Civil Affairs and Great-Power Competition: Civil-Military Networking in the Gray Zone

Civil Affairs and Great-Power Competition: Civil-Military Networking in the Gray Zone

March 17, 2022

This paper is part of the Civil Affairs Issue Papers, Volume 8: Building a Global Civil-Military Network


U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) operates in an area of interest to provide current civil information for the interagency common operational picture.1 CA teams serve as strategic enablers and sensors to support the strategic objectives of the chief of mission (COM). These four-person teams provide a low-signature capability to embed within a U.S. country team, capable of operating in austere environments with limited support. Despite these features, CA must be capable of operating autonomously to win access and influence in strategic competition in the gray zone (between war and peace).2 CA NCOs work in many offices for defense or security cooperation (ODCs/OSCs) in Africa as humanitarian assistance subject matter experts. Despite their values-added to the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) J5, CA NCOs remain underutilized in developing common operating pictures for geographic combatant commands (CCMDs) and their interagency and interorganizational partners. To address this gap, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) should capitalize on the best practices of CA operations (CAO) and help create humanitarian assistance offices (HAOs) at country team level under Title 10 authority in support of Title 22 (Foreign Relations and Intercourse) activities. The HAO could conduct steady-state operations to fill information gaps and build civil-military networks to compete in great-power competition (GPC) within the gray zone. This would help position regional U.S. capacities to gain even further advantage as a ready-to-go main contributor to multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations, providing U.S. leadership for these and other contingencies.

At the House of Representatives Committee on Armed Forces in April 2021, USAFRICOM Commander General Stephen J. Townsend outlined his theater campaign objectives in Africa. These include gaining and maintaining strategic access and influence; disrupting violent extremist organizations’ threats to U.S. interests; responding to crises to protect U.S. national interests; and coordinating action with allies and partners to achieve shared security objectives.3 With a constant presence in the region, CA’s role in civil-military integration, under interagency and DoD stabilization frameworks, enables a whole-of-government approach and continuity under the direction of the ODC/OSC. CA provides the operational expertise to work by, with and through partner nation military, non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations to support theater campaign plans. To further CA’s influence in Africa, creating HAOs in stable countries would help theater commanders like Townsend meet their campaign objectives to compete in strategic competition at the regional level. HAOs provide a continuity that can capitalize on placement and access and provide an interagency and interorganizational common operating picture. 

An HAO would build a civil-military network by, with and through regional organizational and partner nation military and civilian sectors to identify marginalized or disenfranchised populations and to build relationships with local formal and informal leaders in the area of operations (AOR). The establishment of a steady-state civil-military network provides a distinct positional advantage in GPC in a stable country. Hence, the network is in place to degrade or legitimize the government if the country becomes a failed state through a civil uprising or coup. The HAO would assist the ODC/OSC with foreign humanitarian assistance (FHA) capabilities in collaborating with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations (UN) and other agency capabilities in support to partner nations. The office can prepare for a crisis in the event of a natural or human-made disaster and support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Through FHA, the office can capitalize on placement and access in a denied or isolated area.

One limitation of the current country team construct is that ODCs/OSCs in Africa are not well positioned to conduct civil reconnaissance (CR)—strategically, operationally or tactically. The new office would use CA’s CR capabilities, at all levels, to map the human terrain and provide real-time information for an interagency and interorganizational common operating picture. Through CR and civil-military engagement (CME), the HAO can identify critical infrastructure capacities and vulnerabilities in the region and provide ground-truths on the human geography in the area of interest. This enables a predesignated staging location in case of a crisis and even if the country becomes a failed state. The office will assist the ODC/OSC in identifying partner nation military shortfalls at the tactical level. The ability to assist the partner nation military will allow CCMDs to help the United States and its allies compete with and conduct anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) against Chinese and Russian gray-zone influence.

Civil Affairs Operations at the ODC/OSC

At the 2021 Civil Affairs Symposium, U.S. Army Pacific Civil-Military Operations Planner Sergeant Major Chris Melendez suggested three considerations for the role of CA in general and the CA NCO in particular in building or contributing to regional networks in security cooperation settings and in GPC.4 The first is strategic empathy. We craft campaign plans, operations and orders from various strategic policies and strategies because we know ourselves and our priorities. Similarly, we must continually cultivate an appreciation for the internal pressures (e.g., social, economic, political) that shape our allies’, partners’ and competitors’ range of options. CA must go beyond the mere collection of facts to the internalized recognition—and appreciation—of such factors.

Next is the important, albeit underdeveloped, relationship between CA and the security cooperation enterprise. This relationship often goes unnoticed at tactical levels where CA teams concern themselves with achieving “success” in relatively short rotations. Critically, CA elements ought to consider how their activities either help or hinder long-term security cooperation efforts in a given country.

The third consideration is the need for constant presence and engagement. Partnerships, Melendez pointed out, are reciprocal relationships. If you want to be a good neighbor in the Pacific—or anywhere—you must show up, participate, exchange best practices and learn from your partners. Exercises and strategic dialogues provide a great opportunity to bring the team together and build “reps” around the common problem sets. In the sense of GPC, this reflects what former Army Futures Command Deputy Commanding General Lieutenant General Eric J. Wesley, USA, Ret., simply stated at the 2021 Civil Affairs Roundtable: “You can’t compete if you’re not there.”5

Currently, there are 21 CA NCO positions at the ODCs/OSCs throughout Africa. The CA NCOs operate in the gray zone, where, in most cases, there are no other special operations forces (SOF) or any other information-related capabilities present. The continued operations in USAFRICOM’s AOR compete in GPC to counter Chinese and Russian regional influence. Meanwhile, CA NCOs can capitalize on their experience to conduct long-familiar CA tasks in support of U.S. GPC with limited to no resources and with a more strategic, whole-of-government approach to support diplomacy, informational, military and economics (DIME) and to include finance, intelligence, the rule of law and development. Their support is highly valuable to the U.S. embassies in meeting strategic objectives outlined by the COM and the CCMD.

In most countries, CA NCOs are contributing to competition in the gray zone with no additional DoD support. CA identifies critical vulnerabilities through the local population and leverages USAID, the CDC, the UN and other agencies to provide relief within the marginalized or disenfranchised populations. The lack of DoD presence in countries is a detriment to developing a common operating picture. CA complements the U.S. embassy to help it support U.S. GPC with additional funding expertise and knowledge to navigate systems to meet the end state. To undermine Chinese and Russian influence in AFRICOM’s AOR, it is now more important than ever to expand CA forward presence for persistent engagement to support GPC.

One tool that CA NCOs can employ is Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster and Civic Aid (OHDACA) funding. In many embassies, the ODC/OSC allows CA NCOs to manage this program on its behalf. CA NCOs leverage local media and news outlets to publicize OHDACA-funded projects. The resulting publicity helps undermine Chinese and Russian influence. Moreover, these projects’ effects are maximized by CA NCOs’ expertise in collaborating with international, regional and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other local actors.

Another positional advantage that CA NCOs can enhance in the ODC/OSC is bridging the civil-military gap through collaboration with USAID and the CDC. Cooperation with U.S. embassy agencies assists the COM in achieving integrated country strategy (ICS) objectives. Often, agencies do not understand what the ODC/OSC can provide until FHA equipment starts arriving in-country. CA NCOs help bridge the gap among USAID, the CDC, the UN and other agencies to develop standard operating procedures for FHA projects. Greater U.S. embassy situational understanding and unity of effort among its dedicated capabilities improve the capacity for GPC. The CA NCOs’ accomplishments also speak volumes for CA’s values-added and open the door for future military-to-military and CME and training to contend with China’s and Russia’s influence in partner nation militaries, enhancing U.S. forces as the partner of choice for security cooperation.

The collaboration with these agencies assisted in identifying shortfalls in the medical infrastructure and the partner nation’s ability to react to requests from HADR or crises. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the AFRICOM AOR because of the pandemic’s stress on the inadequate medical infrastructure. CA NCOs were able to assist USAID and the CDC through OHDACA funding to provide critical relief through personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. CA’s continued presence in Africa assisted in interagency cooperation and cross-border communication through other U.S. ODCs/OSCs to find the best way forward to slow the infection rate and the best practices for COVID-19 relief through OHDACA funding. CA collaborated with the public affairs office (PAO) at the U.S. embassies and with the USAFRICOM PAO, highlighting their ability to cooperate with interagency partners and utilize assistance through OHDACA funding. The social media posts and newspaper articles in African cyberspace helped the United States gain narrative and influence-related positional advantages over its great-power adversaries in the region. The ODC/OSC can capitalize on placement and access that the FHA projects provide by filling information gaps, providing interagency and interorganizational common operating picture and building an extended civil and civil-military network in Africa.

The Capitalization of CAO in the U.S. Embassy

CA must sustain its presence in countries to stay competitive in GPC in the gray zone. Currently, CA NCO representation has paid dividends on meeting strategic objects through projects in USAFRICOM’s AOR. Their constant presence in countries with limited-to-no SOF or information-related elements will assist in developing a common operating picture, building civil networks, filling critical information gaps and helping position U.S. capacities to gain and maintain strategic access and influence (per AFRICOM Campaign Objective 1). The CA NCOs working in the ODC/OSC cannot build a civil network alone, conduct CR and CME or fill information gaps in the operational environment. However, helping to create and populate HAOs in stable countries will achieve General Townsend’s first campaign objective more rapidly and effectively.

The lack of CME reporting undermines the potential of building a network in a steady state to compete in GPC. Conducting CR and CME to build civil-military networks will assist in future operations if a state fails. In addition, the ability to conduct civil-military analysis and reporting supports the inputs into interagency and interorganizational common operating pictures. The other aspect that will assist CA is gathering information to fill requests for information (RFIs). Agencies represented at U.S. embassies can capitalize on civil knowledge and information gained through CR, CME and key leader engagements to fill critical information gaps.

CA works through the ODC/OSC to leverage FHA, allowing CA to reach remote areas and capitalize on the freedom of movement of such small-footprint teams. By conducting FHA, CA helps build civil-military networks that improve positional advantage in GPC. Building a civil-military network in a steady state will also benefit the interagency community and USAFRICOM to help the United States compete in the gray zone.

As the opportunity arises, CA can also conduct nation assistance through stability operations. The ability of CA to operate autonomously helps build a civil network to complement the ODC/OSC and the defense attaché office. Conducting building partner capacity (BPC) through civil-military operations (CMO) will help build legitimacy within the partner nation military and the local population. CA can also work directly with the partner nation military to conduct stability operations to enhance civil-military relationships within the country. CA can conduct key leader engagements with the local population to identify vulnerabilities for the U.S. embassy. Also, CA can closely advise a partner nation military to conduct CMO to support counterterrorism, counternarcotic and other operations in the region. CA has abundantly demonstrated these competition-related capabilities in the gray zone because they are among CA core competencies. The best way forward is to allocate CA teams for the HAOs that operate autonomously in stable countries that work under such familiar conditions.

The Creation of HAO

The current organizational structure is suboptimal for CA because it does not leverage the instruments of national power—DIME—to their fullest potential.6 The proposed HAO would leverage the whole-of-government approach to complement other DIME actors and assist the geographic CCMD and other agencies in filling information gaps within the country.7

The HAO would put senior CA operators in a position to make effective decisions to support U.S. strategic competition and leverage outside entities to meet related CCMD objectives. To have a holistic approach, CA must have well-rounded subject matter experts, including functional areas specialists, who can connect tactical operations to strategic goals outlined by the CCMD and the ICS. CA can engage and leverage the civil component in the AOR to provide the ground-truth of the operational environment and real-time information for the interagency and interorganizational common operating picture.

The ability of the HAO to leverage the different programs would complement the existing projects in the country, but would also identify and fill information gaps where there are no elements. The HAO would work in the joint, interorganizational and multinational (JIM) environment to leverage state and non-state actors to meet strategic objectives outlined by CCMD and the ICS.8 The low presence of CA in ODCs/OSCs has squandered CA’s ability to conduct CR and CME and gain civil knowledge and information in the gray zone to build civil-military networks. The HAO would naturally conduct operations that build civil-military networks in the gray zone to fill information gaps; therefore, if a country starts to collapse and becomes a failed state, the necessary civil-military relationships to mitigate unintended effects would already be in place.

The HAO would need to assist the ODC/OSC in the partner nation HADR-related military training to stay competitive in the gray zone. Most countries cannot use funding for tactical level training, and China and Russia have capitalized on these shortfalls. The HAO would identify the training gaps and elements to assist the ODC/OSC and the U.S. embassy in training the partner nation military in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Military-to-military relations would become an asset to building partner capacity and having a partner force to conduct stability as well as HADR operations in the gray zone.

Creating the doctrine for the HAO position would outline the position and activities conducted in the office. Since CA would be working relatively independently, the doctrine must capture the whole-of-government approach to meet stated strategic objectives. Conducting CMO to build a civil-military network in the gray zone with no SOF assets will account for the possibility that the state might collapse under pressure. In addition, the HAO may be the sole representation of SOF in the country, allowing CA to be a force for competition and influence—locally, regionally and strategically.

The functions of HAO would complement special operations to meet strategic objectives outlined by the CCMD campaign plan and the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. The ability for CA to represent the defense community in areas with limited U.S. forces will greatly enhance special operations to contribute to strategic competition in the gray zone. China and Russia are increasing their influence in the regions under the U.S. radar because either they are not sensed as terrorist threats or the countries in question are considered stable. The COM, however, can support strategic competition through Title 10 and Title 22 confidently with the assistance of CA leveraging its FHA, BPC and nation assistance expertise to meet the ICS objectives.

General Townsend noted that “despite emerging opportunities, the People’s Republic of China and Russia currently have the inside track in much of central and southern Africa.”9 With the creation of HAOs in more stable countries, CA operators can help identify information gaps on the human geography, improve the interagency and interorganizational common operating picture and build a civil-military network to significantly help the United States gain the access and influence that characterize positional advantage in strategic competition. The office would be essential to achieve the campaign plan objectives and to maintain a persistent civil-military presence. It would have a low-signature footprint through interagency and interorganizational cooperation to build a civil-military network. Through a doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF) framework, the office would be successful by leveraging CA expertise for GPC in the gray zone:

  • Doctrine: CA doctrine highlights the importance of building civil networks and gathering information in an AOR. The ability to have accurate and real-time information drives military operations. To help the United States compete in the gray zone, CA must be able to freely and widely leverage JIM partners. CA civil preparation of the battlefield would enhance the HAO’s ability. New doctrine that drives real-time information in the area of interest needs to be established for CA to operate autonomously to support the strategic objectives outlined by the COM and CCMD.
  • Organization: The HAO would maintain personnel who can operate individually and understand the whole-of-government approach. The HAO would be under the operational control of the CCMD and fall under the COM’s authority.
  • Training
    • The Security Cooperation Management Overseas Course would give those assigned to HAOs an overview of the ODC/OSC and how they support USAFRICOM, J5. 
    • The Special Warfare Operational Design Course is an operational planning course that would assist these individuals on future operations and how to integrate political-military and civil-military objectives. Planning and the creation of products would be essential to the HAO’s success. 
    • Personnel assigned to HAOs would be graduates of the Joint Humanitarian Operations Course at USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
    • The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) Civil- Military Coordination (UN CMCoord) Course provides the knowledge that HAO personnel need to support HADR under international standards, as well as UN humanitarian agencies present in the region or country.
  • Materiel: Civil-military sharing architecture outlined by FM 3-57 provides the best mechanism to support the civil component in the operational environment by providing information to the interagency. Information sharing provides real-time information to update the common operating picture.10
  • Leadership: The CCMD will direct the operations to fill information gaps, and the defense attaché office will interconnect all efforts between DoD offices at the U.S. embassies to prevent duplication of efforts. 
  • Education: Joint-level professional military education is essential to understanding operations at joint headquarters and how information drives intelligence for future operations. Although civilian education is not a requirement, a bachelor’s degree would also be highly recommended. In an embassy environment, an educational background is important and helps build rapport. 
  • Personnel: The HAO CA team would include seasoned CA team leaders and team sergeants to provide experienced leadership and expertise to enable the team to effectively conduct operations. These individuals should have at least 60 months of CAO experience. Previous U.S. embassy experience would also be desirable. 
  • Facilities: CA personnel posted at the HAO would need an appropriate office or desk space at the U.S. embassy to develop products that support the CCMD and COM’s objectives. As part of the HAO, they would have access to the State Department’s International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS), which they must understand.
  • Policy: The civil-military policies the HAO would produce would come largely through CAO activities and core competencies that CA personnel would bring. Interagency policies would drive production through the defense attaché office and intelligence communities to assist the embassy in achieving its ICS objectives while filling information gaps for the CCMD. New HAO policies at USSOCOM should outline CA authorities to build civil networks in areas of interest to the COM and the CCMD. 


The past 20 years of war have demonstrated the value of working with partners and proxies through unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense and other security assistance programs. This includes strengthening alliances such as NATO to counter Russia and developing new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China at the strategic level. These partnerships demonstrate the necessity of building partner nation and regional civil-military networks that cross borders to accomplish operational and strategic objectives. Whereas tactical-level CA teams are proficient at developing local networks, at the joint level, there continue to be issues of tying tactical-level networks to the operational level to achieve sustainable strategic effects.

An HAO initiative would go far to fill these gaps. Maintaining a persistent presence in the gray-zone GPC is not only a vital element in that setting: the positional advantages of “strengthening alliances and attracting new partners” can easily translate into strategic and operational success in both SOF and conventional forms of warfare, should the need arise. The continuous forward presence of CA personnel in the ODC/OSC is the key to the success of this initiative. An HAO would be an excellent way of leveraging synchronized SOF and conventional CA, to the benefit of both, as well as other critical information-related capabilities. More important, at the country team level, it would operationalize civil-military integration of government and non-government capacities. It would be a clear demonstration of defense support of the interagency stabilization effort in the steady state of strategic competition, not just for contingencies.

As a USSOCOM initiative, it is fully in line with the SOF imperatives of understanding the environment; recognizing political implications; facilitating interagency activities; engaging threats discriminately; considering long-term effects; ensuring legitimacy and credibility of U.S. operations; developing multiple options; ensuring long-term sustainment; and providing sufficient intelligence in the forms of situational awareness and understanding as well as promoting a common political-military, civil-military, bilateral and multilateral picture. This, in turn, helps to win the battle of the narrative in gray-zone GPC.

Moreover, it validates the most important SOF truth: humans are more important than hardware.

CA NCOs have shown their importance for building relationships in the ODC/OSC through interagency cooperation and assisting in identifying critical shortfalls of medical infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic. CA NCOs have operated in the gray zone with great confidence to compete in GPC to undermine the growing presence of China and Russia. Decades of operations in major combat and stabilization operations have also demonstrated the values-added of CA NCOs that can apply to support gray-zone strategic competition at the ODC/OSC level, furthering U.S. access and influence in the region. The continued efforts by CA to expand its influence will only enhance its civil-military network in stable countries. With the momentum that CA is gaining, the time is now to further its influence by creating a new office that can effectively operate and conduct operations to build civil-military networks in the gray zone to support diplomatic as well as military objectives.

★  ★  ★  ★

Sergeant First Class Nicholas Kempenich, Jr., is the Civil Affairs NCO in the Office of Defense Cooperation in Kigali, Rwanda. He earned his MA in International Relations with an emphasis on International Security from Norwich University.


  1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication (JP) 3-57, Civil-Military Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2018), vii.
  2. Captain Philip Kapusta, “The Gray Zone,” white paper, United States Joint Special Operations Command, 2015.
  3. General Stephen Townsend, “Africa: Securing U.S. Interests, Preserving Strategic Options,” United States of America Representatives Committee on Armed Forces (Washington, DC: 20 April 2021).
  4. CA Symposium 2021 Regional Networks,” Eunomia Journal YouTube channel, 16 November 2021.
  5. Colonel Christopher Holshek, USA, Ret., Civil Affairs Roundtable Report: Roundtable Identifies Opportunity for Civil Affairs to Help Shape “Competition” (Fort Bragg, NC: Civil Affairs Association, 6 May 2021), 2.
  6. Joint Chiefs of Staff, JP Note 1-18, Strategy (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2018), vii.
  7. Major Otha J. Holmes, “Whole of Government Approach: Maximizing Unity of Effort Between the Department of Defense (DoD) Department of State (DoS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),” master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2013. 
  8. Lieutenant Colonel Ricky L. Simmons, “Competencies to Attain a Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational Perspective,” Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College, 2009. 
  9. Townsend, op. cit.
  10. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 2021).

Continue reading Civil Affairs Issue Papers, Volume 8:

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2021 Civil Affairs Symposium Report
by Colonel Christopher Holshek, USA, Ret.

Civil Affairs and Great-Power Competition: Civil-Military Networking in the Gray Zone
by Sergeant First Class Nicholas Kempenich, Jr., USA

Innovation as a Weapon System: Cultivating Global Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist Partnerships
by Major Giancarlo Newsome, USA, Colonel Bradford Hughes, USA, & Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Voelkel, USA

Maximum Support, Flexible Footprint: Civilian Applied Research Laboratories to Support the 38G Program
by Dr. Hayden Bassett & Lieutenant Kate Harrell, USNR

Individualism versus Collectivism: Civil Affairs and the Clash of National Strategic Cultures
by Colonel Marco A. Bongioanni, USA

Back to Basics: Civil Affairs in a Global Civil-Military Network
by Major Jim Munene, USA, & Staff Sergeant Courtney Mulhern, USA