Working With the U.S. Military: 10 Things the Foreign Service Needs to Know

Here are some pointers for members of the Foreign Service working with the military today, from a retired senior FSO and the first political adviser to the U.S. Strategic Command.


American diplomats have a long history of working alongside the U.S. military. In many cases, U.S. forces have literally come to the rescue of besieged American diplomats and their families. A cohort of FSOs spent their first assignment in Vietnam, many working directly with the military in the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program known as CORDS. More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave almost the entire FS cadre a closer look at the military when many members of the Foreign Service worked with provincial reconstruction teams or other military units. Currently the military’s Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa offers ample evidence of embassies and the military working well together.

The Foreign Service takes pride in its foreign cultural expertise and language proficiency. Similar preparation is needed when working with the U.S. military. To be effective in those situations, FS members require a good understanding of military procedures, organization and culture along with a minimum 2+ fluency in the military’s jargon and acronym-laced lexicon. The following 10 points skim the surface of what the Foreign Service needs to know when working with the U.S. military today.

1. The Basics

Since the National Security Act of 1947 was amended in 1949, U.S. military forces have been organized under the Secretary of Defense in three military departments: the Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force and Department of the Navy (which includes the U.S. Marine Corps). The Coast Guard is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. The secretary of each military department and the chief of staff of each Service (known as the commandant in the Marines and chief of naval operations in the Navy) are responsible for recruiting, training and equipping the force and dealing with attendant budget issues. The secretaries of the military departments then provide forces to combatant commanders as directed by the Secretary of Defense but have no command authority or operational control over how the combatant commanders use or deploy those forces.

There are nine combatant commands (COCOMs), as defined and established by the Unified Command Plan issued by the Secretary of Defense. They fall into two categories—geographic and functional. The six geographic COCOMs are: U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. The three functional combatant commands are: U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. These commands are responsible for operational control of military personnel and units in combat as well as during peacetime activities, such as theater security cooperation programs. The U.S. Special Operations Command is a hybrid organization, which has responsibility and authority for the “organize, train and equip” function, as well as command authority for operationally engaged troops.

The military is accustomed to and proficient at doing things on a grand scale, but this can only be accomplished with detailed advanced planning.

2. Size Matters

U.S. Military Active-Duty Strength (May 31, 2015)

Marine Corps
Air Force
Coast Guard



Source: Defense Manpower Data Center

The U.S. military is big, if not enormous. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps currently have a combined total strength of about 1.3 million uniformed personnel, plus well over 600,000 civilian employees. Including National Guard and Reserve forces adds about another 825,000 uniformed personnel to the total. The State Department’s roster of approximately 14,000 career Foreign Service members and nearly 11,000 Civil Service members pales in comparison.

This immense disparity in size has several consequences for the Foreign Service. Given the nature of its missions, the military is accustomed to and proficient at doing things on a grand scale, but this can only be accomplished with detailed advanced planning. This planning imperative at times will appear to diplomats to be overdone, especially since “winging it” is an honored Foreign Service tradition.

Another consequence of size is the need for extensive coordination within and among military organizations. This is accomplished at the COCOMs, for example, with an extensive framework of coordinating boards, bureaus, cells and working groups. Supporting such extensive coordination may easily overwhelm embassy staffing, and a more selective apportionment of embassy resources may not satisfy the military’s coordination appetite.

Size alone gives the military a voice in nearly every foreign policy issue. It is organized on a global basis with geographic combatant commanders focused on their individual area of responsibility (AOR). The Navy and the Air Force provide a global and regional conventional reach and are the custodians of the nation’s nuclear forces. The military’s Global Response Force, drawn primarily from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, stands ready to respond to immediate crisis situations. And the nation’s military cyber defensive and offensive capabilities are handled by the U.S. Cyber Command under the U.S. Strategic Command.

The challenge for the Foreign Service is to provide the leadership to incorporate this dynamic capability into a coherent, coordinated foreign policy. To use military terminology, State’s diplomatic efforts need to be “supported” by the military, which is preconditioned by its culture and training to understand this type of supported/supporting relationship. The FS needs to expand this essential cooperation, hopefully drawing on the 25 percent of its members who have prior military experience to help grow and nurture the relationship.

3. Doctrine Counts

To anyone who has never served in the military, especially the Army, the concept and role of doctrine will be entirely alien. For an Army soldier, however, doctrine is a combination of the Bible and the Boy Scout Handbook. It codifies current Army concepts, provides a set of fundamental principles, establishes policies and procedures, details tactics and techniques, attempts to inspire, and mandates a common lexicon of warfighting terms and concepts. To understand the military and its methods and jargon, FS personnel will need at least a passing acquaintance with doctrine. But be prepared for an extensive amount of reading. Army doctrine alone consists of 16 Army Doctrine Publications (ADPs), 16 Army Doctrine Reference Publications (ADRPs), more than 100 Army Techniques Publications (ATPs) and more than 200 Field Manuals (FMs). By comparison, the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Foreign Affairs Handbook are an easy read.

The military contends with an extensive amount of legal and regulatory strictures: international law, domestic legislation, military regulations and operational rules.

4. The Military as a Profession

Much has been written about apparent differences between FSOs and their military counterparts. The Venus/Mars distinction was described 25 years ago. Many now believe that depiction is outdated, but differences do still exist. The military, for example, tends to see things in black and white, while the Foreign Service is more sensitive to shades of grey. Military characterizations frequently are in absolute terms; FS personnel are more comfortable with nuance and subtlety. One inescapable difference remains: the military is a true profession, while the Foreign Service could be described as a pseudo profession, with elitism passing for professionalism. (Ambassador Charles Ray’s article on what constitutes a profession and the need for a professional Foreign Service in the July-August issue of the FSJ brings this issue front and center and hopefully galvanizes needed action.)

An important element of a military professional common to all the services is the mastery and credentialing of essential military skills and abilities. In addition, military members are subject to continual professional development and education throughout their careers, attending military schools such as the Command and General Staff College as majors and the Army, Naval, Air Force, Marine Corps and National War Colleges as colonels. Correspondence and Internet-based courses also abound. It is, therefore, not surprising that most military officers have an advanced degree. Many have two or more.

5. Legal Restraints

The military contends with an extensive amount of legal and regulatory strictures: international law, domestic legislation, military regulations and operational rules. These are enforced with a separate judicial system known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Consequently, all commanders, unlike ambassadors, have lawyers on their staff to help navigate this massive legalese and to help administer the UCMJ.

Unfortunately, the Army is at times captured by the legal process itself. What has evolved is a belief by many in the Army that almost every proposed action or activity requires explicit legal authorization or approval from someone higher in the chain of command. This cautious approach contrasts with the view of rules and regulations held both by the Navy and the Foreign Service. For those two organizations the view is reversed, with activities or actions usually considered favorably for implementation unless explicitly prohibited in writing. This caution may explain an initial circumspect reaction by a commander to the ambassador’s request or suggestion due to the need to first check with the lawyers.

6. Tension in the Ranks

Congress created the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987 and deliberately gave it distinct, Service-like responsibilities, making it unique among the nine COCOMs. Unlike the others, it is the responsibility of the USSOCOM commander to organize, train and equip special operations forces (SOF) for current and future requirements in addition to commanding their day-to-day operational missions. The USSOCOM congressional charter overrides the historical division of responsibility between commanders and the secretaries of the military departments (Army, Navy and Air Force), giving USSOCOM greater bureaucratic independence and operational freedom. Some now see the U.S. military as consisting of the five traditional service branches, plus the hybrid USSOCOM operating as a de facto sixth branch.

This bureaucratic independence in Washington is mirrored with command independence in combat as well as peacetime missions. Traditionally, in an area of operations (AO) there would be an Army or Marine Corps commander in charge of all land forces reporting to the geographic COCOM. With the advent of USSOCOM, there are now two separate land commanders sharing responsibility for land operations. With SOF under a separate command, a conventional commander’s view of the AO may have significant blank spots, making it more difficult to integrate capabilities and avoid fratricide. Having two separate commanders in the same AO increases significantly the coordination required. Complicating this coordination is the “black ops” or compartmentalized nature of many SOF missions, which precludes sharing all operational details with other commanders. The Army and SOF do work to overcome this tension, but each case provides unique coordination challenges which may gain the attention of the ambassador.

From the military’s perspective, State’s biggest shortfall is a failure to provide military planners and commanders with achievable political objectives.

7. The Army's Identity Crisis

The Army is the oldest service, established by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775. For the next two centuries its purpose and mission were clearly understood by the public, congressional committees and its soldiers. The Army had a role, and usually a critical one, as the “force of decision” in every major conflict during that period. Times and the potential threats facing the United States have changed, and the Army is now concerned that its central role in the defense of the nation is being challenged, giving the other military branches—especially the Marine Corps and USSOCOM—an advantage in public support and congressional funding. The Army’s response has been to become a more agile and expeditionary force in an effort to meet today’s range of threats.

But that comes at a price. Does it cut back on the number of tanks and other heavy equipment to gain deployment speed at the expense of firepower and maneuverability? It is not an easy question, and the Army continues to explore it. Pending cuts in the number of Army soldiers and uncertain congressional support make shaping the force of the future even more difficult.

8. What the Airforce and Navy Want from State

The Air Force and Navy have similar needs. Each is concerned with access and use of host nation facilities, ports and air fields for military and humanitarian missions. The Navy also seeks to maintain freedom of navigation in disputed or contested areas such as the Black Sea and the South China Sea. State Department and embassy involvement in negotiating access and related agreements is critical in meeting these Air Force and Navy operational requirements.

9. What the Army Wants from State

The Army wants two things from State. First, it wants greater State involvement in planning for and handling civil affairs responsibilities during and after combat operations. War games —or “experiments,” in Army jargon—have identified a need for increased numbers of civil affairs units capable of dealing with the myriad issues once combat forces have moved on. However, many in the Army would like the civil affairs responsibility turned over largely to State and USAID altogether. The Army wants the two organizations to be responsible for reestablishing the full range of local government institutions and the conditions needed to promote private enterprise. To help meet its advance planning requirements, the Army wants Foreign Service help in developing more explicit and measurable policies and practices to guide civil affairs efforts.

Second, it wants our embassies to support its program of regionally aligned forces (RAF). The RAF units operate in what the military calls the Shaping Phase or Phase 0 of its planning continuum. For the Foreign Service, this is a period of normal, routine, non-crisis conditions. The RAF concept calls for units to be forward-deployed, stationed and operating in a COCOM’s area of responsibility with the full knowledge and consent of the respective ambassador. These units conduct operational missions, bilateral and multilateral exercises and theater security cooperation activities. The expectation is that the RAF program will provide military units and personnel with a better understanding of local cultures and languages, thus enabling stronger relationships with host nation militaries. Finally, the Army expects the RAF to foster a better, closer integration between the Army and State’s ambassadors and country teams abroad.

A Tribute to Ambassador Cunningham and U.S. Diplomats from Commandant of the Marine Corps Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

Excerpted from remarks delivered on May 29 at an Evening Parade at Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., in honor of Ambassador James B. Cunningham, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Gen. Dunford served as commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the U.S. Forces–Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014.

U.S. Marines with the Silent Drill Platoon perform during the May 29 Evening Parade at Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C.
Sgt. Melissa Marnell / U.S. Marine Corps

Tonight, the Marine Corps is honoring Jim Cunningham for his extraordinary service as a diplomat. But we’re also recognizing the special relationship between the Marine Corps and the State Department.

In 1778, a Marine detachment accompanied our diplomatic mission to the French royal court. Today, Marines proudly serve at 173 of our embassies and consulates. Since 9/11, Marines have served side by side with the brave men and women of our diplomatic corps in places like Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Lashkar Gah, Sangin and Kabul. Most recently, Marines assisted our mission in Yemen with an orderly departure.

The American people have at least some understanding of the sacrifice of military service. But few appreciate the extraordinary contribution and sacrifice made by our diplomatic corps.

When those of us in uniform come home, we’ll frequently have people thank us for our service. There might even be a band or a parade. Most often, our diplomats simply move from one difficult posting to another without fanfare.

I want all of you who serve or have served in the State Department to know that your Marines recognize and appreciate your extraordinary contribution in advancing America’s interests, and the sacrifices you have made to do that. You all have the absolute admiration, appreciation and affection of your Marines.

Ambassador Jim Cunningham recently retired after over 40 years of service. In Marine terms, he has served in every clime and place—from Hong Kong, the United States Mission to the United Nations in New York, Brussels and Rome to Israel and, most recently, Kabul.

I had the honor of serving with Jim Cunningham during his last posting. I watched him deal with a wide range of challenges—from the difficult relationship with President [Hamid] Karzai; the loss of a bright, young diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff; an attack on our consulate in Herat and negotiation of the Bilateral Security Agreement to the elections of 2014.

He tirelessly and at great personal risk traveled all over Afghanistan to advance our interests and help the Afghan people rebuild their country. I can say with confidence that no single American did more to secure a bilateral agreement with Afghanistan or to support the transition to post-Karzai government than Jim Cunningham.

Those of use fortunate to have a front-row seat learned to appreciate Amb. Cunningham’s keen intellect, strong leadership and unwavering commitment to the mission and to our people. His endurance and resilience over three years in Kabul was truly extraordinary.

We also learned to appreciate his compassion. Amb. Cunningham stood with us many times in the middle of a cold night with a tear in his eye as we conducted a dignified transfer of a Marine, soldier, sailor or airman.

Amb. Cunningham, tonight I want you to know that your Marines are very proud to have served with you.

10. The Expectations Gap

The military wants State to live up to its perceived responsibilities and provide needed policy guidance to help shape the range of military operations. From the military’s perspective, State’s biggest shortfall is a failure to provide military planners and commanders with achievable political objectives. Without those clearly defined political objectives, the military will focus on strictly military objectives and establish a military definition of victory. In addition, it expects State to stay closely engaged during hostilities to provide guidance on how to adjust to and exploit the developing political situation, knowing that merely killing bad guys will be insufficient to achieve a sustainable, stable outcome. As combat operations wind down, the military expects State to provide the leadership to enable a legitimate and functioning civil authority to help obviate the need for a continuing U.S. armed presence. The military—and the Army, in particular—see State as being able to fill in many of these gaps and blanks. Doing this with increased State involvement in planning for and executing military operations would be welcomed warmly by our colleagues in uniform.


It is evident that diplomacy and the conduct of America’s foreign policy are no longer the sole domain of the Department of State and its diplomats in the Foreign Service. But if diplomacy has multiple players, then it is essential to know the other team members well and to become more proficient at team play. One way to accomplish this with the military is to take full advantage of its extensive educational and training opportunities, and to further support its planning efforts. As noted above, the disparity in size makes this difficult for the Foreign Service. But with a realignment of FS priorities, giving greater emphasis to continuing professional education, the military stands ready to welcome increased numbers from the Foreign Service to its existing programs.

Further, it can be argued that a military assignment of either an educational or operational nature should be a requirement for deputy chief of mission and ambassadorial assignments. With the military’s Geographic Combatant Commanders having overlapping area responsibilities with State Department regional bureaus and embassies abroad, with SOF and RAF presence becoming more ubiquitous, and with the Navy and Air Force maintaining global reach, the military’s nearly universal presence and impact are inescapable. Dealing with this reality and incorporating it into our overall diplomatic effort may well define America’s foreign policy for the future. A better appreciation by the Foreign Service of the U.S. military based on more integrated working relationships, shared planning and common educational experiences will help move this effort forward.

Ted Strickler, a retired senior FSO, is a graduate of the National War College and the Department of Defense’s Capstone program. He was the first political adviser at the U.S. Strategic Command and is currently an interagency subject matter expert for Army experimentation at the U.S. Army’s Mission Command Battle Lab at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not represent official U.S. military policy.