US, German engineers strengthen ties at forum

Published May 8, 2015
TRIER, Germany – U.S. and German engineers gathered here recently to highlight progress, iron out differences and build tighter collaboration within the Army and Air Force construction programs during their annual Partnering Conference.

European Infrastructure Consolidation and refining the ABG-75 process, the regulation covering U.S. military construction under the Status of Forces Agreement, were among top agenda items as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District leaders met with counterparts from German federal and state ministries. The forum, which took place April 15-16, also included representatives from regional construction offices in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen.

The meeting, first held in 1992, is aimed at creating better understanding between the partners and streamlining coordination to reach consensus in common areas and functions. About 100 officials turned out for the two-day session, where they heard the latest developments on both sides while swapping experiences, best practices and ideas.

“Settings like this are where we take time to work with each other, learn from each other … [and] look for collaborative and innovative ways in which we can become more effective and efficient,” said Col. Matthew Tyler, attending his first U.S.-German Partnering Conference as Europe District commander. “There has been a lot of talk in recent years about a strategic pivot to the Pacific, but not for a minute can we rest on our heels and think Europe is not important.”

Ralf Poss, deputy chief of construction for the Federal Ministry of Environment, Preservation of Nature, Construction and Reactor Safety, or BMUB; discussed the ABG-75 and need to continue improving communication and efficiencies as USACE, its stakeholders and the German Construction Administration prepare to tackle a project-volume spike triggered by EIC initiatives. ABG-75 debuted in 1975 as a proposal, took seven years to fully draft and was implemented in 1982.

U.S. and German personnel concede the relationship and dichotomy can be contentious, with the sides working to balance each other’s regulatory divides and building-code standards in construction and maintenance. For instance, different interpretations have long existed in areas such as fire protection, maintenance vs. new construction and demolition work. The Germans believe demolition should fall under construction in the contracting process, while the U.S. considers it a service.

“We’re bound together by law, but also principles,” Poss said through a translator. “The ABG-75 actually works very well in standard construction. Unique and complex projects, however, sometimes result in problems.

“The U.S. forces are investing in Europe again. Each new base means a concentration of forces and new work there. But new structures bring new challenges. … It will be a massive effort to manage.”

The Department of Defense announced European Infrastructure Consolidation actions earlier this year. Overall, the plan will return 15 sites to their host nations and save the U.S. government about $500 million annually. Consolidation is expected to leave U.S. European Command with 17 main operating bases in Europe.

Through 2023, the Corps of Engineers will execute more than $600 million in EIC work – covering both MILCON and facilities, sustainment, restoration and modernization projects – on Army garrisons and Air Force bases across Germany, said Lalit Wadhwa, chief of Europe District’s Program Management Branch. That entails about 25 Air Force ventures and six projects for the Army, including full or partial site returns in Wiesbaden, Rheinland-Pfalz, Garmisch and Stuttgart.

“We are committed to this partnership at every level,” he told conference attendees. “These are very exciting times. [But] we will not be able to execute anything if we don’t share information with our German partners in advance.”

EIC will realign U.S. Air Forces in Europe with the closure of three installations in the United Kingdom and downsizing of Lajes Field in the Azores. Projects totaling nearly $350 million range from airfield aprons, taxiways and hangars to squadron operations facilities, simulators and wing headquarters. In Germany, they’re tied to relocating RAF Mildenhall’s Special Operations Group and KC-135 refueling aircraft to Spangdahlem and Ramstein air bases, respectively.

“Early involvement on the German side is important to initiate the coordination process,” said Matthias Vollmer, director of BMUB’s building engineering division. “This will help avoid stoppages in construction for time-critical projects.”

Poss praised the U.S.-German engineering alliance’s solid foundation but said he sees room for positive modifications to ABG-75. Changes in requirements over the course of a project often lead to delays, added costs and financial burden, he added.

“We are always pleased when we get clear, precise information from your side,” Poss said. “We must lean on our spirit of cooperation to navigate this process. … Good project management and clear agreements are vital in moving forward and avoiding conflicts and bad contracts.”

District officials agree that frequent communication and transparency from both sides are fundamental to strengthening the partnership and the regulation governing the way it conducts business.

“Forty years later, we’re still discovering things about ABG-75 and how it affects our operations,” Wadhwa said. “In the end, it’s all about making our relationship better and taking care of the mission. We are doing great work, but we can do even better.

“We have disagreements at times; we just need to look at the issues and try to figure out how to solve them. It’s not in our DNA to fail. Every one of us is in this together.”