The ongoing and concurrent counterinsurgent and counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, and more recently in South East Asia demonstrate the value of increased harmonization between military and civilian activities, which delivers tangible benefits for both. A range of governments are investing time, money, and effort into developing the requisite civilian and military interoperability and the products of these efforts have been made available for evaluation. One example is The Good Operation, which was commissioned and drafted by the UK Ministry of Defence in 2017 to identify a pathway to improve how decision-makers plan for and execute security and stability operations such as the establishment of a whole-of-government approach to national security.

There is no “default” military-centric response in a true whole-of-government conflict resolution strategy. The primary objective of a comprehensive approach is to achieve multidimensional and system-wide effects in multinational and interagency operations. When a new national security strategy is developed, or when an existing strategy—such as the coalition’s strategy to address transnational threats across all the areas of operation outlined above—is refined, it is vital that every appropriate lever available to the government can, and should, be part of the planning process as well as the implementation process. Theoretically, as the UK MoD document explains, a “’good operation’ is not just about having the best possible policy, strategy and force to deploy.” Practically, however, a fundamental criterion of national security in the twenty-first century—“whether ‘kinetic’ or ‘non-kinetic’; whether relatively straightforward or complex; whether politically acceptable or demanding and difficult”—is a true whole-of-government approach.

Individual relationships are the cornerstone of sustained trust-oriented engagement, yet people come and go, especially in the civilian public service sector. Therefore, a legacy of cooperation at an institutional level (military to military) serves as a foundation for sustained engagement. Mirroring the benefits of ongoing relationships at an individual level, enhanced interagency engagement improves the understanding of “other” agencies, their organizational cultures, and their strength and weaknesses. For example, the military, operates on a strong foundation of core values and a philosophy which prioritises for example tradition, ritual, courage, honour, respect uniformity, camaraderie, and importantly service before self which both emboldens those within its ranks and those for which it serves, as well as providing structure and a significant level of reproducibility.[i] While intrastate stakeholders have the “luxury” of not having to overcome sociocultural impediments, by developing links, opening dialogue, and promoting credibility through professional competency, these actions generate trust and a willingness to proactively coordinate with each other because joint force–oriented agencies see the benefits of working together. Transitioning this comprehensive, integrated approach to multinational interagency operations also addresses the problem of overstretched capacities as each organization brings a complementary skillset to the combined effort.

Improved civ-mil cooperation and integration (often referred to as CIMIC) through a “Joint Assessment of Conflict and Stability” framework generates a comprehensive understanding of current and future strategic realities. Civ-mil integration overcomes groupthink by challenging concepts, ideas, and mindsets through diversity, improves critical strategic foresight, and most significantly, aligns diplomatic outreach with defense objectives and capabilities. This way, stakeholders negotiate coalition position with a clear political objective. Moreover, this “speaking with one voice” approach improves a state’s strategic communications—internationally, domestically, and in theatre. In addition, improved collaboration facilitates a better understanding of our respective organizations’ capabilities and needs. If the relevant stakeholders are all “on the same page” regarding mission objectives, budget and procurement debates should be less politicized and acquisition processes expedited. An important outcome of enhanced interagency decision-making comes from an environment that replicates external oversight without the bureaucracy (delays, costs, legislation, etc.) involved in developing an external auditor.

This simple, yet invaluable outcome generates credibility in and of the process. Moreover, this self-reflection helps to reduce over-confidence and over-commitment to a flawed strategy founded in prospect theory, confirmation bias, optimism bias or any other groupthink-like influencing factors which limit one’s cognitive ability. A great practical example of this was the Millennium Challenge training exercise which was designed to test US readiness for a looming invasion of Iraq. Julian Borger recalled that “in the first few days of the exercise, using surprise and unorthodox tactics,” retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper playing the role of Saddam Hussein, “sank most of the US expeditionary fleet in the Persian Gulf, bringing the US assault to a halt. . . . Faced with an abrupt and embarrassing end to the most expensive and sophisticated military exercise in US history, the Pentagon top brass simply pretended the whole thing had not happened.”

When civ-mil leadership understand each other’s contributions toward the common defense mission, the department is more effective in applying the military ways and means toward the nation’s political ends. Military personnel who learn from civilian colleagues are better leaders in their next command, and can explain the political context and department-level strategy behind military operations to the troops. Conversely, the situation from the battlespace is communicated back to decision-makers, and the insight this produces forms the basis for the strategic assumptions that underpin the “next” strategy. The breadth and depth of input into the decision-making process enhances buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. Likewise, while the breadth of interagency and multinational engagement increases the complexity of the decision-making process (naturally, as there are more actors involved), interagency personnel bring diverse perspectives, which combine to generate a comprehensive picture.

Civilian stakeholders should augment the decision-making process by leveraging individual networks, experience and knowledge to articulate, perhaps an alternative, analysis of the political and military drivers of the state, as well as the drivers of its partners and opponents. All stakeholders need to understand that diversity does not equal contradiction. Approaching a common problem from multiple perspectives can not only produce a comprehensive solution to a current issue, it also provides multiple contingencies for decision-makers to draw from for future scenarios. A range of strategic options, produced in a collaborative manner, is much easier to present to a domestic public in order to generate support for potentially protracted overseas deployment. Moreover, reputation is an important factor within an alliance or coalition structure, as well as signaling a history of intent to potential opponents. For example, from a legacy or defense-oriented engagement, Australia has “established a reputation as a reliable partner, perhaps with fewer ulterior and clearer motives and clearer strategic interests than other countries.”

Another action undertaken by the Australian government is consulting select regional states during the drafting of its Defence and Foreign Policy White Papers, an overt effort to build trust and generate strategic transparency which will minimize unfavorable assumptions about Australia’s intent. While this level of outreach may not be palatable for all states, it is possible to apply this model domestically. In the United States, consultation between the Defense and State Departments during the drafting of a National Defense Strategy would avoid some issues that emerged after the release of the 2018 NDS, which announced that competition with near-peer major powers “are the principal priorities” for the United States, not international terrorism. While the statement may reflect DoD reality, subsequent commentary from non-DoD government officials that question the shift in priorities undermined the Defense Department and the NDS. It’s difficult to effectively articulate, and justify, that a threat which has been presented as ultimately existential for the past sixteen years is no longer the number one priority. It’s extremely important that government representatives ‘speak with one voice and this effort could be lessened by insuring relevant whole-of-government agencies are accustom to the type of language used. For example, partner agencies should have used Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford’s 4+1 framework (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Islamic violent extremism) in discussions concerning the 2018 NDS. The 4+1 framework is a known quantity in the national security sector and manages to aggregate the past, present, and future threat landscape.

Improved civ-mil engagement also ensures that any operational caveats are developed through a consensus-based process which should, ideally, not hinder the military’s ability to achieve its mission objective. States often get into difficulty by deciding to engage an opponent and then undermining the efforts of the force by generating operational caveats to placate political opposition or public concerns. Conversely, a lack of cross-government consultation can leave a partner vulnerable to exploitation within a coalition. For example, the 2016 Chilcot Report, which investigated the UK’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, concluded that “the UK failed to negotiate a satisfactory place in the coalition” at all levels (2016: 62,80, 82, 123). This vulnerable position allows dynamic events on the ground to obfuscate overarching strategic intent. For example, The Good Operation stresses that “additional commitments are being assumed without full exposure of the implications at the strategic decision-making level—the tactical tail is wagging the strategic dog.”

Once a decision has been made to deploy military force to achieve a political objective two components must be guaranteed. The first is military readiness: the force must be able to engage in the mission until the objective is achieved. Thus civ-mil decision-making must include the readiness status or the resources to achieve the desired state of readiness before the decision to deploy is made. There is always a financial component to national security strategy and this needs to be articulated to the public in parallel to efforts to explain the reasons to engage in conflict. Of course, it would be great to allocate the necessary funding to fulfill the military wish list; however, this is not possible or even ideal in a whole-of-government approach to national security. If the strategy is clear on the need for the military instrument, decision-makers also need to be clear how it’s integrated with other instruments of power available. While diplomacy would be a continuous process, other elements such as aid and reconstruction need to be planned for and the relevant departments involved in the planning process.

The Good Operation report emphasizes that the narrative “needs to be communicated to the various audiences it affects, globally, domestically and in-theatre, offering coherent, if not identical, messages to different audiences. Political, diplomatic, economic and social communications activities need to take place in tandem with any military dimension; and strategic communications should be managed as closely as the military campaign” (emphasis added). In fact, coherence and duplication of message are one in the same in effective strategic communication, before, during, and after a conflict. In the case of the current “forever wars,” this ideal form of strategic communications is an increasingly critical component of a state’s national security strategy. Moreover, the impact from the operation may occur well outside the area of operation. There may be second- and third-order consequences that not only impact partner nations on the periphery of the area of operations, but can also have domestic implications (e.g., migration, terrorism, organized crime, nefarious information operations, cyber campaigns, etc.).

The Royal College of Defence Studies identifies four overriding strategic guidelines that should influence the development of strategy: first, the need for a comprehensive understanding in advance of key decision and military deployments; second, the need for clarity of the desired end-state to be achieved; third, the need for a built-in capability to adapt to changing situations; and fourth, the need, at the political level, to think through the potential unintended consequences of using offensive military action in pursuit of policy aims. The Good Operations specifies another benefit of an enhanced civ-mil pre-engagement decision-making process: the development of a “credible, evidence-based process for regular review of achievement against the strategy/plan.” That means setting achievable and measurable milestones, with effective integration of civilian and military objectives; and reviewing achievement of these milestones regularly and realistically, based upon on-the-ground realities, and not adjusted to meet campaign or political objectives.

The Good Operation concludes with three recommended metrics of mission evolution. Firstly, “do the strategic objectives for the campaign remain valid?” Secondly, “are the military strategic objectives still aligned with the policy intent?” And thirdly, “are resources still aligned with objectives?” These metrics could be assessed through an entity such as the UK government’s Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (JACS). The JACS is a replicable whole-of-government assessment model to be incorporated not just into the pre- and post-conflict planning stage, but “at all stages of conflict.” The JACS Guidance Note stipulates that a JACS should “systematically explore the causes of the conflict, its main actors, the key drivers and triggers, and existing opportunities to reduce instability and promote peace.” By also making it replicable, it is also transferrable to other missions, which allows accurate comparisons and the accumulation of true lessons learned.

It’s important to view contemporary national security–oriented missions as nonlinear, and recognize that international actions will be conducted concurrently across differing lines of effort. We need to be able to see past particular elements of any one mission—be it the security mission, the diplomatic mission, or the aid mission—and see it as a part of a greater whole-of-government approach to meeting not only the strategic objectives of a state or coalition, but also that of the host nation. We need to have high-level strategic policy alignment for international contingencies and we need to establish a structure that aligns interagency coordination across all of our activities. This means establishing an institutional methodology to share information through multiagency task forces to holistically manage missions. This structure filters down to the operational environment, where deployed personnel prosecute a national and multilateral coalition effort. Transitioning a whole-of-government approach from whiteboard to reality requires that all engaged understand the role they play in an integrated team effort to achieve a state’s national security objectives.


*As opposed to repeatability, which suggests predictability. If a mechanism or method (the military) is tested multiple times using the same method and achieved the same result, the data is said to be repeatable. If a mechanism or method is tested using a different method and got the same result, the result is referred to as reproducible.


Patrick Blannin (@PatrickBlannin) is a PhD Candidate, teaching fellow, and research assistant at Bond University, Queensland, Australia. Mr. Blannin’s doctoral research focuses on the role and scope of defense diplomacy in contemporary counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. He has published a research monograph titled Defence Diplomacy in the Long War (Brill) as well as peer-reviewed journal articles on topics related to transnational terrorism (organizations, funding sources and counter-measures).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Senior Airman Alexandra Hoachlander, US Air Force