Maritime Civil Affairs: A Way Forward

This article is experted and modified from a longer, previously published at Small Wars Journal.

Maritime civil affairs capabilities can play an important supporting role in military operations. While each military service is required to maintain a civil affairs capability by DoD Directive 2000.13,[1] the US Navy in 2014 divested itself of its only civil affairs capability, the Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command (MCAST).[2] This article provides a rationale and recommendations for resuscitating the maritime civil affairs capability.

Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command “People Are Our Platform”

The US Navy’s plan for Maritime Civil Affairs

DoD Directive 2000.13 was promulgated in recognition that Maritime civil affairs, especially when partnered with its more traditional land-based counterparts, can enhance the effectiveness of military operations through engagement with civil components of the maritime environment and providing civil information management for use in planning military operations.

While it is disputable whether the structure of MCAST (a headquarters that would assemble civil affairs teams when requested) fully satisfied the formal requirement for civil affairs units, it did provide a niche capability that was clearly in demand by the Geographic Combatant Commands, particularly SOUTHCOM, AFRICOM, and PACOM. Its participation in efforts like Community Watch on the Water—a collaboration with the Kenyan government, local law enforcement, and local citizens to reduce crime and violent extremism[3]—proved its value as a member of the civil affairs community despite its small size and short lifespan.

However, the Navy’s position is that, instead of having a standing general-purpose civil affairs capability, Navy civil affairs will be available through the Request for Forces (RFF) process if the request identifies a specific maritime requirement. Assuming that an RFF adequately identifies the desired expertise, the Navy will provide an adaptive force package to meet the maritime civil affairs requirements detailed in the request.

But the Navy’s current means of fulfilling these requirements is not workable. The fact that the civil affairs role spans the breadth of the conflict spectrum, and that the required skill sets are difficult to build (or to find within the resident force), suggests that ad hoc measures to develop “tailored” civil affairs capabilities to a given operational requirement will result in capabilities being provided too little and/or too late.

Additionally, the Navy policy assumes that combatant commanders know that the ad hoc capability is available to them. However, it is unlikely that commanders are aware of this, given the sharp decline in requests for Navy civil affairs capabilities following the disestablishment of MCAST. Instead, anecdotal evidence suggests that commanders have shifted their requests for maritime civil affairs capabilities primarily to the US Army.[4] However, the Army lacks the depth of expertise in the maritime environment that is required for effective civil affairs operations in the maritime domain.

Policy Recommendations

The Navy could fulfill its obligation to provide maritime civil affairs in a variety of ways. One method would be to require that the training provided to maritime functional area specialists also include modules designed to ensure that they are able to integrate into maritime and multi-domain civil-military operations planning teams.

A second method would be for the Navy to provide “generalists” in civil affairs, with some training in all civil affairs functional areas, but focusing on maritime functional areas. This option would comport best with the Navy’s general approach to officer professional development practices, which favors generalization and broad professional communities that are then further narrowed as one drills down into the specifics.

In either case, without some standing method of generating civil affairs practitioners with adequate understanding of the maritime environment, there is little hope that the demand for maritime civil affairs will ever be satisfied. There are multiple ways of achieving such a capability at relatively low cost. For example, SeaBees seeking civil affairs capabilities are regularly admitted to the U.S. Marine Corps Civil-Military Operations School (CMOS). An agreement could easily be reached to set aside a certain number of seats at CMOS for Navy personnel. This, combined with a course (likely also hosted at CMOS) on the maritime functional areas, would generate maritime civil affairs practitioners at very low cost to the Navy. A similar partnership may be possible with the U.S. Coast Guard or the Army. [5]

Conclusion

Maritime civil affairs capabilities play an important supporting role in overseas operations. However, without an established method of generating and sourcing adequately trained practitioners, the demand for maritime civil affairs will never be adequately satisfied. However the result is achieved, the U.S. Navy should seriously consider developing a true civil affairs capability that is focused on the maritime domain, not only because it is required by DoD policy, but because of the evident demand for such a capability on the part of the combatant commands.


[1] “It is DoD policy that the DoD must maintain a capability to conduct a broad range of civil affairs operations necessary to support DoD missions and to meet DOD Component responsibilities to the civilian sector across the range of military operations.” (DoD Directive 2000.13, March 11, 2014)

[2] Navy Disestablishes MCAST, USN press release, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=81067 (accessed September 26, 2016). Archive: http://irregularwarrior.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Navy-Disestablishes-MCAST.pdf.

[3] MCAT 205 Keeping Partnerships with Kenyans Alive, USN press release, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=54803 (accessed September 26, 2016). Archive: http://irregularwarrior.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/MCAT-205-Keeping-Partnerships-with-Kenyans-Alive.pdf.

[4] See, e.g., https://www.civilaffairsassoc.org/post/2019/11/15/framework-for-maritime-civil-affairs-activities (accessed March 9, 2021)

[5] Vera Zakem and Emily Mushen, Charting the Course for Civil Affairs in the New Normal , July 2015, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/COP-2015-U-010995.pdf (accessed March 9, 2021); see also Rosemary Speers, Ph.D., Shaping the Future of Maritime Civil Affairs: Lessons Learned from the Maritime Civil Affairs Teams: 2006-2014, http://www.faoa.org/Resources/Documents/2-Speers%20Maritime%20Civil%20Affairs%2014%20Nov%2014.pdf (accessed March 9, 2021).

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