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Silent partners

An paper about the construction of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan has triggered a debate about the relationship between civil and military engineering. Sean Flynn investigates.

It started out innocently enough – a paper appeared in the most recent edition of Civil Engineering Proceedings, highlighting the challenges faced by the Corps of Royal Engineers in building its biggest base since the Second World War.

Then a letter from Andrew Wood (NCE 31 July) set the cat among the pigeons with the assertion that as a civil engineer, he chose not to associate himself with military projects and objected to his subscription fee being used to publicise them.

The letter provoked a flurry of responses, ranging from indignation to a considered deconstruction of Wood’s position. Certainly, among some of the responses was a sense that civil engineers share some kind of implicit esprit de corps with their military counterparts and that Wood had in some way dishonoured that code.

Right or wrong, Wood’s letter raised an interesting point: where (if at all) should the profession draw the line between military and civil engineering?

ICE director general, Tom Foulkes, is a good person to ask about any mutual exclusivity of the two disciplines. He became an officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers in 1971, and reached the rank of brigadier before taking over in his current role at the ICE in 2002.

"The distinction between military and civil engineering is a false one," he says. "Both are governed by, and rely on, the same principles of physics. Besides, if you look at innovations such as the Mulberry harbours used in the Normandy landings in 1944, these designs came from civil engineers in the private sector."

This raises two points. Firstly, the history of the two disciplines stretching back is inextricably linked by the exigencies that gave rise to their development in the first place – namely, shelter and defence. To work on the assumption that the two at some point diverged and then evolved quite independently is to rely on a false dichotomy.

Military engineering pervades the civil sphere. The Corps’ motto is the Latin word, ubique, meaning "everywhere". In addition, the words "ordnance survey" reflect its original military purpose in mapping Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Defensive structures, such as those being deployed in London’s Whitehall as bomb-proof barriers, owe a huge debt to the defensive designs of the military engineer.

Secondly, Foulkes’ comments point to an enduring commercial relationship. The size of the military estate dictates that private commercial practices usually associated with civil engineering have increasingly become necessary in the management of the military’s infrastructure.

At the same time, the use of private contractors in military operations is a burgeoning trend, one exemplified in the construction of Camp Bastion.

Institution of Royal Engineers secretary, Lieutenant Colonel David Hamilton says: "Many local civilian engineers were, and are, employed on Camp Bastion and other engineering projects taking place throughout the country. These construction projects, often Royal Engineer-led, are bringing growth and stability to the region and, one day, perhaps freedom for more engineers from there to join the ICE, thus reducing subscription [fees] to a more manageable level."

This debate could be cast solely in political terms of whether or not individual engineers are for or against foreign military involvement, with the issue of paying institutional subscriptions becoming a matter of individual conscience for those who wish to keep the two spheres separate.

But even if such a constitutional anomaly was given any credence, the reality of the relationship between civil and military engineering would render its application moot.

Even if a rigidly formalist approach to the division of civil and military engineering is taken, projects such as Camp Bastion with its ground-up involvement of civilian contractors will always be important to a wider civils audience.

This point is neatly made by another contributor to the debate, John M Stephens (see Letters, page 16):
"The article about Camp Bastion was an excellent [one] about a building project managed and undertaken by soldiers and civilians alike. It is of interest and relevance to engineers who work in the harsh and unpredictable environments in faraway places."

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