war on the rocks

Shrinking the Tactical Civilian–Military Divide

April 11, 2016

The ongoing discussion over potential reforms to the Goldwater-Nichols Act provides an opportunity for government leaders to address an important segment of the civilian–military divide. The majority of discussions around this divide focus on the growing division between civil society and the military — partly a repercussion of the move to an all-volunteer force following Vietnam — or tensions at or near the very top of the national command authority. However, too frequently left out of the conversation is the gap between tactical level military personnel and their civilian government counterparts on the ground. This segment of the divide is extremely important, as it negatively impacts interagency coordination and cooperation, and — at the end of the day — our country’s ability to do what it sets out to do around the world.

The divide has been on display in the counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan — for example, the wide-ranging composition, utilization, and effectiveness of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But contingencies not pertaining to conflict, such as responses to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa or the earthquake in Haiti, have also illuminated the divide and provided examples of interagency coordination and cooperation that could be improved upon.

Given the complexities — which do not appear to be going away anytime soon — in various regions of the world and the emphasis on waging campaigns in these environments at small-unit levels, our military and civilian agencies will again be called upon to work together at the tactical level. The last two decades of military operations have demonstrated an enhanced ability to operate in a joint manner — a direct result of Goldwater-Nichols. However, to deal with complexities of the future, the division between the Department of Defense and its civilian agency counterparts at the tactical level needs to be reduced. Bridging the gap can produce improved interagency coordination and cooperation that enhances the government’s ability to address future tactical issues.

Adequately Resource our Soft Power Capabilities

The greatest barrier to enhanced interagency cooperation at the tactical level is a disproportionate allocation of resources. Despite calls from senior government officials — even former defense officials like Robert Gates — to enhance our soft power (read: diplomatic and economic) capabilities, resources between key civilian agencies and the Department of Defense remain unbalanced. As a result, civil service and foreign service officers are stretched thin without reserve across the world. Increased funding would allow agencies such as the State Department and USAID (among others) to grow adequately these officer corps, creating a reserve that helps shrink the gap and produces an environment conducive to enhanced interagency coordination and cooperation opportunities. Additionally, increased personnel could enable civilian agencies to play greater roles in missions aligned with their core competencies, reducing reliance on the military to spearhead such missions simply because they are the best resourced.

Enhance Civil–Military Interactions at the Junior Officer Education Level

There exists some civil–military interaction in the classroom environment at our war colleges, but this interaction is taking place too late in military and civilian officers’ careers. If we expect our small unit leaders — namely platoon and company commanders — to interact and cooperate effectively with civilian personnel in unstable environments, we need to enhance interactions in the classroom at more junior levels. In this regard, the military should look for ways to incorporate civil servants into junior officer educational institutions, such as the Officer Basic Course and the Captain’s Career Course in the Army. Priority should be given to placing these civilian officers in those courses slated for combat arms officers. These officers are the most likely to engage with civilian personnel in future conflict zones and serve as unit operations officers, responsible for coordinating and inserting interagency capabilities into unit operational plans.

Additionally, existing civilian agency-sponsored fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students — such as the Pickering, Rangel, and Payne Fellowships — should be reexamined to determine if this pool of future civil and foreign service officers could be tapped to attend military educational programs prior to beginning their public service careers. Finally, civilian agencies should identify educational opportunities in which military personnel could be included. For example, the Foreign Service Institute provides a range of training for foreign service officers and should also open its doors to junior military officers.

Incorporate Civilian and Military Personnel in Training

There have been some limited successes in incorporating civilian personnel into military training and vice versa, but these successes have been far too limited to be considered institutionalized. Civilian agency personnel, such as those from the State Department and USAID, should be present as units conduct pre-deployment certification training at the national training centers. Taking this a step further, civilian personnel who attend training with military units should be the same personnel who later deploy with those units. If pre-deployment training with interagency components is not possible, efforts should at least be made to identify the interagency personnel who will augment the military unit once deployed, allowing for some level of coordination and planning prior to deployment.

Embed Civilian Officials Within Tactical Level Organizations

The command structure of the relatively new U.S. Africa Command is interesting in that it includes a State Department official as a senior deputy to the commander. The outcomes around this organizational setup should be studied closely and scaled down to tactical units — such as Army brigade combat teams. On the flip side, it is not uncommon to find military personnel operating within civilian agencies, but this is almost always within the intelligence community. Embedding military personnel in the more traditional civilian agencies would be value added to both the service member and the civilian agency, as the exchange of civil–military ideas and viewpoints would provide significant contributions to various offices — such as policy planning or regional desks.

Ultimately, none of these policy solutions are revolutionary in thought, nor are they easy to implement. All efforts to reduce the tactical civilian–military divide and enhance interagency coordination and cooperation hinge on a larger civil and foreign service, which likely requires larger budgets for civilian agencies. This is not a popular solution for many who argue that the current fiscal climate is already too restricting. That being said, if we expect a more holistic government approach to difficult regions in the future, we need to implement difficult policy solutions now. In short, there needs to be an emphasis on more frequent tactical level civilian–military interaction through education and training. This will help shrink an important area of the civilian–military gap and deal with the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves.


Kenny Sholes is currently a graduate student at Princeton University. He previously served as an officer in the U.S. Army and as a government civilian within the National Counterterrorism Center. The views expressed here are his, and are not representative of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: HMC Josh Ives, U.S. Navy