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Why Civil Affairs?



By COL Donand "Tony" Vacha


Simon Sinek described in a popular TED talk “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”[1] Sinek points out that most organizations can describe what they do and how they do it, but few can answer why they exist or what is their purpose.[2] Why does Civil Affairs (CA) exist? This is a complicated question and could yield different answers throughout different segments of the CA community. The dilemma starts with how we define ourselves. Currently, CA defines itself intrinsically to why the branch believes it exists rather than extrinsically to why the Army and the Joint force need the capability. This results in a perpetual circular logic that frustrates the Army and Joint force in understanding CA’s role across the competition continuum. This also results in CA professionals continually defining, debating, and redefining CA on an individual basis versus a consistent, integrated branch-wide dogma. Resolving this requires a clear and concise description of why CA is necessary in integrated deterrence campaigning or conflict and then what and how CA does it.

The DOD and U.S. Government writ large need the capabilities CA can provide. This is evident in the DOD’s seemingly never-ending quest to field concepts and capabilities that currently reside within the existing CA portfolio. Historically these initiatives include the Human Terrain Teams and more recently include the Civilian Harm Prevention and Mitigation and Women, Peace, and Security programs. Rather than reinforcing the existing programmed force with the sole role of focusing on foreign civilian populations, strategic Senior Leaders chose to invest in new doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy solutions outside of the existing architecture. This constitutes a wake-up call for the CA community and clearly shows we failed, and continue to fail, in explaining why the Army, the Joint force, and the Department of Defense need the capability.

Answering the why question requires first understanding the Army’s requirements for a branch. Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 1-01, Doctrine Primer, describes the requirements for a branch or capability to describe itself in relation to the Army’s operating concept. The following logic model from ADP 1-01 is the Army’s standard for branches and organizations to describe themselves (emphasis included from original text):

The role defines the broad and enduring purpose for which an organization or branch is established. Core competencies define the overall capabilities of an organization or branch to the Army, while the Army’s core competencies explain the Army’s contribution to the nation’s defense. A function describes a set of subordinate tasks and systems needed to accomplish the role. Characteristics describe the attributes that the organization or branch requires to be effective, while principles are guidelines for the employment of an organization or branch. By applying the functions, guided by characteristics and principles, an organization or branch generates effects in the unique environment of the land domain to support the Army’s operational concept.[3]


Getting to the why, how, and what for CA requires defining the role, core competencies, and functions of the branch in relation to the Army and the Joint force.


The Role of Civil Affairs – The Why

A role describes the “broad and enduring purpose for which an organization or branch is established.”[4] Currently FM 3-57 states “[t]he role of CA is to engage and leverage the civil component of the OE while enhancing, enabling, or providing governance.”[5] This description of the role of CA is unnecessarily undiplomatic and impedes the ability to support integrated campaigning across the competition spectrum. It does not position the branch to work as part of a broader Joint, Inter-Organizational, and Multi-National force. Defining everything CA does simply as “enhancing, enabling, or providing governance” conveys a backward-looking perspective that conjures images of “regime change” and “nation-building.”[6]


Granted, CA operates in Nations with challenged systems, including governance. However, this definition is over-simplistic and lacks necessary nuance. Defining everything CA executes as governance extrapolates international and national legal requirements for occupation and applies them across the competition continuum. In competition, unless in a defined Support to Civil Administration or Transitional Military Authority mission, CA forces need to operate with an understanding of the sovereignty of the nations in which they work. Tactical elements comprise most CA forces deployed globally in competition. It is essential to define with clarity the authorities and permissions they operate within. In competition, CA forces operate in a Security Cooperation (SC) environment under the authorities of a Global Combatant Commander and a U.S. Ambassador in the Host Nation. CA is not “enhancing, enabling, or providing governance” unless this comes from authorities and permissions granted from Senior Leaders, particularly in Allied territory in SC.[7]


Second, this role is not intellectually honest given the implementation of the SAR: Stabilization Assistance Review: A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of US Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas in 2018. Joint Publication (JP) 3-07, Stability, 11 February 2022, states that the “Department of State is the lead federal agency for US stabilization efforts, due to the inherently political nature of stabilization.”[8] The SAR highlights the imperative for a revitalized approach to stabilization that is more selective and targeted in how the United States uses its resources to empower local authorities, advance core US interests, mitigate risks, and enable strategic transitions.[9]


ADP 1-01 describes “an organization has only one role.”[10] Furthermore, defining a role establishes “why the organization or branch was created.”[11]FM 27-5, United States Army and Navy Manual of Military Government and Civil Affairs in 1943 provides a more succinct role for CA and gets closer to why the branch exists. It stated for our predecessors that “[t]he paramount interest of the combat officer is in military operations”, however “the paramount interest of the civil affairs officer is in dealing with civilian relationships of concern to the commander.”[12]


A nominative revised role of Civil Affairs is to understand the civil environment and represent the Commander in civil matters of military interest, and when directed, shape the civil environment to set conditions for military operations and enable interoperability with partners.


The Core Competencies – The What

Core competencies should address what CA does. ADP 1-01 defines a core competency as “an essential and enduring capability that a branch or an organization provides to Army operations.”[13] Furthermore, a core competency provides “a clear statement of what a branch or organization does in broad, easily understood, general terms.[14] Currently, FM 3-57 states that the core competencies of CA include Civil Network Development and Engagement (CNDE), Civil-Knowledge Integration (CKI), Civil Military Integration (CMI), and Transitional Governance (TG).[15] Each of these competencies is introspective, not extrospective. CA practitioners hear these terms and agree all of the tasks sound like relevant requirements for the branch. However, do they describe what supported Army and Joint force Commanders require from CA? They do not. They describe what internally we think they need.


It is essential to understand the difference between a core competency and a function. As stated above, a core competency is an “essential and enduring capability” provided for the Army’s operations. A function describes “the set of executable capabilities that an organization or branch requires to accomplish its role.”[16] In layman’s terms, a core competency is externally focused on the Army while a function is internally focused on the branch or organization.


A helpful tool is to look at other Army Branches for how they define the core competencies they provide to the Army. Army Engineers provide the Army with four competencies to assure mobility, enhance protection, enable force projection and logistics, and build partner capacity and develop infrastructure.[17] Army Cyberspace Operations and Electromagnetic Warfare provides the Army with three competencies to enable situation understanding, protect friendly personnel and capabilities, and deliver effects.[18] Both of these examples provide what they provide to supported Commanders, not simply how they achieve it.


The current construct of CNDE, CKI, CMI, and TG don’t address the needs of Army and Joint force Commanders. Arguably, they describe functions or missions that CA forces execute internally. For clearer understanding, CA must define its competencies, or what it does, in relation to the Army and Joint force. Answering the “what” question requires describing the benefit that the supported force receives from CA. For example, CKI and its predecessor Civil Information Management, describe an internal process for CA. Regardless of the name, what does CKI provide to supported Commanders? Arguably, it allows them to understand civil factors impacting their operations. So why don’t we define the competency as the output gained? CKI can still define the internal requirements of the branch to deliver an understanding of civil factors for supported Commanders.

Restructuring the CA logic model could include the nominated core competencies that CA provides the Army with the capability to:

  • Understand Civil Factors Impacting Military Operations

  • Synchronize Operations with Interorganizational Partners

  • Prevent Civilian Interference with Operations

  • Prevent and Mitigate Harm to Civilians and Cultural Property

  • Consolidate Gains to Enable Enduring Strategic Outcomes


The Functions – The How

The functions of CA need to describe “a set of subordinate tasks and systems needed to accomplish the role.”[19] What FM 3-57 currently calls core competencies appear more like functions. However, an argument exists that these describe the missions of CA forces, not the functions. CA is the only programmed force with the explicit role of focusing on foreign societies. The functions of CA should anchor to civil societies and civil considerations.


FM 27-5, United States Army and Navy Manual of Military Government and Civil Affairs, 22 December 1943 was the first capstone doctrine for the CA branch that described the functions of CA Officers. The description includes (emphasis added):


The chief function of the civil affairs officer during hostilities is to further the mission of the combat forces in every way possible. As areas are successively occupied he will assist by controlling the civil population so that it will not interfere with military operations. He will help reconstitute civil administration so that local resources in manpower and in strategic material may be utilized to further military operations as authorized by the laws of war. His task may embrace a wide variety of activities, since the responsibilities of his commanding officer may range all the way from controlling a few simple functions of government in a small isolated rural region or a primitive island or group of islands, to controlling the many and complex functions of government in a large, densely populated, industrialized, continental area. In the occupation of such territories for a considerable period of time, the civil affairs officer will in most cases be concerned with the following activities.[20]


The manual next describes twenty-five functions such as agriculture, commerce and trade, money and banking, etc. The original capstone doctrine described the functions of CA as the functions of foreign societies or what we call the Functional Areas and Functional Specialties.


A branch-operating concept should explain how the entire branch, not segments of the branch, work in concert to achieve the Army and Joint mission requirements. The Joint Stability Functions in Joint Publication 3-07, Stability describes the modern form of the original CA Functional Areas. Anchoring the functions of CA to the Joint Stability Functions provides a whole-branch concept for executing the role of representing the Commander in civil matters of military interest and understanding and shaping the civil environment. It enables both Special Operations and Conventional Force CA to view the operational environment in the same prism. It also provides interoperability with the Functional Specialists and other U.S. Government Departments and Agencies at each echelon.


The nominative revised functions of Civil Affairs:

  • Civil Security.

  • Civil Control (Rule of Law).

  • Essential Services.

  • Governance Support.

  • Economic Stabilization and Infrastructure.[21]


This paper supplies an opinion on a revised CA operating framework. Individual components of this framework remain debatable. Achieving consensus on the what, how, and why of CA requires a broader branch dialogue.[22] While the CA Proponent at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School defines and writes CA doctrinal requirements, our doctrine is owned by the operational force that must operate using it.


It is incumbent on leaders at all echelons to shape what our doctrine defines because it inculcates new members into the Regiment. A further requirement for those who executed CA through two decades of conflict is to pass on the valuable and hard-fought lessons gained through that experience. We should provide our force with a clear, understandable operating concept that enables them to clearly describe to supported Commanders and other partners “why” CA is needed, “what” the capability does, and “how” it does it.[23]


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, of any other U.S. government agency.


About the Author: COL Donald “Tony” Vacha recently completed a tour as the CA Planning Team Chief for U.S. Army Europe and Africa. In his CA career he served at every echelon from CA Team Chief to CACOM Deputy Commander. COL Vacha is also a Force Management Officer with service at both USACAPOC (A) and USARC. He served as a Doctrine Developer at the CA Proponent at USAJFKSWCS. During his tenure at USAJFKSWCS, he served as the lead planner and researcher for the development of the 38G career field and the Institute for Military Support to Governance.

[1] Simon Sinek, How great leaders inspire action, “ TEDx Puget Sound, September 2009, accessed 5 September 2023, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action

[2] Ibid.

[3] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication 1-01, Doctrine Primer (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 31 July 2019), 4-1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 28 July 2021), 1-1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Stabilization Activities, JP 3-07 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2022), x.

[9] Ibid., xii.

[10] ADP 1-01, 4-1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] War Department and Navy Department, Field Manual 27-5 and OPNAV 50E-3, United States Army and Navy Manual of Military Government and Civil Affairs, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), 5.

[13] ADP 1-01, 4-2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] FM 3-57, vi.

[16] ADP 1-01, 4-2

[17] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-34, Engineer Operations, (Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2020), vii.

[18] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-12. Cyberspace Operations and Electromagnetic Warfare, (Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2021), 1-2.

[19] FM 1-01, 4-1.

[20] FM 27-5, 15-20.

[21] JP 3-07, II-10-II-10.

[22] Sinek.

[23] Ibid.



4 comments

4 Comments


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J Wilson
J Wilson
Nov 14, 2023

Civil Affairs “Shapes” Nothing


I will contend, for the sake of debate, that "shape the civil environment to set conditions for military operations" is outside the scope and realistic capacity of CA formations. The Army and the CA community need to remove this from the Branch role.


The first two roles of "understand the civil environment" and "represent the Commander in civil matters of military interest" are difficult enough when a battalion is fortunate to receive a single, four-person Civil Affairs Team (CAT) for support. A CA team’s grasp of “understanding” of an interactively complex civil environment remains hopelessly tenuous on a good day.


Moreover, the term “shape” is well outside the capacity of a CAT or even a CA…


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