Updated: Feb 9, 2020

Within the civil affairs community, pundits invariably propose the same two solutions to every problem with the Army Reserve civil affairs force: move Army Reserve civil affairs back to US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), and send Army Reserve civil affairs officers and NCOs through the active component qualification pipeline. The pundits, however, have a shortsighted perspective.

I spent nearly three years as the commanding general of US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC) and thus as the senior civil affairs officer in the Army. I have a pretty good understanding of the problems confronting the civil affairs community. And, honestly, the rote recitation of the same two tropes has grown tiresome and counterproductive. Neither of these two “solutions” will fix the Army Reserve civil affairs force or unite the civil affairs regiment, which many (mostly active component) civil affairs soldiers believe is split along the active-Reserve fault line. As Army courses of action go, they fail the fundamental tests: they are not feasible, suitable, or acceptable.

David Harrell’s recent article, “The Army Reserve’s Troubling Little Secret: Cheap, Inadequate Training,” again advocates requiring Army Reserve civil affairs officers to attend all phases of the nearly yearlong active component qualification track. But, as is typical of those who propose these “solutions,” Harrell fails to grasp some very fundamental issues that have bedeviled the civil affairs force for years. And he also fails to acknowledge some basic facts about how the Army runs.

Some history is in order to set the stage. Harrell asserts that the Army is relying on Army Reserve civil affairs forces like never before. Until the activation of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade a little more than ten years ago, however, the Army had only one active component civil affairs battalion. The civil affairs force was almost wholly in the Army Reserve. And the civil affairs branch, until 2007, was a branch open only to Army Reserve officers, a reflection of the branch’s origins during World War II, when it was populated with officers commissioned directly from civil life to take advantage of their civilian skills.

So, Harrell’s assertion that the active component is relying more on Army Reserve civil affairs forces than ever before is not true. In fact, given the growth of the active component civil affairs force, the converse is true. Still, he is correct in stating that the operational tempo for Army Reserve civil affairs is extraordinary; the nation has been at war for sixteen years. And that operational tempo indeed has highlighted problems that have long existed in the Reserve force.

Those problems, however, have little to do with civil affairs institutional training requirements. No Army Reserve civil affairs unit has failed because its officers were not airborne qualified, did not speak a foreign language, or did not attend a regional studies program. And let’s be clear: Army Reserve civil affairs officers do attend the same civil affairs qualification course as active component officers; they just complete many of the tasks under different conditions (distance learning).

Let’s start with two fundamental facts, which Harrell apparently misses. First, the Army Reserve civil affairs force is a conventional, not a special operations, force. This fact cannot be wished away, much as some would like it to be. USACAPOC’s thirty-two civil affairs battalions and the one additional Army Reserve battalion assigned to US Army Europe are organized and trained to support the conventional force—brigade combat teams. Those thirty-three Army Reserve civil affairs battalions exist not because some Army Reserve general officer thought they would be nice to have, but because the Army’s doctrine-based process that links strategy to force structure, Total Army Analysis, determined that was the right number.

Thus, contrary to Harrell’s implication, Army Reserve—i.e., conventional—civil affairs forces do not support special operations forces (SOF); that is not their mission. Army Reserve civil affairs units may serve “alongside” SOF, as Harrell claims—but so do any number of other conventional units.

Second, the great majority of the conventional civil affairs force is in the Army Reserve. This fact means that, for almost all civil affairs support other than to SOF, the mission falls to the Army Reserve. USASOC does not want this mission, and the Army made a deliberate decision to accept the risk of structuring the civil affairs force this way (whether that decision was wise is much worthier of debate than the topic of institutional training requirements for Army Reserve civil affairs soldiers).

The Army solves systemic problems using the DOTMLPF construct: doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities. Not every civil affairs problem is an institutional training problem; in fact, virtually none are. Using as an example the problem that Harrell evidently perceived during his deployment in the Horn of Africa, if conventional civil affairs forces are deployed to conduct SOF missions, then perhaps the issue is one of organization: maybe the Army needs more SOF civil affairs forces. Or perhaps it is one of doctrine: maybe the conventional civil affairs force should not have the mission to support brigade combat teams (because that doctrinal mission drives their organization and training). Or it might have been a personnel problem—maybe soldiers were cross-leveled into hastily assembled units.