Q&A with alumnus Scott Spellmon, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
12/15/2020 1:19:50 PM
Where are you from originally?
Bloomingdale, New Jersey.
Why did you choose to earn your Master’s degree at the University of Illinois?
I chose CEE because I wanted a challenging academic experience that would prepare me for future assignments. It was the #1 rated school in civil engineering and the #4 rated school in environmental engineering. It was a learning experience like no other. Illinois also fully understands the unique challenges military students present, and the CEE team was incredibly helpful and accommodating during my graduate work.
Why, and when, did you join the military?
I graduated from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point in 1986. We all join for different reasons but the great thing about USMA is the history and sense of tradition that pervades the campus.
West Point was actually the nation’s first engineering school and the founding superintendent, Jonathan Williams, also became the Chief Engineer of the Corps.
In our nation’s early history, the United States relied on Army Engineers to build coastal fortifications and navigable waterways that paved the way for commerce and exploration. Today, ports and waterways developed by Army engineers move more than $2 trillion in cargo every year. Army engineers also mapped much of the American West, they constructed lighthouses that guided both military and civilian shipping, built jetties and piers. Again, building the economy while providing for the common defense.
Army engineers are not just builders, we have a rich history of contributing to the warfighter. The U.S. D-Day force, for example, was 25 percent engineers – clearing beaches so the invasion force could land, preparing ammunition resupply points and clearing roads inland. In combat situations, engineers are often a lead element providing vital services to combat commanders. Engineers have contributed substantially to every major conflict the U.S. has been involved in, and we’re always looking for strong engineer officers and NCOs to join us.
West Point provides a lot of tradition and history for all cadets, regardless of the Army branch they go into. For me though, the stories of Army engineers throughout our history and the fact that many of our early engineers attended West Point, has made a lasting impact on my reasons for serving.
How does it feel to be named Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers?
It is the honor of a lifetime to serve as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I also serve as the Chief of Engineers on the Army Staff and the Chief of the Engineer Branch. It’s an amazing opportunity to lead, grow and give back. I’ve worked with some great leaders over the years and I now have an opportunity to take those lessons I’ve learned to encourage strong leadership among both soldiers and civilians and set the course that will take Army Engineers and USACE into the future.
What are your responsibilities/duties?
As I mentioned earlier, I actually wear three hats. As Chief Engineer and Chief of the Engineer branch, I am responsible for all Army engineer functions in combat, topography and the geospatial enterprise, construction, water and energy security and environmental management. I’m also responsible for the development of engineer combat capability, to include training, doctrine and equipment.
As the commander of USACE, my responsibilities include Military and Civil Construction; Contingency Operations (disaster response and recovery); Geospatial support (mapping); navigation and flood control, locks and dams, the Institute for Water Resources (IWR); support to federal agencies; research and development; environmental clean-up and real estate.
There are 36,000 people in USACE and only 800 are military personnel. USACE consists of nine Divisions, 44 Districts, nine labs and engineering centers and a headquarters in Washington D.C. and we’ve got about 90,000 Engineer Soldiers in the Regiment.
Combat Engineers specialize in complex tasks like building hasty bridges, breaking through enemy defenses and protecting the flanks of maneuver units using defensive structures and mines.
Lt. Gen. William McCaffrey probably summed it up best:
“… it is a very fine thing to be an Engineer Soldier. Not only do you participate in the success of operations on the battlefield, but you also make it possible for us to get there and get away from there.”
Some interesting facts that might give a better perspective on what USACE does:
- USACE is the fifth largest supplier of electricity in the U.S. We generate more than 75 billion KW hours of clean, renewable energy – enough to power 10 cities the size of Seattle.
- We manage 12 million acres of land and water in 43 states (about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined).
- We manage more than 25 million acres of real property assets for the Army.
- We are a leading provider of recreation: 36,000 picnic sites and 93,000 camping sites visited by about 250 million people each year. Our recreation areas have about 45,000 volunteers providing about 1.6 million hours of time to run those facilities.
What are some of the challenges/priorities you are facing in that role?
I have a campaign plan with four goals:
- Support National Readiness. The Army is modernizing and our Engineer Force needs to keep pace with new requirements and priorities. The most important thing we can do in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support the Army’s and Nation’s readiness is deliver our program — in other words, finishing quality projects on time within budget.
- Modernize USACE. Data governance, cyber security and our internal software that we use day to day must be up to date and provide safe and secure execution of our work. We’ve made significant strides in the recent past but there is still more to do.
- Improve partnering and strengthen partnerships. We live in an age of limited resources and we have a number of federal and non-federal partners who work with us on projects that support mutual goals, oftentimes this is where funding requirements have increased and we are able to pool resources. In other cases we work with partners like the Nature Conservancy in our Engineering with Nature effort. The Nature Conservancy provides grassroots advocacy for our efforts to promote civil construction with water resources that also provide an environmental benefit. There are many opportunities with partnerships and we’re on the lookout for ways to get better at it.
- Revolutionize the way we do things. This is an effort that started a few years ago and we’ve made a lot of improvements. We are a 245-year-old institution and most of our missions are tied to legislation, regulation and internal processes, many of which were written 10 or more years ago. Policies and processes need review every few years to ensure we’re being efficient. Fast food is a great example. McDonald’s and Burger King didn’t deliver food 10 years ago. Today I can use Grubhub or Uber Eats to order dinner and use that extra time to do something else. Leveraging technology is only part of it though. Organizationally, we need to reduce bureaucracy and empower leaders at the lowest level to get things done without waiting for someone else to make a decision. That may sound obvious but in a large organization, things can get complicated fast. So, we are working to correct course. This is paying huge dividends for us.
What impact do you hope to have in the position?
This job is an amazing opportunity to contribute to engineer history.
For the Engineer Regiment, we live in a pivotal time because the Army is modernizing; the previous focus was on smaller scale conflict where we’ve been technically superior to our adversaries for many years. Times have changed and the Army is moving to meet new threats. For Army Engineers, this means greater investment in new capabilities to support the warfighter – faster river crossings, better maneuver defense and safer, more reliable obstacle breaching on the battlefield.
For USACE, our program has grown from $24 billion a few years ago to over $68 billion today. A record number of storms in recent years have contributed to disaster supplementals from Congress that we use to rebuild impacted areas – that rebuilding can take years. In other cases we have increased construction requirements due to modernization efforts – but we also have more requests for our services. People like what we do and they want more of it. Other construction requirements are due to Department of Defense modernization efforts or even foreign military sales.
As I begin my time as the 55th Chief, I am going to focus on four key areas:
First, people. People will always be my #1 priority. Since 1775, the men and women of the Corps have been our greatest strength and asset, and we owe our people the best technology, leader development, safety and education programs so they can each achieve their full potential. USACE is rated in the top 100 federal agencies to work in — and we need to be. The nature of our mission requires that we attract and retain the very best talent. We also have an ambitious developmental assignment program that allows people to move into a vacant position and learn that job while a hiring action is being done. Allowing people to broaden skill sets makes them more competitive but it also makes us a more responsive force. We’re always looking for strong talent: we even have an app for people who want to join our team: https://www.usace.army.mil/careers/.
Readiness: The most important thing we can do for the Army and our Nation’s readiness is deliver our program. We must empower leaders at all levels to be open to new ideas, explore new methods and apply every available resource to finish quality projects on time within budget.
Partnerships: We accomplish very little on our own. Our relationships with commanders, industry, project sponsors and academia are as critical as ever given the historic levels of investment the Army and Nation are making in its infrastructure. Achieving our vision requires the best partnerships and partnering practices with our wide array of teammates.
Reform: Over the past few years, we have fundamentally changed many aspects of program and project delivery across the Corps. We must now expand, deepen and accelerate these efforts. Our headquarters and Division headquarters are limited in how big they can be. As our mission grows, we need to look for better ways of getting things done.