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The Future of Civil Affairs

In the article, The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War, Allison (2015) states, “…based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment” (p. 2). In response to this rapidly evolving environment, the Army updated and depicted its Strategy through 2028. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the Army Forces, and Army Futures Command are directing modernization efforts to counter threats and retain a competitive advantage in the era of Great Power Competition (GPC). Almost simultaneously, the United States refined its approach to foreign policy to include our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This enabled China to tighten the noose around Asia through the Belt and Road initiative as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also generated considerable economic benefit from the United States’ withdrawal from the TPP and strengthened its regional position of leadership. As China continues to build and militarize islands in the Pacific, invest heavily in Asia, South America, and Africa as well as modernize its military forces, the United States pivoted away from counterinsurgency to focus on Large-scale combat operations (LSCO) occurring across multiple domains. As we shift national security and policy objectives, the question of where and how Civil Affairs (CA) fits within this new paradigm – from LSCO to Multi domain operations (MDO), is an ongoing discussion. However, if the regiment is unable to convey value and maintain relevancy with our joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (JIIM) partners, it is a moot point.

Currently, stakeholders within the JIIM construct lack a comprehensive understanding of CA capabilities. If these organizations, institutions, and the interlocutors who work within them lack an awareness and understanding for the skill set CA delivers, how will the regiment flourish in the future? Internal to the organization, Reserve and Active-duty CA practitioners often fail to fully understand and complement each other, hampering effectiveness. This gap only grows outside of the regiment. Muddying the waters further is the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Command (SFAC). Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) missions overlap with CA, adding layers of redundancy while contributing to a sense of ambiguity to anyone outside of the regiment. For many conventional Department of Defense (DoD) partners, for example, CA is an enigma. This mystique degrades the ability of Civil Affairs Teams (CAT) and planners to maximally influence the human domain in LSCO and MDO.

In the twenty-first century, conflict encompasses all domains. The article, “Exploring the Foundation of MDO”, Kasubaski (2019) states, “MDO according to TP 525-3-1 is how the Army will fight across all domains, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), and the information environment at echelon.” Countering multi-domain threats is complex and will require an innovative level of cooperation throughout the entirety of the United States government to create shared consciousness, fully synchronize activities, delineate roles, and win. When Russia invaded Crimea, they successfully employed and empowered proxies and diaspora; including effective use of information operations and the argument has been made they generally achieved their objectives. These actions illustrated the effectiveness of their approach, which was largely focused on the human domain. To be better prepared for the complex conflicts of the present and future, integration and delineation of CA active and reserve forces, roles, and activities is required at a scale not yet realized to comprehend, influence, and effectively compete within the human domain. Conveying value to JIIM partners to justify future generations of CA forces is the first step to cementing the role of CA in LSCO and MDO. This will only come through bold reform.

In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act redefined the armed services to improve coordination and communication across all branches of the military by reworking the command structure. To maximize CA utility in the future, a Goldwater-Nichols level of reform is needed to articulate the role CA forces play within the human domain as part of training pipelines for JIIM organizations. This will also strengthen the position of the regiment as it continues to shape and define the role of CA in LSCO and multi-domain environments. COL Hope in 2016 recognized a need for transformation and he states that, “…a Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act for the Interagency is desperately needed” (p. 32). In 2021, more than just reform for the interagency is needed – reinvigorating CA throughout the whole of the JIIM construct is required. An existing lack of familiarity, trust, and rapport between JIIM organizations degrades utility and effectiveness, making it difficult for CA personnel to support partners who minimize or altogether do not recognize CA utility. Within this environment, opportunities for collaboration are routinely missed which often leads to duplication of effort, distrust, friction, and sub-standard results. Reform is needed to ensure maximum effectiveness in complex environments. CA forces are the primary conduit between conventional and Special Operations Forces (SOF), and other relevant JIIM partners to mitigate deficiencies relative to the human domain.

CA personnel in the 95th CA Brigade (Special Operations) (Airborne) and their FORSCOM counterpart, the 83d CA Battalion, already work with and have access to DoD, Department of State (DoS), and Interagency organizations; however, until reform occurs updating doctrine, education, and Army Strategy, leaders across the spectrum of JIIM organizations will fail to fully understand, differentiate, empower, and employ CA forces. Due to this, incoherent effort and suboptimal results will likely remain the norm. If utilized correctly, CA will act as the desperately needed connective tissue between disparate organizations to achieve the results needed to understand, influence, and leverage the human domain in the 21st Century.

CA forces can be employed anywhere to influence an environment. This degree of adaptability offers Commanders flexibility and utility; from the Deep Area to the Forward Line of Troops (FLOT), or to the Consolidation Area. In any situation, CA offers access to the human domain which provides information to help staff sections at echelon understand their environment, strengthen relationships, shape the fight, and achieve advantage. Reform placing emphasis on improved integration of Civil Affairs capabilities in complex environments could be the difference between winning and losing the fight of the future. Information gathered by a Civil Affairs Team (CAT) on the FLOT, for example, should be utilized to better understand and depict the Common Operational Picture (COP). Simultaneously, Civil Affairs Forces working in a Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) or S9 cell conduct Civil Knowledge Integration (CKI) to turn this information into highly desirable and digestible data for relevant JIIM stakeholders. Until reform occurs, however, the degree to which CA capabilities and outputs are effectively understood, desired, and utilized will remain inconsistent.

Inconsistent results due to misuse in training exercises, CTC rotations, and operations will eventually leave CA without a seat at the table in tomorrow’s fight. Reform is needed to solidify CA forces as the best choice to work within the human domain and tie organizations with different cultures and traditions together because, as COL Hope (2016) notes, “…the military and the Interagency generally do not plan and execute with respect to the others’ goals, capabilities, or resources” (p. 30). The chasm only widens as we consider the rest of the JIIM hierarchy, underscoring the need for reform. This is happening despite what doctrine currently demands. Joint Publication (JP) 3-08: Inter-organizational Cooperation (2016) states, “achieving unity of effort is a continuous process, requiring constant effort to sustain inter-organizational relationships” (p. 25). Unfortunately, the vital information CA forces gather and produce is often “stove-piped” or ignored and not all stake-holders collectively benefit from it. COL Hope (2016) states this happens because of differences among our partners in “funding, authorities, manpower, priorities, rice bowls, politics, and a lack of strategic vision, to name but a few” (p. 30). These conflicting priorities create disjointed effort and the current inter-organizational dynamics, command structures, doctrine, and educational curriculum unwittingly contribute to the inefficiency.

If JP 3-08 cannot be adhered to, the future requires bold reform to properly implement well-intended guidance throughout the JIIM hierarchy. This level of transformative reform would first demand commitment to act, followed by the forthright adjustments needed to impart JIIM organizations and stakeholders with the how and why CA are force multipliers that enable achievement of end-states within the human domain. Once CA activities are properly introduced, taught, and integrated throughout JIIM institutions, the likelihood of success will be enhanced significantly. It will not be easy; yet, if the need for reform is acknowledged and applied correctly, the conditions would be set for the unified action required to prevail within the human domain that is ever-present, increasingly complex, and critical to winning in the 21st Century. The role of CA is inextricably tied to this domain and success within it is imperative. The future of CA hinges on reformation that ensures the regiment is in the position to lead within the human domain.

Adam Steinwachs is a Captain in the United States Army and 2017 graduate of the Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs Qualification Course. He then served as a Team Leader in the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion, gaining operational experience within the Indo-Pacific region. He is currently a Civil Military Operations Center Chief in the 83d Civil Affairs Battalion. Prior to military service, Steinwachs was the head track and field coach at Roberts Wesleyan College and The University of Dayton.


Allison (2015). The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War? The Atlantic, 2.

Retrieved May 23, 2017 from


Colonel Hope (2016). The Issues and the Spaces for Leveraging Civil Affairs and Future Civil-

Military Operations. 2016 Civil Affairs Symposium, 27- 32. Retrieved May 20, 2017

Vice Admiral Scott (2016). Joint Publication 3-08: Interorganizational Cooperation. Joint

Electronic Library, 25. Retrieved May 21, 2017 from

Kasubaski (2019). Exploring the Foundation of Multi Domain Operations. Small Wars Journals.

Retrieved October 15, 2020 from


1 comment


Unknown member
Jan 23, 2021

Well said & Well done article. It's important to remember that the Units & the local governments have their own missions to perform but most people will respond well to good instructions & help solving problems.


Unknown member
Jan 17, 2021

Captain Steinwachs, This is an interesting & well said article particularly about the militaristic use of Islands now near or under the control of China. China is such an old civilization & has long & far seeing visions of it's future. Thank You. Roy Ferrell.

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