Report – SOF Civil Affairs in Great Power Competition

SOF Civil Affairs and great power competition

The Joint Special Operations University has released a new report that explores the use of special operations forces Civil Affairs as a key element for competing below the level of armed conflict. “Great Power Competition” will likely see Civil Affairs assume a more prominent role as the United States and its competitors (Russia, China, and a few others) seek broader influence across the Global South.

In this JSOU report Major Travis Clemens provides an overview of how Civil Affairs can contribute in new and highly valuable ways in the great power competition. For the past two decades the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has dramatically increased its capability to conduct kinetic counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and countering threat networks. However this new era of great power competition will see USSOCOM utilize its vast experience with populations-centric missions and influence-oriented capabilities.

A return to great power competition (GPC) has changed how the Department of Defense intends to employ its military forces in the coming years. U.S. military forces must be prepared for a major general war involving planes, ships, and tanks. However, the DoD has recognized that it must also perpetually seek political and military advantage below the level of armed conflict. Its activities for shaping the environment for advantage must be aligned with (and oftentimes in support of) interagency, intergovernmental, multilateral, and corporate partners.

SOF CA has, for the past two decades, focused on stability operations and counterinsurgency. SOF CA will need to widen its range of potential operations in this new era of GPC. The report outlines four principal roles for SOF CA:

  • Initial Entry
  • Reconnaissance
  • Engage and Influence
  • Support to Resistance (STR)

Contents of the report:

  • Chapter 1. Operational Art and CA Doctrine for Great Power Competition
  • Chapter 2. Special Operations CA
  • Chapter 3. The PRC
  • Chapter 4. Russian Federation
  • Conclusion
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations
  • Endnotes

This report details how SOF CA can help the U.S. military as it faces its adversaries in the many aspects of international competition. It also provides an ‘consolidated’ explanation of the role that SOF CA plays within great power competition. In the conclusion the author offers recommendations for changes needed in doctrine, organization, training, and equipment to further develop the capabilities of SOF CA in great power competition.


The author, Major Travis Clemens, is an active duty civil affairs officer in the U.S. Army. He holds a master’s degree in defense analysis with a specialization on special operations and irregular warfare from the Naval Postgraduate School and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from California Polytechnic State University. Clemens has multiple SOF and conventional force deployments. During his career he has worked with Naval Special Warfare, U.S. Army Special Forces, and Marine Special Operations units and teams.

Special Operations Forces Civil Affairs in Great Power Competition, by Travis Clemens, JSOU Report 20-4, Joint Special Operations University, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, 2020, PDF, 126 pages.

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