“Units and subunits of the Engineer Formation are currently active in Burundi, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Sudan,” points out Col Chris van Wyk, officer commanding the School of Engineers, in Kroonstad.
(The Engineer Formation is the South African army structure which groups all the engineer units, both regular and reserve.) The operations in Burundi and the DRC are under the aegis of the United Nations (UN), while those in the Comoros and Sudan are under the African Union (AU).
“Peace-support operations are not the same as combat operations, but neither are they the same as peacetime routine,” he explains.
Although largely unsung, the contribution of the engineers to these missions is fundamental.
They provide most of the infrastructure that enables the peacekeeping forces to maintain and sustain themselves – indeed, to survive in what are often alien and hostile environments.
South Africans, Egyptians and Ghanaians may all be Africans, but Central African jungles are as alien to them as they are to Bolivians, Canadians and Jordanians (all these nations have troops with the UN in the DRC, as do many others).
“In these missions, the focus of the engineers is on the survivability and sustainablity of the peacekeeping forces,” he emphasises.
Thus, the engineers seek to deal with the threat of landmines, if present.
They construct the bases for the peacekeepers.
They provide essential services, such as supplying safe drinking water.
“We deploy masons, painters and welders and all their equipment; for example, we build roads and have all the necessary construction equipment deployed; we have a drillrig in the DRC for the drilling of water wells, and we build airstrips and helipads using the roll-mat system,” summarises Van Wyk.
Much of the equipment deployed would be very familiar to a civil engineer and, indeed, some of it is standard civilian construction machinery, such as bucket loaders; others, such as the prefabricated metal ‘mats’ of the roll-mat system, are specifically military.
In the DRC the SAEC is even in the transport ‘business’.
“We have deployed a floodable folding-bridge system (FFBS) which is being used as a ferry on the Congo river,” he cites.
The FFBS ferry, or barge, comprises a vehicle-deployed floating-bridge section, with ramps at each end, which is pushed through the water by two powerful specialised army work boats.
Interestingly, the bridge section is pushed through the water breadthwise, not lengthwise.
A recent SAEC demonstration for the media at Nigel, on the far East Rand, demonstrated how powerful these boats are and that they have no problems pushing a heavily-laden bridge section in this manner – the floating bridge section employed in this ferry demonstration was loaded with a Ratel armoured vehicle, which weights 18,5 t.
“These deployments are giving us enormously valuable operational experience,” stresses Van Wyk.
Some 300 South African army engineers are currently deployed on these UN and AU missions, including, according to the UN, an engineer squadron in the eastern part of the DRC.
The personnel involved are drawn from all the regular operational units of the Engineer Formation.
These are 1 Construction Regi-ment, 2 Field Regiment, 4 Survey and Mapping Regiment, 35 Engineer Support Regiment and 1 Military Printing Regiment.
The roles of most of these units are obvious from their titles, but 35 Engineer Support Regiment has a dual role – one wing of the regiment stores parts and spares for engineering equipment used by the rest of the formation, while the other wing holds and operates specialised equipment (such as the FFBS and the workboats and drilling rigs) not on general issue to the rest of the formation.
Also under the formation is the School of Engineering, at Kroon-stad, which is the SAEC’s training organisation.
The Reserve Engineer Formation units are 3 Field Engineer Regiment, in Cape Town, 6 Field Engineer Re-giment, at Kroonstad, 19 Field Engineer Regiment, in Durban, and 44 Parachute Engineer regiment, in Tshwane – of these, 19 Field Engineer is almost 100%-manned, trained, and active; 3 Field is manned and active at a lower level; and 6 Field is being converted into 2 Construction Regiment, which will be based at Nigel. Recruitment of qualified Reserve Force members is due shortly.