In a 2019 Marine Corps Gazette article, Gunnery Sergeant Alfred Negron II recommended the Marine Corps combat engineer battalion (CEB) be disbanded and the engineering billets spread across the division.1 Around the time the article was published, Third Marine Regiment’s combat assault company had increased its task organization to roughly 30 percent of a CEB to support the three infantry battalions of Third Marine Regiment in mobility, countermobility, survivability, and limited general engineering. This gave a glimpse into what the engineer community might look like without the CEB.
While Negron suggested spreading the forces across the division and down to the infantry battalion, the better solution would be to reconstitute the CEBs as reinforced engineer companies in each infantry regiment and have them report directly to the regimental commanders. This would not be a one-for-one personnel swap, and the resulting excess manpower would be given back to the Marine Corps for other priorities. Nonessential equipment remaining from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be disposed of. In the past year, Third Marine Regiment has proven this model effective and ready for the rest of the active-duty Marine Corps.
Division combat engineers support the infantry, and the more levels of bureaucracy between the engineer platoons and infantry battalions, the more haphazard the support. Standalone engineer regiments therefore would be an impediment to providing better combat engineer support to infantry divisions. Such regiments have existed for brief moments in Marine Corps history, but they were found to be too cumbersome and usually disbanded within 18 months.2 In his Commandant’s Planning Guidance, General David H. Berger is explicit that the new force design must adapt to meet distributed operations, and the notion of an engineer regiment is not consistent with this. Instead, the division engineer unit’s size must decrease to meet the emerging needs of the Marine Corps.
A reinforced engineer company is the appropriate size and composition to support infantry regiment operations, and the company should be commanded at the appropriate rank to have influence with regiment primary staff. Because this reinforced engineer company would approach 200 personnel and include maintenance activity, a 1302 combat engineer major as commanding officer with a senior first sergeant would be appropriate. This would ensure the primary engineer advisor to the regimental or Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) commander has adequate experience. The number of engineer platoons should match the number of infantry battalions (e.g., four engineer platoons for large regiments and three for regular-sized regiments). Each combat engineer company also should provide heavy equipment, motor transport, and utilities support to the engineer platoons. In this way, the combat engineer platoons align directly with the battalions and have a consistent relationship that balances the engineers’ training with infantry integration. The consistent relationship also addresses the capability shortfall created when the Marine Corps decided to sunset the 0351 infantry assault Marine military occupational specialty (MOS).
The Commandant has been clear that not all units need to look the same, and this logic must be extended to the engineer companies as well. Like the unique composition of the combat assault company in Hawaii, the combat engineer company of Seventh Marine Regiment in Twentynine Palms, California, would require four combat engineer platoons to complement its battalions. Currently, its combat engineers are stationed more than 100 miles away, which challenges the ability to form a close supporting relationship. One size does not fit all, and the priority for engineers must be how to provide the best support to infantry commanders, not necessarily how to efficiently and easily mass other engineers.
Meeting Other Challenges
Having a reinforced engineer company in each infantry regiment creates other challenges, such as managing engineer careers, massing engineers when needed, and adjusting to the increased size of the infantry regiment. This model also might decrease the number of company command positions within the division, although it increases the number of operations billets for senior enlisted engineers at the regiment engineer companies. On balance, the combat engineer community would suffer little. The division combat engineer could coordinate efforts and, if needed, mass engineers in one location. And having the engineer company commanded by a major with an operations chief would alleviate the additional training and operations workload placed on the regiment. Focusing solely on the drawbacks of this new model overshadows its primary benefits—better support to the infantry, and engineers better poised to integrate with naval forces.
Marine Corps combat engineer leaders must resist nostalgia when they decide what is best for their community and the service. Although route-clearance platoons and assault-breacher vehicles saved countless lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, one cannot forget the servicewide contempt for being employed as a second land army. Equipment introduced to the engineer community during Iraq and Afghanistan must be closely scrutinized for what is effective for the fight on which the Commandant is now focused. For example, assault-breacher vehicles devastated maintenance budgets while providing only a niche capability. This type of equipment is simply not conducive to a maritime fight.
The Commandant has signaled he is willing to shrink the force and challenge the status quo, including challenging how each occupational field guards its structure and legacy equipment. This is an opportunity for engineers to lead the way in more than just infantry patrols and to learn better ways to support the force. The headquarters and service companies of the two active-duty combat engineer battalions have hundreds of Marines who can be reallocated to support the increased demand from engineer companies or simply given back to the Marine Corps to expand high-demand MOS fields.
To best fight a peer enemy, Marine Corps combat engineers must be with the infantry—no lower than at the infantry regiment level and no smaller than as a reinforced engineer company. With the infantry, they also are best positioned to integrate with naval expeditionary forces. Company-size units maintain the ability to train engineer forces and conduct operational engineer tasks. While there is no perfect organizational solution, this approach is better than increasing the size of engineer units to chase an efficiency that has proven false. Much as combat engineers made significant adjustments and sacrifices to focus on hunting improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, they again need to slay sacred cows to be better prepared for the future fight.
1. GYSGT Alfred Negron II, USMC, “The Castle Must Fall,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2019, 72–75.
2. U.S. Marine Corps, “Engineer! Comments on the Evolution of the Marine Engineer,” Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication 2012–52, 5.