Civil Affairs Support to Decisive Action: Challenges and Opportunities

Updated: Feb 9, 2020


U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) is the primary force trained and educated to shape the civil component of the operational environment. CA forces work through, by, and with host nation institutions, governmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations to engage the civil dimension of the battlefield.[i] They interact with the civil populace to develop the common operating picture (COP) while leveraging Unified Action Partners (UAPs) to accomplish the mission. [ii],[iii] Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) incorporate a whole of government approach to achieve U.S. strategic, operational, and tactical objectives.[iv],[v] Through defense, diplomacy, and development (3D) lines of effort integration, CA forces facilitate support to conventional and special operations, enabling commanders to influence the civil environment.[vi] This was Charlie Company, 84th Civil Affairs Battalion’s (C/84th) goal in July 2015 when it supported 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California.

NTC prepares Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) for combat through tough, realistic Unified Land Operations (ULO) encompassing the complexities of modern warfare.[vii] At NTC BCTs carry out Decisive Action operations consisting of offense, defense, and stability operations against a hybrid threat that includes near-peer military forces, insurgent groups, and criminal organizations. Soldiers must work within a complex environment consisting of multiple host nation, interagency, and intergovernmental actors that each have their own interests, capabilities, and requirements. To support 3-2 SBCT in this operational environment (OE), C/84th tailored a CA support package that consisted of a Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) and three Civil Affairs Teams (CATs). Throughout NTC rotation 15-08.5, C/84th partnered with 3-2 SBCT across the full spectrum of DA operations to achieve success within the 3D framework, enabling US forces and UAPs to successfully coordinate and cooperate throughout the 3-2 SBCT area of operations (AO).

To achieve this, C/84th began training and integrating with 3-2 SBCT months before the rotation. As is common when forming new teams, we went through the gamut of the development process. However, by training alongside the soldiers and leaders of 3-2 SBCT, from the brigade down to the fire team level, we formed an effective team that was able to overcome numerous challenges and achieve mission success. By establishing a common vision of success, developing supporting processes, and learning what everyone brought to the fight, our organizations achieved a high level of integration that facilitated mutual trust, credibility, and strong relationships. This resulted in our ability to influence the brigade's planning and staffing operations. Significantly, it gave us freedom to develop CAO lines of effort nested within the 3-2 SBCT mission and commander’s intent.

Integration Challenges

While C/84th successfully integrated with 3-2 SBCT leading into NTC, barriers existed at the beginning. Those barriers stemmed from misunderstandings and misconceptions about the role of CA. Supported units often had wrong assumptions about CAO and how it supports the big picture. Most 3-2 SBCT soldiers we encountered were unfamiliar with CA, while those who had worked with CA forces in the past brought up familiar stereotypes. Upon introducing ourselves, common refrains were "You have the money" and "You guys like to dig wells everywhere." So it was critical for us to dispel these notions and ensure supported units understood how we could facilitate mission accomplishment. Failure to incorporate CAO into the brigade’s lines of effort would have cut out a critical aspect of planning and coordination, especially in relation to Phase IV. This in turn would have hampered 3-2 SBCT’s ability to establish a stable civil environment, enable HN authorities, and create the conditions to transition responsibilities back to the HN.[viii] Against this backdrop, CATs often integrated into new units across the AO, challenging the ability to synchronize CAO both horizontally and vertically. However, these challenges proved to be excellent opportunities to show CA's ability to facilitate mission accomplishment. By the end of the rotation, we were the lead organization for planning, coordinating, and conducting civil-military operations throughout the entire 3-2 SBCT AO.

Before getting to this point, we prepared ourselves internally to support 3-2 SBCT. Even before our initial link-up, we began identifying tasks for supporting a conventional BCT during ULO. A review of previous NTC rotations provided us with model for how we wanted to shape our role, and a look at 3-2 SBCT’s training plan provided opportunities to inject ourselves into it. We also made it a point to remain flexible and open to new opportunities to work with 3-2 SBCT leading up to NTC. For these reasons, our efforts at integration proved successful. Our experience demonstrates how effective CA professionals can become part of the supported unit. It provides both a model for integration and a starting point for CA forces tasked to support BCTs in the future. Our experiences do not provide a comprehensive checklist for success, although they do highlight the ways C/84th achieved success while supporting 3-2 SBCT.

The C/84th Integration Model

Before C/84th was tasked to support 3-2 SBCT during its July 2015 NTC rotation, the company had already gone through numerous validation exercises (VALEX) as part of the company’s training plan. These events were conducted in conjunction with a variety of units from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA (JBLM). In November 2014, the company conducted Operation Gryphon Longsword (GLS). This exercise enabled the company to certify teams on METL tasks while giving them experience working with maneuver platoons in an environment similar to what we would face at NTC.

Following GLS, the company had another opportunity to execute METL focused training in support of external units on JBLM. This resulted from one team’s drive to find opportunities to train on METL task ART 5.4.8, Plan Civil Affairs Operations and Civil Military Operations. This came to fruition through the JBLM Mission Command Training Center, where 1-23 Infantry Battalion, part of 3-2 SBCT, was scheduled to conduct training on the Military Decision Making Process. The team got buy-in from the battalion’s operations officer, and this enabled the team to integrate into 1-23 IN BN’s staff. In addition to fulfilling a C/84th training objective, this helped lay the groundwork for future cooperation with 1-23 IN BN during subsequent training events.

After receiving the NTC support tasking, C CO conducted mission planning designed around DA mission requirements. This plan aimed to develop teams capable of supporting commanders while operating in complex environments and required balancing CAO focused training events with the need to ensure tactical proficiency and survivability. CATs prepared by conducting area studies, planning CAO with brigade and battalion staffs, and executing tactical missions in support of infantry companies. This diverse training exposed teams to an array of mission requirements and ensured understanding between 3-2 SBCT and ourselves. This enabled CATs to establish relationships within the brigade that facilitated cooperation. By the time C CO boarded the plane for Fort Irwin, we had developed flexible, adaptable CATs ready to support 3-2 SBCT in any circumstance.

We did not achieve this overnight, though. Hard work and a solid team effort helped the company achieve this high level of integration. C CO’s first tactical integration with 3-2 SBCT began months before NTC at the Yakima Training Center (YTC). Set against the backdrop of eastern Washington’s desert, 3-2 SBCT's final pre-NTC field training event to certify maneuver companies was a critical time to get teams into the units they would support during the rotation. CATs went to YTC to support infantry companies during situational training exercises (STX) and work their way into the battle rhythms and standard operating procedures of the battalions. Since the STX were the first opportunity for CATs to work with maneuver companies, teams went in the training with two objectives. First, CATs aimed to develop personal relationships and connect to their supported units. Teams worked with company leadership to figure out how to integrate CAO into their operations while supporting the battalion staff with civil inputs to the COP. CATs also embraced unexpected opportunities to get to know the soldiers and leaders of their supported battalions. For example, the CAT 8431 Team Sergeant mentored a junior infantry fire team leader by instructing him on crew-served weapons employment, while the team’s medic gave the battalion TOC’s operations section a crash course on CPOF. Both scenarios came about because the team took advantage of opportunities as they emerged. These opportunities also led into the second goal: ensuring supported units understood how to integrate CA’s mission and capabilities into their operations. On numerous occasions, CATs had the opportunity to brief their capabilities to the commanders, staff, and soldiers of the units they supported. While redundant, this created a clearer picture of the CAT's function across supported units. They were also good opportunities to hone the team’s communication skills. These interactions created trust—trust that evolved into relationships that carried through NTC. YTC laid the foundation for future interactions with 3-2 SBCT and helped set the company up for success going forward.

Following YTC, C CO’s priority was to prepare for the next major 3-2 SBCT training event. This was the Leadership Training Program (LTP) conducted at Fort Irwin, CA. LTP was the most critical integration point prior to NTC. The base plan for how 3-2 SBCT would approach the challenges it would face at NTC was created during that time. We produced the foundations of CAO plans that we later executed during the rotation. Key to these plans was a thorough understanding of the operational environment. We gained this by conducting a deep dive of the OE. To effectively plan and conduct CAO, CA soldiers must first have a comprehensive understanding of the environment they will be working in. Key to this is knowledge of the complex, interrelated variables that make up the system that is the OE. To engage the civil domain, CA forces must not only understand the what; they must understand the how, and most importantly the why. In our case, the OE was the NTC training scenario, known as the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). The DATE framework provides a comprehensive view of the OE, detailing US interests and the reasons for involvement in the fictional conflict. So we began a deep dive into the 800 plus pages of information that make up the DATE scenario. To make this task more manageable, CATs divided it into sections, focusing on and analyzing their respective pieces. Key to success at this point was sharing this knowledge with the entire company. This ensured a common understanding of the OE that was the foundation of all our subsequent planning. Additionally, our research enabled us to create a snapshot of the civil environment for 3-2 SBCT. Our assessments, combined with assessments from other warfighting functions—especially intelligence—helped facilitate the brigade commander’s understanding of the OE and influence his decision making process. This level of analysis was essential for future CAO planning.[ix] The information we gained created shared knowledge and established C/84th as the subject matter expert of the civil environment. Subsequently, we were sought out for information on the OE.

In addition to demonstrating our ability to contribute to a shared understanding of the operational environment, other events during LTP helped solidify our relevance during the fight. During a simulated exercise, damage to civil infrastructure caused civilian casualties. This resulted in an investigation diverting resources from the unit's mission and throwing off their operational tempo by creating real constraints on its targeting cycle. It also highlighted the need to bring staff sections together to build a more complete picture of the OE, stressing the need to incorporate all available resources to prevent these mistakes. The event was a catalyst for closer cooperation between the unit's fires and intelligence sections and the supporting CAT. Despite all the counterinsurgency (COIN) experience of the unit’s leaders, the mindset at that point was heavily focused combined arms maneuver (CAM). This event highlighted the importance of remembering many of the lessons learned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This event emphasized the importance of a common understanding the OE and the measures taken to mitigate the effe