entirely different theatres. But, in terms of how we analyse the work we have done, we do have a process in place to identify, mitigate and learn lessons.”

“You also have to be aware of the changing nature of Defence Forces deployments overseas,” says Colonel Burke. “Prior to our current UNIFIL commitments we were there in Lebanon for more than 20 years in a large formation, ground holding deployment, with up to 25 positions at times. That’s very different to Liberia or Chad, where the deployment was consolidated into one main camp, with centralised control of assets, and a patrol oriented role and posture.”

So has the shift to smaller, more rapid deployments, as opposed to battalion structure deployment, changed how the COE operate?

“We don’t supply engineering support to every mission in which DF personnel are serving but we do so to almost all troop deployments. At present we’re supplying on the ground support to UNIFIL (Lebanon) and UNDOF (Syria),” says Colonel Burke. “From an engineering point of view there is a more rapid rotation of overseas commitments since the days of large scale static deployments in Lebanon from 1978 to 2001. The deployments are also shorter term, so the engineering surge effort has to be repeated more frequently, which exploits the agility and flexibility of the Corps and maximises the impact of scarce high level technical skills. There is considerable benefit from having different COE personnel serving with different missions, as it brings different perspectives and experiences together for the benefit of the Corps and the Defence Forces as a whole.”

Looking forward, the Director of Engineering is adamant that the Corps needs to continue to deliver at the highest attainable standards both at home and overseas. “For instance, it’s a fact that we need to address our internal infrastructure on-island. We have an aging and dwindling civilian engineering staff and aging physical infrastructure.

It is time for a fundamental review of the barrack maintenance system to create a fit-for-purpose capability appropriate to the 21st century. We have suffered a drastic reduction in capital expenditure on infrastructure from 28m in 2009 to 5.24m last year, a huge decline. So essentially we’re not maintaining our infrastructure the way we should be and we need to be creative, but pragmatic about how we address this, as we do regarding all our challenges as we look to the future.”

Below: Colonel Jim Burke

Col_Burke 2


















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