Russia’s war with Ukraine that began in early 2022 and the decimation of entire Ukrainian cities highlight the fragility of civil infrastructure during military conflict. Civil infrastructure can present both challenges and opportunities in large-scale war. For example, bridges can facilitate an expedient river crossing but also can funnel advancing troops, making them vulnerable to direct and indirect fire.
There are inherent challenges to maneuvering large elements across a battlefield, especially in Europe, where there are expansive river networks. To combat the inherent risk of depending on bridges to cross rivers, the Army uses Multi-Role Bridge Companies (MRBCs) as dedicated river-crossing units.
MRBCs provide the personnel and equipment to transport, assemble and employ bridges or rafts to move a unit across lakes and rivers. The critical nature of MRBCs makes them a high-value target for adversaries, and the low-density nature of their equipment and personnel increases the associated risk should they be destroyed.
If the Army is to order the manufacture of more bridges, it’s a matter of modifying existing contracts to meet mission requirements. However, sourcing, developing and training MRBC personnel with the requisite experience and expertise gained only through years of gap-crossing operations is difficult and costly.
The Bridge Crewmember MOS, 12C, which staffs the majority of an MRBC, is a specialty with very few personnel compared to other MOSs. The 12C training pipeline is the biggest source of vulnerability and operational risk in the Army’s river-crossing capability. The limited number of MRBCs and increasing demand for the units create strain in the MOS training and acquisition process, which increases operational risk to the mission. As with any significant vulnerability, the Army must seek risk-reduction measures to safeguard critical assets and develop appropriate levels of redundancy.
One solution to address the shortage of soldiers in the 12C MOS is to cross-train soldiers in other engineer MOSs on river-crossing equipment and tasks to increase knowledge redundancy about wet-gap crossing. Fundamentally, a river is a linear obstacle similar to a minefield, and crossing one safely and efficiently requires using the same breaching tenets used in the U.S. Army Engineer Regiment.
The Army Combat Engineer MOS, 12B, is the Army’s premier breaching MOS, and discussions on utilizing soldiers in the 12B MOS to construct other bridging methods like the Acrow, Mabey Johnson and Bailey bridge models have begun at the regimental level.
Whether combat engineers simply augment bridge crew members, or take ownership of some of the other bridge-employment methods, they are a robust resource of skill and numbers that can close gap-crossing vulnerabilities.
Another solution would be to institutionalize river-crossing knowledge in a course that teaches and trains not only those in engineer MOSs, but also soldiers from other specialties that likewise have important roles in river crossings, such as infantry, armor, military police, logistics, signal, military intelligence and artillery. This course, which could be called the Bridging Leaders Course, would teach and train leaders from other backgrounds about bridging methods, capabilities, planning factors and doctrinal principles.
Through proper instruction and certification, essential bridging knowledge would be spread across the greater Army, thereby increasing knowledge resiliency and redundancy in river-crossing operations. The Bridging Leaders Course would fall under III Armored Corps’ Gap Crossing Training Center being developed at Fort Hood, Texas, which would provide the higher headquarters support, infrastructure and resources.
In October, armored brigades from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 36th Engineer Brigade participated in the first Gap Crossing Training Center exercise, called Remagen Ready. Later exercises will increase in scope and complexity, eventually culminating in the simultaneous crossing of hundreds of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles over both dry and wet gaps.
While the Army is capable of crossing rivers and other water obstacles with bridges employed by Multi-Role Bridge Companies, there are significant vulnerabilities that can worsen without institutional intervention. MRBCs are critical to modern large-scale warfare in places like Europe with many river networks; however, there is a lack of sufficient redundancy in the personnel pipeline and the river-crossing knowledge base to appropriately safeguard this critical capability and mitigate significant operational risk.
Whether the Army taps into other engineer MOSs, institutionalizes knowledge-sharing across the greater Army or builds redundancy through other means, it must seek risk-reduction measures to safeguard these critical assets and develop appropriate levels of redundancy.
Gap crossing is a complex but critical component to large-scale combat operations, and without addressing gap-crossing capability vulnerabilities, the Army may find it comes up short in bridging the gap in Europe.
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Maj. Jared DeMello is the executive officer for the 5th Engineer Battalion, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He holds three master’s degrees: in geological engineering from Missouri University of Science and Technology, in public administration from Virginia Tech and in operational studies from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
Capt. Brent Stout is a plans officer for the 36th Engineer Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 2017 and has a master’s degree in engineering management from Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Capt. Cole Andrekus is the commanding officer of the 50th Multi-Role Bridge Company, Fort Leonard Wood. He has a master’s degree in engineering management from Missouri University of Science and Technology.