Military Surveying in Afghanistan

A 2.925Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Historically, Army surveyors have supported three distinct missions: mapping, construction and field artillery. While there’s not much call for positioning artillery in the civilian world, professional surveyors would be familiar with the work of military topographic/geodetic and construction surveyors.

The 290th Engineer Detachment (Survey & Design) from the Ohio Army National Guard is based at Camp Ravenna in Newton Falls, Ohio. We are currently deployed to Afghanistan for a year in support of Operation Enduring Freedom We are a fourteen-soldier, construction/surveying unit, but most of us are not full-time surveyors in civilian life. The Detachment Commander, CW2 Francis Amato, is a construction supervisor for Oster Homes. I am a full-time National Guardsman and work as the Detachment Readiness NCO during the week. However, two of our Soldiers, SGT Anthony Leimeister and SGT David Krise, have survey and design backgrounds. SGT Leimeister has a bachelor’s degree in Surveying and Mapping from the University of Akron and works as a survey party chief for the city of Alexandria, VA. SGT Krise has an associate degree in Drafting and Computer Drafting Technology, also from the University of Akron.

With the exception of the Detachment Commander, all of us in the 290th are enlisted soldiers and hold the 12T MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), Technical Engineering Specialist. The Army defines the 12T’s duties as "Supervise or participate in construction site development to include technical investigation, surveying, drafting, development of construction plans and specifications, and performing quality control inspections." Because we are a Survey and Design unit, the main focus of our jobs is surveying and design/ drafting. Like our civilian counterparts, we do a lot of site design and construction stakeouts. We plan our jobs back at the office, and then travel to the jobsites. But while the work is similar, the working conditions are not. Currently, we are based at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. Our office is much like any other civilian office with room for to two draftsmen/ designers to work and two others to run day-to-day operations. All of our equipment is kept in a CONEX (shipping container) outside our building.

Our missions begin with an Engineer Work Order that comes down from our higher headquarters, currently the 411th Engineer Brigade. The job might be a topographical survey, a stakeout for construction or an as-built survey for completed construction projects. Mission planning may include structure design, cut and fill requirements, BOM (Bill of Material) needs, or personnel and time requirement calculations. Besides working out the details of the job itself, we must also coordinate with the outlying site or construction unit requesting the survey. This includes not only arranging life support (food, billeting, etc.) for the soldiers, but also jobsite security and transportation since in Afghanistan we can’t just jump in a truck and drive to the jobsite. The transportation might be military or civilian helicopter, civilian STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft, Air Force C-130 cargo plane, or military ground convoy.

The jobsites are usually at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or Combat Outpost (COP). The job itself could be inside or outside of the compound. When the job is inside the FOB, no additional security is needed. If the job is outside the wire, for example a road or a FOB expansion, the customer unit provides additional security appropriate for the site. This is usually in the form of one or two MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles to provide overwatch, with two or three dismounted Soldiers moving with the survey team.

Our survey teams usually consist of one NCO and two or three soldiers. This number is needed to carry all the equipment that has to be taken, not only the survey equipment, but all the soldiers’ gear as well. Their individual equipment includes a rucksack, body armor, helmet, and M4 rifle, along with any required survey equipment. We use surveying equipment that many of you are familiar with, like the bright yellow, off-the-shelf Trimble total stations and GPS units.

COP Wilderness Mission
One of our more interesting missions so far was a topo survey to relocate an existing road away from COP Wilderness, located on the Khost-Gardez Pass in eastern Afghanistan. The K-G Pass is a narrow road that runs through the Hindu Kush Mountains between the cities of Gardez and Khost. This is a key area of combined action for the US Army and Afghan Armies. The existing road runs next to the COP’s 12 foot-high blast wall on the north and the Gardez River 200 feet to the south. Our mission was to topo the area between the existing road that runs the length of the COP and the river to design a bypass road that will be farther away from the edge of the COP and improve force protection. It took two days and two separate flights to get to COP Wilderness.

Once at Wilderness we established our control point inside the COP and set up the base station for our R8. We also coordinated with the COP’s QRF (Quick Reaction Force) to provide two MRAP’s to pull security for us while we were outside the wire doing the survey. Early the next day we loaded up in the MRAP’s and moved outside the ECP (Entry Control Point) with the QRF. We dismounted at one end of our survey area and the MRAP’s shadowed us as we surveyed the area, which was roughly the size of six football fields. The survey itself took five hours because of the rough terrain and having to work around the traffic on the road. The three of us took turns running the controller, carrying the rover and pulling security to keep everyone fresh in the 90 degree heat. Once the survey was complete we returned back to the COP and prepared to move back to Bagram to download the data for our designers work on the bypass design. Due to a combination of weather, issues with the helicopters and the timing of flights, it took us another four days to catch flights back to Bagram.

Background/History of the Detachment
The 290th Engineer Detachment (Survey & Design) was activated into in the Ohio National Guard force structure on September 1st 2007 in Newton Falls, Ohio. It is one of three small engineer Detachments belonging to the 112th Engineer Battalion. Together with the 291st Engineer Detachment (Concrete) and the 292nd Engineer Detachment (Asphalt), we provide specialized engineer support to the construction projects of the16th Engineer Brigade, Ohio National Guard. On September 24th 2011 the 290th began its’ one-year Active Duty Tour in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Pre-Deployment Training
As soon as the Detachment received notice of the upcoming deployment, we began our preparations. We had a three-week train-up period in April 2011. A representative from Trimble came to our armory and gave the unit a 40-hour block of instruction/refresher training on the Trimble 5601 Total Station, the primary piece of survey equipment we had used and trained on up to this point. The other two weeks were devoted to Common Skills tasks including weapons training, land navigation, combatives and mounted and dismounted battle drills. Our normal monthly drill weekends focused on any other individual training requirements and mandatory classes for the deployment such medical, legal, etc required for all Soldiers deploying.

The Detachment mobilized to Fort Bliss, TX in late September 2011 for five weeks of post-mobilization training and exercises designed to teach us to work as teams a
nd evaluate our training. It allowed us to focus on survey-specific skills in a combat environment.

We began by establishing drafting and design standards for AutoCAD and setting up our field code lists for line work. The Detachment was broken down into Survey Teams and a Design/Drafting Team. At this time we found out that in Afghanistan we would primarily be using the Trimble R8 GPS receiver, TSC2 data collector instead of the Trimble 5601 Total Station. Because the Trimble R8 & TSC2 data collectors were new to us, we arranged for a representative from Trimble came to Ft Bliss to give us a 40-hour block of instruction on the new equipment. We practiced doing topographic surveys, site design, corridors, alignments, assemblies and stakeout in the field environment in field conditions. Our overall mobilization training culminated with a three-day evaluation by the First Army of not only survey skills, but also our ability to convoy to work sites, to engage a simulated local populace and work around them, to react to repel attack and practice the command and control of the teams while they were out on missions. After our training was completed and validated the Detachment prepared to move to Afghanistan in early November 2011.

There were several legs on the flight to Afghanistan. Two of us flew a week early from Ft. Bliss to prepare for the rest of the unit to arrive. Our route was from Texas to Kuwait on a charter fight, then an Air Force C-17 flight to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Next was a C-130 transport to our final destination at FOB Sharana in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Sharana is the major logistics hub in eastern Afghanistan. It sits on top of a plateau at an altitude of 7,200 feet. The rest of the unit flew from Ft. Bliss a week later again via chartered flight but instead flew to Manas Air Base in the country of Kyrgyzstan, north of Afghanistan, then flew on a C-17 to Bagram and finally a C-130 to Sharana.

On arriving at Sharana we replaced the 231st Engineer Detachment (Survey & Design) from Mississippi, also a National Guard unit. We trained with the 231st for two weeks, using what is known as the "left seat-right seat" method until we knew how they operated and they were comfortable with us assuming their mission. We took over three Trimble R8 GPS receivers from the 231st. The R8’s are more suited to jobs in Afghanistan because of their ease and speed of operation versus the 5601 Total Station. We began working on several FOB expansions and improvements during the winter months to help engineers prepare these bases for the spring fighting season that typically begins every April. The jobs were completed during what was the worst winter Afghanistan has had in over 50 years. Many times the teams were stranded for days at job sites before they could return to base because helicopter flights were cancelled due to bad weather.

In March 2012 the Detachment received word that we would be moving to Bagram Air Base with the 18th Engineer Brigade, our higher headquarters. The move was due to the change in- country to a single Engineer Brigade from current two brigades and the need to centrally locate that brigade. Because the 290th works directly under the Brigade, we moved as well. Since the move in April, we have continued to conduct the same types of survey missions to support engineer units all over Afghanistan, only operating out of a different location. At Bagram we have also been working with the Base Headquarters master planners on an as-built survey of Bagram’s 3,400 acres because of the rapid, unchecked growth on the base over the last decade.

As Army surveyors, we encounter many of the same problems on construction sites that civilian surveyors do, like bulldozers or graders taking out our control points or stakes. We have safety issues, like operating around heavy equipment. But we also have problems that civilian surveyors don’t encounter on a day-to-day basis, such as surveying in a hostile environment or working at 7,000 feet wearing fifty pounds of gear. Regardless of the situation or the environment the 290th can be counted on to provide customers the survey support to complete any mission.

SFC Robert J. Salladay is the Detachment NCOIC for the 290th Engineer Detachment (Survey & Design), 112th Engineer Battalion, Ohio Army National Guard. He is trained as a Technical Engineering Specialist (MOS 12T), which includes construction surveying, and after leaving active duty, is a 22-year veteran of the Ohio National Guard. He has been a full time National Guard soldier since 2003.

Military Surveying Family
It’s not uncommon for several members or multiple generations of a family to serve in the military. Nor is it unusual for surveying to be the "family business". It’s not so common, though, is to have both in the same family. SFC Bob Salladay, his sister, Ann, and brother-in-law, Mike, are all military surveyors.

Besch-salladay surveying family profile
CW4 Thomas (Mike) Besch:
Former U.S. Army Artillery surveyor "82C", Vietnam and the Cold War  Retired Geodetic/Topographic Chief Warrant Officer  Managed survey operations in Operation Desert Storm  Registered Professional Surveyor in the State of Ohio  Professor of Surveying & Mapping and Program Director of the Surveying & Mapping program at the University of Akron

Major Ann M. (Salladay) Besch:
Former U.S. Air force Geodetic Officer with service during the Cold War Era and Operation Desert Shield/ Desert Storm  U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer  Registered Professional Surveyor in the State of Ohio  Senior Lecturer in the Surveying & Mapping Program at the University of Akron, Ohio

SFC Robert (Bob) Salladay:
Detachment NCOIC for the 290th Engineer Detachment (Survey & Design), 112th Engineer Battalion, Ohio Army National Guard  Trained as a Technical Engineering Specialist (MOS 12T), which includes construction surveying  22 year veteran of the Ohio National Guard since 1990 after leaving Active Duty; Full Time National Guard Soldier since 2003

Both Mike and Ann have held or currently hold office in numerous surveying and mapping organizations at the local, state and national level. They have been very active in creating public awareness of the surveying profession. By giving presentations and participating in living history events, they seek to educate the public on the contributions of surveyors in building and defending this country. University of Akron student teams, advised by Mike and Ann, have dominated the NSPS Student Surveying Competitions.

Mike, Ann and Bob have developed and presented several eight-hour seminars on "Surveying & Mapping in the Military (1775 to Date)". Proceeds from these seminars have supported the 290th Surveying Detachment’s Family Readiness Group and student activities of the Surveying & Mapping Programs of the University of Akron.

They would be interested to hear from other military surveying families. Mike can be reached at

A 2.925Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE