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Summer Essay Campaign #1: “Imagining a Constellation of Capabilities which Navigate Toward Strategic Aims”

To Answer Question #9: “What is the proper relationship between militaries and non-governmental organizations (i.e. the United Nations)?”

By Major Dan Maurer

The question posed by the War Council presumes that there is a “proper relationship”—one that is objectively appropriate to the exclusion of (most) others.   In a way, it echoes most American civil-military relations theory, beginning with Huntington’s, which casts military professionals into a definitive master-servant or principal-agent relationship with civilian authority.[1]  But unlike civil-military relations, the dynamic between a military force and NGOs may not be institutionalized, cemented in law and custom.  Rather than a “proper” form,  I argue that there are relatively better or worse constellations of relationships, with their qualitative value depending more on historical and operational context—which most importantly includes the strategic aim—the raison d’ état—for which the military and NGOs are working in concert (or arguing with each other in contempt).

This recasting of the question implicates the purpose for which militaries are used and the ways and means by which they achieve their purposes—sometimes with, sometimes without, the influence, participation, or engagement with domestic or international NGOs.  Of course, scale, strategy, location all matter but by and large our “purpose” is applying military might on land.  Landpower has been defined in Army doctrine as “the ability—by threat, force, or occupation—to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people.”[2]  “Strategic Landpower” is considered the “application of landpower towards achieving overarching national or multinational (alliance or coalition) security objectives and guidance for a given military campaign or operation.”[3] 

But to help address the relationship between Armed Forces and NGOs, it is possible, and desirable, to take a broader view and attempt to generalize these ideas.  When we do this, the menu of potential arrangements between and among military forces and NGOs gets longer and longer, giving policy-makers that many more choices and opportunities in which to apply the right means, in the right ways, for the given end.  For instance, an actor expresses power by influencing, changing, or controlling the behaviors, expectations, resources, or the capacity to volitionally act among other relevant parties and institutions.  This effect of power becomes “strategic” in quality when it materially advances an actor’s freedom of choice and freedom of action, such that (A) the effect is consistent with that actor’s policy objective that originally animated the expression of power, and/or (B) the effect redirects an adversary’s or a competitor’s actual or perceived policy objectives.[4]  

The strategic quality of their relative expressions of power may be direct or indirect.  It may be caused by actors deliberately or inadvertently.  It will manifest in unpredictable ways.  And it will cause incidental unforeseen effects that will affirm, reverse, or realign the actor’s original motive for expressing its power.  In other words, we cannot predict, produce, or understand the strategic impact of land power without appreciating the simple, realistic, fact that those in uniform are not the only players capable of digging “strategic” craters in which to trip or digging “strategic” canals through which to link resources.  Each of the U.S. Armed Services will retain its own core competencies and historical comparative advantages—those activities or capabilities that can be performed at a lower opportunity cost or smaller disadvantage than its sister Services.  Moreover, each of the U.S. Armed Services will retain its own equities, specific institutional concerns, and competitive advantages—those activities or capabilities that are performed qualitatively better than its sister Services.   Likewise, this is true across Executive Branch organizations, departments, and agencies, and true of NGOs.  There are humanitarian activities for which the specialists in Medecins sans Frontieres are fundamentally more valuable, efficient, and appropriate than a deployed Combat Support Hospital, just as there functions and tasks for which specialists from the Department of Justice are better informed than uniformed attorneys from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, or civilian contractors we hire—depending in context, mission, and resources.

At the most macroscopic of scales, institutional and organizational actors capable of applying or expressing power assume various roles or archetypal functions, just as individuals might.  Depending on context, that organization might be filling the role of advisor, supplier, broker, agent, partner, mentor, scout, director, recruiter, general contractor, general practitioner, leader, organizer, educator, mediator, negotiator, judge, CEO, CFO, trainer, operator, coordinator, triage nurse, or counselor.  Or a blend of some or all of these.  Actors may overlap in roles, and may change roles or trade functions over time, but these roles remain expressions of the actors’ core competencies and comparative and competitive advantages. 

Therefore, the question—changing yet again—is how might these various actors (military, government, NGO) build, sustain, and profit from the shifting and context-dependent relationships that are inevitable if we are applying power strategically on the land.  I offer the following analogy: the medical “integrated practice team.”  Medical professionals generally agree that the best outcomes for patients and most cost-effective use of existing resources and talent is the network: a context-dependent (e.g., patient and ailment) web of general practitioners, surgeons, nurses, administrative staff and “care managers,” therapists, and other community members or clinics organized around holistically addressing a particular patient’s condition.[5]  This multidisciplinary approach is premised, in part, on the obvious point that no singular specialist can do everything without approaching mediocrity—or worse, ineptitude.  This teaming strategy attempts—again, the ideal—to leverage each professional’s best abilities and competencies, and mitigate their individual limitations.  So, perhaps the nascent idea behind the Army’s “global landpower network” ought to be more than simply looking to our international allies and partners for tying together joint military capabilities. [6]  A true Constellation of Capabilities would be a robust and institutionalized networked approach to Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) collaboration and operations.  This constellation would have to be flexible enough to be responsive to evolving, uncertain national security strategies, capable of reacting quickly at low(er) cost to the unpredictable crisis, broadly aware of geographical, political, social, and military developments prior to crises, and adaptive to unforeseen consequences. 

The only way we can come close to the flexibility, reactivity, awareness, and adaptability we all agree we need[7] is to acknowledge that the constellation may look a lot different than our current vision of JIIM, just like modern medical practice looks a lot different from the family practitioner traveling across rural homes and communities with his little black kit bag.  In other words, the new outlines of shapes we see may consist of unconventional or non-traditional “stars,” or simply those previously obscured by the gravity and luminosity of the larger suns we typically see without the mechanical aid of telescopes.  Consider this undesirable hypothetical: if the Army found itself operating in or around say, the “megacity” of Lagos, for a humanitarian mission-turned-counterterrorist operation, would not local paramilitary and city police forces, not to mention civil engineers, neighborhood organizations, hospitals, regional politicians,  sanitation experts, the Red Crescent, local print and broadcast or online media, diplomatic assets, courts, and private industry be sought out as “partner” nodes in a network in which the military formed a hub?  Are they not all material, to some degree, in advancing our freedom of choice and freedom of action, and likely relevant to our ultimate policy objective?[8]

The Joint Staff recognizes that we must be “globally postured” to “quickly combine capabilities with . . . mission partners across domains, echelons, geographic boundaries, and organizational affiliations” in “networks of forces and partners that will form, evolve, dissolve, and reform in different arrangements.”[9]  Of course, networks come with inherent costs and benefits.  Of the former, we can count uncertain political support and resources—internationally and domestically; networks also come in varying degrees of fragility; they are subject to their constituent parts’ competing short-term and long-term interests; they may suffer from “disunity” of command; they require flexibility and patience to  nurture overtime; and—not unimportantly—they may imply the scaling back of traditional roles and missions normally assumed by the actors if they had been acting unilaterally.  On the other hand, networks can be scaled to varying and escalating degrees of conflict and duration; they can be tailored to reflect nuanced missions and the unequal capabilities of the constituent nodes; they encourage collaborative planning and synchronized actions; they can optimize their “strength in numbers;” they offer enhanced ability to discriminately choose where, when, how, and who to engage; and they are able to absorb and respond to external shocks and internal disruptions better than conventional command and control hierarchies.   Moreover, the Army possesses—in house—professional analogues to just about any of the non-military actors that express power strategically on land: doctors (medical service corps officers), diplomats (Foreign Area Officers), engineers (engineers), law enforcement (military police), and media (public affairs).  It is worth considering just how easily we might conceive of these analogues as the links connecting the nodes in this networked, integrated constellation. 

Ultimately, an answer to the question of how to best structure and secure relations between militaries and NGOs is just this: re-imagine these non-traditional “stars” as part and parcel of our now much wider multidisciplinary team—a constellation of capability that adapts, reacts, postures, prevents, and understands how, when, where, and why to express power “strategically.”  Serendipitously, accepting paradigm shift has its consequences: answering this question of NGO-to-military arrangement in this way forces us to reconsider our assumptions and current practices in just about everything we do, from warfighting doctrine to PME, from the “regional alignment of forces” to how we train, recruit, and organize our assets into these constellations.  If we are truly at a point of strategic inflection or transition, then the Army—really, the defense establishment—may need a new constellation by which to navigate these uncharted seas.



Major Dan Maurer is a former combat engineer officer and current judge advocate, and was a 2013-14 Fellow on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. 

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), 16.

[2]Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0.

[3] General Raymond T. Odierno, General James F. Amos, and Admiral William H.  McRaven, “Strategic Landpower White Paper: Winning the Clash of Wills,” available at

[4] My thanks to Captain Paul Thomas, US Army, a colleague on the CSA’s Strategic Studies Group, for help in formulating this conceptualization of “power” and “strategic power.”

[5] See, e.g., Michael E. Porter and Thomas H. Lee, “The Strategy That Will Fix Health Care,” Harvard Business Review, October 2013, available at

[6]See, e.g., Paul McLeary,  “US Army Working With Joint Chiefs to Develop ‘Global Landpower Network,’ News, 13 March 2014 (last accessed 24 June 2014).

[7] General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 (10 September 2012), iii.

[8] See, e.g., Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (London: Vintage Books, 2004), 52.

[9] Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020, 4.