The platoon leader could tell that the crowd was turning against them. A routine patrol through the village earlier that day resulted in the arrest of a criminal leader who was popular in town. Villagers flooded the marketplace to watch as soldiers marched him out in handcuffs. The local government representative put his hands up in a feeble attempt to quell their rising anger, but poor coordination between the platoon and the police rendered the effort futile. The few Americans in the platoon whispered among themselves as the British soldiers stepped up to meet the crowd. An American soldier hesitantly flipped his weapon off safe, unsure of how he was expected to respond and what he was authorized to do. As he struggled with the uncertainty, the mob broke through the ranks of British soldiers and pushed some of the Americans to the ground. Yet just as the situation looked set to spiral out of control, British soldiers slowly but confidently managed to corral the mob away from their American counterparts and reestablish a degree of order. Then a whistle rang through the air. The exercise was over.
While this scene could have taken place in Iraq or Afghanistan, the village was nestled in Hohenfels, Germany. The angry villagers? Actors from nearby towns. Every year, cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst go through this training as part of the culminating exercise of their forty-four-week commissioning experience. The exercise described above took place in 2019, when we were both United States Military Academy cadets. One of us was part of an exchange program with Sandhurst at the time and participated in the exercise. But while Kevin was experiencing the challenges of civil interactions in this dynamic environment, Bryce was in a patrol base in a training area at West Point, planning missions with a red-light headlamp. The exercise he was a part of was supposed to simulate the difficulty of conducting missions in near-peer conflict. Curiously, the ten-day romp through upstate New York required no interactions between cadets and civil authorities.
Both of these training events had the same goal: to prepare junior officers for future conflict. The training in the United States, however, did not seem to place a premium on civil interactions. This may spell trouble for junior officers as the Department of Defense pivots to integrated deterrence as the basis of US defense strategy going forward. Integrated deterrence takes a whole-of-government approach to defense that seeks to combine the United States’ instruments of national power. The Army’s current doctrine makes junior leaders aware that they need to cooperate with civilians and other outside partners but does very little in terms of training to prepare them for it.
Operation Allies Refuge, the mass relocation of civilians following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, offers an extreme example of integration. In Rota, Spain, the United States erected a refugee camp in partnership with the Spanish government. Soldiers based out of Vilseck, Germany were alerted and two days later found themselves in Spain running security for the camp with officials from the Department of State, the Spanish Navy, and the US Navy. Two years after his experience during the exercise in Hohenfels, Kevin deployed as a platoon leader in the company sent to Spain and found himself leading soldiers through a host of interactions with a variety of civilians and organizations. Rota posed a unique challenge to his soldiers as they had to learn to follow the operational processes of the US Navy while coordinating with officials from the Department of State and nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross.
While many of the senior leaders had some experience with these kinds of operations, very few of the junior soldiers had spent any time deployed in an environment with heavy civil considerations. While Kevin was witness to that lack of experience in Rota, Bryce was fortunate to observe the big-picture conversations between Department of Defense officials and interagency partners while he supported the mission at the US embassy in Madrid. By definition, integrated deterrence will require more of these kinds of interagency partnerships, and while it is easy to think of this as a strategic issue, it affects the operational and tactical levels. But without the proper training, junior leaders will be unable to pivot to the complex environments that require joint, interagency, and multinational considerations. This is a problem that the Army must solve—and the time to do so is now.
Incorporating Civil Interactions into Basic Officer Leader Courses
Operation Allies Refuge was a short-notice mission. Tactical leaders had about two days between receipt of the mission and touchdown in Spain to prepare their plan for the camp. Given such a tight window, most units had to rely on the training they already had when planning for the mission. The tool used to analyze mission variables requires tactical leaders to take civilian considerations into account during their mission planning. In practice, however, the way this tool is taught takes an extremely limited view of what civilian considerations entail. Basic officer leader courses and cadet training exercises like the one Bryce experienced teach it only as a way to mitigate civilian casualties during isolated combat operations. This approach does not account for the post-battle environment. With few opportunities to train on civilian interactions after initial training, what is taught in basic officer leader courses is reflected in practice. While soldiers in Rota were proficient in creating security plans for traditional battlefields, they were not prepared for the many complications that come with executing this same plan with civilians in a joint, interagency environment.
Kevin’s first deployment to Afghanistan required similar cooperation with civil leaders. His company was responsible for the security of a school that was being built in a village. To support this mission, his platoon leader had to engage local leaders and build goodwill among the villagers by bringing small gifts for children, all while coordinating with the provincial reconstruction teams. Kevin was fortunate to build upon relationships that had been formed in the region over the last decade. Leaders will not have the same luxury when they arrive in dynamic and contested environments in the future.
In fact, the mission US forces undertook in Afghanistan—and Iraq—is largely responsible for the limited preparation for working with civilians that US military personnel might have gotten. During rotations at the combat training centers and in a few other training environments, the scenarios for several years were based on counterinsurgency and stability operations, and at least some of these scenarios included civilian role players. But these training opportunities were too few—and often had too few role players—and the scenarios that emphasized civilian interaction have since been mostly replaced with those centered on large-scale combat operations in training areas devoid of noncombatants. This is precisely the problem: we recognized that encounters with civilians were intrinsic to counterinsurgency and stability operations, but we somehow seem to expect that civilians will not also be present during operations in a new and different strategic environment.
To remedy this, basic officer leader courses need to prepare their students to better communicate with civilians and civil leaders. The United States would benefit from taking cues from our multinational partners who already incorporate civilian interactions into their commissioning programs more widely. The scenario outlined in the introduction is not the only civilian dilemma that Sandhurst incorporates in its program. Cadets respond to car crashes, resolve domestic disputes, and negotiate with civil leaders, all of which are ambiguous situations leaders are certain to encounter in large-scale conflict. These types of incidents may seem minor, but they help shape the narratives surrounding the battlefield. Like the blocks of instruction dedicated to enablers such as engineers and aviation, basic officer leader courses should incorporate lessons on expected civil-military interactions during large-scale combat and test them during their culminating exercises. Including civilian interactions into these courses will cement critical lessons learned, often at great cost, during America’s post-9/11 wars, repurpose them for a competitive environment and the prospect of large-scale combat operations, and ultimately better enable junior leaders to plan for the post-battle civil considerations that will shape future battlefields.
Integrating Doctrinal Tools for Civil Considerations
While Kevin’s unit deployed to Rota to provide security, soldiers found themselves conducting a variety of tasks that were outside this mission set. One of the most important was maintaining peace within the camp. Soldiers often had to mediate disputes between evacuees and distribute supplies from the donation center outside the camp. Soldiers not trained in Afghan culture found themselves frustrated when they witnessed some interactions between men and women in the camp. Without being briefed on the Department of State’s procedures for dealing with these kinds of disputes, leaders ran the risk of having a soldier harm the mission by having a hot-tempered response to a perceived injustice.
Junior leaders must be prepared to analyze the second- and third-order effects that their actions have on the civil landscape during large-scale combat operations. Rota was tame compared to the potential crises that could occur during such operations, but our current training did not prepare us even for this environment. Displaced persons, civil-military cooperation, and moral-ethical dilemmas are certain features of a large-scale conflict. Servicemembers will not have the opportunity to learn on the job as they did in Rota when working with civilians, refugees, and nongovernmental organizations.
Doctrinal guidance on such matters exists, but it is often reserved for units that deal specifically with civilian populations. Under the integrated deterrence strategy, the Army cannot assume that junior leaders will have timely support from these units when they are deployed. Past combat missions in Bosnia and Afghanistan reveal that company-level leaders are often responsible for negotiating with civilian leaders on their own. The Army could draw on existing doctrine such as the graduated response matrices used by military police to train tactical leaders on how to navigate these complex situations in the absence of dedicated civil affairs personnel.
Increasing Familiarization with Interagency Partners
Doctrine must also expand its view on coordination with joint and interagency partners. The US Army’s current capstone doctrine assumes that in unified action—“the synchronization, coordination, and/or integration of the activities of governmental and nongovernmental entities with military operations to achieve unity of effort”—military units are equal to their civilian counterparts. But in integrated deterrence, military units can be subordinate to civilian organizations. In Rota, Army soldiers conducted a shaping operation for the Department of State when they provided security for officials processing evacuees through the biometric systems. This created friction when civilian officials gave orders to soldiers on guard as there was confusion about who had the authority over them. In these situations, junior leaders need to be better prepared to work in situations where hierarchies and missions are not neatly aligned.
Tactical leaders will have to know how to work with interagency partners. Other agencies, such as USAID, already have programs that integrate members of the Department of Defense into their organizations. The Army should support these efforts. Learning how to take cues from authorities outside their traditional chain of command may be the biggest hurdle for soldiers. To remove this hurdle, the US Army could build upon the current doctrine of unified action to familiarize leaders with the mission and hierarchy of the interagency partners. For select junior officers, the Army could set up short exchanges with other agencies—perhaps not as long as those that are available to majors and above, but arguably just as valuable because it would establish a baseline of understanding earlier in a career. These officers could then take their knowledge and distribute it across the force. By increasing the understanding of other agencies at the lowest levels, the Army will be better prepared to support these agencies on the ground when the need arises.
Linking Tactics to Strategy
Critics of integrated deterrence have remarked that the concept does not seem to differentiate itself much from previous strategic concepts. Regardless of integrated deterrence’s novelty, Operation Allies Refuge showed us how the US Army could better prepare junior leaders for complex future operations. Today, junior officers need to be prepared for integrated environments that include, joint, interagency, and multinational coordination. Operation Allies Refuge offered a great view into what this future may look like, and based on our experience, considering these suggestions would help the Army to fill in the gaps we observed during this mission. Of course, junior officers’ contributions are at the tactical level, and their focus must be, as well. But we are also the ones that execute the principles of strategic-level concepts like integrated deterrence during joint, interagency, or multinational operations.
These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, but we believe they represent basic steps that the Army can take to ensure that its tactical leaders are in sync with the new strategic vision for the Department of Defense. Making changes like these is difficult, but certainly less difficult than accepting the consequences of failing to properly prepare junior leaders for the challenges they will face.
1st Lt. Bryce Johnston is a military intelligence officer who studied as a Fulbright scholar at the IE School of Global and Public Affairs in Madrid, Spain. While he was there, he supported the Defense Attaché Office during Operation Allies Refuge. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and a native of Leawood, Kansas.
1st Lt. Kevin Shinnick is an infantry platoon leader currently assigned to 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment with prior enlisted service as an NCO in the 75th Ranger Regiment. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and a native of Milford, Massachusetts.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: A soldier observes Afghan evacuees as they board a flight at Naval Station Rota, Spain, Sept. 8, 2021. (Credit: Sgt. Claudia Nix, US Marine Corps)