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 decision made?

From a doctrinal perspective, embracing SOF CAT support to IIR generation entails directly addressing uncharitable interpretations of CA doctrine which inhibit SOF CA/IC interoperability. It also means addressing those audiences who worry that leaning forward on SOF CAT information gathering to support IC requirements would be equivalent to producing “collectors.”

Organization: Retaining Freedom of Maneuver—New Partners

“Reconnaissance assets must retain battlefield mobility to successfully complete their missions. If these assets are decisively engaged, reconnaissance stops, and a battle for survival begins." —U.S. Army Fundamentals of Reconnaissance[2]

The SOF CAT is essentially a reconnaissance element which conducts CAO to achieve effects within the civil component of the operational environment (OE) throughout the competition-conflict-return to competition continuum described in Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).[3] Often in the service of CAO, teams become decisively engaged with a defense partner or interagency program. These decisive engagements do more than limit a team’s freedom of maneuver; they create a battle to distinguish a team’s unique contributions.

At best, this can marginalize the SOF CAT specifically and CA in general. At worst, it jeopardizes the mission set’s long-term survival. SOF CAT partner force capacity building of partner nation defense organizations quickly muddies the waters between Special Forces (SF) and CA. Also, it lends credence to the whispered suspicion on the part of senior leaders in the SF community that CA is merely doing what SF already does. Moreover, focusing a SOF CAT’s efforts on defense partner capacity building creates a transition problem which may produce a vacuum of engagement. Invariably, the justification for maintaining a SOF presence in the partner nation becomes increasingly attenuated once SOF achieves partner capacity objectives.

Often at the team level, leaders are instructed to “Work yourselves out of a job.” Still, some senior SOF leadership equally claim that deterrence, as part of great power competition, does not have an end-state. Until the great powers in question believe the vacuum created by U.S. SOF disengagement is no longer worth filling, that job is not complete. SOF leadership should consider divesting SOF CA from partner force capacity building in those countries where the overarching concern is great power malign indirect action. These are the countries that require a persistent presence and updates to the civil common operating picture. Understanding and describing the dynamic and complex human geography is a primary task performed by SOF CATs. Unless we expect our partners to conduct operations on its domestic population while in occupied territory and then share that information with U.S. SOF, attaching a SOF CAT’s presence to defense partner forces is shortsighted.

Some may confuse CA partner force capacity building with developing a proxy element which may then serve in an underground or auxiliary function in an unconventional warfare environment. Ostensibly, SOF CA partner forces would conduct CAO through these proxy forces throughout the conflict aspect of MDO. However, given the overt nature of SOF CA forces in the competition aspect of MDO, it would seem improbable that these SOF CA partner forces would remain viable networks in the auxiliary or underground. The adversaries conducting indirect action would likely have identified members of the partner force and developed appropriate courses of action to neutralize these partner forces and their networks upon occupation.

SOF CA support to building resilience and resistance capacity through a defense partner neglects the population-centric efforts required to support a partner country’s “total defense,” a whole-of-government resistance framework.[4] For total defense to be viable, the country must build resilience and resistance capacity in the “whole of society.”[5] CA should partner with governance and CSOs to enhance total defense efficacy. In some countries, Civil Defense Organizations (or Civil Protection Administration in other countries), whether they be volunteer-based or fully funded and staffed organizations, sometimes fall under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. These atypical defense organizations are often linked to local government, emergency response elements, law enforcement, hospitals, and evacuation centers. Additionally, these organizations often educate succeeding generations through school engagements on measures individuals can take to protect themselves in emergencies. If SOF CA must have a defense partner in a specific country to maintain freedom of maneuver, then it should consider civil defense/civil protection organizations as they are a better fit for CA capabilities. These organizations provide the most reach throughout a country and allow for the multi-layered engagement with civil society and increase team awareness of civil vulnerabilities and existing threats to civil society.

The civil vulnerabilities exploited by the tentacles of malign influence extend beyond a partner or allied nation’s Ministry of Defense. Hybrid warfare presupposes that bad actors provide support to ethnically and historically aligned populations, CSOs, and government leaders vulnerable to or outright accepting of foreign influence. Civil vulnerabilities are, at best, only tenuously addressable through theater security cooperation in the form of defense partner capacity building. Furthermore, from the MDO perspective of anti-access and area denial,[6] civil vulnerabilities contribute to key population and associated geographic area denial for U.S. forces. Increasing direct SOF CAT engagement with historically disenfranchised populations, CSOs, and local governments during the competition aspect of MDO can degrade and disintegrate our adversary’s ability to leverage civil vulnerabilities as a component of its anti-access and area denial system. The two primary SOF CAT tactical tasks of civil reconnaissance (CR) and civil engagement (CE) however, are designed to identify and address malign influence and civil vulnerabilities.