Small Wars Journal

The Oblique Approach to Irregular Warfare: Civil Affairs as the main effort in Strategic Competition

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 7:41pm

The Oblique Approach to Irregular Warfare:

Civil Affairs as the main effort in Strategic Competition


By Juan Quiroz


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wakeup call to U.S policymakers and defense leaders that our approach to Irregular Warfare (IW) requires reevaluation because the conflict has also impacted the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) strategic calculus for annexing Taiwan. If like Russia the PRC resorts to military action to satisfy its territorial ambitions the world would be plunged into economic chaos, and millions of civilians would be caught in the crossfire, to say nothing of the cost to our armed forces. To head off this disastrous scenario, our leaders need a new IW approach that multiplies all aspects of national power (diplomacy, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, law enforcement – DIME-FIL). Instead of focusing hardening partners’ defensive posture to survive large scale conflict, our new approach should proactively disrupt and degrade Chinese influence, depriving the PRC of the diplomatic, informational, and economic tools that set conditions for military action. Because of their training and institutional experience dealing with these non-military domains, U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) forces need to transition from their current role as a supporting effort to maneuver and special operations forces to become the main DoD action arm for future IW campaigns focused on strategic competition.

Why Civil Affairs? (Policy Imperatives, Doctrinal Basis)

            DoD policymakers want an IW approach that prioritizes targeting adversaries’ nonmilitary centers of gravity, rendering violent conflict a nonstarter. The newly-released 2022 National Security Strategy names China and Russia as our primary adversaries, citing their use of disinformation, corruption and economic leverage to undermine democratic governance and promote authoritarianism. To counter their aggression and nonmilitary tools, the NSS calls for a whole-of-government deterrence framework that operates transregionally, across military and nonmilitary domains while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict. The 2022 National Defense Strategy Factsheet also focuses on China and acknowledges the Department of Defense (DoD) must collaborate with interagency partners to deter overt military actions and undermine Chinese coercion tactics. The 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex calls for “proactive, enduring campaigns employing IW capabilities to expand the competitive space, shape the environment, and prepare for escalation to conflict” against near-peer competitors. The Annex also describes Irregular Warfare as “a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy” characterized by “indirect and asymmetric approaches… to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will”. Doctrine supports this interpretation of IW; Joint Publication 3-05 allows for nonviolent IW campaigns, and revisions to Civil Affairs doctrine charge CA forces with developing civilian networks, integrating their actions with military operations, sharing knowledge among diverse partners, and if necessary supporting local governance, a mission set  uniquely tailored for a nonmilitary (oblique) approach (JP 3-05, pg. II-2).  

Civil Network Development and Engagement (CNDE)

            Field Manual 3-57 defines CNDE as activities where “civil network capabilities and resources are engaged, evaluated, developed, and integrated into operations... to bring collective action and/or social or political pressure around an area of common interest” (FM 3-57, pgs. 1-5 – 1-6). An example of civil networks’ potential to thwart competitors’ activities can be seen in the successful campaign by environmentalists and communities to block the construction of a Chinese-financed coal plant in Lamu, Kenya. CA forces, in coordination with joint, interagency, international, and multinational (JIIM) partners, should replicate this example and create deliberate campaigns that disrupt PRC economic and political initiatives. By empowering civil networks to take the lead CA can consolidate gains with a minimal footprint and set conditions for increased U.S. influence in economic and social domains which impact populations more than security cooperation and assistance efforts.

Civil Knowledge Integration (CKI)

            CKI is a process in which “information is collected, analyzed, and evaluated; processed into civil knowledge; and integrated into the planning processes of the supported element, higher headquarters, USG and DOD agencies, international organizations, and NGOs” (FM 3-57, pg. 2-16). Currently CKI is primarily used to inform civil-military operations, and support intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) (FM 3-57, pg. 1-6). However, in strategic competition where diplomacy, development and economics are the preferred methods for winning over contested populations, commanders and DoD entities are not primary beneficiaries of CKI or leading principals of the IW campaign; Department of State (DoS), USAID, IGOs and NGOs are the principals. Although they do not conduct “irregular warfare,” their activities affect the economic, informational, and political domains that policymakers consider crucial to strategic competition. Therefore, commanders and staff, not just tactical CA units, must ensure CKI is applied to nonmilitary partners’ operations, shaping their decision-making processes, and ensuring their activities support DoD IW objectives. CA recommendations have driven USAID development activities, and facilitated humanitarian responses creating mutually beneficial partnerships where diverse stakeholder goals are achieved. By gearing the CKI process towards nonmilitary partners, CA practitioners can empower other organizations to support U.S. national objectives, and conserve DoD resources for other contingencies.

Civil-Military Integration (CMI)

            CMI is the doctrinal requirement for CA to integrate nonmilitary actors into military operations to achieve unity of effort (FM 3-57, pg. 2-20). A recent example can be seen in Ukrainian execution of the Resistance Operating Concept behind Russian lines. U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), including CA teams, worked with Ukrainian armed forces and civil society to prepare for potential Russian aggression and extract costs when feasible. Ideally, CA forces would foster integration between host-nation armed forces and civilian counterparts. But with increasing arms sales and cooperation between Chinese and other armed forces, some of these militaries may not be viable partners for U.S. security efforts. In these cases, CA could integrate host-nation civil networks into U.S. strategic competition efforts, establishing political counterweights to PRC-influenced military establishments.

Transitional Governance (TG)

            TG is comprised of two missions: Support to Civil Administration (SCA) during competition, and Transitional Military Authority (TMA) during stabilization (FM 3-57, pg. 2-6). During SCA missions CA forces work with JIIM and other partners to enhance host-nation governments’ nonmilitary capacities (FM 3-57, pg. 2-9). For example, in 2020 a Civil Affairs team in Mali worked with an NGO and IGO to support a zoonotic-disease prevention program which benefitted agrobusiness and public health in 6 regions, bolstering national authorities’ credibility and local support for U.S. efforts. Through SCA, CA forces can expand U.S.-friendly networks and displace PRC entities as preferred partners for governance support, while filling governance vacuums that serve as incubators for non-state threats. On the other hand, TMA missions focus on reestablishing or continuing government functions until civilian authorities can assume control (FM 3-57, pg. 2-8). CA forces have provided post-conflict governance in regions as varied as Syria and Kosovo, reestablishing telecommunications, law enforcement, education, and disaster management services, preventing governance vacuums that could be exploited by malign state and non-state actors.

Putting Theory into Practice

            Even though CA forces are uniquely suited to achieving U.S. competition objectives in the current geo-political environment, DoD leaders need to commit to three courses of action to maximize CA practitioners’ capability, and by extension optimize DoDs contribution to U.S. competition efforts. First, the active-duty CA force structure needs to be expanded to support more widespread and persistent engagement with relevant populations in states that are subject to PRC influence/coercion campaigns. Currently there are only six active-duty CA battalions and only 5 of these units are aligned to a specific regions, this force structure is frankly inadequate to support the global scale of the challenge facing U.S. policymakers. Growing CA force structure to a similar scale as their Special Forces counterparts, with a brigade-sized element per region, is necessary to for DoD to have enough CA units of action to prosecute IW campaigns wherever the PRC challenges U.S. interests. Second, deploying more CA teams won’t transform our IW approach unless CA leaders are also chosen to command the IW campaigns that are geared towards competition. Outdated doctrine has maintained command of IW-focused task forces as the preserve of Special Forces, MARSOC, and NSW units while CA units and leaders have been relegated to supporting efforts or staff positions. In the era of strategic competition where adversaries are countered through non-military means, this practice has to change and CA leaders need to be selected to fill key leadership billets from tactical task forces up to theater-level commands, and provide a different perspective to the implementation of IW capabilities in competition and other operational contingencies. Third, DoD must establish a dedicated source of funding for CA operations that support competition-focused IW campaigns. This would make planning and execution of operations more seamless as opposed to relying on the current mix of various narrowly-purposed funds that provide paltry sums compared to the multi-million dollar budgets of interagency and civilian counterparts. These three reforms would provide DoD with a CA force that has the manpower, resources, and authority, to implement an IW approach that can effectively compete with PRC initiatives focused on non-military domains. Although this paper focuses on deterrence, the abduction and killing of Ukrainian officials by Russian forces is a reminder that CA must be prepared to reestablish capable and resilient civil governments in the aftermath of PRC-initiated conflicts.

The End of Traditional Irregular Warfare

            Although this paper proposes CA as the main effort of IW, all U.S. military assets are needed. Conventional forces have led and supported counterinsurgency and stabilization missions. The successes cited in this paper were only possible because Special Forces and Psychological Operations Soldiers employed their capabilities in coordination with CA efforts. However, traditional IW frameworks have no response for our adversaries’ new weapons. Russia is withholding gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria to coerce participation in sanction-avoidance schemes. China is exploiting governments’ dependency on infrastructure and commercial investments to establish military footholds. These tactics can only be countered on economic, political, and social battlefields; battlefields that CA forces are uniquely suited to dominate by virtue of their proprietary skills and mission mandates. The U.S. military may not be the leading principal in strategic competition, but to maximize its contribution, it must empower its most capable competition asset, CA practitioners, to lead a new oblique IW approach to render our adversaries powerless without needing to fire a shot.


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About the Author(s)

Juan Quiroz is a Civil Affairs Officer that has deployed to Northwest African and worked as a Training With Industry (TWI) Fellow at Research Triangle Institute (RTI International). He currently works on Civil Affairs Force Modernization. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of his prior or current organizations.