DoD Humanitarian Assistance

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A Powerful Tool for DoD in Great Power Competition

Executive Summary  

Across the globe, Russia and China continue to expand their influence at the expense of the United States Government (USG).  This is the resurgence of great power competition (GPC).  Yet the USG seems to struggle at deterring the malign influence of our adversaries.  The tools available for the Department of Defense (DoD) may be limited, but they do exist.  Tools such as the Humanitarian Assistance (HA) Program.  But in order to be successful, DoD must do a better job of employing those tools.  This paper examines the DoD HA program, GPC, and how DoD HA can better be used in support of achieving the USG’s GPC goals and objectives.

Defining Department of Defense Humanitarian Assistance

As a sub-set of Security Cooperation (SC), the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) administered HA program provides a powerful SC tool for Combatant Commands (CCMD) to gain access, visibility, and influence within their area of operations and achieve their campaign plan objectives.[i]  SC is defined in Defense Security Cooperation Manual (DSCAM) 5105.38-M, Security Assistance Management Manual (SAMM) as “all activities undertaken by the Department of Defense (DoD) to encourage and enable international partners to work with the United States to achieve strategic objectives[ii]  Many people think of SC as building and maintaining military-to-military relationships, combined training efforts, and foreign military sales.  But there is more to SC than that. 

Sri Lanka – U.S. Marines and Sailors with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) pose for a photo with Sri Lanka Navy Marines while  conducting a theater security cooperation exercise with the Sri Lankan Navy and Navy Marines.

SC, which includes Security Assistance (SA) programs and HA, are undertaken to achieve specific ends in support of the National Defense and National Security Strategies.  They provide the USG with the means to furnish defense articles, military training, and other defense services to our partner nations (PN), and supports the achievement of USG National Security objectives by building partner capacity[iii] (BPC).  The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD-P), through DSCA, provides DoD-wide guidance for the execution of DoD SC programs.  These programs include HA, disaster relief, and demining activities funded with the Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civic Aid (OHDACA) appropriation[iv]

Exercise Cobra Gold 2020 . The exercise focused on humanitarian civic action, cyber, amphibious assault, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and combined arms live fire.

DoD conducts HA as a means to an end.  HA activities can relieve or reduce human suffering, disease, hunger, privation, and the adverse effects of unexploded explosive ordnance (UXO).  This is particularly important in areas where humanitarian needs may pose major challenges to stability and prosperity.  In these areas, populations are at risk and may grow dissatisfied with their governments.  These areas can also become breeding grounds for insurgencies and violent extremist organizations.   Conducting HA activities can build the capacity of a PN government to provide essential services to their civilian population and support PN efforts to reduce the risk of humanitarian disasters, to include preparing for and responding to these situations.  This, in turn, can reduce the reliance of the PN on international disaster relief assistance[v].  When used in conjunction with other security cooperation activities, HA provided to non-security civilian populations allows DoD to have an indirect influence not only within the PN security sector but within the governance and service delivery sectors as well.  This extended reach across all three stability sectors makes HA a powerful tool for DoD and the USG.

There are five OHDACA funded activities associated with DoD HA authorities; 10 U.S.C. 402, Denton Space-Available Transportation Program; 10 U.S.C. 404, Foreign Disaster Relief (FDR); 10 U.S.C. 407, Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA); 10 U.S.C. 2557, Non-lethal Excess Property (EP) Program; and 10 U.S.C. 2561, Humanitarian Assistance (HA).  Another activity sometimes associated with DoD HA is Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) authorized by 10 U.S.C. 401.  However, this is a non-OHDACA funded activity.[vi] 

Defining Great Power Competition

In December 2017, the White House released its National Security Strategy (NSS).  This was followed in early 2018 by the Pentagon’s release of the National Defense Strategy (NDS).  These documents articulated a return to “great power competition”.  Where DoD’s focus had been on defeating terrorists and violent extremist groups, these documents shifted that focus to our great power adversaries, Russia and China as well as lesser regional adversaries such as Iran and Korea[vii].  As stated in the NDS, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

This competition will usually not involve open warfare or armed conflict directly between great power adversaries.  Rather, it will occur largely between proxies of the great powers.  This competition may be in the form of armed conflict but will most often occur in the space known as "competition short of armed conflict."  This is the grey zone between peace and war.  Here both revisionist powers, as well as rogue regimes, use soft power tactics such as “corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxy nations or non-state actors, and the threat or use of military force to influence nation states and their populations[viii].

The USG faces an increasingly complex international landscape in which our adversaries promote instability and humanitarian crises thereby creating the conditions for violent extremists and transnational criminal organizations to expand their influence at the expense of the USG[ix].  As various countries compete for resources and influence, the impact of these actions will destabilize much of the competitive space and drive an increase in requirements for irregular warfare.  Specifically, DoD will see a need for capabilities that can stabilize populations by assisting PNs in providing basic services, and supporting PN governance, strengthening our strategic partnerships, and ultimately achieving our GPC goals and objectives. 

The 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) identified the need to establish clear lines of responsibility for stabilization, with DOS as the overall LFA, USAID as the lead implementing agency, and DoD with a supporting role in conducting stabilization activities.  As of 2020, DoD has extremely limited authorities and funding to conduct stability operations.  DoD identifies a distinction between stabilization and HA yet recognizes that HA and FDR activities may compliment USG stabilization efforts[x].  However, DoD HA can, if used properly, provide positive stabilizing effects and can contribute directly to achieving DoD’s GPC goals.  This again makes DoD HA a powerful tool. 

Leveraging Humanitarian Assistance to Compete with Our Adversaries

In order to maximize the capabilities of DoD HA programs in achieving GPC goals and objectives, the CCMD must make their use a priority.  The common way to achieve this prioritization is by directing their use in CCMD strategies, plans, and orders.  In some cases, for example, Service Components want to conduct HA projects.  However, they are faced with written guidance from the CCMD that places higher priorities on other activities, so HA goes un-resourced with respect to personnel and planning support.

By writing HA into the appropriate plans, HA tasks can be linked not only to theater strategy end states, but lines of effort and intermediate military objectives as well.  In addition, specified tasks can be given to various subordinate organizations.  The Security Cooperation Organizations (SCO) within Embassies, the Service Components, and where applicable CJTFs can all be given clear guidance to identify opportunities for, develop, and execute HA projects, with supporting linkages back to the Commander’s goals and objectives.   

HA activities can potentially be conducted across the full spectrum of operations and through all phases of those operations.  This includes not only stable countries who are at peace but unstable countries which find themselves in armed conflict.  Examples of countries in armed conflict might include Syria and Yemen. 

Probably the most important area of the spectrum is the grey zone between peace and armed conflict.  Here we find countries such as Lebanon or the Central Asian States where the PN suffers from challenges across one or more of the stability sectors mentioned above (security, governance, service delivery).  It is here, in the competitive space, that the great power nations will vie for proxy nation partners.  Each great power nation will attempt to entice selected proxy nations to see them as the partner nation of choice, making that proxy nation denied space to other great powers.  The other great power nations may seek to make this denied space contested, destabilizing this space in order to initially gain a foothold but to ultimately gain control.

Each CCMD is different.  Some CCMDs find themselves confronting multiple operations involving armed conflict, while others have no active armed conflict related operations at all.  Some CCMD s find themselves deeply engaged in countering violent extremist or terrorist organizations, while others are focused on one or more of our great power adversaries.  Therefore, each CCMD can and should take a different approach to implementing HA.  There are some common themes, guided by the requirements expressed in Chapter 12 of the SAMM.  These themes include the primary DoD actors within each PN, the need for DOS and USAID concurrence, the need for adequate support, and messaging.

Usually, the SCO, which operates within the U.S. Embassy in our PNs, is a focal point for HA projects.  They are the normal interface with DOS and USAID within the embassy.  However, in some CCMDs, the SCOs often rely on the assets of the Service Components (or during armed conflict CJTFs) to conduct the actual execution of HA projects. 

DOS and USAID concurrence is mandatory prior to DoD approving an HA project.  There are techniques to facilitate this concurrence.  DoD assets such as the SCO should align proposed HA projects with DOS/USAID Integrated Country Strategies and Development Plans to show how the HA project is supportive of DOS and USAID goals.  In this way, DoD is demonstrating the win-win aspect of the project.

In many cases, HA projects will need additional support.  Depending on the type of project, this may be a need for warranted contracting logistics support in order to make purchases or deliver non-lethal aid, engineer support to provide oversight of construction/renovation projects, medical support to review and oversee medical related projects, and legal support to review all projects.

Finally, there is a need for messaging.  Messaging is extremely important.  There should be different messaging for different audiences.  The messaging for U.S. audiences will be different than the messaging for the PN populace, which may be different from the messaging for the PN government.  Of course, there may also be different messaging directed towards our adversaries.  The bottom line is that it does not matter how much good you do, if your message does not get out, or if our adversaries overshadow it, then we lose. 


DoD has entered a new era of great power competition but has done so with only a few authorities and other tools needed to maximize our success.  Programs such as DoD HA are tools that do exist, and that can, if utilized correctly, make significant contributions towards achieving DoD’s GPC goals.  CCMDs should leverage the HA Program by making HA a priority in its strategies, plans, and orders.  They should direct SCOs and Service Components to identify opportunities for HA projects and ensure they are developed and executed.  Finally, these efforts should be adequately resourced with various support capabilities and messaging.  By increasing the execution of HA projects, the CCMD’s can better compete with our great power adversaries, deterring their malign influence, and making greater contributions towards CCMD GPC goals and objectives.

Mr. Charles Barham is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 29 years of service (1981-2010).  He also served for four years as a Department of the Army Civilian, Management and Program Analyst in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program (2010-2014).   He currently serves as a Department of the Air Force Civilian, Management and Program Analyst at USCENTCOM in the Operations Directorate, Interagency Action Group, Civil Affairs Operations Division as a Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Analyst, and the Assistant Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Program Manager.  He served for more than three years in Afghanistan as; Assistant Director of the Police Reform Directorate, Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan 2006-2007, Senior Socioeconomic Advisor in HQ ISAF-DCOS/STAB under Generals David Petraeus and John Allen 2011, as Deputy Director of the NATO/Afghan Transformation Task Force, HQ ISAF under General Joseph Dunford 2013, and as a Senior Planning, Programing and Budgeting Advisor to the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command 2014.  He has served for over eight years in HQCENTCOM in positions including Senior Socioeconomic Advisor, Interagency Planner, Stabilization Analyst, and Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Analyst.  He has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, a Master of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.  He has published on-line articles in Small Wars Journal, SOF News, and Real Clear Defense.


Ingram, George, “Rightsizing the Relationship Between the State Department and USAID”, Brookings, 11 April 2018,

Johnson, Alex, “U.S. military in crisis”, NBCNews.Com, Nov. 14, 2018,

“Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America”, Washington, DC, 2018.

DODD 3000.05 “Stabilization”, Washington, DC, 13 December 2018,

Security Assistance Management Manual, Washington, DC, June 2019,

Refugee and Humanitarian Assistance, Department of State, Washington, DC,

Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, United States Agency for International Development, Washington DC,

Stabilization Assistance Review, Washington, DC, 2018,


[i] Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 12, para C12.1.1, June 2019,

[ii]." Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 1, para C1.1.1, June 2019,

[iii] Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 1, para C1.1.2, June 2019,

[iv] Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 1, para C12.1.3.4, June 2019,

[v] Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 1, para C12.1.1, June 2019,

[vi] Security Assistance Management Manual, Chapter 12, Table C12.T1, June 2019, 

[vii] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC,  2018, page 1.

[viii] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC,  2018, page 5.

[ix] Stabilization Assistance Review, Washington, DC, 2018, page i,

[x] DODD 3000.05 "Stabilization," Washington, DC, 13 December 2018, page 5,





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