Beyond Tacit Approval: Embracing Special Operations Civil Affairs Support to Intelligence

Updated: May 1, 2020

By Benjamin Ordiway

Originally posted in the Small Wars Journal

This article is from the viewpoint of a Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs Team Commander tasked to support Special Operations Command-Europe lines of effort and U.S. embassy mission goals. Though informed by experiences drawn from multiple episodic engagements and a Civil-Military Support Element (CMSE) rotation, its themes may apply broadly to Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs (SOF CA). The views expressed are mine and do not reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


The Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs Team (SOF CAT) identifies, analyzes, and mitigates civil vulnerabilities and threats to civil society, and conducts human network analysis during the conduct of civil affairs operations (CAO). The SOF CAT improves understanding of the operational environment’s (OE) civil component while helping shape it in support of Department of Defense (DoD) and broader U.S. Government interagency objectives. Despite these contributions, the SOF CAT frequently struggles in translating these often-intangible effects to the wider Special Operations Forces community. The Intelligence Information Report (IIR) is a respected metric used by the United States Intelligence Community (IC) to convey intelligence information to multiple customers within the U.S. Government as well as to foreign governments. SOF CATs, through passive, overt, incidental information gathering, can support IIR generation. SOF Civil Affairs (SOF CA) support to IIR generation is inconsistent at the tactical and operational level, much less institutionalized throughout the SOF community and the IC. This paper addresses some of the organizational, leadership, and doctrinal obstacles which contribute to the inefficient application of the SOF CAT’s capabilities. It recommends addressing these obstacles through better employment of SOF CA and improved collaboration between SOF CA and the IC throughout the deployment cycle.

Background: The Post-Deployment Brief

When Special Forces (SF) train foreign partners, I can know how many bullets exited a rifle and how many foreign partners eventually qualified on the weapons range. I’m just not sure I can see what your Civil Affairs Teams accomplished during their deployment. What can you show me? This unfortunate line of inquiry is a representative sample of a recent post-deployment brief to Special Operations senior leadership and is illustrative of the existential need for SOF CA to perpetually “sell itself” in the service of maintaining relevancy. Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs Teams (SOF CATs) operate in multivariable environments to achieve effects in the human domain. Compounding this complexity is a lack of actionable lines of operation tailored to the countries where leaders deploy SOF CATs—teams are still sent to “go do CA” as if it were a verb. Just because SOF CA can operate with minimal guidance does not mean it should be the norm.

Nearly as ambiguous, SOF leaders “empower” teams with the broad mandate to identify, attribute, deter, and counter a nation’s malign indirect action. In the face of such ambiguity, SOF CATs continue to create operational effects in support of Special Operations lines of effort and interagency goals. These effects—projecting U.S. influence in information-contested regions, improving understanding of the human geography, or informing interagency partners of developments at the local level—do not readily lend themselves to quantitative metrics. Difficulty in measuring CA effects, when combined with a lack of provided metrics and end state, leads to the growth of skepticism or downright cynicism for all parties involved. A clear and respected metric is available to SOF CA, though it is one that CA does not exploit due to uncertainty of wider SOF receptiveness—the intelligence information report (IIR).

A Measuring Contest

The IIR is a “formatted message utilized as the primary vehicle for providing human intelligence information to the customer via automated intelligence community databases,”[1] Because of the persistent drumbeat that SOF CA “doesn’t do intelligence,” teams are unsure if they should intentionally support IIR generation, much less highlight any occasional successes in doing so through post-mission reporting. Embracing SOF CAT support to IIR generation means giving more than a tacit nod. Embracing means removing self-imposed obstacles, institutionalizing CA’s relationship with the United States Intelligence Community (IC), and educating the wider SOF enterprise on SOF CA’s capabilities in supporting the IC. This paper attempts to address some organizational, leadership, and doctrinal obstacles preventing SOF CATs from deliberately and openly supporting IIR generation before, during, and after CAO.

From an organizational perspective, SOF leadership should consider engaging embassies to rethink team employment so teams can best identify, assess, and potentially leverage critical physical and human infrastructure within the civil component to achieve operational and strategic effects. This may mean reducing the use of standard defense partner capacity building and interagency programs as the primary enabler of a SOF CAT’s access to areas and populations. Relying primarily on defense partner forces and interagency programs impedes team effectiveness by reducing engagement with civil society. SOF leadership should encourage and resource SOF CA partnerships with governance partners and civil society organizations (CSOs). SOF leadership, in collaboration with the IC, should leverage the SOF CAT’s strength—freedom of maneuver—to increase overt and passive information gathering to address IC requirements.

From a leadership perspective, senior SOF commanders should embrace SOF CAT support to IIR generation as a measure of performance (MOP). This MOP could support an operational and strategic-level measure of effectiveness (MOE) through feedback regarding IIR status. For example, did an analyst evaluate it? Did it lead to a finished product? Was it briefed to a decision-maker? Was a d