To advance its global interests and fulfill its responsibilities, the United States dispatches its military forces around the world—a lot. Even after the conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reduced the number of US forces abroad, there are two hundred thousand of them spread across a majority of the world’s countries. Moreover, the inconclusive outcomes of the wars that defined my generation’s military service have led to a pendulum swing away from large troop deployments toward smaller, primarily partnered missions, like the effort to defeat the Islamic State beginning in 2014, or less obviously military ones, like tasking units to support South America during hurricane season. This latter category will likely be the main focus of a large share of military deployments in the years ahead. While the National Security Strategy places competition with China and Russia at the top of its priorities, the US military will continue responding to crises that are not predominantly military in character. The Department of Defense will have to prepare for a large-scale conflict scenario—its chief responsibility—by increasing its lethality, modernizing its systems, and overcoming recruiting challenges while simultaneously being asked to deploy around the world for purposes besides combat.

A brief survey of the world bears this out. Despite DoD’s focus on strategic competition, the category of activities that used to be termed “military operations other than war” have not ceased. The Air Force is currently dropping food into Gaza, the Navy is tasked with constructing a floating dock on the Gaza coast, and the Army will build the pier, to take just one example. Besides conflict, extreme weather events caused by climate change are likely to lead to ever more military deployments to provide assistance.

Not all deployments require a brigade combat team, Marine air-ground task force, or special operations task force. Experience has shown, for instance, that when deploying a conventional battalion or brigade in these cases, like when the 82nd Airborne Division was sent to Haiti after a 2010 earthquake, there can be a mismatch between the unit’s enemy- and terrain-centric operations cycle and the actual operational requirements. On top of this, each of these prospective missions can be so complex that significant coordination, intelligence analysis capacity, and synchronization between disparate actors will be necessary to achieve any kind of sustainable outcome. When policymakers want to address problems without a predominant military character, they should be able to deploy a force that is not structured, equipped, and trained to seize terrain or destroy the enemy. A unit built explicitly for engaging with a mission’s prominent civil dimension should be a realistic option. The concept of a civil affairs task force (CATF) exists in the Army’s most recent Civil Affairs doctrine, but a more robust, flexible, and scalable version of it would meet the requirements of these missions without demanding growth in an Army actively reducing troop size. A CATF would be able to contribute to a multilateral mission even without putting US troops on the ground. It would instead ingest reporting from partners, analyze reports to identify the immediate threats to stability or civil needs, assist the State Department and other agencies translate understanding into influence, and provide access to US logistical capabilities. Properly employed, it will be a better option than expecting combat formations to be adaptable when dealing with missions they did not train for.

CATF Capabilities and Functions

The Department of Defense does not have a rapidly deployable unit capable of directly monitoring and leveraging elements of the civil dimension in support of operations. Geographic combatant commands, Army corps headquarters, and interagency partners cannot request or field this capability to respond to crises. One possible way to address this gap is by formalizing the CATF as a scalable unit responsible for directly monitoring and leveraging elements of the civil dimension during crisis or conflict. In a crisis, the CATF would rapidly deploy to coordinate with partners, increase information sharing, and direct limited humanitarian assistance or disaster relief if needed. Depending on its mission, it can also cede the lead role to a national or international partner, acting in support. The CATF can build on persistent diplomatic and military efforts conducted prior to a crisis while simultaneously providing situational awareness, access, and placement to inform military and civilian decision-makers. It would do this primarily by advancing three lines of effort.

First, it would integrate civil knowledge at echelon. Just like modern combat, where commanders receive more data than they can analyze, the amount of information in the civil dimension greatly exceeds any staff’s analytical ability to draw conclusions. Emerging applications of artificial intelligence, well-trained staffs, and fusion centers will be necessary. While DoD is currently focused on using technology to speed up the kill chain and share awareness, properly drawing out conclusions for a given area’s civil picture will be vital to understanding an operational environment. A robust civil knowledge integration section would collate, analyze, and disseminate relevant reporting and other pertinent information from the civil dimension to answer a commander’s information requirements, support operations, and increase situational awareness. This section’s products should all be made unclassified, which will simplify sharing them to other actors without the problem of overclassification endemic to military intelligence products.

Second, it would coordinate with joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners through a civil-military operations center to increase engagement with civil elements that can support friendly force objectives and maneuver. Better knowledge of what other actors are doing in an area of operations is important for many reasons, from preventing tragedy to making better use of limited resources. The civil-military operations center can be located inside or outside of the area of operations, based on conditions and where the majority of partners are willing to deploy to.

Finally, it would direct subordinate civil affairs or other assigned units to support the previous two lines of effort. These forces are specifically tasked to engage with the civil component to enhance understanding or identify information requirements. If necessary, the subordinate units can also work closely with local stakeholders—such as partner militaries or governments—to set the theater to enhance friendly maneuver and support consolidation of gains. This may take a range of forms, from enabling airfield or seaport surveys by experts to validating assumptions made by logistics planners.

CATF Structure

Most operational-level Army and joint headquarters include a civil-military or similar staff directorate, often led by a civil affairs officer. These sections can assist commanders in understanding the civil dimension, but they lack the scale to properly analyze the necessary data to make useful recommendations for targeting or operations. To make the CATF a reality would require support from US Army Special Operations Command, which has five active duty civil affairs battalions and a single brigade capable of forming the Army core of a CATF. There is significantly more capacity in the reserve component, but mobilizing reserve units takes time that may not exist when responding to a crisis.

Currently, CATFs are described doctrinally as “temporarily task-organized formations,” which means they are formed for specific missions. The CATF model outlined here would not be a permanent formation, but would be an enhanced version of the current, ad hoc concept. Civil affairs units would train to execute the staff processes needed to conduct mission command and advance the lines of effort. Proper training will ensure the battalions or brigade can merge the capacity to process reporting from friendly units, employ forces tasked with engaging with the civil population, and engage with joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners under a single commander. In a situation where the deployment is to a civil or humanitarian crisis, the CATF can integrate DoD capabilities with the expertise multinational and nongovernmental organizations bring to the table. Civil affairs teams and companies already do this every day, on every continent, but good staff work at higher echelons is hard and takes practice.

Civil Considerations in Wartime

The CATF’s value is not limited to nonconflict scenarios. Warfighting remains the core function of the US military, and the CATF can assist commanders tasked with conducting it. In large-scale combat operations, the CATF would deploy subordinate to a special operations joint task force, combined joint task force, or other headquarters as directed. As in a noncombat deployment, the civil knowledge integration and intelligence sections would ingest reporting from multiple sources—to include open-source information, relevant joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners’ data, and friendly forces’ reporting—to build a unified civil environment common operational picture. While conventional targeting working groups and cycles are common to all operations (including nonlethal targeting), the CATF’s analysis can help commanders understand second- and third-order effects of their decisions. It can also operate beyond the area of hostilities to identify potential challenges to lines of communication, as states along resupply routes may be hesitant to appear party to the conflict.

During large-scale combat operations and the following consolidation of gains, Army doctrine states that a CATF can assist unit commanders when their organic ability cannot meet the civil needs of their areas of operations. This doctrine is mostly theoretical and untested, since the Army ends most combat exercises, including combat training center rotations, with the conclusion of large-scale combat. Nor does it often invite units with civil-military expertise to participate, other than as very small teams or companies assigned to maneuver forces in a limited supporting role. For commanders who will end up controlling battlespace, this risks making the civil dimension something that can be ignored, until angry towns start disrupting supply convoys or harboring insurgents. While I am not advocating that a brigade combat team should have to share a training exercise with a CATF, more exercises should continue past the conclusion of hostilities.

As the continued plight of civilians in Gaza, Sudan, and Ukraine demonstrates, war is a tragedy for those who endure it. And as these and other conflicts prove time and time again, failing to address the needs of a civil population makes achieving acceptable political goals more difficult. The United States and its partners destroyed the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Syria, but without the political will to deal with the refugee camp in al-Hol, Turkey’s enmity against the Kurds, and Bashar al-Assad’s de facto victory, the country remains wracked by violence. While no military element can overcome a failure of policy, the CATF stands a better chance of fusing together various stakeholders to make progress.

Opportunities and Limitations

As has been analyzed elsewhere, the Army’s 1st Special Forces Command recently reorganized its civil affairs and psychological operations battalions to place them under the command of their respective Special Forces groups. The intent is to subordinate all regionally aligned Army special operations to a single commander to improve unity of effort. This presents an opportunity. The current civil affairs brigade headquarters, now (mostly) relieved of its responsibility to train and support the battalions, should be able to train for operational deployments as described in this article.

The US Army has a well-deserved reputation for having a manual for everything, and stability operations are no different. This doctrine outlines the Army’s stability operations tasks: establish civil security; conduct security cooperation; support civil control; restore essential services; support to governance; and support to economic and infrastructure development. Training exercises should illuminate where the doctrine works, and where it needs changes. In addition, the Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the Army War College is able to incorporate nonmilitary partners into tabletop and other exercises, which will have the benefit of increasing awareness of this capability, while helping military planners understand what prospective partners would expect in a crisis.

I am not advocating a return to military governance operations or arguing that the Department of Defense get back into the business of nation-building. The CATF is a concept built to respond to crisis, not long-term commitments like those in Iraq or Afghanistan. What distinguishes the CATF from other units typically assigned to respond to a crisis is that it can specially train to work with partners to address a problem that can’t simply be bombed into submission.

Major Walter Haynes is a civil affairs officer who most recently served as the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade training chief.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Sidney Sale, US Army