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Seabees to Build New Runway in Kenya

by John Reed on December 28, 2011

The military’s legendary expeditionary construction units, the Navy’s Seabees are set to return to their World War II roots this spring when a construction detail Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 heads to Africa to greatly expand the runways at a remote Kenyan airstrip to allow it to handle large cargo planes.

Sailors from the detail will haul their own heavy construction equipment, such as a a mobile concrete batching plant, pavers and steam rollers to a remote part of the African nation to expand an austere airstrip into one capable of handling large jet aircraft.

While the Seabees declined to comment on where the airfield is, how large the new runway will be or even the specific types aircraft that will be able to use it, they did tell DT that this is the largest project they’ve worked on in a long time. The project is so large that the sailors are bringing their own asphalt prepping [batching] plant with them; something the Seabees haven’t done in a long time.

“This is the first time we’ve set up a batch plant up, this is a newly procured system, the Seabees haven’t done their own asphalt batching — the process of making asphalt — for several years; its almost an extinct skill,” Lt. Cdr. Bill Wohead, Naval Construction Battalion 3’s operations officer told DT recently. “We’re the first (Seabee) battalion to go through all this training, we’re the first battalion to use this brand new equipment and we’re the first battalion that’s going to use it all in concert to create a project in the middle of nowhere.”

“If you’re gonna buy [only] 500 tons of asphalt you’re not going to batch 500 tons of asphalt, it’s cheaper to just buy 500 tons of asphalt and then just pave it” rather than making your own, added Cdr. Scott Raymond, the unit’s CO. “This is the first time in a while, that there’s been a project” big enough to warrant bringing this type of heavy equipment along.

Building this massive runway almost from scratch is a throwback to the Seabees World War II roots, adds Raymond.

“If you look back at the history of the Seabees, in World War II, the claim to fame was, we built runways where there was nothing,” said Raymond. “It’s interesting to return back to the roots where we started more than 60 years ago.”

The Seabees couldn’t say who will be using the new airfield, however, the mission comes on the heels of news that the U.S. Air Force is flying drones out of a new base in Southeast Ethiopia and that 100 or so “combat equipped” U.S. troops are operating in the region to help local governments hunt down the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army — a terrorist group that has ravaged the countryside of Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and other central African nations.

This runway-building mission to Kenya is one of many similar projects the battalion’s construction detachments will be doing in Africa and the Middle East during an upcoming deployment to Rota, Spain.

In fact, you can bet that you’ll see more of this type mission in Africa, a place where the U.S. is trying to increase its presence in a low-key way, as the wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Construction missions like these and efforts by U.S. troops to train local militaries often provide great intelligence on terrorists operating in Africa.

“I certainly see, as you start drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will allow the Naval Construction forces to concentrate on theater security cooperation” missions in Africa, said Raymond. He’s referring to missions that the Seabees do to work with local governments to build everything from roads and bridges and buildings to installing HVAC systems and drilling water wells.

“We’re set up and trained to do the whole spectrum of construction operations,” adds Wohead.

For this particular mission, the Seabees are going to have to rely on their expeditionary skills to provide their own housing, command and control facilities and security at the remote runway.

“We have the ability to move ourselves and our equipment, we obviously can build, we have all the internal communications equipment to operate all the command and control in a very decentralized way, and the last part is; we provide for our own defense organically, each battalion has crew served weapons” such as .50-caliber heavy machine guns, Mk 19 grenade launchers and M240G machine guns, said Raymond.

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