KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Col. Nick Katers, commander of Joint Task Force Triple Nickel, the Theater Engineer Brigade met with his combatant commanders June 27, 2013, to discuss the progress of the Afghan National Army’s engineer force and the future of the ANA’s National Engineer Brigade before his unit turns over responsibility to the 130th Engineer Brigade out of Hawaii. JTF Triple Nickel’s Headquarters, from the 555th Engineer Brigade, redeploys to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., later in the fall.
Deployed since January in support of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), JTF Triple Nickel is the largest engineer brigade currently within the U.S. Army structure. The brigade contains seven battalions and roughly 5,000 troops. Of the 10 construction companies in JTFTN, three of them are from the Navy. The sailors of these companies are part of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15, falling under the name Task Force True Grit.
“Seabees bring a robust capability for both vertical and horizontal construction,” said Katers. “They are also used to operating in small teams.”
Katers stated that working in small teams is a task that the Army is not accustomed to and noted that due to the wide diversity and flexibility of his terrain, he is able to take on a wider variety of mission tasks.
One of the primary missions of JTF Triple Nickel is to train, advise and assist the Afghan Army engineer force.
“We support (ISAF Joint Command) by training our portion of the Afghan National Army,” said Katers. “There are four new engineer battalions that the Afghans have raised. Joint Task Force Triple Nickel has the responsibility of training these battalions.”
Katers added that there will be an additional two battalions, which will be used to augment the Afghans’ National Engineer Brigade later this year. These battalions will provide the backbone of engineering and infrastructure capabilities to the ANA.
“When I got here, there were no (Afghan) engineer battalions, now there are four,” said Katers. “The engineer battalions are really the final pieces of the ANA to be put into place.”
The Afghans are already taking on the vital roles that will allow the ANA independence from U.S. forces.
One of the brightest spots in the Afghans’ progress is one of an engineering company’s most difficult challenges: route clearance. Route clearance is the process of securing and clearing roadways of improvised explosive devices. Currently, improvised explosive devices are the biggest danger to troops in Afghanistan.
Katers noted that the extremely difficult and dangerous task is something at which the Afghans excel. He said that they are now capable of conducting independent operations and are quite good at it.
“They have different methods and they tend to be much better than us at visual identification,” said Katers. “They speak the language and can recognize things that are out of place. So having Afghans go out and conduct route clearance has actually proven to be quite a success.”
The Afghan construction forces are also making progress toward independence.
“We are finishing up the fielding of all their equipment and are in process of conducting training for their heavy equipment operators,” said Katers.
These Afghan units are being outfitted with equipment they do not have as much experience operating, therefore it puts them behind the learning curve. Katers was quick to point out that this is mainly an experience issue, and will pass with time. The Afghans rely a lot more on hands on experience than classroom instruction.
And for the Afghans, Katers noted that the ANA engineering forces and the infrastructure they provide will be the direct connection that people will have to the Afghan government.
“We are connecting people to their government,” said Katers.
This capability is one of the reasons that he considers the fielding of the Afghan engineers as one of the brightest spots of this deployment.
“They’re our ticket out of here. The fact that we now have these six engineer battalions will really limit the future requirements for the Afghan government.”
Katers has had over 23 years of experience as an Army engineer officer. His career has seen him commanding a company, a battalion and now a brigade. Since receiving his commission in 1990, he has seen improvements from methods of manually clearing minefields with graphite stakes to the use of state-of-the-art robotics. In the end, he maintains that the people serving make the ultimate difference. And for the people serving under him, Katers is definitely proud.
“I am very proud of the quality of my sailors, soldiers and airmen,” said Katers. “Their ability to train Afghans has been incredible. It’s a difficult job and they do it willingly, and they’ve done a fantastic job all along.”
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This work, Triple Nickel trains new era of Afghan engineers, by PO1 Daniel Garas, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.