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Document created: 1 March 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2007
|Language skill and regional expertise are not valued
as Defense core competencies, yet they are as important as critical
—Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, 2005
In the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, the Department of Defense (DOD) identifies expertise in foreign languages as a critical war-fighting capability in conducting military operations that involve insurgencies and nation building in the twenty-first century.1 During Operation Iraqi Freedom, even one American soldier conversant in the native language can make a significant difference, from the tactical to the strategic level. For example, in Mosul, Iraq, a US Army foreign area officer (FAO) determined the infiltration route of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq even though two dozen US Army Rangers had failed to do so. This same FAO also discovered that Iraqi interpreters hired to translate for general officers in US Central Command had lied about their backgrounds and language capabilities and had translated commanders’ sophisticated English into grade-school Arabic, thus creating a negative impression.2 During Iraqi Freedom, language and cultural misunderstandings have led to both tactical and strategic mistakes—a common occurrence throughout the history of warfare. DOD leaders decided to address this problem by assuming that military operations in the twenty-first century will likely resemble Iraqi Freedom. Toward that end, this article examines the Air Force’s implementation of the DOD’s Roadmap by briefly reviewing the document’s main points and then considering shortcomings in such areas as duty assignments and promotability.
To significantly improve the DOD’s organic capability in foreign languages and dialects, the Roadmap identifies four goals and the actions necessary to achieve them:
The Strategic Planning Guidance (SPG) for FY 2006–2011 directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness . . . to develop and provide to the Deputy Secretary of Defense . . . a comprehensive roadmap for achieving the full range of language capabilities necessary to support the 2004 Defense Strategy. The SPG established four goals for language transformation:
1. Create foundational language and cultural expertise. . . .
2. Create the capacity to surge language and cultural resources. . . .
3. Establish a cadre of language specialists. . . .
4. Establish a process to track the accession, separation and promotion rates of . . . FAOs.3
The Roadmap makes the key assumptions that future enemies will speak “less-commonly-taught languages” and that “robust foreign language and foreign area expertise are critical to sustaining coalitions.” Currently the DOD does not sufficiently incorporate foreign-language capability and regional expertise into operational or contingency planning because it does not consider them either war-fighting skills or core competencies.4 Congress (specifically, elected officials such as Rep. Steve Israel [D-NY]) has also identified shortcomings in linguistic and cultural awareness within the department. During a March 2006 conference on improving the DOD’s professional military education, held at the US Merchant Marine Academy in New York, the key and recurring themes included building and sustaining stronger language and cultural capabilities as well as tying them to career progression.5
Bruce Lemkin, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, has responsibility for the service’s FAO program—now called the international affairs specialist (IAS) program. It is designed to produce field-grade officers with the international insight, foreign-language proficiency, and cultural understanding to operate effectively in today’s dynamic security environment. To become certified as an IAS, an officer must attain a proficiency level of 2, 2, 2 (limited working proficiency) in foreign-language reading, listening, and speaking, respectively. One can reach this proficiency level in Romance languages after six to nine months of intensive training, but Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean require 12–18 months. The IAS program’s two tracks—political-military affairs and regional affairs—both call for in-residence intermediate-developmental education and a graduate degree in international affairs, but only the regional-affairs track requires proficiency in a foreign language.
The US Army, which began its FAO program in 1987, has extensive experience in training international specialists. After providing basic instruction in a foreign language, it assigns trainees to a region where the language is spoken. Upon completing a year or two in such an immersion program, trainees achieve a “professional” level of competence in language proficiency, cultural knowledge, and country/regional expertise and then begin a standard three-year tour of duty on an FAO assignment. Thus, the Army invests between five and seven years (including preparatory training) in a field-grade officer to complete one such assignment—the normal length of time at the rank of major (O-4).
Assuming comparable numbers across the services, the Air Force’s IAS majors would likely meet their lieutenant-colonel promotion board with top-performance reports indicating years of IAS training and one assignment, probably as either an assistant air attaché or a security-assistance staff officer at a US embassy. Board members will compare these reports to those of their peers, which normally show work at the Joint Staff, Air Staff, or headquarters of a functional or regional combatant command. Alternatively, these peer reports might reflect performance in an ongoing military operation. In any case, most of the time, the IAS officer’s overall record as an O-4 will probably not compare favorably with that of an O-4 line officer.
After discovering that this situation usually led to FAOs retiring at a rank no higher than lieutenant colonel (O-5), the Army created a separate branch for its FAOs, with quotas at flag rank. Because the Air Force’s structure differs from the Army’s, it cannot duplicate this approach; instead, the Air Force promises that IAS officers’ careers “will be carefully managed to remain viable and competitive.”6 However, this statement flies in the face of reality. Not only the Air Force’s culture but also its promotion process must change to ensure the viability of IAS officers’ careers. The Air Force is now following the path that the Army blazed many years ago—which it eventually had to transform.
A folder given to promotion-board members for each officer candidate includes an Officer Preselection Brief, which indicates key aspects of the officer’s career such as service data, education (both developmental and academic), military decorations, and a complete duty-assignment history. One could easily use the extra space in the portion of the brief designated for joint-duty data to display the candidate’s foreign-language test scores, which each panelist could consider—as well as the difficulty of the language—in determining the overall score. (The harder the language and the higher the proficiency score, the higher the scoring of the officer’s record.)
The Roadmap recommends using proficiency in a foreign language as a criterion in considering an officer for promotion to brigadier general, similar to the joint-service requirement for becoming a joint specialty officer (which emanates from the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986).7 Clearly, this recommendation would apply primarily to those officers promoted below their primary zone multiple times (fewer than 3 percent), but the intent of the initiative in language and cultural awareness is to offer FAO training to far more military officers—not the exceptional minority. Therefore, the foreign-language requirement for promotion should apply to the rank of colonel (O-6), thereby motivating not only below-the-zone officers but also a large number of on-time officers seeking promotion to colonel.
Logically and realistically, officers given more responsibility relative to rank are promoted more often than peers with less responsibility. A corollary to this hypothesis holds that service jobs receive more rewards than nonservice jobs. Although military attachés or security-assistance officers in US embassies have roughly equal responsibilities, those who do not work within their service risk some promotion potential. From personal experience as a security-assistance officer and two-time air attaché, this author can attest that working in an embassy will neither hurt nor help the promotion prospects of an Air Force field-grade officer. At best, it has a neutral effect despite the extremely demanding nature of embassy work, which can have significant consequences. Service jobs at headquarters or in the field seem more demanding and benefit from direct exposure to leadership. Today, at the field-grade rank, embassy work will usually not get an officer promoted—a fact that would cause company-grade and field-grade officers interested in the IAS program (most of whose jobs are in embassies) to have second thoughts.
Although the Air Force’s current structure does not appear to give IAS officers a reasonable expectation of promotion, the service could implement at least one inexpensive measure that would increase their chances. Simply put, the Air Force could give command credit to embassies’ military-leadership positions and make them part of the standard command-screening process. Specifically, air attachés and Air Force security-assistance chiefs would receive the same credit as line squadron commanders, and defense attachés and security-assistance chiefs (both members of the embassy country team) would receive the same credit as line group commanders. As a side benefit of this proposal, the quality of field-grade applicants to the IAS program would likely improve significantly.
Because these recommendations would entail a significant change in Air Force culture, they will prove extremely difficult to implement. Resistance from members of the bureaucracy, especially those who have commanded at any level, would probably stifle this initiative. However, it may be the only way to ensure that Air Force officers who volunteer for the IAS program actually have a reasonable chance at promotion to full colonel. Undoubtedly, fluency in foreign languages and cultural-awareness skills will become critical to the success of future combat operations; therefore, something significant needs to happen to guarantee their existence in the Air Force and DOD of the twenty-first century.
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
*Colonel Schwalbe is associate dean of distance learning and professor of international security studies, Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
1. Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 2005), 3, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/dod/d20050330roadmap.pdf.
2. Greg Jaffe, “In Iraq, One Officer Uses Cultural Skills to Fight Insurgents,” Wall Street Journal, 15 November 2005, A1.
3. Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, 1.
4. Ibid., 3.
5. On 25 March 2006, Congressman Israel convened a conference entitled Rebuilding America’s Intellectual Arsenal, in which over 40 leaders from the military and civilian communities participated.
6. House, Statement of Lieutenant General Roger A. Brady, Deputy Chief of Staff, Manpower and Personnel, United States Air Force, on Recruiting and Retention and Military Personnel Policy, Benefits and Compensation Overview, to the Military Personnel Subcommittee, Committee on Armed Services, United States House of Representatives, 109th Cong., 2d sess., 6 April 2006, 5, http://www.house.gov/hasc/4-6-06StatementBrady.pdf.
7. Although the requirements do not specify the level of language proficiency, one could assume that it would not exceed a 2, 2, 2.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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