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‘Building a Bridge: Cultivating an Irregular Warfare Mindset in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion’

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

By MAJ Mike Karlson, MAJ Ian Duke, and MAJ Kyle May

The Space Between GPC and LSCO

The entirety of the Department of Defense (DoD) is wrestling with how best to array, train, and employ its forces to deter threats during Great Power Competition (GPC) and set conditions to fight and win during Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). The space that exists between competition and all-out war is IW, a “…struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy”.[i] The recently released Irregular Warfare (IW) annex to the National Defense Strategy (NDS) directs the Department of Defense (DoD) to “…make permanent the mindset and capabilities necessary to succeed in its current irregular warfare mission”.[ii] It also highlights the need to “…institutionalize irregular warfare as a core competency for both conventional and special operations forces”.[iii] What role can Civil Affairs (CA) play in bridging planning gaps and seams between conventional and special operations forces (SOF) in an IW environment?

Bridging the SOF-Conventional Gap

The 83d CA BN supports United States Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). It is comprised of Civil Affairs (CA) operators trained in the special operations CA Pathway, many with years of operational experience in SOF in previous assignments. This unique organization is aligned underneath XVIII Airborne Corps, and trains with and supports Army conventional forces through multiple efforts (Combat Training Center rotations, Command Post Exercises, and Immediate Response Force preparedness to name a few). The 83d CA BN is therefore ideally postured to take organic SOF training and experiences and bridge those lessons learned and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) to the conventional force. A critical component of that continual transfer of knowledge is training in IW core competencies. What kind of training is apt for accomplishing this? Fox Company, 83d Civil Affairs Battalion (F/83d CA BN) recently partnered with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (C/3/1 SWTG (A)) to get after this very question.

Becoming "Them"

The culmination exercise for the Civil Affairs Pathway is OPERATION SLUSS-TILLER (OST). F/83d CA BN worked with C/3/1 SWTG (A) to develop and execute an “adversary civil affairs” threat addition to the overall training scenario. A F/83d CMOC (-) and CAT were the units of action for this threat organization, conducting Civil Engagement (CE), Civil Reconnaissance (CR) to assess and shape population groups to set conditions for the enemy’s conventional maneuver force and government-in-exile. The F/83d elements were in direct competition with several U.S. CA teams comprised of CA Pathway students throughout the exercise. The disparity in numbers between adversary and U.S. CA forces tested Civil Network Development and Engagement (CNDE) as a core competency. The F/83d CAT did not have the time or resources to engage with all the key players as the U.S. teams did, therefore they relied on effective targeting and Information Operations (IO) to enhance effects and mitigate U.S. gains.

The OST exercise addresses a training gap for the 83d CA BN. OPERATION ROCKFISH was the 83d CA BN’s previous certification exercise, a BN-wide event which involved working with North Carolina counties to analyze their real-world challenges. This training was outstanding CE and CR training; however, it was missing the threat and "competition for governance" aspects that 83d CA BN teams encounter on real-world missions. The OST training environment provides high-quality CE and CR training opportunities, and the presence of U.S. student CA teams provides a capable adversary for 83d CA BN CATs to compete with. Continued partnership between the 83d CA BN and 3/1 SWTG (A) is symbiotic as it also provides enhanced realism for CA students during OST.

Competition for Governance

The requirement laid out in the aforementioned IW Annex to the NDS to compete in the domain of governance is not new by any means; however, US SOF’s capacity to compete within said domain has arguably atrophied through the years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Also, according to some, the U.S. military, to include SOF, should steer clear of direct competition for governance altogether.[iv] Considering the demands attendant to the direction set forth in the NDS, however, the authors agree that both Civil Affairs trainees and operational force members must understand and exercise against a robust adversary seeking to directly impact the governance landscape within the operational environment.

The purpose of the preceding allusion to the opponents of military involvement in governance and political affairs—outside of the indirect contributions made via violent action—was to inform the institutional and attitudinal barriers to achieving a robust competition for governance within an exercise environment. To briefly drill down into some exercise nuts and bolts for the uninitiated, the S-2, G-2, or other intelligence section is responsible for scripting and directing the “red side,” or enemy activity, for the exercise, and with a few exceptions, the intelligence personnel focus almost exclusively on the enemy’s weapons capabilities, order of battle, and maneuver courses of action. The pervasive idea that the military’s role is to “fight and win the nation’s wars” drives intelligence personnel to train and gain experience scripting in such a way, and it is not entirely wrong. However, the maneuver-centric approach does leave much to be desired when attempting to exercise the competition for governance within an IW framework. With that said, many fine military intelligence personnel assigned to CA and other SOF formations diligently work toward creating the “red side” governance capability in exercise scenarios, but the contrast between what prior training and experience prepares “red side” scripters to create and what operations in the IW environment demand is often stark.

Thus, the kernel of the 3/1 SWTG (A) and 83d CA BN collaboration was born. Students in the CA Pathway should see a robust, highly motivated entity seeking to directly contradict, counteract, and undermine their efforts to advance US objectives. Who better to become that entity than members of the operational force who intimately understand the methods and practices of US CA units of action? Conversely, operational force units preparing for deployment must understand and account for the adversary’s capabilities and strategies to neutralize US CA’s efforts in the operational environment. What better way to understand both the adversary’s perspective and friendly vulnerabilities than to embody the enemy against the very raw, unadulterated CA efforts of a trainee population? Initial returns from this experiment in exercising a competition for governance were highly positive. The missing pieces from years of focusing almost solely on a terrorist threat under the GWOT paradigm are steadily re-appearing and growing new flesh. However, the concept and its implementation have much room for improvement and further development to maximize the benefit of an adversary CA entity to friendly forces as well as the benefit to the “red side” participants as they develop and execute the adversarial CA strategy.


The recent training collaboration between F/83d CA BN and C/3/1 SWTG (A) could be compared to "getting rounds on paper" in a rifle qualification sense. The next steps involve "zeroing" the "weapons system" (training environment) to accommodate lessons learned and incentivize sustainable organizational efforts going forward. The overall benefits of the recent collaboration that were noted between the two organizations are as follows:

  • The 83d CA BN bridges SOF and conventional planning gaps and seams. IW training opportunities like OST prepare teams to operate in this capacity.

  • Operational CA teams acting in an adversary role during OST deepen the scenario, add realism to the competition for governance component, and challenge the students in positive ways.

  • Continued collaboration between the CA generating force and operating force will continue to yield positive returns on investment and is worth exploring going forward.

The 83d CA BN has a critical role to play in IW with its unique blend of FORSCOM alignment and SOF force composition. Cultivating the mindset required to operate in the challenging conditions outlined by the IW Annex to the NDS is an essential component of 83d CA BN team and company-level training. Participating in OST as an adversary CA threat provides outstanding training towards this end. Continued efforts to refine the OST scenario, right-sizing the 83d CA BN force package required to support, and training required prior to execution are essential to sustaining and improving this effort. This partnership also presents unique opportunities to collaborate with other organizations: Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), Special Forces (SF), Military Police (MP), Intelligence, Logistics, and Medical to name a few. These entities could provide unique analysis during the planning phase for the 83d CA BN company supporting OST. Each company in the 83d CA BN has direct liaison authority (DIRLAUTH) with a Geographic Combatant Command (GCC). Working with diverse entities in a training environment will better prepare command teams and planners to do this operationally. The potential for improvement on this event and future opportunities between 3/1 SWTG (A) and the 83d CA BN are virtually limitless going forward.

Mike Karlson is a Major in the United States Army. He is currently a Civil Military Operations Center Chief in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion. He received his commission as a Transportation Officer through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in 2008. He holds a MA in Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University, a MA in Organizational Leadership from Brandman University, and a BA in Psychology from the Virginia Military Institute. He has served in both conventional and Special Operations Civil Affairs organizations since 2014 and has operational experiences in Afghanistan and several countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Ian Duke is a Major in the United States Army and the current Commander of the SOUTHCOM oriented Fox Company, 83d Civil Affairs Battalion. He commissioned as an intelligence officer through the New Jersey National Guard Officer Candidate School. He holds an MMAS from Command and General Staff College, and a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Carleton University. He has served in Special Operations since 2011 and has operational experience in Afghanistan, and the SOUTHCOM region.

Kyle May is a Major in the United States Army and the current Commander of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne), charged with carrying out the 10-week CA SOF Training and CA SLUSS-TILLER Phases of the CA Pathway. He holds an MA in Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University, and a BA in Political Science from Jacksonville State University. He has served in Special Operations Civil Affairs since 2014 and has operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indo-Pacific region.

[i] Department of Defense, Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2020), [ii] Ibid. [iii] Ibid. [iv] For the classic, if not definitive, argument for a military focused almost solely on the management and application of violence vice governance and political activity see: Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957). For a contemporary counter-argument, advocating for a robust governance capacity in the military see: Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2017).

1 comment

1 Comment

Roy Ferrell
Roy Ferrell
Dec 29, 2020

Well said by the Authors. I intend to read it again tonight. Roy Ferrell

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