What does an Army combat engineer do?

A dusty U.S. Army combat engineer after a ride in his armored vehicle through the Iraqi desert on March 31, 2003. At that point in the Iraq War, engineers like him mostly were tasked with clearing the way so U.S. troops could advance.
A dusty U.S. Army combat engineer after a ride in his armored vehicle through the Iraqi desert on March 31, 2003. At that point in the Iraq War, engineers like him mostly were tasked with clearing the way so U.S. troops could advance.
Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach/Corbis

Quick. An enemy target is firing on you from across a shallow river. There's a small footbridge that could be traversed to get to the combatant, but what if it's lined with explosives? Should you blow it up yourself to prevent the enemy from crossing? Should you quickly create your own safe crossing? And how the heck do you do either of those?

Welcome to the world of combat engineers. Not only are these military enlistees responsible for, say, placing the explosives to inhibit an enemy target, they're also in charge of determining -- or even building -- the best route to get to that target. From bridges to bombs, these soldiers are responsible for a truckload of mechanical and engineering duties.

In civilian life, the term "engineer" might conjure up some sort of math-oriented, pencil-pushing type who frets over numbers and angles for a living. But in the Army (and other branches of the military, as we'll touch on), not all engineers are sitting at desks. In the next few pages, we'll learn about some who are as much action as they are equation. From constructing bridges to blowing them up, combat engineers must have a head for spatial thinking and a heart that isn't faint.

Although we're mostly talking about combat engineers in the United States Army here, their job descriptions in other nation's militaries (including Canada and the United Kingdom) aren't too different; however, combat engineers outside the U.S. do often deal with water supply filtration and distribution [sources: Canadian Forces, British Army]. In addition, the United States Marine Corps also employs combat engineers, who have many of the same duties as those in the Army [source: Marines].

While this combat position is technically closed to women until the U.S. Department of Defense figures out how to open up all military roles to females, women have actually been able to train as combat engineers for years at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The Sapper Leader Course (an elite training program for engineers on the front lines) began accepting women in 1999. For those already in noncombat engineering roles, Army leadership decided every qualified man or woman deserved a shot at the training. By 2013, 55 women had graduated from the course [source: Michaels].

Set 'em Up, Knock 'em Down

Combat engineers from the Marines tear down patrol bases throughout Helmand province in Afghanistan in December 2011, paving the way for Afghan pullout by U.S. troops.
Combat engineers from the Marines tear down patrol bases throughout Helmand province in Afghanistan in December 2011, paving the way for Afghan pullout by U.S. troops.
© Cpl. Bryan Nygaard/US Marines/Handout/Digital/Corbis

In the Army, you're allowed to pick the military occupation specialty (MOS), which gives you a broad idea of a career. For instance, field 12 is the overarching category for engineers, while an MOS 12B is a combat engineer. Of course, if you don't meet requirements –and that can be either physical or a low score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – or the Army doesn't have any openings in that area, then you might not get the job you want. A combat engineer requires an 87 or above on the combat portion of the ASVAB [source: Army].

Assuming the soldier navigates the MOS selection process successfully and gets that 12B designation, it's off to basic training. Anyone wishing to be a U.S. Army combat engineer will have to complete the standard 14 weeks of One Station Unit Training, which consists of Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Attending the AIT Engineer School, you can choose from combat engineering, general engineer or geospatial engineer operations.

Combat engineering is designed to support infantry missions, so the AIT portion focuses on skills that are useful for engineers who are in the thick of combat. That means that combat engineers are being trained in a wide swath of engineering duties. Not only are they responsible for what most of us think are the more traditional engineering roles (like aiding mobility of troops by constructing a bridge), they're also the ones who are in charge of explosives. Although it might seem a far cry from an engineer's purveyance, a combat engineer's familiarity with explosives makes sense when you realize that these are the soldiers responsible for clearing a route or terrain -- often a business most efficiently done with explosives. Demolitions, in other words, is just as important to a combat engineer's training as construction. And for that reason, many combat engineer casualties and fatalities are related to explosives -- incidents involving clearing improvised explosive devices, for instance.

In recent conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, bomb clearing is also an important part of a combat engineer's duties. These soldiers might work with advanced mine-detecting equipment while fellow infantrymen engage enemy combatants. This combined-arms approach is unusual but useful when IEDs are present in a combat situation [source: MacLeod].

Just like any enlisted private, a combat engineer starts off with a base salary of about $18,000 a year [source: Army]. (Do keep in mind that housing and other costs are paid for.) The Army recommends that people seeking a combat engineer role have an interest in mechanics and engineering. The job also would certainly prepare a soldier for a good civilian job: Construction and building inspection are two possible career prospects in civilian life. Civil or mechanical engineering also would be a natural fit.

Author's Note: What does an Army combat engineer do?

If you have a completely insane penchant for complicated mechanical spatial logic and getting shot at, combat engineering is the way to go. I found myself completely in awe of the men (and women), at the Sapper Leader Course who choose such an intellectually and physically demanding role in the Army.

Related Articles


  • Allred, Anne. "Female soldiers training as combat engineers at Fort Leonard Wood." KSDK.com. May 16, 2013. (May 30, 2013) http://www.ksdk.com/news/article/380713/3/Female-soldiers-training-as-combat-engineers-at-Fort-Leonard-Wood
  • Army-Portal. "Combat Engineer." May 10, 2011. (May 30, 2013) http://www.army-portal.com/jobs/corps-engineers/12b.html
  • British Army. "Combat Engineer." (May 30, 2013) http://www.army.mod.uk/royalengineers/26391.aspx
  • Canadian Forces. "Combat Engineer." (May 30, 2013) http://www.forces.ca/en/job/combatengineer-5#info-1
  • MacLeod, Michael. "Combat engineers recount reasons for success in Afghanistan bomb-clearing mission." Army.mil. Jan. 24, 2013. (May 30, 2013) http://www.army.mil/article/94863/
  • Michaels, Jim. "Women prove themselves in grueling Army course." USA Today. March 18, 2013. (May 30, 2013) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/18/women-combat-engineer-school-army/1954149/
  • Thompson, David. "Combat engineers share valuable experience, host demolition range at Operation River Assault." Army.mil. July 25, 2012. (May 30, 2013) http://www.army.mil/article/84320/Combat_engineers_share_valuable_experience__host_demolition_range_at_Operation_River_Assault/
  • United States Army. "Basic Pay." (May 30, 2013) http://myarmybenefits.us.army.mil/Home/Benefit_Library/Federal_Benefits_Page/Basic_Pay.html?serv=147
  • United States Army. "Combat Engineer." (May 30, 2013) http://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/browse-career-and-job-categories/construction-engineering/combat-engineer.html
  • United States Army. "Engineer School." (May 30, 2013) http://www.goarmy.com/soldier-life/becoming-a-soldier/advanced-individual-training/engineer-school.html
  • United States Marines Corp. "Engineer." (May 30, 2013) http://www.marines.com/being-a-marine/roles-in-the-corps/ground-combat-element/combat-engineering