Digital Civil Reconnaissance

Updated: May 31, 2020

By Paul J. Hendrick, Edward B. Lescher, and Matthew T. Peterson

The world has seen an unprecedented expansion in connectivity since the emergence of the internet. Isolated states and areas that were once “digital dead-zones” are now connected, at least secondarily through video, photos, and reviews of travelers and other digital traces that exist in cyberspace. In the event of conflict or disaster, how would U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) be able to gather detailed civil information on such isolated areas. Furthermore, how could such information be efficiently shared across different levels of classification and with multinational and non-military partners? This article argues that Digital Civil Reconnaissance (DCR) should be adopted as a doctrinal approach to the conduct of Civil Information Management (CIM) in denied and politically sensitive areas.

In order to demonstrate the value of DCR we will look at what advances in the information environment make a change, not only possible, but necessary . We will move on to define what DCR is and how it assists with operations in the “Gray Zones” and denied areas. Finally we will make recommendations regarding Doctrine, Training, and Material. “The Time has Come”

As technology continues to develop, an ever-increasing number of people have access to an unprecedented amount of data. Many of those people are publishing content, interacting with social media, and leaving a digital footprint. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users globally rose from 400 million in the year 2000 to 3.2 billion in the year 2015, an eightfold increase.[i] The amount of data available online is astounding, yet data without analysis and context is useless. With the rapid expansion of the internet, America’s adversaries are using new methods to leverage such data. According to the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) these adversaries are “patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond.”[ii] In denied and politically sensitive areas, the Department of Defense needs to obtain an understanding of the operational environment to support multiple possible future mission scenarios. Under normal circumstances CIM would provide the needed information, however in areas that remain remote, isolated, denied, or hostile CIM falls short.

CIM is function of Civil Affairs under the core competency of Civil Affairs Activities (CAA), which illustrates the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical and Time (PMESII-PT) landscape from strategic assessments. These assessments are then enhanced by utilizing existing on-the-ground assessments that capture the tactical level information of the operational environment from previous deployments. Once a Civil Affairs Team (CAT) is on the ground, Soldiers conduct individual site assessments and map out the human terrain. However, modern technology and open source information provide new avenues for gathering information that do not require a physical presence. Recently, General Raymond Thomas III, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), spoke at the Department of Defense Intelligence Information System Worldwide Conference, arguing that, “the time has come to flip the current model on its head. The time has come to develop and field tools and tradecraft in analysis that will allow us to begin our effort by understanding what we can from data that is readily and cheaply available. Then we will take our findings and enrich it with information from our classified sensors.”[iii] DCR embodies this concept. Digital Civil Reconnaissance Defined

JP 3-57 defines Civil Reconnaissance (CR) as “a targeted, planned, and coordinated observation and evaluation of specific civil aspects of the environment.”[iv] Digital Civil Reconnaissance is a method of capitalizing on existing open source information without a physical presence in the battlespace or specialized equipment to remotely conducting CR. DCR is conducted prior to, along with, after, or in place of traditional CR. DCR is a collaborative effort that draws in information from the widest possible range of sources (the internet, media and social media, academia, and various reports) and then produces layered information that is shareable across classification levels with Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, Multinational (JIIM), Special Operations Forces (SOF), Conventional Forces (CF), as well as Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and Intergovernmental Organizations (IOs). By beginning with unclassified information, CA forces can easily share products with organizations outside the Department of Defense (DoD) and expand the network of influence and utilize their efforts as a force multiplier. It allows CA forces to contribute to the multi-domain understanding of the operational environment and provide relevant information that is “essential to the continuous process of consolidating gains to ensure a lasting and sustainable outcome.”[v] Navigating the Gray Zone

It has become a modern aphorism to say that data is changing the way we live. The Civil Affairs 2025 and Beyond White Paper (CA 2025) argues that “Future CA forces require the ability to expand capabilities through open-source intelligence collection and analysis.”[vi] The same paper also warns that CA forces should be concerned with more than mere data, but also focus on, “the fusion, analysis, and dissemination of critical civil information to military allies and U.S. partners.”[vii] This ability to fuse, analyze, disseminate and share is what makes DCR both necessary and beneficial. DCR allows for the transformation of the staggering amount of publicly available data into information shared across all levels of classification. This information forms a base for an unclassified shared understanding among partners and stakeholders while at higher classifications, additional layers of information can be applied. Each classification level provides a cognitive hierarchy, or pyramid, where raw data is used to create information that produces knowledge to create shared understanding.[viii] At each higher classification more information layers are added to each target creating an in-depth and multi-tiered pyramid of pyramids contributing to a more complete picture of the operational environment to aid the commander in decision making.

This level of knowledge is necessary for shaping the operational area and making informed analysis of an area. In denied areas or for “gray zones” (defined by USSOCOM as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality”), open source information can fill critical gaps.[ix] The July 2018 JP 3-57 already provides guidance that, “in denied areas, (Civil Military Operations) planners use intelligence products and open-source information to access, gather, and validate information for area or functional-oriented studies.”[x] Yet beyond this quick blurb, little guidance is given. CA 2025 similarly states, “Future CA forces require the ability to acquire information from all sources, in all environments, to include hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas.”[xi] There is clear consensus from a wide range of sources that there is a need to maintain situational awareness on areas we may not have physical access to, yet little guidance on how CA forces should play a role in shaping the environment. The NSS recognizes that our opponents are “operating below the threshold of open military conflict,” which can hinder the political will to have a physical military response.[xii] DCR is an avenue for understanding the environment in denied or politically sensitive areas that the U.S. either does not have, or does not want, a physical footprint in.

The 2018 Stability Assistance Review (SAR), an interagency (IA) document between the Department of State (DOS), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DOD), identifies that the government needs to outline engagement criteria for conflict-affected areas. Crucial to this is identifying, “the level of risk we are willing to assume; and the level of sustained resources we are willing to commit.”[xiii] DCR provides a way to build a knowledge base on an area and set the stage for future operations, while minimizing our risk and the resources required. This follows the CA 2025 argument that, “future CA forces will need to remain expeditionary, operating under the guidance that whatever can be sourced locally should be, to reduce the logistical footprint and operational signature of U.S forces.”[xiv] To be clear, DCR will not supplant an “on the ground” presence, or replace local knowledge of the area, but instead be used in conjunction with such measures. DCR is a force multiplier that minimizes operational presence in an area, while harnessing the power of the global electronic commons to navigate the gray zone remotely.

Enhancing Readiness

Execution of DCR has a myriad of benefits. There is no additional cost incurred to a unit conducting DCR, as it is executed via existing computer information systems using opensource information. This follows the NSS’s guidance that, “the United States will, in concert with allies and partners, use the information-rich open-source environment” to defeat our enemies and protect the United States.[xv] After these sources have been exhausted, more expensive methods of information collection can be utilized, if necessary. Because DCR is conducted remotely, risk to Soldiers is mitigated and individuals can collect information on highly dangerous or denied areas without incident. There is little to no lead time required to conduct DCR and it can be executed at any point in a units training cycle from training and execution to validation of Mission Essential Tasks (METL), in support of real-world operations. If structured appropriately, DCR allows a forward deployed element to leverage Reserve Component CA (RC CA) Battle Training Assemblies (BTA) or Active Duty CA (AC CA) training cycles, to include pre-deployment training (PMT) or Culmination Exercises (CULEX), to meet real world information requirements. This will shape the understanding of the operational environment while meeting the RC CA’s “Objective T” requirements and the AC CA METL validation.[xvi] It can be done anytime, and anywhere, maximizing manhours across organizations and theaters of operation.

Because the information is opensource, it follows FM 3-57’s guidance that CIM is shared at, “the widest possible dissemination of the raw and analyzed civil information to military and nonmilitary partners throughout the AO.”[xvii] Due to its multi-tiered nature, DCR can easily be shared with JIIM partners such as United Nations Sending States (UNSS), NGOs, IOs, and any other party necessary. The less invasive nature of DCR makes it possible to gather information on areas in which the United States Government (USG) may not want a physical military presence, whether because the risk is too high, or because of political sensitivities. At the same time, it gives the ability to operate in the “gray zone” even if the particular circumstances preclude the physical presence of the military. DCR can also easily incorporate the whole-of-government approach, without concern of system incompatibility. Because the base level is unclassified, information is easily shared through NIPR connections, reaching the widest possible audience.

No source of information collection is, in itself, a silver bullet. DCR is not meant to replace other forms of information collection and management, but should rather be seen as an additional tool to utilize. Opensource information on certain areas may be limited, or dated. Collecting information on isolated areas presents a unique challenge in societies with low connectivity or walled off internet access. What information does exist may be biased, opinionated, not show a whole picture, or intentionally create a false narrative. However, DCR is meant to be a starting point and a supplement to other methods of information collection, not a standalone effort. After collecting sufficient data, assumptions are generated; these in turn can be vetted through other means and sources to validate the information.


In order to continue providing an understanding of the operational environment, CA Forces should adapt to the modern reality of the information age. DCR allows CA elements to supplement and complement one another’s activities, coordinate with IA partners, communicate with partner nations, international organizations, and NGOs. By keeping a base layer of information digital and open source, it can easily be disseminated at the broadest level without causing risk to the Soldiers that collect the information. However, the force is not yet optimized to fully implement DCR.


Current doctrine does not adequately cover the specifics of DCR. CA 2025 states, “Future CA forces must be able to use organic and non-organic formations to gather information in the conduct of civil reconnaissance (air/ground/digital).”[xviii] This is a move in the right direction, but further steps are necessary. By codifying DCR within CA doctrine, units can dedicate training space to conducting DCR in order to meet training proficiency requirements described in ADP 7-0 (Training).[xix] If units conduct DCR training in coordination with forward deployed units, the product can be mutually beneficial for both units. This is the ideal method of conducting DCR, and should be included in doctrine as well. There are rarely opportunities to simultaneously meet annual training requirements for units in garrison while conducting operational mission requirements for forward deployed units. In order to ensure that the training unit is truly assisting, the forward deployed unit should provide guidance on what they are looking for, based on their mission requirements. The deployed unit can base their guidance on mission requirements and the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIR), but the guidance to training units can remain broad. Assigning a training unit facility categories within a specific city or region, gives the training unit an objective, but prevents spillage of mission details.