Applying gap-crossing fundamentals to joint operations: enduring bridging solutions by, with, and through Afghan partners.
The Tom Bridge in Helmand Province is key to maintaining lines of communication along Highway 1. Built across the Helmand River in 1964 by the Soviet Union, the bridge is an essential artery, providing commerce for local nationals and facilitating combat and retrograde operations in Regional Command-Southwest. After an improvised explosive device struck a logistic convoy in the spring of 2012, damage to the bridge needed repairs. Overbridging was the best temporary course of action, but a long-term solution was critical for future operations. Overbridging is the primary means to rapidly restore a line of communication by augmenting existing bridges or spans using standard or tactical bridging. (1) A previous MRBC had emplaced a six-bay Mabey-Johnson bridge. As local work progressed through the regional Department of Public Works, the bridge had to be moved 1 meter to allow the contractor to work underneath it. After conducting several reconnaissance missions, the 1438th added a span to the existing overbridge to allow the contractor to complete his work. This shift of the bridge then facilitated a permanent Afghan solution to Tom Bridge. Approximately a month later, the 1438th removed the over-bridge from the repaired section.
Gap-Crossing Planning and Doctrine
We never truly appreciate gap-crossing operations until faced with these natural obstacles in a deployed environment. A unit must observe the following six fundamentals for gap-crossing operations:
* Extensive preparation.
* Flexible planning.
* Traffic management.
* Speed. (2)
Task Force Bayonet achieved these fundamentals through persistent communication and representation at the combined and joint levels. Communication was critical to understand, visualize, describe, direct, and assess the operation. The use of gap-crossing terminology and graphics displayed how the mission was planned, resourced, and executed. Understanding doctrine enabled multiple intertwined players to communicate modifications due to the mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops, time available, and civil considerations.
Planning for this operation required cooperation from a variety of personnel ranging from Regional Command- Southwest down to the crossing site commander. Task Force Bayonet worked with the civil affairs section of the provincial reconstruction team at Lashkar Gah, the operations and engineer staffs of the 2d Marine Expeditionary Force, and Task Force Helmand and Manoeuvre Battlegroup at Camp Bastion. Due to the amount of information being transferred among players, the operations staff from Regional Command-Southwest gathered everyone into an operational planning team to ensure that the mission was coordinated, synchronized, and supported. Task Force Bayonet worked closely with Task Force Helmand and North Atlantic Treaty Organization authorities under the 4th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland. To support clearance operations around the bridge, Task Force Bayonet brought in a U.S. Marine Corps explosive ordnance disposal unit and a Regional Command-Southwest dog team. Task Force Bayonet also provided a squad-size element of sappers from the 82d Engineer Support Company to support route and area clearance and provide inner cordon security at the crossing site. Through participation in mission analysis, course of action development, and war games, the maneuver battle group clearly understood the capabilities of the 1438th MRBC and how the bridge repair force planned to execute the mission. Task Force Bayonet provided support to all planning processes, to include intelligence products about past significant activity and potential route bypasses in the worst-case scenario for the bridge repair. The efforts by the Task Force Bayonet team contributed to a shared understanding with the joint partners.
Before the operation, the crossing area commander offered the following Cs for everyone to focus on:
* Complexity. Understand the mission, friendly force locations, and the scheme of maneuver.
* Complacency. Focus on security during a controlled withdrawal since the mission will extend into the early hours of the morning.
* Communication. Ensure that rehearsals are conducted, that systems can work with each other, and that liaisons are placed with key leaders.
* Coordination. Work with the same maps and graphics so that reporting is not confused.
* Composure. Remain cool under pressure; be wary of the threat of suicide, vehicle-borne, improvised explosive devices; and be prepared to engage, with force, if necessary.
The joint operational team adhered to these five Cs in accordance with combined arms gap-crossing doctrine in the execution phase. (3)
Phase I: Advance to the gap. Before executing this phase, an extensive reconnaissance was conducted with imagery, maps, and previous on-site visits to the bridge. The 1438th MRBC platoon leader (the crossing site commander) was responsible for the crossing means and the command of the engineers operating within the crossing area. He was familiar with the site and planned the location of the modified engineer equipment park.
An engineer equipment park should be located close enough to the bridging site for assembling, preparing, and storing bridging equipment and material without interfering with traffic at the site. In this case, the advance to the gap did not require an extensive amount of bridging equipment, since the overbridge was already emplaced. However, since this route was highly traveled, understanding population density, traffic patterns, and timing was paramount for the advance to the gap. Following the timely movement of joint maneuver forces securing the near side and the establishment of traffic control posts by Afghanistan National Security Forces and Afghan Uniform Police partners, the conditions were set for the 1438th MRBC Soldiers to conduct bridging operations.
Phase II: Assault across the gap. Unlike the case in traditional gap-crossing operations, we had the benefit of friendly forces on the far side. Objectives on the near side and far side were secured simultaneously. Our Afghan partners set up traffic control points at major intersections leading into the bridgehead to prevent local traffic interference while the 1438th was on-site completing bridge repairs.
Phase III: Advance from the far side. During the entire operation, constant intelligence, surveil-lance, and reconnaissance were available. The crossing area commander and the joint staff had visualization of the avenues of approach toward the bridgehead and of the bridgehead itself. (The bridgehead is an area on the enemy's side of the obstacle that is large enough to accommodate most of the crossing force, has adequate terrain to permit defense of the crossing sites, provides security from enemy direct fire for the crossing force, and provides a base for continuing the attack.) The friendly forces on the far side secured areas that could be defined as exit bank objectives, further denying and interdicting any insurgent threats or local national unrest outside the crossing area.
Phase IV: Secure the bridgehead line. The bridgehead line was already secured and maintained by active Afghan patrols and traffic control points. The local face to this operation was imperative. The Afghan National Security Force and Afghan Uniform Police understood the importance of maintaining security around the critical infrastructure. This effort was furthered by an aggressive information operations campaign by the operational environment owner. Messages were announced on local radio, through local shura councils, during meetings with the Department of Public Works, by provincial and local government authorities, and by word of mouth on the street. An information operations campaign spread the understanding that coalition forces were working with the Afghan people to provide an Afghan solution. Fortunately, local inhabitants were still upset that the insurgents had damaged the bridge, which was key to everyone's livelihood. To their surprise, the 1438th completed bridge repairs in less than 8 hours after an initial estimate of 10 hours, to the joy of local populace. Freedom of movement was restored before the morning rush hour traffic.
Phase V: Continue the attack. This phase was strictly dependent on the success of the other four phases of the operation. While there was no attack involved, the positioning of friendly forces within the crossing area and bridgehead could have dealt with any threat. As a joint planning team, we recognized that the most likely time to encounter an insurgent threat was during withdrawal from the objective. The withdrawal plan was synchronized through communication from the crossing site commander's updates to the forward command post. If a unit can withdraw to secure locations on both sides of the gap, it will have a smooth transition off the objective since the commander will need less combat power to travel back across the gap.
Bridging is a combined arms effort and, in this case, was also a joint endeavor. Following doctrine and doctrinal templates not only worked but also helped make the operation easily articulated and understood. The mission was synchronized through a simple and clear decision support matrix. Mission command was clear. When planning for gap-crossing operations in combat, in general engineering, or during an exercise, it is imperative to use doctrine to bridge the gap in knowledge and experience. It is critical for the Engineer Regiment to ensure that its focus remains on what is so often neglected--bridging. This operation succeeded due to a degree of surprise; extensive preparation, coordination, and representation with coalition partners; flexible planning, with decision points identified by clear criteria; the ability to adjust schedules; traffic management through successful blocking and traffic control points implemented by Afghan and coalition partners; organization by effective mission command and liaison vehicles located with the tactical command post and crossing site commander; and the speed with which all parties fulfilled their respective tasks within the crossing area and bridgehead line.
(1.) Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 3-90. (4), Combined Arms Mobility Operations, 10 August 2011, p. F-8.
(2.) Ibid., p. 4-5.
(3.) Lieutenant Colonel James Roddis, commanding officer, the Highlanders, 4th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Manoeuver Battlegroup, briefing presented at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, November 2013.
Captain Hanson is the commander of the 34th Sapper Company, 84th Engineer Battalion. He holds a master's degree in engineering management from Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla, and a bachelor's degree in government and law from Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania. When he wrote this article, he was the officer in charge of the Task Force Bayonet tactical command post at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
By Captain Dane M. Hanson