Skip to main content

‘You Can’t Surge Trust’

Five Ideas to Strengthen Civil-Military Coordination Before a Crisis

An Australian Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter delivers Australian Aid stores to Futuna Island during Operation Vanuatu Assist 2023.

Recently, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) headed off to again to support another humanitarian response, this time in Vanuatu. The ADF has a long history of supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations overseas and providing defence assistance to the civil community (DACC) in Australia. The 2023 Defence Strategic Review reiterated that ‘climate change is now a national security issue’ and this reality will increase the frequency, scope and complexity of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief tasks both overseas and at home. So, how can humanitarian civil-military coordination be enhanced to support these climate change- related operations and the delivery of life-saving assistance?  

Our research undertaken with support of the Army Research Scheme explores just that. It makes three main findings:

  1. Although there has been significant improvement in civil-military coordination over the last 20 years, further investment is needed to adapt to climate change and the changing nature of conflict.
  1. The key barrier to effective coordination between civilian and military actors is a trust deficit caused by:
  • lack of understanding of key actors, tools, and relationships,
  • a clash of organisational cultures,
  • conflation of mandates,
  • guidance without motivation.
  1. The Army can employ a range of approaches, both on the policy and practice sides, to break down these barriers and establish a relationship of trust. Behavioural change that can bridge organisational cultural differences is critical to making this a reality.

So, what is humanitarian civil-military coordination?

Internationally, humanitarian civil-military coordination (CMCoord) is a function that facilitates and supports effective humanitarian action and emergency response (see Figure 1 below for a definition). CMCoord facilitates interaction between militaries and civilian humanitarian organisations so that they can communicate and coordinate in times of crisis.

It is very important to distinguish CMCoord from related terminology. CMCoord is a specific function that exists solely to facilitate humanitarian assistance and protection. CMCoord is different to civil-military cooperation, which aims to ‘achieve the military mission at the operational or tactical level.’

Definition of CMCoord (source:
Definition of CMCoord (source:

What can go wrong when it doesn’t go right?

Our research was inspired by first-hand experience of what can go wrong when CMCoord doesn’t go well. Without investment in coordination mechanisms and relationship building, trust in both civilian and military actors can be undermined, and a relief operation can be derailed. Outcomes can include:

  • Duplication of activities
  • Harm to affected communities
  • Dependence
  • Side-lining the affected community
  • Assistance that is inappropriate and/or harmful.

In times of conflict:

  • Disaster and conflict-affected communities can be targeted for accepting assistance
  • Staff and partners of humanitarian agencies can be kidnapped or killed
  • Access to affected communities can be denied
  • Material assistance can be stolen or destroyed.

Building trust allows robust and timely conversations that will ultimately save resources and save lives. Here are five ideas to build on these relationships:

  1. Expanding liaison, secondments, and exchange beyond business as usual

There is already an exchange of liaison officers (LOs) between Australian government departments. The research found this was extremely beneficial; for example, the LO from the ADF to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the DFAT LO to ADF’s Joint Operations Command were seen as key elements to success in many operations. The example of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) Civil Society Engagement Advisor secondee position into the Australian Civil-Military Centre (ACMC) is a notable example of a non-governmental position embedded into the Department of Defence. The success of this position, which has brought a civil-society voice to the table over the last decade, has been considerable. Expanding this approach could be explored.

  1. Enhancing joint training and education

While a lot of training is occurring, joint training for the Australian Army and humanitarian agencies could be transformative. It could enhance the content of training to assist in building relationships. One opportunity may be to include a civilian humanitarian participant in the year-long Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College, which could build relationships with the Army, ADF members more broadly and regional counterparts.  Although there is appetite from both humanitarian workers and Army members to engage more during training, scarce resources on the civilian humanitarian side hinder meaningful preparation for and attendance at these events.  Inserting more humanitarian situations into key military exercises could provide more exposure to the civil–military interface, reinforcing the fact that such situations are common in a conflict. Just this year, the ACMC updated its key publication Same Space Different Mandates to further inform and support international civil-military-police coordination during crises, recognising the importance of getting CMCoord right. Socialising this resource on both the civil and military side is a key investment.

  1. Convening joint learning

Although multi-agency or whole of government learning events are increasingly common, these are not generally joint events involving non-governmental organisations (NGOs), United Nations agencies or the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Humanitarian organisations, including domestic civilian agencies, could benefit greatly from such initiatives – not only for the trust and relationship aspects – but also to learn how the ADF identifies lessons and then closes the loop by integrating new approaches into future planning and operations. While there may be reluctance to admit mistakes, missteps, or oversights with such a broad audience, trust can be built through transparency. Of course, there are risks involved in embracing transparency in this way, but there are also risks in not doing so.

  1. Facilitating cross-learning from international and domestic operations

Although there are many contextual, legislative, and doctrinal differences between operating within Australia and overseas, there are still tools, guidance and approaches that could be shared across contexts and lessons. Currently, from both humanitarian and military perspectives, the planning, exercising and review of domestic and international operations are quite separate. Some research participants indicated that the domestic and international domains need to be kept separate, but others felt that cross-learning is critical to building capability and understanding.

  1. Explore the idea of establishing a civil–military contact group in Australia

The British Red Cross chairs the NGO–Military Contact Group, which brings together representatives from across the British government, including the Ministry of Defence, with NGOs, academics, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. A similar platform in Australia could act as a forum for sharing lessons from operations, identifying opportunities for joint training, and determining how preparedness can be achieved. It could also be a way for other bodies in the region to connect on these issues. This would be broader than a whole-of-government group, ensuring that issues, policies, and challenges from outside the Australian government experience would be elevated from civil-society organisations and operational NGOs. Organisations such as the ACMC and ACFID are well positioned to take on such a convening role and to provide a space for ongoing discussion. This would enable findings from the joint learning events to be shared and provide opportunities to participate in relevant exercises and simulations, highlight findings from relevant research, explore opportunities for localisation, share policy and guidance, and hear from those working in the humanitarian CMCoord space at the global level.

Let’s not wait

Now is the time to be learning about organisational mandates, building relationships at a range of different levels, and socialising guidance – now, not when we are in the thick of a response. Let’s institutionalise a way of working that engenders mutual respect and take the civil-military relationship in Australia and the region to the next level.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.