The Little Counter-Gray Zone Operations Force That Could…and “Can Do”: The U.S. Navy Seabees

Story by Cmdr. Ryan Carey, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5, commanding officer

The recently released article “The Case for Change” authored by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Berger, continues to lay out the rationale for sweeping changes in Marine Corps future investment to meet three challenges: the “rise of precision strike regimes, gray zone strategies, and the imperative to maritime campaigning.” Gen. Berger goes on to recognize a capability gap for countering gray zone operations:

“The threat today accepts the (present) reality of U.S. conventional force superiority, and he has an answer for it in the form of the complex of aggressive behaviors “short of war” that we have come to characterize as gray zone operations. Credible “lethality” is only a part of the answer to this challenge—the ability to compete directly, daily, and globally, by means acceptable to the American people and the rule of law, is the missing piece.”

Steelworker 2nd Class Morgan Klaus, from Weston, Florida, deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5’s Detail Palawan, helps haul concrete to the footers with the help of members the Armed Forces of the Philippines 2nd NMCB. These footers will be the base of a two-classroom school at Malatgao Elementary School, Nov. 6, 2019. (Photo by SW3 Taylor Myers)


The U.S. Navy Seabees, though small and out-resourced by China in many locations where both operate, are filling that void today and punching above their weight class. They are countering gray zone operations at several Indo-Pacific locations. Just like the Seabees of World War II, the Naval Construction Force today does a lot more than construction, and their unusual culture is firmly anchored in Navy traditions, training, and education, but adheres to Marine Corps organizational and warfighting doctrine. Unlike the Seabees of World War II, the force today is smaller; the current Seabee force, active and reserve combined, is roughly the size of the Seabee capability that built-up the island of Tinian during World War II, approximately 11,000 personnel. Though smaller, every day in the Indo-Pacific Seabees are countering gray zone operations and offer a springboard for new and developing naval concepts (e.g., Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and Distributed Maritime Operations). They already provide the gateway to bring Navy and Marine Corps combat power to bear in important locations.

Right now in the Indo-Pacific Seabees are deployed to eight countries and over a dozen locations supporting longstanding partners and establishing new military relations with those more on-the-fence. To skeptical nations, Sailors in hardhats bring non-military skills that are less threatening to communities who may have a mixed history with the U.S. Seabees working to develop host nation military professionalism, capacity, and infrastructure builds trust. Constructing schools, medical clinics, community centers, providing construction training, and assisting in response to local emergencies like floods, fire, and COVID-19 builds goodwill. Over time, partnerships are formed at a low, sustainable cost.

Builder 3rd Class Jahrual Lloyd (front) and Builder 3rd Class Jaidean Soto, both deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5’s Detail Timor-Leste, paint a two-room classroom the U.S. Navy Seabees constructed in support of the National Institute of Health in Dili, Timor-Leste, March 13. (Photo by BU3 Sierra Hall)


Although Seabees deploy and operate in a variety of task-organized elements, the Construction Detail presents the best counter-gray zone operations force to employ widely across the region. Current Details range in size from three to 50 personnel. They are task-organized to the mission and fully supported by their parent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) and the uniquely capable organizational hierarchy of the Naval Construction Force and Navy Expeditionary Combat Force. Today, during peacetime and competitor gray zone operations, these Details work with local governments and militaries building infrastructure, providing services, and conducting construction training.

Seabee Details dispersed across the Indo-Pacific region can, and do, counter-gray zone operations and deter aggression today by standing ready for a larger conflict. These agile Details build willing partners at important locations, increase a skilled and motivated local workforce, and bring expert knowledge and contracting capability. Details are easily scalable in logistical and lethal capability and capacity. They set the groundwork for the U.S., in a time of crisis, to rapidly expand operations and infrastructure as host nations allow and conditions become necessary. Although most known for construction, the “We build, We fight” Seabees of today are just like the utility-player Seabees of World War II. They are trained and highly adaptable to meet many combat service support demands. Those who wear Seabee patches on their uniform today can build, dive, handle cargo, perform expeditionary logistics, contract services and construction, embark materiel, and employ tactical communications—all while capable of local area positional defense. Led by Navy Civil Engineer Corps Officers, Seabee units bring the full contingency services and construction contracting capability of Naval Facilities Engineering Command to bear. Paired with their Navy Expeditionary brethren a fuller, largely self-sustaining, enabling capability set emerges: explosive ordnance disposal, diving and salvage, maritime security, port and harbor defense, cargo handling, and expeditionary logistics ashore.

Steelworker Constructionman Shanty May, deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5’s Detail Pohnpei, draws on the basketball court with a student at the Sokehs Elementary School opening ceremony, Jan. 12. (Photo by BU3 Christian Carlson)


This model is effective at countering gray zone operations and could expand with minimal investment. The framework is in place, and many of the boots-on-the-ground skills are not unique to Seabees. Military engineers and logisticians from the Marine Corps and other services could easily fill Construction Details at certain locations. The biggest obstacle to current and expanded operations is not funding or resources, but the maze of funding sources and fiscal authorities that constrain these efforts. Oversight is wildly disproportionate to the amount of funding that currently exists. These complicated authorities drive decisions higher into the chain of command and away from where they are most-effectively made, at or near the Detail-level. Most efforts, including construction at today’s scale, can be fully funded with operations and maintenance funds (O&M); use of O&M allows flexibility so that budgeting and execution decisions can be made at the appropriate level. This one issue hobbles counter-gray zone operations today and, worse, will cripple dispersed operations in a more actively contested environment.

As the Navy and Marine Corps team improves integration to meet the “imperative of maritime campaigning” against today’s threats, Seabees in hardhats are conducting counter-gray zone operations across the Indo-Pacific region while providing access and building relationships. These relationships, backed by the credible combat and logistics power of the Navy-Marine Corps team, complicates a competitor’s strategic calculus. Strategic complications deter a would-be adversary and offer our best chance at a lasting peace…with freedom.

The students of Sokehs Elementary School use the newly constructed hand-wash station installed by the U.S. Navy Seabees deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5’s Detail Pohnpei. U.S. Navy Seabees are renovating the school, which educates over 140 students from kindergarten to eighth grade from the island of Sokehs, Feb. 11. (Photo BU3 Christian Carlson)


Cmdr. Ryan P. Carey is the commanding officer of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 and is currently deployed to the Indo-Pacific. NMCB-5 Seabees and Construction Details across the region perform many of the activities described in this article and much, much more.

You can see more on what NMCB-5 is doing on the “Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Five” Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NMCB5.

Seabees deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5’s Detail Thailand perform a damage assessment walk down of the entire U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield runway, searching for any broken, rough, or pitted concrete in need of repair, Dec. 3. (Photo by UTC Juan Gonzalez)


“The Case for Change” authored by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Berger, can be found at: https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Case-for-Change.pdf


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