Small Wars Journal

Funding Civil Affairs Forces for Gray Zone Competition

Thu, 07/14/2022 - 10:55am


Funding Civil Affairs Forces for Gray Zone Competition


By Alan Goodman


The Gray Zone Problem

            In late 2021 thousands of middle eastern migrants were shepherded to the Polish border by Belarus to manufacture a crisis for the European Union (Perez-Pena, 2021). Off the coast of Taiwan, civilian vessels from the Chinese mainland dredge the ocean floor around the clock at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party, exhausting the resources of the Taiwanese Coast Guard (Lee, 2021). In Europe, Russia interfered and influenced the 2019 European parliamentary elections (Hicks, 2019). These actions are offensive in nature but do not necessarily warrant the enormous risk of a conventional military response. These actions occur in the gray zone, the fuzzy area between statecraft and war where rival states compete below the level of armed conflict (Center for Strategic & International Studies, n.d.).

            Each state took illegal, immoral, or unethical actions in the above examples. These nefarious actions within the gray zone make it difficult for the United States and its allies to respond in kind while maintaining their values. There are, however, a limited number of resources that the country has to counter gray zone operations. One of these resources is Civil Affairs Forces. Civil Affairs (CA) are military forces that engage and leverage civilian institutions and populations while enhancing, enabling, or providing governance in contested environments (Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2021). While gray zone threats are offensive like a military operation, many involve civilians and civilian organizations. The civilian component of offensive gray zone competition necessitates using CA forces to reconnoiter and counter malign influences. However, CA is not adequately funded to counter gray zone threats due to both antiquated funding sources and the absence of a responsible party to directly fund civil-military operations.


Civil Affairs Forces in Context

To understand why Civil Affairs Forces need a dedicated funding source for operations, it is essential to understand the historical evolution of Civil Affairs. The US military has been conducting military governance and administration over occupied territories since the 1846 Mexican American War (Brent Bankus, 2011). Before World War II, regular Army commanders conducted military government and Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) during conflicts such as the 1899 Philippine Insurrection, where infantry units built schools and interacted with civilian populations (Craig, 2006). However, military governance was not a permanent function within the military until World War II, when in 1942, the War Department formalized Civil Affairs units under the Provost Marshal General's Office to conduct military governance in liberated areas. (Coles & Weinberg, 1986) The Civil Affairs Forces conducted military government operations until the Vietnam War, when the United States found itself in a large-scale irregular war conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. The COIN doctrine and US policy in Vietnam called for the Vietnamese people's pacification, what would later be known as "winning hearts and minds." Initially, the US Deputy Ambassador established a civilian-led Office of Civilian Operations (OCO) in 1966 to pacify the population but could not synchronize it with military COIN operations. The inability to synchronize efforts prompted the change of responsibility for pacification from the US embassy to Military Advisory Command Vietnam (MACV) and the creation of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program in 1967, which incorporated Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Public Affairs, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and civilian experts in public administration. The CORDS program transitioned Civil Affairs from governing occupied areas to assisting indigenous governments in governing contested areas (Andrade & Willbanks, 2006). In 1965, the widespread use of Civil Affairs Forces restored essential services in the Dominican Republic to subdue political tensions following Operation Powerpack (Metz, 1996). In 1992, as part of Operation Restore Hope, Civil Affairs units and USAID jointly established a civil-military operations center (CMOC) to coordinate security with the delivery of humanitarian aid in Somalia (White, 2009).

In the last two decades since September 11, 2001, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has highlighted the importance of a whole government approach to conflict. The Department of Defense (DOD) leans heavily on its Civil Affairs Forces (CA) to address governance issues when other interagency partners do not have access and placement or where engaging with civil society gives the United States a military advantage. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review increased CA forces in response to the GWOT (Department of Defense, 2006). In Afghanistan, CA forces integrated into Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) with similar civilian task organizations to the Vietnam-era CORDS program (Vasquez, 2010). Civil Affairs Forces established the Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center to assist international humanitarian organizations in restoring essential services in Baghdad (Mavrelis, 2005). A Special Forces Soldier acting as a Civil Affairs staff officer spurred the Anbar awakening by building relationships with traditional local leaders in Ramadi (DiMarco, 2020). Select CA forces have also been elevated into Special Operations, as exemplified by their integration with Special Forces during Village Stability Operations (VSO) in rural Afghanistan (Bernard, 2020).


Current CA Operations

Rapid changes in response to the GWOT have shaped the current CA force structure. As of 2021, 76% of US Civil Affairs forces are reservists under the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC), a two-star general headquarters (US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), n.d.). Active Duty Civil Affairs only constitute roughly a brigade-size element but are specially selected and trained by the US Army to conduct Special Operations (95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne), n.d.). Additionally, the US Marine Corps maintains four Civil Affairs groups under the Marine Reserve Force Headquarters (Force Headquarters Group, n.d.). These forces are globally deployed to conduct Civil-Military Operations (CMO). According to Joint Publication (JP) 3-57 CMO are:


…the activities performed by military forces to establish, maintain, or exploit relationships between military forces and indigenous populations and institutions (IPI). CMO supports US objectives for host nation (HN) and regional stability (Joint Publication 3-57, Civil-Military operations, 2018).


As the GWOT wanes, the United States finds itself in a new paradigm where it will have to address growing competition for global influence from rising powers known as Great Power Competition (GPC). The National Defense Strategy (NDS) classifies countries such as China and Russia as strategic competitors (Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 2018). Both China and Russia have utilized gray zone tactics to compete, such as Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and Russia's annexation of Crimea (Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense-Issues for Congress, 2021). Gray-zone warfare is an effort to achieve strategic objectives without significant force by incorporating information, disinformation, and cyber operations, along with an infinite number of other elements outside traditional military means (Garamone, 2019). Gray zone tactics are competition below armed conflict and often require leveraging relationships with indigenous institutions and populations. The DoD's Joint Concept for Integrated Campaign outlines the competition continuum where cooperation and armed conflict are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with competition below armed conflict in-between. The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning states that competition below armed conflict:


…exists when two or more actors in the international system have incompatible interests, but neither seeks to escalate to armed conflict. The Joint Force will have a great deal of utility in securing strategic objectives in competition, but it will typically offer support to other USG departments and actors (Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, 2018).


The strategic shift in the operating environment leaves CA forces uniquely suited to address Great Power Competition as their ability to interact with local populations, indigenous governments, the US interagency, and international actors below the threshold of armed conflict gives the US Government options to counter the myriad of non-traditional tactics that competitors use in gray zone competition. The Joint Special Operations University has published an influential study on how CA can be used in great power competition. The study envisions CA as an initial entry force to set conditions for follow on forces, conduct reconnaissance to provide information on an adversary's influence, and engage and influence populations to inoculate them from an adversary's information operations when competing below the threshold of armed conflict (Clemens, 2020).


Rationale for funding Civil-Military Operations


DOD Directive 5100.01 directs the Military Service Chiefs to organize, train, equip, and provide special operations forces, doctrine, procedures, and equipment for Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) (Department of Defense, 2020). The individual services have complied with the directive, as exemplified by the incorporation of CA facilities into the $16 million Yarborough Complex (Green, 2013) and CA training facilities into the $456 million upgrades to the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC (Brooks, 2018). However, to establish, maintain, or exploit relationships during competition below armed conflict, CA forces require flexible funding that the lowest echelon can utilize to shape an operating environment that is not covered by train, man, and equip resourcing. Dedicated CMO funding would allow CA forces to purchace items from the local economy, hire local laborers, rent property, facilitate meetings, provide non-lethal aid (medical equipment, computers, fuel, etc…), or enact other creative solutions to support operations that counter gray zone threats.


The ever-changing and often ad-hoc evolution of Civil Affairs Operations has left the current force navigating a mish-mash of funding sources with different intents other than gray zone competition and CAO. Some of the funding sources available included clauses for Civil Affairs to access them. The historical CA missions related to humanitarian assistance or development are included in these clauses, not competition. Current funding sources are also slow to approve and disperse funds reducing the CA force's ability to rapidly adapt and counter threats or keep pace in an environment with a high operational tempo.


Many current funding sources may not be appropriate for the mission at hand. One of the most popular funding sources is the DOD's Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster Assistance, and Civic Aid (OHDACA) funds. While these funds are appropriate to alleviate human suffering, they may not be suitable for funding other CA operations, such as countering disinformation or assessing civil infrastructure. A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the use of OHDACA funding recommended clarifying the role of the DOD's humanitarian assistance efforts to ensure the appropriate use of resources and to prevent overlap in programs conducted by USAID and the State Department (Humanitarian and Development Assistance: Project Evaluations and Better Information Sharing Needed to Manage the Military's Efforts, 2012). Special Operations Civil Affairs have access to funding provided by the USSOCOM Civil-Military Engagement (CME) Directive 525-38. The CME directive allows for funding special operations-peculiar activities for CA forces. However, funding must be funneled through existing processes at the global combatant commands, defaulting CME directive funds into the same requisition process and regulations as OHDACA funding. (United States Special Operations Command, 2012). CA forces can utilize various State Department programs for funding, but these are often limited in scope or geographic area. The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership exemplifies the use of State Department funds, which has a clause dedicated to developing CMO capacity within the militaries of a limited number of West African countries but does not fund CMO conducted directly by US forces (Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Guiding Strategy, 2014)


The varied and narrow funding sources in existence are also slow to implement. OHDACA funds are requested through the complicated Overseas Humanitarian Assistance Shared Information System (OASIS), requiring approval from various actors at USAID, Chief of Mission concurrence, and accounting offices at the combatant commands parallel to the overall mission approval process, leading to delays in distributing funding (Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 2021). Civil Affairs forces often turn to non-governmental organizations to acquire quicker funding, which is unreliable and reduces US control over operations as the NGO will control the flow of the funds.


Funding Solution

Amend US Code title 10 to allocate CMO funding through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.


Amending title 10 to include a CMO funding allocation administered through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) would provide CA forces across special operations, the Army Reserve, and the Marine Corps Reserve access to dedicated funding. It would detach CA forces from relying on funding through the cumbersome Overseas Humanitarian Assistance Shared Information System (OHASIS) and associated slow approval process.


DOD Directive DODD 5100.01 directs service chiefs to organize, train, equip, and provide special operations forces, doctrine, procedures, and equipment to conduct civil affairs operations and civil-military operations (Department of Defense, 2020). Thus, the services act as civil affairs (CA) force providers for combatant commanders and are responsible for training, manning, and equipping CA forces. They are not responsible for funding civil-military operations that require financing outside of unit sustainment. CMO funding can be allocated similarly to other programs administered by DOD agencies that are not the responsibility of the uniformed services. For example, programs such as Foreign Disaster Relief and Demining Efforts have dedicated sections within US Code Title 10 and are administered by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) (Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 2021).


Cost of Implementation


Not utilizing OHASIS would allow CA forces to draw funds before an operation to be used as the mission's operational tempo dictates in a model similar to a special operations forces operational fund (United States Special Operations Command, 2019). Funds drawn beforehand are accounted for on scheduled reports, restricted items are identified beforehand, and ground force commanders are held accountable for the funds. As roughly a quarter of CA forces are special operations with access to $8 million of Special operations Command's Civil-Military Engagement funding, the cost of implementation for all CA forces would be approximately $88 million annually (Bartos, 2014).




      The 2021 Interim National Security Strategy calls for developing capabilities to better compete and deter gray zone actions (Biden, 2021). CA Forces can compete in the gray zone below the level of armed conflict but lack authorized funding to be effective. Allocating funds appropriately is a cost-effective and innovative way to compete. The cost presented here provides a global capability of approximately the price of just one $80 million F-35 aircraft (Roblin, 2021). Retired Lieutenant General Eric Wesley, the former deputy commander of US Army Futures Command, noted in the 2021 civil Affairs Association Roundtable that CA forces cannot acquire funds fast enough to compete (Wesley, 2021). As CA forces continue to be asked to deploy and compete in the gray zone, they will need the appropriate funding to achieve the nation's objectives.


Author's Note

This work was inspired by the difficulties that the author experienced when funding Civil Affairs Operations. The funding sources that the author had access to were too narrow in scope, slow to administer funds, and were unable to adapt to rapidly changing environments reducing mission effectiveness.

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About the Author(s)

Alan Goodman is a Civil Affairs Officer, having served in the AFRICOM area of responsibility. Alan is currently pursuing a Master's in Public Policy and International Development at American University in Washington DC.