As President Joe Biden advocates for the largest infrastructure development project in history, critics are claiming that efforts to train workers in new skills, to provide in-home medical care for the disabled, and to support energy-efficient transportation do not count as infrastructure development. Military doctrine seems to share this thinking: that infrastructure does not include people, ideas, social networks, or anything other than physical structures. As we might assess from the recent condo collapse in Miami or our limited success in developing lasting infrastructure in Afghanistan, we are doing something wrong. I suggest that one of our failures—one we can readily address—is an inadequate and flawed understanding of what infrastructure is.

The military has a historical connection to the word infrastructure. As anthropologist Ashley Carse points out, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition specifically refers to “the permanent installations forming a basis for military operations, [such as] airfields, naval bases, training establishments, etc.” But this understanding of infrastructure—obsessed with physical buildings, roads, pipes—does not fully represent the US military’s use of the term; nor is it entirely useful for the military’s efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives overseas. If this narrow view of infrastructure limits our ability to perform, perhaps we should look at it differently.

As it turns out, we can view infrastructure through an entirely different lens, one that is more inclusive and treats infrastructure as a rapidly evolving system of various parts in a flexible network. Brian Larkin, for example, an anthropology professor at Columbia University, suggests that we should not focus on what infrastructure is as much as how it impacts the communities built from it. In a 2013 article, Larkin introduces a useful and broad definition: “Infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.” He does not focus on the physical makeup of the infrastructure—there is no attempt to establish whether it is made of people, roads, or wires. Rather, he centers on the exchanges that take place across vast networks of connections and ultimately form the basis of our societies. Infrastructure, through this lens, includes things like medical care and professional training because it views the people within the system as an integral part of the infrastructural network: connecting structures to the communities they are intended to serve.

While Larkin provides a useful definition of the term, military doctrine does not. In fact, there is no current definition for infrastructure found in joint doctrine. Strangely, the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms uses the term infrastructure thirty-four times but never defines it. How can this be? Is infrastructure so well understood that we all know its meaning? Do we all know what it is composed of? Usually, DoD is outstandingly dedicated to the minutiae of detail surrounding specific words and their nuanced definitions, but in this instance, joint doctrine fails to define the term altogether. This oversight is disconcerting for a word that is used so regularly and around which so many missions are centered.

Through an analysis of doctrine and by examining how the military thinks of infrastructure, we can see that the relationship is awkward at best. The military is confused by the word and tries to make it fit different situations with haphazard modifications, but there is no clear foundational concept of what it includes and what it does not. Understanding this limitation, we can see how this lack of clarity leads to operational failures and recognize the need for a more comprehensive and universal definition. We might even agree that Larkin’s definition (or something similar) should be added to the DOD Dictionary and applied elsewhere throughout the joint publications.

How the Military Defines Infrastructure

To begin with, let’s look at the most readily available definition of infrastructure that obsolete military doctrine has to offer. By readily available, I am referring to the ease with which the average servicemember can find the definition. This is important because most of us do not walk around with a library of doctrinal references in our back pockets. Resources must be quickly accessible to serve the warfighter. A Google search for “Army infrastructure definition” leads to two references: Joint Publication (JP) 4-01.8, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Joint Reception, Staging Onward Movement, and Integration (replaced by JP 4-01, The Defense Transportation System in 2017) and a Wikipedia page that defines “military infrastructure” from a 2005 revision of the DOD Dictionary. Both of these references are no longer current and have since been replaced. No current publications have any definition for infrastructure. Instead, references provide examples in a list—such as telephone wires, fiber-optic cables, or satellite dishes to hone us in on communications infrastructure—or modify the term to provide more specificity, like critical infrastructure, foreign infrastructure, and civil infrastructure. These terms narrow the focus but still leave a lot of room for interpretation. Since there is nothing in current doctrine for the overarching term itself, let us move forward with the only definition we can find, outdated as it is.

The 2000 edition of JP 4-01.8 defines infrastructure as “all building and permanent installations necessary for the support, redeployment, and military forces operations [sic] (e.g., barracks, headquarters, airfields, communications, facilities, stores, port installations, and maintenance stations).” This definition is entirely focused on the physical support structures necessary for enabling troops to accomplish a mission. It views infrastructure as a set of physical structures through which people, equipment, and information move. It does not allow for the people, the equipment, or the information to be a part of the infrastructure itself. Furthermore, the definition makes no distinction between installations that are friendly, enemy, or neutral, obscuring the fact that infrastructure can itself serve as a threat or a direct source of combat power.

This definition can cause serious problems. As an example, it leaves no room to consider a civilian school as a piece of infrastructure unless it is being used by the military in some way. Even though a school is an integral part of public, educational, and social infrastructures, this definition does not allow us to see it that way. Unless it was occupied by an enemy force, a soldier on the ground would probably pass by the school without seriously considering it at all. Imagine how this impacts a unit tasked to support stability operations. As the commander passes the school, she would see nothing but a toneless backdrop to her operation—a gray background, merely the setting in which her mission takes place. Such infrastructure would not register to her as something to be interacted with at all; neither friendly nor enemy, it would be classified as neutral. She would likely pass by without giving it a second thought.

Unfortunately for our commander and her mission, the school she ignores might actually be a piece of key terrain. As an essential part of the community, it could be the most influential structure in a network of connections that unite the people with the government and keep the enemy at bay. A school serves many functions: it is a place where parents send their children to learn, a uniting system where the government exercises its legitimacy and provides for the common good, a career pathway where educators find rewarding and fulfilling employment. Ignoring its role as infrastructure or assuming it does not impact the mission is a problem. So is allowing it to be destroyed, manipulated, or neutralized by the enemy. Perhaps the school does not hinder a successful kinetic operation on that specific day, but our military is tasked with winning wars, not just battles. Understanding the flawed nature of JP 4-01.8’s definition (not to mention its typos), let’s leave it behind and acknowledge that current doctrine does not define the term. If the military does not define infrastructure, maybe we can ask: How does current doctrine use and understand the word?

How the Military Uses and Understands Infrastructure

Confusingly, joint publications like JP 3-57, Civil-Military Operations, JP 3-34, Joint Engineer Operations, JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency, and JP 3-07, Stability use the term infrastructure differently depending on the type of unit conducting the operation. Engineers, civil affairs operators, and infantry soldiers can support the same operation but understand infrastructure quite differently. And instead of uniting the different publications with a common definition, each one modifies the word over and over to give it greater specificity: to make it fit that type of unit’s mindset. As mentioned before, doctrine uses variations like critical infrastructure, force-protection infrastructure, expeditionary infrastructure, and support infrastructure (the list goes on) to add specification, but these terms require the servicemember to assume a definition. It’s as if the term “support infrastructure” is obvious enough for someone to get the point. “What is support infrastructure? Well . . . it is infrastructure that supports.” Current doctrine, which elsewhere can be so specific, leaves room for flawed assumptions about what support infrastructure actually is. Different units can view it quite differently. This is problematic.

Aside from endless modifications of the term, the most unifying and meaningful way that the military conceptualizes infrastructure is as an operational variable. Army Doctrine Publication 3-0, Operations defines operational variables as “those aspects of an operational environment, both military and nonmilitary, that may differ from one operational area to another and affect operations.” The definition goes on to include that “operational variables describe not only the military aspects of an operational environment, but also the population’s influence on it.” There are eight variables listed: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT). Soldiers are expected to consider these variables as they plan and conduct operations because of the impacts that these variables might have on mission success.

Similarly, the military employs an additional set of variablescivil considerations—to accompany an analysis of the operational variables. Civil considerations are designed to help identify specific aspects of infrastructure that might not otherwise seem applicable to mission success. The civil considerations are listed as: areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events (ASCOPE). ASCOPE and PMESII-PT are often analyzed in a matrix that looks for overlapping relevance. This sort of analysis is undoubtedly useful, but it shows that the military understands infrastructure as an additional consideration that might impact the mission rather than a primary one (like the enemy) that will impact the mission.

Contrasting with this widely accepted view of infrastructure, irregular warfare doctrine offers a more nuanced understanding of what infrastructure is, what it can be, and how it might play a role in operations. Field Manual 3-24 / Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies explains that the operational variable of “infrastructure” is “composed of the facilities (buildings and equipment), personnel, and services needed for the functioning of a community or society.” It describes how infrastructure creates the ability for new interactions and relationships within society that “can change how a person views the world and change that person’s values.” Within counterinsurgency doctrine, we see that some of the military understands how infrastructure extends far beyond physical structures and enters the realm of people and the services that they provide.

Unfortunately, this explanation of infrastructure is not available within a joint publication or within other doctrine covering more general military operations. To be useful for everyone, this description of infrastructure should not be buried in a Marine or Army publication solely dedicated to counterinsurgency. It should be present in the DOD Dictionary or JP 3-0, Joint Operations, which more generally apply to all military branches and all types of missions. This explanation—or one like Larkin’s—should be turned into a definition and applied through doctrine from the top down.

Why is the Doctrinal Definition Important and Who Does it Affect?

I am arguing that servicemembers cannot interact with infrastructure in a meaningful way because military doctrine has failed to afford them the language to address it appropriately. So what if it is not explicitly laid out in doctrine? you might ask. We don’t need a verbatim definition for everything. Don’t we get the point of infrastructure already? No, we do not. And here is why the lack of doctrinal language is a problem. It is a common experience within the military to brief an entirely reasonable operational plan that is immediately dismissed because of its lack of doctrinal terminology. If soldiers do not use the correct terms known as tactical tasks or if their vernacular is not spot-on in doctrine, then the presentation of their ideas are not seen as legitimate. Try telling a commander that you are going to “obliterate” the “bad guys,” take all their “things,” and “save the day.” Good luck. Such a lack of doctrinal language can be deemed unprofessional and lead to serious reputational and career damage.

How, then, are we to discuss operations like reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq or government advisory missions led by special operations forces or security force assistance brigades without a doctrinal vocabulary for infrastructure? Such attempts turn into an awkward dance as soldiers try to apply well-defined terms like seize, occupy, clear, secure, and destroy (each with a dizzying level of specificity in their respective definitions) to a mission focused on building partner capacity and increasing stability in a region through infrastructural development. “Ma’am, we will destroy the inefficiency of government corruption by occupying the water treatment facility and securing the human rights of the people.” The US military has been asked to support, and even spearhead, government and civil construction projects over the last twenty years, but it has yet to incorporate useful doctrinal terminology to support such missions. The fact that infrastructure is poorly defined indicates it is both poorly understood and largely undervalued by the military as a whole. This lack of vocabulary and emphasis limits our communication, our thinking, and our effectiveness as we conduct operations focused on building the legitimacy of a government or winning the support of the population instead of directly fighting an enemy.

New Definitions Create New Possibilities

A definition like Larkin’s or one akin to the concepts found in FM 3-24—focused on infrastructure as a network of connections rather than a series of physical structures—might better equip the military to accomplish its complex missions by enabling servicemembers to push the boundaries of what was previously considered as infrastructure. New definitions might even enable us to understand people as infrastructure.

Such an ideological shift would not only impact the military; it could also have broad-sweeping implications for Department of State missions overseas and development projects within the United States itself. Instead of limiting funding to physical buildings, imagine if the United States could spend infrastructure money to increase worker salaries, pay for professional education, or support various forms of transportation like the Biden administration is attempting. Currently, we tend to fund massive contracts to build new facilities (like hospitals) in underserved communities and war-torn regions hoping that they become useful to the population. Often, the facilities are not fully completed, they do not end up serving their purpose, or they fall into disrepair. Instead of obsessing over the physical structures alone, what if we could tap into infrastructure funding to pay salaries that entice high-performing professionals to work in those facilities, fund employee training programs to improve the services provided, and reimburse the transportation costs of staff as they commute to and from their jobs? We could spend our money ensuring that infrastructure thrives within the scope of a broader community network instead of simply stopping at the building itself. With a new understanding of infrastructure, we might do more than construct powerplant and roads. We might build a community and foster the growth of a nation.

Major Chris Liggett served as a special operations civil affairs officer with the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion. He deployed as a team commander to counter terrorism in Burkina Faso and he worked as the assistant operations officer in support of missions in Syria, Northwest Africa, and Somalia. Before joining special operations, he deployed to Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader with 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently attending graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder before returning to the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point to serve as an instructor.

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

Image credit: Master Sgt. Ben Bloker, US Air Force