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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 effects of military operations on the civil environment, with the goal of setting conditions for transition operations.

Events like these demonstrated how CA helps commanders make informed decisions by creating a thorough understanding of the civil environment. This support also gained the attention of 3-2 SBCT’s operations officer, who asked us to lead the brigade staff through an analysis of the OE. This helped us achieve credibility while helping recognize the complexities of the civil environment. Participating in LTP enabled us to incorporate CAO considerations into 3-2 SBCT's mission and become key components of their operational planning. This paid off immediately after LTP as we participated in 3-2 SBCT's final pre-NTC Command Post Exercise. We augmented their staffs with planners to serve as the S-9—or civil military staff section—to conduct MDMP. Participation in these events made C/84th a familiar sight within 3-2 SBCT and enabled our soldiers to develop relationships with their counterparts. This was a significant accomplishment. Prior to these events 3-2 SBCT had very little interaction with CA forces and lacked an S-9. Despite this ad hoc arrangement, we arrived at NTC as an integral part of the team.


Upon arriving at Fort Irwin, we found ourselves under severe time constraints due to the short reception, staging, and onward integration (RSOI) timeline. Fortunately, the work done leading into the rotation enabled the company to hit the ground running. This especially helped the CATs attached to maneuver battalions as they juggled conducting internal preparations and planning with their supported units. These CATs were able to take the foundations of the existing CAO plan and build upon it to support their assigned battalion's operations. Besides saving valuable time, this helped synchronize CAO throughout the entire AO. It also created new opportunities to integrate into battalion operations as CATs helped shape planning, targeting, and engagement activities.

Besides CAO planning, C/84th established the Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) for 3-2 SBCT. The CMOC was the focal point for interagency coordination and working with the host nation. During the early days of RSOI, when much of 3-2 SBCT’s focus was still on equipment preparation and readiness, the CMOC was already conducting coordination and synchronization on behalf of the brigade. These early operations were essential to the unit’s later success, because they helped align our efforts with the HN and the numerous UAPs within the OE. The CMOC took on the role of primary coordination point between the 3-2 SBCT leadership and entities external to the brigade. In addition to HN officials, these entities included the US Country Team, US Agency for International Development (USAID), and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). We ensured that issues of importance to the HN, US Embassy, and other key players were incorporated into the brigade’s operations and acted as an information conduit from the military back to these UAPs. This role enabled us to shape civil lines of effort while also ensuring messaging continuity throughout the brigade’s engagements. As RSOI wound down, C/84th’s operations became more decentralized. When 3-2 SBCT deployed to ‘the box’ for the force-on-force portion of the rotation and CATs were sent to support maneuver battalions, the CMOC was able to take the operations it was planning and hand them off to the teams for refinement and execution.

This handoff occurred as CATs were deploying into ‘the box’ to provide support at the battalion and below. As force-on-force operations began, teams transitioned back and forth between planning CAO and executing it. This required the whole company to be flexible as changing mission requirements necessitated shifts in focus throughout the rotation. On several occasions, missions planned by one CAT had to be handed off to another for execution. This was a mission command challenge of the first rate. Limited communication between the CMOC and teams required decentralized, and once again, the common understanding developed going into NTC enabled the company to seamlessly transfer operations from one element to another. Throughout the rotation CATs remained flexible while facilitating planning, decision-making, and tactical operations alongside the soldiers of 3-2 SBCT. They adapted to changing situations on the ground while finding creative ways to influence the civil environment. Above all, CATs found ways to facilitate 3-2 SBCT's mission.

While C/84th conducted numerous missions daily, ranging from assessments and key leader engagements (KLEs) to collateral damage mitigation and support to kinetic operations, a few operations stand out due to the centrality of our involvement from beginning to end. These operations required detailed coordination between 3-2 SBCT and external actors, and our efforts were a core element. The first of these is the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) that took place almost immediately after deploying into the AO. This operation required the brigade to work with the US Country Team, since the Department of State (DoS) is the lead agency for NEO. But coordination with the HN was also essential to its success. Throughout RSOI the US Embassy had sent situational updates indicating the growing likelihood of a NEO. Due to our role as the principal coordination cell, the Deputy Chief of Mission had been in daily contact with the CMOC. A Team Leader (TL) was assigned as the lead planner, and when 1-23 IN BN was designated to execute this mission, the TL augmented the battalion’s staff to plan the mission. This TL also served as the coordination point between the Country Team and the brigade, ensuring unity of effort between the military and DoS. When the mission kicked off, the supporting CAT accompanied 1-23 IN BN and was the main effort for processing noncombatants and ensuring accountability. The NEO was a successful operation, facilitated in great part by C/84th.

The second operation that C/84th played a major role in was the movement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the AO. Like the NEO, the IDP operation required significant amounts of coordination within 3-2 SBCT and with outside actors, especially USAID, UNOCHA, and the HN. Early on during planning, going back to LTP, we identified IDPs as a major concern requiring significant HN and UNOCHA participation. During RSOI we acted on this by incorporating key UAP leaders into 3-2 SBCT’s planning process. This helped to prevent one of the major problems that often occurs during military operations: the tendency for the military to take over. A BCT has a vast amount of resources and capabilities to throw at problems; however, just because it can tackle a problem itself does not mean that it should. By bringing in the HN early, we ensured that 3-2 SBCT’s IDP concept supported the HN’s existing plan. By including USAID and UNOCHA at the beginning, we leveraged resources and subject matter experts in displaced civilian support operations. This ensured as few military assets as possible were tied down supporting the IDP plan and were free to focus on the larger problem at hand—invading enemy military forces. Similar to the NEO, C/84th designated a TL as the lead planner for IDP operations. This TL hammered out the basic concept with UAPs, and when it came time to execute this mission, the brigade took this plan and accomplished it flawlessly. Once again, C/84th played a decisive part in the planning, coordination, and execution of major operations requiring the participation of a variety of military and civilian organizations.

The final major operation that C/84th facilitated was the HN’s reunification ceremony, which signified the government’s return to the province. Like the NEO and IDP operations, the reunification ceremony required extensive coordination with numerous UAPs, including HN government officials, Country Team personnel, and humanitarian organizations. The purpose of the event was twofold: first, US forces cleared the city to ensure the HN could return and exercise control; second, it provided a major messaging opportunity for the HN to demonstrate progress toward returning to normalcy within the province. To achieve this effect, CATs worked parallel to the CMOC with coordination and planning. At the lowest levels, the CAT worked with local HN leaders while advising the US maneuver battalion tasked with securing the city. At higher echelons, the CMOC worked with 3-2 SBCT’s planners, Country Team representatives, and HN government officials to ensure synchronization from the top. The relationships developed during this operation and the others mentioned above, helped set the conditions for even closer cooperation as the brigade began transitioning to Phase IV operations.

As major combat operations ceased toward the end of the rotation, the focus of 3-2 SBCT shifted from CAM to Wide Area Security (WAS). While WAS operations were ongoing throughout the rotation, the major conventional military threat ensured the bulk of 3-2 SBCT’s focus was on defeating enemy military forces. As this threat dissipated, the brigade’s mission focus was stability tasks, especially Establish Civil Security. C/84th was central to this phase of operations. A major aspect of this plan was security force assistance.[x] The brigade initiated a plan to build HN security forces’ capacity with the end state being the transition of these responsibilities to local stakeholders. The relationships we developed throughout NTC enabled us to facilitate cooperation between 3-2 SBCT and HN officials. The ability to bring together the relevant parties accelerated the process and put the brigade on a path toward success. However, at this point there was a change of mission. The force-on-force portion ended, and the brigade conducted live fire training. This was effectively the end of C/84th’s support to 3-2 SBCT. We broke off for separate STX lanes and then conducted consolidation and reorganization in preparation to redeploy back to home station.


C CO's integration with 3-2 SBCT was a continuous process spanning months of training that culminated at NTC. From staff planning exercises to tactical operations, success stemmed from continuous engagement with the soldiers and leaders of the brigade, as we identified how best to facilitate its operations along the way. By developing the civil COP, we helped commanders understand and visualize the AO. By integrating CAO into the maneuver plan, we helped minimize the civil environment's interference on the brigade. By working next to the soldiers on the ground, we helped engage the civil domain at the lowest levels while synchronizing CAO from the bottom up. In sum, these efforts established our credibility, gained the trust of 3-2 SBCT's leadership, and minimized the civil environment’s negative effects on the brigade.

Despite this being a simulated environment, our support to 3-2 SBCT during NTC demonstrated the advantages of integrating CA into conventional operations during all phases of a conflict. It also highlighted the importance of continuous engagement with these organizations. The benefits of continuing to collaborate with BCTs will have an enormous payoff for the CA Regiment in the future as more units see the benefits of incorporating CA forces into their organizations. By facilitating a brigade’s mission accomplishment, C/84th extended its influence well beyond a single NTC rotation. For the NCOs and officers of 3-2 SBCT, the positive experiences working with CA forces during NTC rotation 15-08.5 will continue to shape their perceptions of the CA Regiment as they become senior Army leaders in the future. Training center rotations in support of conventional forces are not the most appealing missions; however, they remain a prime opportunity to demonstrate the significant contributions CA forces can make during ULO.

Through these shared experiences, all involved saw firsthand the benefits of partnering CA and conventional forces. Unfortunately, this lesson may be forgotten in the near future. The current Civil Affairs force structure limits the extent of possible integration with BCTs. As the only active duty CA brigade tasked to support conventional forces is reduced to a single battalion over the next 24 months, barriers to integration will only multiply. Indeed, the lack of persistent engagement between CA and conventional forces means that the progress made while working with 3-2 SBCT will likely be reversed. This force restructuring should not mean these opportunities are missed. For better or worse, the future of CA will be decided by Army leaders whose only exposure to Civil Affairs may have been an NTC rotation.


[i] U.S. Army, Civil Affairs Operations, FM 3-57 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, April 2014), 1-1.

[ii] Department of Defense, Civil-Military Operations, JP 3-57 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, September 2013), I-11.

[iii] UAPs are Other Government Agencies, Host Nation HN elements, Non-governmental Organizations, Inter-governmental Organizations, and Indigenous Personnel and Institutions. U.S. Army, Unified Land Operations, ADRP 3-0 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, May 2012), 1-3.

[iv] Civil Affairs Operations, 3-18.

[v] The White House, “The 2015 National Security Strategy,” (accessed January 4, 2016), 4.

[vi] Civil-Military Operations, IV-2.

[vii] The National Training Center, “NTC Mission,”

[viii] Department of Defense, Joint Operations, JP 3-0 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, August 2011), V-5-V-9.

[ix] Civil-Military Operations, I-2.

[x] U.S. Army, Stability, FM 3-07 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, June 2014), 1-1.

Captain Nicholas Ashley is assigned to the 84th Civil Affairs Battalion, where he has served as a Team Leader since graduating the CA Qualification Course in 2013. His team has participated in a variety of exercises in support of conventional Army units, including NTC 15-08.5, Key Resolve 2015, and Warfighter 16-03. Prior to joining CA, CPT Ashley was a logistics officer in 1st BCT, 82nd Airborne Division. He holds a BA in History and Political Science from Arkansas Tech University and is currently preparing to begin Advanced Civil Schooling in the upcoming spring semester. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or the Civil Affairs Association.

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