Maximum Support, Flexible Footprint: The Need for Civilian Applied Research Laboratories to Support the 38G Program

Maximum Support, Flexible Footprint: The Need for Civilian Applied Research Laboratories to Support the 38G Program

March 17, 2022

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


The U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), or USACAPOC(A), Military Government Specialist (38G) program was established with the mission of supporting the six core competencies of USACAPOC by “provid[ing] CA the capability to conduct responsibilities normally performed by civil governments and emergency services organizations.”1 By actively recruiting civilian subject matter experts (SMEs) across 38G’s 18 skill identifiers, the U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) is decidedly shaping 38G as a force of civil sector professionals, each with their own professional networks, to position its Soldier-scholars to contribute uniquely to strategic competition. These 18 skill identifiers encompass the range of civil sectors needed to “fill key planning, operations, and liaison roles” in matters of security, justice and reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and social well-being, governance and participation and economic stabilization and infrastructure.2 Exploiting the full potential of these experts, including their academic and professional networks, will be a major strategic focus of building out the 38G program in coming years. As adversaries develop capabilities well beyond the scope of conventional military domains, the expertise commanded by the 38G program will increasingly represent a major strategic asset. The focus of 38G activities has generally been viewed as reactionary and focused on post-conflict governance and response. Yet with “the increasing inseparability of civilian and military spheres,”3 a sustained effort on data production, analysis and monitoring in the respective fields of 38G will be required to counter malign influence and other gray-zone activity in civil society. This paper advances a civil-military solution to the evolving operational environment in the form of applied research labs, housed within partnered institutions to support the range of skill identifiers within 38G.

38G and the Current Operational Environment

Recent calls “to expand the battlefield beyond physical domains to cognitive capacities” have highlighted the need to confront the proliferation of gray-zone activities that subvert current capabilities.4 By design, the front lines of gray-zone conflict permeate well behind conventional lines of military forces. The gray-zone operational environment is often thematic, trans-geographic and dynamic, as opposed to mapped onto a localized terrain. Operations in this space target and shape ideas, ideology and geographically disconnected actors in civil society so as to disadvantage and disrupt from within targeted institutions. The extent to which gray-zone activities have penetrated civilian sectors can only be extrapolated from the types of gray-zone activity identified to date. This is particularly true for campaigns that seek to influence, divide or erode perceptions on seemingly non-military issues within the information warfare domain. These malign operations have targeted culture, education, public infrastructure, transportation issues, criminal justice, agriculture, cultural heritage and many of the other specialties present among 38G officers.5

Countering these malign influences begins with identification. This requires civil reconnaissance (CR), defined as the “targeted, planned, and coordinated observation and evaluation of specific civil aspects of the environment for collecting civil information to enhance situational understanding and facilitate decision making.”6 At present, however, CR is closely tied to Cartesian conceptions of operational environments, and gray-zone threats live in networked spaces rather than strictly geographic ones. As opposed to reconnaissance tied to geographic space, CR in gray-zone conflict occurs through continuous monitoring for malign activity, influence campaigns, information warfare and other state and non-state actions by those equipped to recognize these actions. Operations in this space are, by design, sustained and ever emergent. Reconnaissance that defines and communicates the operational environment must therefore occur on a sustained basis and across civil subject matter. As recently noted by a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, “Warning in the gray zone means identifying and assessing new patterns throughout new sources of data.”7 Given their subject matter expertise, 38G officers are well equipped to do the identification, monitoring and reporting of gray-zone activities targeting civil society.

The workflow of the 38G cadre should be shaped to address this environment, and roadblocks to success should be examined now. The scholars selected for 38G positions are likely to suppose that, because they were selected on account of their civilian expertise, their duties in their military position mirror their civilian work environment. These work environments range from pure academic research to strictly applied engagements. While the mission that 38G officers support will almost exclusively operate in applied settings, the question here is how the 38G program might take advantage of the research capacity, creative problem solving, resourcing and innovation present in academia.

Civilian academics and research institutions typically position themselves as specialists working within a narrow research focus within the already highly restricted parameters of their own discipline. This has both advantages and disadvantages in engaging in civil- military support. Chief among the advantages is the depth of subject matter expertise and the breadth of regionally or technically relevant professional networks. By design, recruitment of civilian specialists positions the 38G program as a set of turnkey professional networks that will become increasingly necessary to engage as all-of-society threats penetrate civil sectors in years to come. Second to this is the room for experimentation, innovation and failure that exists in civilian research institutions but does not typically exist in military settings. Third, and arguably most important, is resourcing. Academic departments and other civilian research entities are resourced by parent institutions and/or their own fundraising to develop their own research agenda. Applied research, as a driver of funding from grants, fundraising, services rendered and in-kind support, may drive civil-military engagements so long as those engagements retain research value in academic settings. 

While these three affordances of academic partnerships provide solutions to many of the primary concerns in supporting new efforts, several obstacles must also be overcome. The recruitment of civilian experts to fill skill identifiers is putting together, as colleagues, scholars who are generally unfamiliar with working alongside people from such a range of backgrounds. The closest model academics have for military hierarchy is that of the academic department, and it is likely that 38G officers will bring this frame of reference with them to their military position. Left unchecked, a 38G subspeciality becomes the new “department” in which individual experts cover a wide swath of research areas. The specialties together form the “college,” with each specialty packaged as an individual intelligence stream, or “brain silo.” The effect of these streams in a military context is to create a unidirectional flow of information, with synthesis occurring only at the highest levels or pushed outside the 38G cadre completely. By treating themselves as repositories of information, combined with 38G officers’ tendencies to only collaborate within their own disciplines, the result will be a stovepipe structure that further isolates the functional areas away from one another and excludes synthetic analysis.

All of these issues become heightened against the backdrop of the typical reserve battle assembly model of one weekend a month, two weeks a year. The 2021 Army Chief of Staff white paper on competition rightfully notes: “In an era of limited resources, the Army must maximize capabilities, activities, and investments that contribute to the multiple dynamics of competition (narrative, direct, and indirect) and that have tactical, operational, and strategic benefits.”8 While this era of limited resources persists, the military scope must continue to expand to effectively identify and counter the range of activities deployed by foreign actors beneath the threshold of war. The brief windows of reserve battle assembly do not afford enough time to provide the sheer amount of open-source monitoring or to facilitate building collaborative links across the functional specialties. We predict that the types of missions that the 38G officers will be called on to support—from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) to military exercises—will require collaboration, not just swaths of data. Integration across the specialties will be essential. When measured against the challenge of the gray-zone threat, it is evident that the model of 38G must be tailored to fight the next war, not the last one. To successfully compete in civilian sectors now targeted by malign operations, the Army must build from early 38G successes and continue to develop civilian partnerships, maximizing the combined federal and public civilian institutional resources in these sectors. The ideal model of sustained support is the applied research lab, housed within partner academic institutions. 

38G Officers in the Civilian Applied Research Lab

Three areas in which civil affairs (CA) could benefit from applied research to counter the growing threat by means of civil-military partnerships are data production, data analysis and sustained monitoring. As previously mentioned, the necessary starting place for these activities is identification of foreign influence in any given civil sector. As most elements of competition involve a narrative component,9 gray-zone activities defining the new operational environment are commonly found in open-source digital media that leverage connectivity, collective perception and rapid dissemination. While cyber specialists represent a critical military force, the main point to underscore is that mastery of the civilian subject matter is just as necessary as proficiency in the medium of influence. 

The sustained form of CR outlined in this paper would be best implemented as a form of digital CR. A recent CA issue paper defines digital civil reconnaissance (DCR) as “a method of capitalizing on existing open-source information without a physical presence in the battlespace or specialized equipment to remotely conducting CR.”10 DCR of gray-zone activity is a continuation into the military domain of what many 38G officers are already researching in their civilian roles. This is because the information is unclassified and available on the open source. DCR research and analysis can thus be performed from any DoD, remote or partnered civilian research location, and with any personal computing device, not just NMCI (Navy/Marine Corps Intranet) PCs.

Though well-established in DoD research and development activities, the concept of the applied research lab is now emerging as a critical institution in academic and non- governmental organizations to bridge pure research and real-world application. With respect to CA, and 38G in particular, the development of applied research labs within institutional partners fills a significant gap highlighted in the first part of this paper. As civil sectors increasingly take on strategic importance as the means for engaging with allied partners and gray-zone activities penetrate civilian domains, there is a critical need for data production, analysis, sustained monitoring and information synthesis in order to support an observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop for informed decisionmaking. Information synthesis at the observe and orient stages is critical for allowing CA officers to populate the new operational environment (OE) (both geographic and networked) by recognizing malign activity in their respective fields, which in turn allows for the progression to the decide and act stages against these influences.

The 38G program is currently building strategic relationships with institutional and academic partners, and it is within these networks that we suggest establishing applied research labs across the range of 38G specialties. Labs should be placed within partners that are equipped to provide the workforce, equipment and training needed to support the mission long term. At its most basic level, the applied research lab requires little in the way of materiel footprint or initial outlay. The most useful implement may be the common access card, which scholars can use to leverage the combined in-kind resources of the federal government and their academic institutions. Whereas the former maintains access to satellite imagery, data and a network of turnkey interagency capabilities, the latter often holds more conventional research resources and flexibility in time and effort that U.S. government entities lack. Leveraging existing resources on both sides of the partnership enables applied research lab staffers to conduct research, generate critical data, collaborate and iterate more efficiently. This means the applied research lab model is scalable to fit the number of staff and CA personnel who are available to work within it.

The guidance of CA officers within the applied research lab is critical to aligning the military mission with civilian workflow. As scholar-practitioners, CA officers will be implementing data, information and approaches developed in an applied research lab setting while operating downrange. Because these research activities must be developed with implementation in mind, direct involvement of CA officers in the research process ensures that the demands of praxis are continually met. One practical way to align military and civilian affairs is to identify opportunities of mutual interest between academic research foci and CA lines of effort (LoEs). LoEs are used at the various levels of USACAPOC(A) command structure to define strategic and operational objectives. The 38G program itself is an LoE (LoE 4: Innovation),11 while the 38G/6V program has developed its own internal LoEs to develop unit doctrine and offer operational support.12 These operational LoEs, in particular, should be applied as guidelines for how CA officers can bring civilian research areas together with commanders’ intent within the applied research lab space. Consistent alignment with the relevant LoEs will ensure the sustainability of the time and resources required to develop data, information and support from both the civilian and military sectors.

The benefits of applied research labs go beyond maximizing available resources. These labs offer flexibility in various ways, particularly in low-stakes environments or on an ad hoc basis, that military planning cannot. Much of military planning requires vast sums of time, money and effort, so the bar for success—and the price of failure—are both high. The length of time that most military planning requires means that, by the time the planning is implemented, many of its outcomes are backward looking. The result is often single solutions—which themselves are compromises of affordability, logistics and time—that are applied, rubber-stamp model, to a vast array of situations. 

In applied research labs, by contrast, continual testing of models and workflows allows for regular feedback, assessment and evolution. Their fluid workflow allows for a forward-focused mindset. Solutions that spring from these environments are low cost, immediate, tailored to the specific problem at hand and can be shaped or adapted as the problem itself changes. The applied research lab should also be innovating extensive collaboration among the labs themselves to facilitate interdisciplinary networking and to support the different 38G functional specialties. In this respect, applied labs across skill identifiers might host an annual conference and develop a formal publication venue, both to establish their own scholarship and to create a record of successes, failures and lessons learned. In addition to being beneficial in their own right, these regular products will create the expectation that collaboration is a core mission of the 38G subspecialities.

Applied Research and the CA Officer of the Future

In 2021, and continuing into 2022, the scope of 38G capabilities is still being realized. In an era of rapid change, the current generation of 38G officers will be learning how to do the job while on the job. We presume that the more experience 38G officers have in implementing layered solutions that meet the interests of the different functional 38G specialties, the more effective they will be in this role. Yet, what of the threats 15 years from now? How can we begin preparing a new CA workforce for “the Multi-Domain Army of 2035”?13 The current vision for this force is to build “Army formations and capabilities [that] will provide the necessary speed, both physical and cognitive, to achieve decision dominance required for a faster-paced, distributed, and complex operating environment.”14 The most impactful reason for building civilian partnerships to sustain 38G is to start forging the next generation of 38G officers. The fact is, the 38G officer of 2035—officers who are used to working collaboratively with a large civil-military network of researchers within a solutions-oriented framework—must become a reality much sooner than that.

A workspace outside the military environment will allow 38G officers to bring in students from various academic disciplines in order to train those who will fill these roles for the Multi-Domain Army of 2035. At a minimum, training in applied research labs would include:

  1. Familiarity with foundational military doctrine, international governance and ethical guidelines and disaster relief measures of the specific functional specialty.
  2. Building extensive analytic skills. Students would learn how to frame research questions toward applied ends, develop methods for answering those questions, extract data from those methods, adjust methods as needed, assess that data and then begin the process again based on the outcomes.
  3. Exposure to conducting open-source research and evaluating internet information against the backdrop of malign actor misinformation and a denial-and-deception environment. This experience is unlike what students encounter in typical college classes, where they are expected to find verifiable information deposited in open, shared forums.
  4. Broadening their writing and presentation skills for a government and/or military audience instead of an academic audience.
  5. Career mentorship for future positions within 38G. Exposure to a service-oriented profession will heighten the attraction of military service.

Exposing students to the scope of 38G capabilities before they become junior officers is critical to the long-term success of the program. With a worldwide OE and mission that requires standing a continual watch, officers simply do not have enough time during battle assembly to learn how to do the job while on the job. Furthermore, we want to avoid peaks of progression followed by troughs of stagnation during generational turnover within the 38G cadre. Applied research labs should be preparing young officers to be mission ready from their first day in uniform. The minimum requirements for the newly commissioned 38G officers of 2035 should be excellence in their civilian careers and prior experience supporting the 38G mission set.

Case Study: The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab

This concept of an applied research lab housed within an institutional partner is currently being piloted within 38G/6V (Heritage and Preservation). The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML) at the Virginia Museum of Natural History has partnered with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), the institutional partner of 38G/6V.15 To date, civilian SMEs in this support lab have invested in: 

  • Satellite imagery monitoring and analysis of cultural heritage due to conflict and natural disaster. These products are briefed to the Department of State (DoS) and DoD.
  • Geospatial data production that directly feeds into the Commercial Civil Affairs Solution-Army (CCAS-A) database.16
  • Methodological development, including predictive analysis of impacts to cultural heritage.
  • Identification of malign actor narrative/disinformation operations involving cultural heritage. This research is currently ongoing, scheduled to be briefed to DoD.
  • Rapid analysis of impacts following natural disasters to guide ground response teams. These products have been provided directly to response teams.
  • Development of real-time SME reach-back capabilities for CA units during an exchange with a foreign partner via satellite communications.17 CHML provided five days of continuous support, including during field surveys in the Honduran jungle.
  • Identification of the legal context of actions involving cultural heritage by state and non-state actors. These case studies have been briefed to stakeholders.
  • Training undergraduate and graduate student interns through the DoS Virtual Student Federal Service internship program,18 in accordance with the principles outlined in the previous section.

In August 2021, CHML activated its civilian members to respond to an HADR event. On Saturday, 14 August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the island of Haiti, heavily impacting a number of coastal areas, notably the town of Les Cayes. On Sunday, 15 August, CHML members worked with NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) staff to acquire synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery of the island from before and after the earthquake. CHML staff then overlaid the NASA product on top of an in-house developed geospatial (ArcGIS) inventory of cultural property in Haiti to model the earthquake’s likely impacts to the island’s cultural heritage.

By 17 August, the results—18 maps, scaled to the city block—were delivered to Haitian partner SMEs. In order to maximize support for the field teams, the maps were standalone products that were decidedly low tech; they would not require GPS or any additional technology. Every street and monument was labeled so that field surveyors could orient themselves even if street signs or landmarks had been destroyed. The ground teams used these maps to perform impact assessments on over 50 sites and monuments during a city survey that took place starting on 21 August. The comprehensive findings of the ground assessment teams were subsequently delivered back to CHML, which served as an effective ground truth for the lab’s modeling. Without the civilian network of SCRI and CHML’s DCR, ground teams would have had to create the list of damaged sites and buildings on foot, a dangerous and time-consuming operation in the circumstances.

This form of rapid response leveraged almost every capability that CHML has developed to support 38G/6V. In the future, we envision coordination with other applied research labs to build integrated products so that other types of infrastructure—schools, utilities, government buildings—could be similarly surveyed by the same ground teams, building a more holistic picture of the operating environment from the ground up. As direct support provided to SCRI, the 38G/6V institutional partner, this response to Haiti served as a demonstration of the applied research lab’s abilities and response time that we foresee for future CA operations.

Conclusion: Successful 38G Officers Are Grounded in Applied Research Labs

This paper has outlined the necessity of sustained research, data production, civil sector monitoring and methodological innovation to support and empower 38G officers. The solution presented here—applied research labs housed within civilian institutional partnerships—will be familiar to longstanding research and development activities within DoD. Existing institutional partners currently provide 38G officers with an established professional network, opportunities for training and strategic-level research in their respective civil sectors. Yet within these partnerships, a more intensive focus on the sustained data production, information synthesis and activity monitoring can be accomplished through applied research labs housed within these institutions. 

The applied research lab supporting CA efforts fills a gap that currently exists in force structure and time. As noted in the recently updated FM 3-57, “The OE includes a wide variety of intangible factors, such as the culture, perceptions, beliefs, and values of adversary, enemy, neutral, or friendly political and social systems. These factors must be analyzed and continuously assessed throughout the operations process to develop a situational understanding of the environment.”19 Confronted with a new and ever-changing OE, the data and information production demands that will be placed on 38G officers cannot be solely fulfilled through battle assembly. The gains from implementation of these applied components of civil-military partnerships will not only be realized in identifying the evolving threat environment but in streamlining the tasks of 38G officers. This will allow them to dedicate their limited time to implementation of data and findings rather than both production and implementation. The operating focus of the applied research labs should be guided by CA officers with reference to current LoEs established by the various command levels of USACAPOC(A). The battle rhythm within the lab, in terms of meeting the operational focus, should be an outgrowth of the freedom and flexibility afforded to civilian academics, who will use the lab to further their own research and as a teaching space, shaping the next generation of 38G officers. 

It should be clear that the benefits of civilian applied research labs supporting the 38G specialties can be reaped both now and in the future. The long-term strategic success of CA activities in an increasingly civilian operating environment may in large part depend on their implementation.

★  ★  ★  ★

Dr. Hayden Bassett is the Archaeology Curator at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, where he also directs the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML). CHML is partnered with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, the institutional partner of the Army Monuments Officers (38G/6V). Previously, he served as a civilian archaeologist for the DoD, where he directed archaeological fieldwork and cultural property protection in East Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe and throughout the United States.

Lieutenant Kate Harrell served six and a half years of active duty as a Navy Intelligence Officer before moving into the Navy Reserve. She currently drills with Navy History and Heritage Command and serves as the Army Monuments Officers (38G/6V) Team Lead for Line of Effort 4. She is a Senior Research Associate at the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab.


  1. U.S. Army Reserve, Civil Affairs Branch, Careers Document, 1 June 2017.
  2. Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2019), II-11–II-16.
  3. David Carment and Dani Belo, “Gray-Zone Conflict Management: Theory, Evidence, and Challenges,” Air Force Journal of European, Middle Eastern, & African Affairs, 2020.
  4. Christopher Holshek, Expanding Multi-Domain Operations to Win Moral Competition, Association of the United States Army, 19 August 2020.
  5. Christopher Holshek (ed.), Civil Affairs: A Force for Influence in Competition: Civil Affairs Issue Papers, Vol. 7, 2020–2021 (Arlington, VA: AUSA, 2021).
  6. FM 3-57, 1–3.
  7. Lindsey Sheppard and Matthew Conklin, “Case Study: Warning for the Gray Zone,” in By Other Means Part II: Adapting to Compete in the Gray Zone, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, 2019, 60.
  8. Department of the Army, The Army in Military Competition, Chief of Staff of the Army Paper, no. 2 (2021): vii.
  9. Department of the Army, The Army in Military Competition, 8–10.
  10. Paul J. Hendrick, Edward B. Lescher and Matthew T. Peterson, “Digital Civil Reconnaissance,” Eunomia Journal (2020).
  11. Christopher Holshek, Colonel, USA, Ret., “2019 Civil Affairs Symposium Report,” Civil Affairs Issue Papers, Vol. 7, 2020–2021, 11–12.
  12. Michael Delacruz, “38G/6V Heritage Preservation Officer Cadre Collaboration Workplan (4Q FY20–2Q FY21),” 2020.
  13. Department of the Army, Army Multi-Domain Transformation: Ready to Win in Competition and Conflict, Chief of Staff of the Army Paper, no. 1 (2021): 1.
  14. Department of the Army, Army Multi-Domain Transformation, 1.
  15. Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab,” Virginia Museum of Natural History.
  16. The Commercial Civil Affairs Solution-Army (CCAS-A),” ArcGIS StoryMaps, 7 February 2020.
  17. U.S., Honduran Military, and Cultural Heritage Experts Partner for Unique Exchange,” DVIDS.
  18. Virtual Student Federal Service,” U.S. Department of State.
  19. FM 3-57, 3–13. Emphasis added by authors.

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