Roundtable Report: Civil Affairs’ Opportunity for Competition

By: Christopher Holshek

The most important outcome of the 2021 Civil Affairs Roundtable, per the

Roundtable Report, is how it offered the opportunity for civil affairs to shape its own future by helping the Army and joint force better understand contemporary competition. The web-based event with over 300 participants from both sides of the Atlantic closed out the annual cycle of CA intellectual capitalization, academic credentialing, and professional and force development on “Civil Affairs: A Force for Influence in Competition.”


In an intriguing keynote presentation, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Eric J. Wesley, admitted that the U.S. is “poorly postured for competition” and the Army itself is “not able to compete aggressively left of bang,” in partial answer to a question on whether the Army is as well organized for competition as it is for combat. In the same exchange, however, on the core problem of finding a workable concept of “competition,” he identified an opportunity for the CA Corps and its information-related partners to shape future Army force development. As the best part of the joint force for that, he challenged the CA Corps, along with its proponent, to engage the Army Futures Command to help with that transformation.


“CA should help develop the storyboard for what we mean by competition – help the

maneuver community understand what competition truly is and show the available tools and how CA participates in competition,” he specified. The former Army Futures Command Deputy Commanding General offered his own term for contemporary competition – “smash-mouth posturing and engagement.” The panel on the role of CA in regional great power competition referred to it as “influence warfare,” adding how civil-military and civil affairs operations are a form of “population centric warfare.”


As a diverse, small-footprint, and people-centric “green” force for influence, collaboration, and competition in Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), Joint All-Domain Operations, and Information and Irregular Warfare, they agreed, CA is the one joint capability that inherently understands that politics is war by other means, that power goes well beyond its heavily favored physical interpretation of MDO, and that influence warfare is heavily vested in an understanding of regional and local history, sociology, and politics.


Ideal for low-cost, low-profile demonstration of U.S. involvement and interest in especially uncontested areas – with high-impact potentialities for influence, data collection, civil knowledge and situational understanding, and strategic warning for U.S. embassies and regional commands. An "inside force" in the human geography of influence, CA enables direct, indirect, and narrative competition and can help the joint force in gain positional advantage in competition, help deter aggression in crisis, and mitigate time and distance in conflict. CA is a priceless asset in this ongoing, open-ended fight, a majority in the Roundtable asserted. In civil reconnaissance, civil engagement and civil knowledge integration more as strategic human sensors, CA can inform political-military decision makers on what the local issues are and how they feed into policy.


As such, CA is the ideal military contributor for civil-military integration of interagency-led competition in the context of national strategies and policies, as the interagency panel argued for even more intense interagency and interorganizational relationship-building for competition than in previous campaigns. American influence warfare must be as much whole-of-society as whole-of-government. It must include corporate partners, non-profits and charities, humanitarian organizations, and others who have been at work in many of these contested areas for decades and maintain often greater credibility, access, and reach in and with local societies than military forces or government agencies. These relationships and networks, however, must be cultivated institutionally in order to be optimized operationally – CA commands and institutions should build them now.


For competition, CA needs first to conduct its own self-assessment. What collaboration

tools and reporting architecture, for example, are required of CA in this fight? How does CA fit as a green force in that operates in gray zones? In an era of competition, is the strategic education of CA operators is even more significant for CA officers and NCOs? In readiness for competition, CA must also pay much greater attention to the attributes of good governance (among them transparency) to reduce civil vulnerabilities that provide inroads to adversaries more interested in promoting autocracy than democracy. It is essential for CA teams – operating by, with, and through country teams and in coordination with interagency and private sector partners – to engage with traditional as well as state-sponsored leaders. This includes more robust gender engagement in populations and the inclusion of Women, Peace & Security principles, operationally as well as doctrinally.


As a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan, CA forces in competition must be even better

educated on regional dynamics and connected to a multitude of contacts to be effective in competition than they were in conflict. In addition to understanding Chinese geostrategy centered around the One Belt, One Road initiative and their view competition as “unrestricted warfare,” extensively discussed at the Roundtable, understanding regional and local subtleties in the operating environment is paramount in understanding great power competition in all regions. CA can also geometrically raise its level of play in target population analysis and civil knowledge integration by leveraging and participating in development of related artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Causal Exploration of Complex Operational Environment (DARPA-CauseEx) program.


CA also needs to conduct continuous “forward-deployed engagement,” as the British Land Warfare Center briefed at the Symposium. China’s global and regional effectiveness owes not just because of its economic power underscoring a compelling alternative to Western political and socioeconomic models. The Chinese are often the only game in town – exacerbated by the U.S. retreat from many corners of the world in all aspects of national power. “You can’t compete if you’re not there,” he pointed out.


Pulling many of the pieces together was the recurrent CA force panel with institutional

updates and priorities for ongoing CA force modernization and initiatives at various joint, Army, and U.S. Marine Corps, as well as at NATO proponent offices, to advance the greater civil-military network of networks that, at the same time, best understands local contexts and builds relationships that harness local capabilities is more likely to win. Among them:


1. Army Futures Command Futures & Concepts Center approval of the CA Force

Modernization Assessment conducted over the last year; development of an operating

concept and update of DOTMLPF-P changes for 38G and governance support to

operations across the competition continuum; Civil Knowledge Integration Systems & Technology Development; USAJFKSWCS, USACAPOC(A), and Army Reserve concurrence

with CA Branch recommendations to pursue accessions for Reserve Component CA

Soldiers; and upcoming publication of the new FM 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations.


2. USMC Deputy Commandant for Information (DCI) Information Maneuver Division

assumption of advocacy of Marine civil affairs and other information-related

capabilities; a new policy was approved for consolidation of DCI at the Pentagon,

Combat Development & Integration Division at Quantico, and the Training & Education

Command at Quantico – for continued development of USMC CA capabilities.


3. NATO MC 4/11 policy on Civil-Military Interaction (CMI), due out this September with

new definitions of NATO CMI, civil-military cooperation (CIMIC), and the civil

environment; analysis and development CIMIC capabilities, overlapping with the Army

and Marine CA efforts and in coordination with the Smithsonian Institute; the

institutional synchronization of civil affairs and Euro-NATO CIMIC, along education,

doctrine, and academia lines; and the new CIMIC Center of Excellence (CCoE) course on

civilian resiliency in light of interest in layered resiliency in Europe.


The Roundtable closed with a facilitated discussion on the theme for the fall Symposium

and 2021-22 Civil Affairs Issue Papers. Among the ideas considered was CA’s need to

building an extended, interagency, interorganizational, and international learning network.


The Roundtable agenda, slide decks, and other documents related to the discussion are

available in the “2021 Roundtable” folder in the Research Library on the Association