The Army will increase the number of Sapper Leader Course classes offered each year beginning in October, officials at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, announced Thursday.
There will be 15 classes a year, up from the nine offered now. The move will almost double the capacity of the 28-day course, from about 350 students a year to about 600.
Demand for the Sapper course has increased as the Army has upped the number of engineer positions in its brigade combat teams.
Under a massive reorganization that has been taking place over the last two years, each BCT is converting its company-sized engineer element into a battalion of engineers, said 1st Lt. Bryan Wittmeyer, chief of training for the Sapper Leader Course.
The newly formed brigade engineer battalions have requirements for leaders who are Sapper qualified, Wittmeyer said.
"That generated a need for soldiers and leaders in the regiment to attend the course," he said. "The old schedule was just not producing enough graduates with the skill identifier to fill the force requirements."
Fort Leonard Wood's Sapper course, the only Sapper school in the Army, according to its website, annually trains about 350 soldiers. About half of those students will graduate.
The additional Sapper classes are expected to increase that training load to between 600 and 650 soldiers, Wittmeyer said.
The plan is to offer 15 classes in fiscal 2016, which begins in October, and 17 classes in fiscal 2017, he said.
That is about the maximum load his 35-soldier detachment will be able to handle, Wittmeyer said.
"With the minimal people we have here, we'll still be able to fill a lot of those [additional skill identifier] positions very quickly, even with the attrition rates and reputation this course has," he said.
The Sapper Leader Course is designed to train leaders in a team-building environment to develop leadership skills, learn specialized engineer techniques and perform battle drills necessary to perform the engineer missions of a Sapper company.
During the first 14-day phase of the course, students learn specialized engineer tasks and are tested on land navigation. Students also do urban orienteering, ruck and litter runs, and a road march. They learn water operations – how to work with inflatable boats and rope bridges – and mountaineering, including how to move an element through cliffs and rappelling.
During the second phase, the students go into the patrolling phase. This includes a field training exercise and training on technical tasks such as demolition and urban breaching. The second phase gives students the chance to apply what they've learned during the first 14 days of the course, Wittmeyer said.
To accommodate the increased workload, the Sapper course will receive five additional instructors, for a total of 24, Wittmeyer said. The detachment also reorganized the way the course is taught, he said.
In the past, the instructors were split into two groups; one taught the first phase of the course while the other group taught the second phase.
Under the new model, the instructors will be split into four teams: mountaineering, demolitions, threat weapons, and air and water operations, Wittmeyer said.
Each team of instructors will teach their area of concentration during the first half of the course, then they will serve as graders for the second portion of the course, he said.
"Now everyone has to wear two hats," he said. "They're going to be subject matter experts in their field, but they're also going to have to be certified tactical lane walkers for the patrolling phase."
The Sapper course is designed primarily for 12B combat engineer enlisted soldiers – a military occupational specialty that earlier this year was opened to women – and engineer junior officers.
For enlisted soldiers, the course is open to sergeants through sergeants first class. Specialists can apply for a waiver to attend, Wittmeyer said. On the officer side, the course is open to first and second lieutenants. Captains can apply for a waiver, he said.
To better meet the needs of the engineer regiment, the Sapper Leader Course is also now closed to other military occupational specialties, Wittmeyer said.
"We're falling short, so right now the focus is to get those [additional skill identifier]-focused slots filled," he said. "We can't give away the slots that 12Bs need to fill."
The school could be opened to other MOSs in the future, he said. In the meantime, soldiers from the infantry or Special Forces MOSs can apply for a waiver to attend the course.
Students who graduate from the course, which has been open to female soldiers since 1999, earn the coveted Sapper tab.
They also get "more training in 28 days than they can probably get anywhere else, specifically the wide breadth of training," Wittmeyer said. "It's a rigorous course that will push them and allow them to push their limits."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.