The Future of the Seabees

By Rear Adm. Mark A. Handley, Deputy Commander, Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), and Commander, First Naval Construction Division (1NCD)


The future of the Navy Seabees is bright.  For the past decade, the Naval Construction Force (NCF) has served courageously in combat, responded to natural disasters around the world and provided skilled engineer forces to combatant commanders around the world.  With the major conflicts winding down, our focus shifts to preventing wars through regional security operations.  Navy Seabees have a long legacy of successful peacetime engagements that have built partnerships with countless nations.  As we prepare for the future, we are faced with several challenges, and we must adapt our organization’s structure to ensure our future success.

The organization of the NCF is going through some major changes as the result of fiscal realities and changing wartime requirements. For those of us who’ve been around a while, we realize that the only constant in the military is change.  The ability to rapidly grow to satisfy urgent needs, coupled with the ability to reduce our size and structure when demand is low or fiscal constraints limit our use, is critical to our continued success.  As it has been throughout history, change is the catalyst for continued improvement.

Last year, the Navy asked us to develop a plan to transfer First Naval Construction Division (1NCD) Type Commander functions to the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) as part of a cost-saving initiative to reduce redundancies and increase efficiencies within the headquarters staffs.  An in-depth analysis showed that costs would be reduced by merging 1NCD and NECC, and consolidating NCF Command and Control into Echelon IV Pacific and Atlantic Naval Construction Groups (NCGs).

Since its commissioning in 2002, it’s been 1NCD’s job to ensure that we man, train and equip Seabees so that they are ready to build and fight whenever and wherever our nation needs them.  It’s also been 1NCD’s job to establish policies that ensure the NCF remains vital and relevant.  During this transition, we’ve worked to ensure that these goals continue to be met.  Working with NECC, our 1NCD staff and our subordinate commands, we developed a plan to make the necessary organizational changes that meet U.S. Fleet Forces Command’s (USFFC’s) goals while maintaining Seabee readiness.

Seabees will continue to support our combatant commanders’ wartime requirements, while also constructing schools, clinics and water wells to help build relationships around the world, and respond to natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.

These are challenging times.  Embracing new things often means letting go of familiar ones.  This serves as an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of these organizations over the years, while realizing that we are positioning ourselves to better support the NCF as an integral part of the future Navy.

I remember when 1NCD was stood up nearly 11 years ago, combining the Atlantic and Pacific Naval Construction Forces under one Command, providing 1NCD as the single command interface with both fleets and unified commands for all Seabee operations. This was shortly after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Navy needed to adjust to new realities the nation was now facing. For the previous 10 years, Atlantic Fleet Naval Construction Forces came under the control of the Second Naval Construction Brigade in Norfolk, Va., and Pacific Fleet Naval Construction Forces were commanded by the Third Naval Construction Brigade in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Throughout its existence, 1NCD has provided unity of command for the NCF worldwide, including making two combat deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 1NCD has ensured we had ready engineer forces to support continuous combat deployments.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Navy and the nation are facing new fiscal and military realities.  Change was inevitable as our forces withdrew from Iraq and our presence in Afghanistan was scaled down, at the same time the Navy’s operating budget was being cut significantly.

Our goal during these times is to maintain our core capabilities as we adjust to today’s environment.  As part of the merger, NCF senior leaders will be fully integrated into NECC staff providing better alignment with the Navy and better ability to position NCF expertise for the future. By incorporating the combat expeditionary engineering expertise of 1NCD, NECC can fully actualize the Navy’s vision of a single Expeditionary Type Commander.

Our subordinate commands are also going through some major changes: 20th SRG is now Naval Construction Group 2, and 31st SRG is now Naval Construction Group 1.  These two commands will be responsible for administrative control oversight of Seabee forces operating in the Atlantic and Pacific, respectively. Both were established in 2003, having previously served as Naval Construction Regiments, which were decommissioned after World War II, and re-commissioned in 1966 to support the troop buildup in Vietnam.

We also recently decommissioned the 25th NCR.  The regiment traced its history back to its original commissioning in 1944, and participated in the Normandy Invasion that same year.  Decommissioned after the war, it was re-established in 2007. Most recently, the regiment deployed to Kandahar Airfield Afghanistan and assumed control of Task Force Overlord from February to August 2011. The 25th NCR led a multi-service force of 10 subordinate units totaling more than 4,200 personnel.

I’ve mentioned some of the changes to our force over history because it’s important to realize that force structure is a dynamic thing.  The size, makeup and mission of our force must be flexible in order to remain relevant. One of the main underlying reasons for these changes is that after more than a decade of continuous combat operations, we are now out of Iraq and have a fraction of the forces in Afghanistan that we did a few years ago.  Although we still have Seabees in harm’s way, the fact is that the warfighting mission has been winding down, and that’s a good thing.

While we are still committed to winning the war on terrorism, we also see the future shifting to preventing wars, building goodwill and establishing cooperative relationships with a host of countries around the world.  This change in focus will require changes in how we organize and train our force.  But, no one is better suited to this mission than the Navy Seabees, and I’m confident that with these changes as a foundation, the Seabees are poised to pave the way to success in the future.



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