Into the Gray Zone: Integration of Civil Affairs and Information Operations with Embassies

Into the Gray Zone: Integration of Civil Affairs and Information Operations with Embassies

March 30, 2021


As United States agencies transition to accomplish objectives set in the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Marine Corps has to adapt within joint, interorganizational and multinational (JIM) spheres to influence and accomplish objectives within the NSS and the National Defense Strategy (NDS). Information operations (IO) is one specific capability within the Marine Corps that has the potential to integrate with JIM aspects in support of the NSS and NDS. Joint Publication 3-12, Cyberspace Operations, states that “IO is not about ownership of individual capabilities but rather the use of those capabilities as force multipliers to create a desired effect.”1 As an auxiliary function, the use of civil affairs (CA) creates myriad effects through joint interagency coordination, civil-military operations and key leader engagements. The question then becomes: How can IO planners integrate CA into JIM operations to create interoperability and U.S./partner nation (PN) advancement in gray zones? This paper introduces a conceptual framework to better posture the Marine Corps in these critical areas by leveraging largely extant capabilities and personnel. 

Gray zones exist where there is persistent unrest and instability but an absence of a state of war; they pose a unique security conundrum to the United States and its allies and partners. Within these gray zones, JIM partnerships are the key to influencing the vote and setting the stage for long-term strategies. Sun Tzu states that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,”2 which holds true in the case of gray zones. This belief introduces an opportunity for IO and CA to take a lead role. Integration of Marine Corps IO and CA into U.S. embassies will facilitate sequestering U.S. partners from great-power competitors. Incorporating a hardened structure through the use of both Marine Corps active component (AC) and reserve component (RC) IO and CA Marines allows the Marine Corps to integrate into JIM operations. It simultaneously meets the objectives of the Commandant of the Marine Corps: to integrate RC units into the AC force. A well-integrated team of IO and CA at embassies paves the way for integration with multinational civil authorities. This provides a much-needed closure in the gap between the Marine Corps and JIM partners, further allowing the United States to deter antagonism and gain access to areas not otherwise obtainable.

Operating in the Gray Zone: Ukraine and the Baltics 

The operating environment faced by modern CA Marines rarely resembles conventional warfare. Instead, many of the most critical security challenges lie in the gray zone. Perhaps no contemporary security challenge better illustrates the concept of a gray zone than Vladimir Putin’s revanchist foreign policy on the eastern flank of NATO. The resurgence of Russian aggression since Putin came to power at the turn of the 21st century has represented a significant threat to the West. In an effort to increase Russian influence globally, Putin aims to create a safe “buffer zone” of aligned or annexed nations around the homeland, establish a viable economic union as an alternative to the European Union (EU) and preserve traditional values from what he views as degenerate Western culture.3

Although Russia has seen significant economic and military growth since 2000, the nation is still neither prepared nor inclined to wage a conventional war with the West. Instead, Russia has pursued an aggressive agenda through an asymmetric approach that calls on the classic Soviet doctrine of strategicheskoi maskirovka i dezinformatsiya (strategic camouflage and disinformation), often abbreviated in the modern context as simply maskirovka.4 Ever cautious to avoid a major conflict with Western powers, Putin’s maskirovka takes aim at Russia’s neighbors, such as Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas region, with a mix of deceptive political, military and economic actions. These actions are difficult for the United States and its allies to combat: their origin and nature are masked through deception; their intensity remains below the threshold required to galvanize Western political will to intervene decisively; and they take place in physical and cultural space historically dominated by Russian influence. 

Examples of Russia’s multifaceted asymmetric approach in Ukraine include allusions to the Novorossiya ethnic and cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine.5 This includes manipulation of energy resources such as electricity and natural gas, subsidization of pro-Russian media outlets, tampering with political processes to ensure the success of anti-EU politicians like Viktor Yanukovych and, finally, taking physical military action with “Little Green Men.” The Green Men—in truth Russian forces with identifying insignia removed—represented classic Russian disinformation; the ruse was eventually uncovered, but the initial ambiguity bought enough time and space by preventing decisive action by the West.

Russian efforts in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania bear resemblance to many of the cognitive and informational actions of the Ukraine conflict, but they stop just short of decisive physical engagement. Perhaps the most significant aggression was the April 2007 cyberattacks against Estonia. Stemming from a disagreement over the relocation of a Soviet-era grave marker, the Russian cyberattack crippled the websites of the Estonian president and parliament, numerous government agencies, three of the country’s six major news outlets and two of the largest banks.6 The latent IO campaign against the Baltic states has been ongoing for years—it centers on the sizable ethnic Russian diaspora present in those three countries. Mostly remnants of the Soviet Union’s historical efforts to encourage ethnic Russian settlement in satellite states, today, the diaspora provides a continued pretense for Russian meddling in Baltic affairs. Whether viewed as impetus for closer Russo-Baltic relations or justification for Russian aggression, the existence of the diaspora nonetheless ensures Putin’s continued involvement in the cognitive makeup of the region.7 Still, the admission of all three nations to both NATO and the EU in 2004 sent a clear message: the Baltic states are looking westward for their future economic and security needs. 

In summary, Russia’s strategy of exploiting this gray zone has succeeded by reserving blunt military action as the tool of last resort in favor of operating nimbly in the information environment. Despite its critical role, CA is not the singular solution to this problem—nor is the U.S. military or the U.S. government. This complex transnational threat can only be met with a sophisticated JIM response. To be sure, development of the strategic approach to combating Russian aggression and similar threats elsewhere lies well above the level of CA planners. Still, CA Marines must recognize the reality of the complex information terrain they are operating in and organize themselves accordingly. 

Marine Corps Civil Affairs “Hits the JIM”

Marine Corps CA groups (CAGs) have a proven record of success supporting Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) operations. This success at the tactical level must continue going forward, but it will not be enough to keep pace with emerging threats. In order to compete in gray zones such as Ukraine and the Baltics, it is imperative that Marine Corps CA further develop the capacity to integrate in JIM settings. It does not have to reinvent the wheel to accomplish this. There are ready-made task-organized centers that excel at synchronizing joint and interagency efforts as well as coordinating U.S. efforts with international partners: U.S. embassies. Embassies can leverage their physical proximity to gray zones in a way that conventional military forces cannot. 

A successful model for embassy integration and associated force structure exists in the U.S. Army. The Army’s civil-military support elements (CMSEs) are:

“SOF CA teams who plan, coordinate, facilitate, manage and lead programs and projects that support U.S. and host-nation objectives under the Civil-Military Engagement Program.” This program allows global combatant commanders to deploy, with the approval and endorsement of U.S. Ambassadors, small SOF CA teams to U.S. Embassies to conduct operations that are concurrently beneficial to U.S. defense, diplomacy and development objectives.8

These CMSEs are ideally placed to “more directly support . . . a broader host-nation internal defense and development strategy through its support of the American Embassy, country team.”9 CMSEs are staffed by active duty forces belonging to the special operations forces (SOF) community who specialize in conducting operations in denied and politically sensitive environments.10 The majority of Army and Marine CA forces, however, are reserve personnel who primarily support conventional operations. The Army psychological operations (PSYOP) community is similarly aligned with active duty SOF personnel supporting special operations and embassy country teams through their military information support team (MIST) with a cadre of reservists in support of conventional operations.11 

A side-by-side comparison of Army and Marine CA forces reveals a major gap: the Army’s reserve CA force, which supports conventional forces, is directly analogous to the Marine Corps’ CA force in that both are composed of reservists and serve in support of conventional forces. It follows, then, that the Army’s CMSE does not have a Marine Corps counterpart. This introduces an opportunity for Marine CA to create a similar team to operate in gray zones. The Marine Corps has neither the manpower nor the established SOF infrastructure to provide a robust team to every gray zone embassy in the world. Furthermore, the established CMSEs may rightly perceive such an effort as encroachment. Still, the Marine Corps cannot afford to completely cede this critical placement and access at the country team level. In order to properly represent Marine Corps equities and to offer valuable expeditionary resources to the country team, the Marine Corps CA community should seek to staff critical embassies with at least two officers who possess MAGTF experience and a CA background.

Providing this expertise to critical embassies, particularly in an active duty capacity, may pose a challenge for the three reserve CAGs, which are already heavily tasked and engaged. In order to address this gap and further integrate CA into broader Marine Corps operations in the information environment (OIE), the deputy commandant for information should consider directing the Marine Corps Information Operations Center (MCIOC) to educate and better integrate deployable officers with CA units in order to fill key embassy billets. As the three Marine expeditionary force information groups continue to develop organic capacity to support their own tactical operations with OIE planners and PSYOP Marines, MCIOC has the opportunity to assume a more strategic role by deploying officers with CA and other information-related capability (IRC) knowledge to country teams. Similarly, reserve CAG officers with a desire to mobilize and broaden their OIE skillset should be encouraged to integrate with MCIOC for OIE training and experience in order to fill these critical billets.

By offering qualified OIE officers with knowledge of CA to select country teams, the Marine Corps can retain its capable tactical CA forces while leveraging a combination of active duty and reserve expertise to support broader U.S. efforts at joint, interorganizational and multinational levels.

Multinational Access through Conversations and Relationships

Employing CA teams in embassies as part of the country team will create opportunities and build networks at the multinational level with host-nation governments, regional and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and many other key stakeholders. These CA teams would be read into the integrated country strategy (ICS) and lines of effort (LoEs) of the embassy they serve to ensure that they have immediate context.

There are numerous examples of Marine CA forces that deploy to an area and depart three to nine months later without having had a long-term impact at the operational level. Community relations events and humanitarian assistance projects may have left a positive long-term impression of the U.S. military on a group of citizens in a local area, but these are tactical-level wins that will not pierce the veil into operational impacts, which are critical when trying to get buy-in at the multinational level.

These actions are not focused on strategic implications during the planning phase. The common tasking from major commands and major subordinate commands to the tactical level is rarely specific enough to have operational- or strategic-level impacts. “Do great things and help people” or “counter Chinese/Russian influence” is not specific enough for these teams to make an impact. These taskings need to nest into a higher-level plan. Civil-military operations (CMO) can create natural opportunities for operational- or strategic-level discussions at the multinational level in gray zones and build from tactical effects to operational strategic effects.

In gray zones, deliberate planning and the utilization of CA forces can grant access to incorporate anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) through a network of approved helicopter landing zones or a ground logistics hub in a gray zone for future U.S. operations. CA Marines can begin the conversations to achieve these effects to support the geographic combatant commander (GCC) during the planning process. One such Marine Corps entity that could benefit from gray zone CMO is the Marine littoral regiment (MLR). The MLR can integrate into gray zones and execute expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), thus creating an avenue for A2/AD.

CA and IO require synchronized efforts to ensure tactical-level tasks are nested with the ICS and LoEs from the embassy and match the GCC’s intent. The inverse is also true: for CA to be as relevant to a GCC, CA planners must ensure that their actions nest into the larger IO/joint all-domain operations (JADO) plan. CMO that is led by Marines who are integrated into a larger IO/JADO plan will naturally fit into more operations; it will be given more opportunities to execute a commander’s intent and have operational and strategic impact. Having a nested CA team at gray zone embassies is a primary solution to achieve this.

This is the core competency of IO planners—syncing IRC efforts to achieve effects that go beyond the tactical level. The solution is not as simple as putting a Marine and Army CA planner in the same room as the combatant commander’s IO officer, but neither is it far off from that. The day-to-day mechanics of CMO need not change much, but the direction of those operations could be clearer. A synchronization matrix that nests into strategic goals of the United States and other allied nations would ensure that CA Marines are doing the right thing at the right time with the right audience, thus creating effects that have long-term impacts at multinational levels. 

Integration Priorities

Working with JIM partners should not be the sole priority but rather a sequential element toward improved coordination between joint, interagency and intragovernmental actors. It is a prerequisite to better multinational results. Creating a single voice throughout the joint and interagency space provides a coordinated message with intergovernmental partners, thus leading to a synchronized message to multinational partners. To ensure CA unity and economy of effort in support of larger JIM-level influence operations, GCCs, with input from the embassies, can determine whether Army CMSEs or Marine IO and CA teams (or a mixture of both) are most appropriate to post with U.S. country teams in gray zones.

In today’s information environment, there is a deficiency in U.S. efforts in gray zones to achieve desired effects. The use of MCIOC to deploy CA and other IRC Marines to embassy country teams further allows the integration of Marine CA into JIM and creates a setting where coordination can occur at the joint and interagency level. Coordination with other services and other U.S. government agencies provide CA with the ability to plan execution of strategic objectives internally before working with intragovernmental and multinational partners.

Furthermore, the utilization of key locations in gray zones establishes a foothold for follow-on operations in a specific area of responsibility. For instance, the use of CA and other IRCs at the embassy in the Philippines or Vietnam would allow for coordination with intergovernmental agencies and multinational partners. This type of coordination would provide a direct effect with partner nations to provide access to the Marine Corps that would not otherwise be accessible. One of Marine CA’s objectives is to conduct CMO that includes communicating with the civil aspect of an OIE, such as coordination with local authorities who provide access to Marine Corps units.

Working within internal joint, interagency and intergovernmental frameworks requires unity of effort. Marine CA provides the conduit to plan within embassies and to execute with multinational partners, providing a holistic approach for Marine Corps integration in JIM. IO plays an integral role in providing desired effects through the use of IRCs, specifically CA.


Integrating Marine Corps IO and CA into embassy teams to execute CMO in gray zones will ensure follow-on operations, which deter threats and prepare allies for further confrontation in the gray zones. Not only will this type of integration benefit the Marine Corps through increased JIM access, but it will likewise enhance JIM reach by incorporating a unique and capable service. Furthermore, the goal of establishing embassy integration is an eminently achievable one; at the same time, the Marine Corps need not recreate the wheel to achieve major progress in this area.

In terms of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions, the critical elements of training, education and personnel for CA, IO and international affairs programs already exist. With some creative solutions that bridge the active and reserve components of the Marine Corps, the service could achieve much greater impact in the JIM and therefore in gray zones.

★  ★  ★  ★

Captain Scott Haviland, USMCR, is assigned to the Marine Corps Information Operations Center as an information operations (IO) and psychological operations officer. He currently serves as the IO Planner for Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-U.S. Southern Command (SPMAGTF-SOUTHCOM). As a civilian, following this activation, he will begin as a political-coned foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State.

Major David Cook, USMCR, is assigned to 4th Civil Affairs (CA) Group in Hialeah, Florida. He is currently assigned as the Fires and Effects Coordination Cell Officer-in-Charge for SPMAGTF-SOUTHCOM. As a civilian, he is a successful business owner.

Major Don Newberry Jr., USMCR, is assigned to 4th CA Group in Hialeah, Florida. He is currently assigned as the Executive Officer for SPMAGTF-SOUTHCOM. As a civilian, his expertise is in project management and financial analysis.

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 27 November 2012).

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B Griffith (trans.) (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 77.

Julian Lindley-French, “NATO: Countering Strategic Maskirovka,” Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, May 2015.

Barton Whaley, Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War (Cambridge, MA: Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1969), 253.

“Lithuania Fears Russian Propaganda Is Prelude to Eventual Invasion,” derived from Czech Republic Open-Source Bulletin, 4 April 2017.

Ian Traynor, “Russia Accused of Unleashing Cyberwar to Disable Estonia,” The Guardian, 16 May 2007.

Traynor, “Russia Accused.”

Major Jeffrey S. Han and Major Brion D. Youtz, “Grains of Truth,” quoting Admiral Eric T. Olson statement, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, July–Sep 2012,

Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 17 April 2019), 2–30.

10  FM 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, 2–30.

11  Andre J. Bibb, “Civil Reconnaissance Teams: The Expeditionary Arm of the Civil Affairs Forces,” Small Wars Journal, 3 October 2019.