As the designer of military bridges used in the Iraq war, Tom Foulkes took pride in last month's victory. But will the head of the Institution of Civil Engineers win an internal battle for change?
Like most of us, Tom Foulkes spent much of April glued to the television watching the war in Iraq. Unlike most of us, the director-general of the Institution of Civil Engineers felt a great sense of personal achievement while doing so: during a distinguished former career with the Royal Engineers, he designed some of the military equipment that the British army used to oust Saddam.

"It was very exciting for me to turn on the television in the morning and see the latest news from Iraq," he says. "The military bridges I developed are in the background. People take them for granted, but it took almost 20 years to get them to work first time, every time."

Brigadier Foulkes stepped into civilian life last year when he ended a 31-year military career to take on the top role at the ICE. Moustache notwithstanding, he's not a stereotypical retired brigadier – for a start, he has an MBA from the Open University, the result of part-time study while he was still in uniform. The ICE hired him, he says, "to do a bit of strategic thinking": to assess which of the ICE's activities are most important, and figure out how to do them better. He deployed his military efficiency to lead an internal review entitled Project Bailey – named after ICE member Sir Donald Bailey, designer of the bridges used in the D-Day landings – which he presented to the ICE council last month.

Foulkes believes that engineers, like soldiers, act in a tradition of public service. "Civil engineering is tremendously altruistic," he says. "By their very nature, civil engineers are involved in work that transforms society."

He cites the example of his hero, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built London's drains in the 19th century. "That transformed public health more than the medical profession has ever done. Bazalgette built them well – you don't think about it, but whenever you flush the toilet the water goes away – it's still working. The same sort of thing is transforming health in the developing world today."

Foulkes' achievements in the field of military engineering are substantial. He is most proud of the two bridges he designed: the BR90 and the M3. The former is a heavy-duty bridge made of aluminium alloys, which can bear the weight of modern tanks three times heavier than their Second World War counterparts.

I’m not the president of the US here. But I do have a role in helping the ICE work out what it wants, and applying a test of do-ability

But it's a model of the amphibious M3 bridge-creating vehicle that takes pride of place on his office mantelpiece. It's the kind of thing Q might design for James Bond: a motorised vehicle with "fantastic cross-country mobility". Once in the water, 360 water jets allow it to move in any direction. "One of them can ferry a tank across a river, or a series of them can line up and create a bridge across the Rhine in 20 minutes." Designed during the Cold War for use against the Soviets in Germany, it was recently used to cross the Tigris and Euphrates.

Personal effects

What football team do you support? Newcastle United – my grandfather played for them a few times when he was stationed in Newcastle with the Royal Engineers. I’ve also been president of the Royal Engineers Football Club, which won the FA Cup in 1875. Who’s in your family? My wife, Sally, and two daughters – one is reading international business with French at Bath, the other is about to do her GCSEs. Where do you go on holiday? My wife is a classicist, and last year we decided that each year we’d go to a different part of what was the Roman Empire. Last year it was Hadrian’s Wall; this year, we’re thinking of north Africa. What’s your favourite rock group? Johnny Kidd and the Pirates – well, it was once upon a time …