Issue 19 - Article 22

The UK military and civilmilitary cooperation

February 22, 2002
Major David Couzens
7 min read

British military doctrine for peace-support operations was published in 1998, and drew on experience gained in the Balkans. In the light of subsequent experience, the military thinking on peace-support operations has evolved, and the need for a comprehensive approach reinforced, one which brings together all relevant actors to achieve a long-term sustainable solution. The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre has been exploring how this comprehensive approach might be developed. Its work with humanitarian organisations should be seen in this light.

The Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre has been involved in workshops bringing together military personnel, NGO staff and academics to explore what civil–military cooperation (CIMIC) might mean in practice. In September 2000, NGO personnel and senior officers participated in a CIMIC workshop organised by the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) at Oxford Brookes University. The workshop explored how relations between the military and NGOs could be improved in humanitarian operations through a discussion of current training and education. The workshop concluded that the key was to build mutual understanding and trust. It made several concrete proposals, including the formation of a steering/contact group, and an exercise – ‘Exercise Bandundu’ – to compare and learn from each other’s planning processes.

The exercise

Exercise Bandundu involved members of the British military, NGO staff and academics from CENDEP and the Cranfield Disaster Management Centre. The exercise focused deliberately on practitioners, allowing individuals to be open and frank, and to express their views without feeling that they were acting as spokespeople for their organisations.

The exercise began with short briefings by the military and NGOs on their respective analysis and planning processes. Military participants explained the difference between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of operation, and outlined key concepts, such as the centre of gravity. This is the characteristic, capability or grouping from which adversaries (and their friends) draw strength and motivation. Unlocking an adversary’s centre of gravity will lead to their inevitable collapse, and consequently military actions are focused on them. Accurately identifying the centres of gravity is critical but often difficult, and requires a detailed knowledge and understanding of the conflict, and its dynamics.

NGO participants in turn briefed the military on some of their key ethics and principles. They began by addressing the proliferation of NGOs over the last few decades, and urged the military to identify the key players in any situation and focus on them, rather than being diverted by the mass of less effective NGOs that may be present in any emergency. Accountability was discussed, to large donors, to individual supporters, to the general public, and also to beneficiaries. The importance of an NGO’s reputation was stressed, as were the key principles of universality, impartiality and neutrality, and their implications for relations with the military. The point was made that the process by which objectives were achieved often mattered as much as the end product itself. Finally, the consensual and participatory style of NGOs was contrasted with the military’s more hierarchical structure and tendency to impose solutions and seek control. Attempts to cajole or coerce NGOs into tight linkages with the military tend to be counter-productive.

The exercise was designed to allow NGO and military participants to compare the way each responded to a given situation, and to learn from each other’s planning processes. There were both similarities, and differences. NGO participants’ formed a ‘voluntary coordination group’, that developed a common understanding of the situation. Available resources, and resource gaps, were identified, fact-finding teams were (notionally) despatched and the situation was reviewed in the light of their report. Needs were confirmed and prioritised, with individual NGOs offering to take responsibility for functional or geographic areas. The resulting ‘action plan’ was a loose arrangement of broadly-aligned individual plans.

For the military participants, who were from different headquarters, it took some time for roles and responsibilities to be established. Once this was done, however, the planning process was highly structured, with each individual knowing their function and expected output. At times, the thought processes and analytical approaches were surprisingly similar to those used by the NGOs. Overall, the military participants demonstrated great unity of purpose. The strength of the military approach was the clear sense of direction and long-term vision that it provided. On the other hand, the NGOs tended to be able to identify more closely with local needs and priorities, and were able to draw on a wealth of first-hand experience gained from working in the region. Conversely, the enormity of the immediate crisis depicted in the exercise meant that NGOs focused solely on short-term solutions, and found it difficult to develop long-term strategies in the same way as the military.

A follow-up exercise is being planned for late November 2001. Attendance will be widened to include participants from the UN, the police and the media. This exercise will focus on activities in the field, primarily from an ‘operational level’ perspective. It will remain basically British, but the aim is to include another nation – probably a major UN troop-contributing country – in a third exercise.

bandundu part

Lessons learned

One of the key lessons to emerge from the workshop was the importance of sharing understanding. If the depth of understanding of the issues possessed by NGOs could be shared with the military, a common understanding of the situation could be developed. Equipped with this deeper understanding, military activities would be more culturally appropriate and relevant to the situation, and would better reflect local perceptions and priorities. Emanating from a common understanding, both military and humanitarian actions would become coherent by default and stand a better chance of contributing to a long-term solution.

The number of cross-dependencies between their plans struck the participants; NGO actions considerably affect military activities, and vice versa. Since information was lacking, assumptions had to be made. The activities of each would clearly be more effective if information could be shared. Yet talk of sharing information immediately sets alarm bells ringing, both in military and in NGO minds. Such sharing is not straightforward, and there is a risk that important principles could be compromised. For NGOs, this could mean a perceived loss of impartiality, reduced access and, not least, increased risk. Nevertheless, where information can be shared, it is clear that humanitarian relief can be applied more effectively, and progress made towards long-term solutions that allow locals to take responsibility for themselves and eliminate the need for the presence of both the military and NGOs.

As a result of the exercise, NGO and military participants have gained a greater understanding of the role that each can play, as well as of each other’s mandates, strengths and limitations. Awareness and sensitivity of the issues has increased. The military participants have gained a better understanding of the importance of humanitarian space, and clarifying the boundaries between humanitarian and military action will make it easier to bridge the gap, where this is appropriate. Suspicion of each other’s motives has been reduced, and contact between practitioners increased.

From the military side, we still believe that the only way to achieve a long-term sustainable solution to the kind of humanitarian crises we see today is through a holistic approach, under civilian leadership. Our contact with NGOs has demonstrated that this approach must be based on cooperation, and not coordination. Such cooperation must be based on mutual under-standing, on trust and on respect for each other’s principles. Only when the boundaries between actions, responsibilities and mandates are understood can bridges be built, and effective cooperation enabled. British military doctrine for peace-support operations will be rewritten over the next year, and lessons from this exercise and from the military’s increasing contact with the NGO community will inform the new doctrine and, ultimately, military practice.


Major David Couzens works at the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre. The Centre develops UK military thinking and has a remit to both develop and promote the British approach to peace support operations. He can be contacted by e-mail at and by telephone on +44 (0) 1793 487245.


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