TAPA MILITARY BASE, Estonia — The sounds of drills, saws and compactors are almost as common as live-fire artillery. While Estonian soldiers exercise in one corner of the base, construction workers pour concrete in another. Dump trucks and bulldozers rival the number of tanks and combat vehicles here.
Twenty-two European Reassurance Initiative infrastructure and construction projects managed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District at Tapa are nearly complete, and will support an influx of U.S. and NATO forces as heel-to-toe rotations begin in early 2017.
The projects are a subset of a $500 million ERI Program the district oversees for U.S. Army and Air Force military construction, and facilities, sustainment, restoration and modernization in Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, with future work planned in Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway and Slovakia. Europe District has approximately 260 projects in design or construction to make improvements to airfields, military quarters, operations centers, training ranges and support facilities throughout Europe.
These facilities will enable nine-month rotations of U.S. forces in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, said. Lt. Col. James Lockridge, the chief of construction for Army Europe’s Engineer Division.
“They help lessen the burden on our host nations, while allowing U.S. forces to maintain readiness and provide necessary life support to maintain equipment and conduct training with our allied partners,” he said.
In Estonia, the projects are right on track, especially a much-needed
railhead upgrade project.
The majority of U.S. Army vehicles and equipment are shipped into Estonia via rail, said Chris Bailey, a Europe District ERI project engineer.
“Prior to this railhead project, the Estonians only had one railhead that was created during Soviet times, and it was outside of the military area,” he said. “The new railhead will be located within Tapa — an area controlled by Estonian forces — and separated from the commercial railhead.”
Another project Bailey manages is a marshalling area, which is being constructed next to the new railhead.
“The existing railhead doesn’t have a staging area, so this project will help expedite the loading and unloading of military equipment as it moves in and out of the country,” he said.
The projects will enable U.S. forces to rapidly deploy into Estonia, Lockridge added.
“This work is important because the infrastructure was degraded to a point that we had to use cranes and then truck (vehicles and equipment) over to the base. This was an eight-hour process — it will be reduced to 20 minutes,” he said.
USAREUR-funded ERI projects will enable freedom of movement and training readiness, and provide life-support facilities for rotational units deploying to Europe.
The projects have been identified based on host-nation capacity, Lockridge said.
“In Estonia, for example, it started with initial meetings and finding out what was excess capacity to them. Then, we recognized there was a delta — we needed more facilities and we developed a project list to cover that gap,” he said.
USAREUR then partnered with Europe District to manage the planning, design, contract award and construction management for many of the projects on their list.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stood up these multiple-award task-order contracts in every one of these countries, they received bids that fell within the independent government estimates and contracted as quickly as possible,” Lockridge said.
Post award, the Corps assigns a project engineer to manage construction in the field. In Estonia, it’s Bailey who manages quality, schedule and contract modifications.
“I coordinate with USAREUR and the Estonians to make sure we are building things to their standards, and they are happy with the projects,” he said. “It’s important to partner to ensure we’re providing the facilities that meet the goals of future training exercises and movements.”
As U.S. military posture in Europe shifts from assurance to deterrence, the Army is transitioning away from a rotational unit here for three to six months, and moving to back-to-back deployments with forces on the ground all the time.
USAREUR is meeting the requirements of this transition with ERI projects, Lockridge said.
“Instead of living in a tent for three to six months, we now have to provide more enduring facilities to maintain basic quality of life for Soldiers living in theater for nine months at a time,” he said. “Also, vehicle maintenance can be degraded if Soldiers are working out of tents or outside in a muddy field — with new facilities they can maintain their equipment over a long period of time in a concrete motor pool with maintenance bays.”
Range improvement projects such as rifle qualification and sniper courses, machine gun ranges and a shoot house are also being built by Europe District at Tapa.
Units come to Europe at a high level of training and readiness, Lockridge said.
“We want units to redeploy from Europe with the same or a higher level of training readiness than when they arrived,” he said. “ERI projects will help maintain training readiness.”
While the Army is busy building at Tapa, the Air Force plans to improve facilities and airfield capabilities at Amari Air Base, about 45 kilometers southwest of Tallinn.
Amari will gain a dormitory, squadron operations building, cargo loading pad and maintenance hangers, said Lt. Col. Spencer Burkhalter, acting chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at U.S. Embassy Tallinn.
“If we have a U.S. squadron, or two, we tell the Estonians we have them coming in a month or so and we’d like to use the dorms,” he said. “The U.S. benefits from the projects that way, but the Estonians will have the keys to let other countries use the facilities when we’re not here. They will maintain the dorms, so they’ll increase their capacity. It makes the Estonians’ lives easier, it’s less expensive and they get additional security because other squadrons are coming in.”
ERI projects at Amari, funded by USAFE and managed by USACE Europe District, are expected to benefit any NATO country using the base. The British Royal Air Force and German Air Force have augmented the Baltic Air Policing Mission out of Estoni in the past, and rotations will continue, according to NATO Allied Air Command officials.
Projects need to be functional, Burkhalter said.
“The ERI project list was developed based on a masterplan for Amari – the Maryland National Guard did an airfield survey and looked at the capabilities that USAFE wanted to develop, and they got buy-in from the Estonians,” he said.
Europe District is about to break ground on up to $24 million in ERI military construction at Amari and three additional projects are planned for future years.
It’s a complex program, Burkhalter said.
“My goal is to make sure we’re putting the money to use the way it should be used, meeting the end goal of ERI — as it shifts from assurance to deterrence,” he said. “I would like to see the money spent very judiciously and with a good end result in mind. Maintaining coordination with U.S. European Command, the embassy team and all the partners is really important through the entire process.”