Small Wars Journal

Cultural Awareness and Language Proficiency: Critical for Regionally Aligned Forces

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 5:30am

The concept of regionally aligning forces will be a reality come March of 2013 with 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley supporting AFRICOM.  Regional alignment aims to provide dedicated forces to the geographic combatant command (GCC) strengthening regional familiarity, promoting cultural awareness, and providing continuity in partnership and security cooperation efforts with host nation forces.  Aligned units can therefore tailor their training to the conditions and considerations unique to each command’s footprint.  During this training period, one of the key tasks is to attain some degree of language proficiency and cultural awareness, as these are fundamental skills required regardless of the mission of the aligned brigade.  As important as these skills are, they cannot be properly developed and effectively employed unless a relevant training program is standardized by each GCC.  Without dedicating proper resources to develop language and cultural skills, there is a risk of degradation in a critical capability delivered through regional alignment.  An effective program must involve practical language training and cultural education that is realistically deliverable within the alignment timeframe.

Practical Language Training

Learning a language is a lengthy process and difficult for many.  Even language coded MOS personnel such as linguists and foreign area officers who frequently use the language find it perishable.  The military’s formal language education program is conducted through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in an in-residence status, for up to 18 months depending on language.  Thus, it is impractical to expect an entire brigade to be proficient in a foreign language, let alone maintain that proficiency consistently.  Given the intent that a small unit or detachment battalion size or below would deploy as opposed to the entire brigade itself, a short-term course of action could involve the use of DLI instructors for a 30-day intense language immersion period for deploying personnel.  The instructors would conduct temporary duty at the brigade home station, and those deploying would devote the full duration to language training.  The 30-day immersion periods could occur twice per year to cover personnel turnover.  A similar model of foreign language instruction for Arabic was conducted at Fort Riley for military advisor training during OIF.  However, the high demand for language training in general combined with lengthy class times at DLI could easily put a strain on available instructors.  Thus, the ability to sustain this type of instructional method for regionally aligned forces is uncertain.  Given that different regions could also have multiple dialects, pinpointing the language(s) to be utilized and requesting the appropriate DLI instructors based on availability could pose a reoccurring problem.

A long-term solution could involve a partnership with a local college or university foreign language department.  A college language department could provide instruction on-site or off-site at their campus to personnel designated to deploy within the brigade.  Often times, these classes also include students that are preparing to work in the region that the language is used, as well as opportunities for language conversation with international students.  Such opportunities are not found in a military-centric setting and are effective avenues to improve language skills.  Local partnership with an educational institute would also provide greater flexibility in enrollment for Soldiers through strength in numbers, and is a feasible option for year-round language training.  A consideration in this type of scenario includes the importance of adhering to an approved program of instruction.  Since language training may involve different approaches and topic foci depending on the instructor or institution, such a partnership agreement must adhere to an Army approved course standard.  This shouldn’t pose a significant barrier however, given that the level of language taught should be at the basic 100 level, something any accredited institution of higher learning could easily tailor to meet Army requirements. 

Another option is to use internal Army assets.  Internal Army assets include personnel performing duties that require foreign language proficiency such as linguists, foreign area officers, and certain special operations personnel.  It is likely that many of these individuals who are proficient in a language used in the aligned region are already assigned to an operational unit, a service component, or the GCC of that region.  Pooling together a team of language instructors from the various regional echelons is feasible.  Following an approved program of instruction, this team would travel to the aligned brigade’s home station and provide language training in a similar fashion to DLI instructors.  This option would allow experienced in-region personnel to provide language education that is ideally focused on the nature of duties that the deploying unit will assume in country.  An obvious obstacle is personnel availability, and allocating out-of-region time for these language professionals will be a challenge, as they most likely hold critical positions throughout.  Relying on a joint effort and utilizing sister service personnel with similar qualifications to establish rotational training duty could help mitigate the problem.  A key benefit in using military assets from the GCC, besides their internal resourcing, is their ability to relay the most accurate language utilization requirements according to in-region mission expectations.

Practical Cultural Education

There are numerous definitions of culture, most of which largely depend on the discipline or institution and the context they use to apply it.  Keeping it simple and relevant to the mission at hand for the aligned force, I posit that practical cultural education enables individuals that are tasked for a period of time to a region to answer three questions:

(1) Why do people in this region act the way they do?

(2) Why do people in this region believe what they believe?

(3) What must I do differently in order to accomplish my mission in this region?

As such, practical cultural education cannot be overpowered by one or more disciplines such as a history or anthropology, nor should it focus purely on tactical behavior (not showing the soles of your feet).  Rather, it should be environment and mission oriented.  For example, all personnel should receive general education on regional and country specific modern history, sociology, economics, and government.  These practical topics work to build a strong foundation of how people of that region came to be, how they interact, how they survive, and how they govern, and help to answer the first two questions above.  As the mission of any aligned force will undoubtedly require understanding of regional security relationships, host nation capabilities, and US interests, education in a subject such as regional security affairs to cover these topics would provide a current security focused foundation for deploying personnel while working to answer question three.

This environment and mission driven multi-disciplinary education process could be completed in two weeks.  The intent is to provide more than surface exposure that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, rebalancing to something that’s half a mile wide and five inches deep instead.  Although the topics themselves could be semester-long college courses, an appropriate balance of depth and breadth for the mission at hand revolving around real time issues could be packaged effectively in two weeks.  It should instill cultural competence for Soldiers to operate effectively in that region or country accomplishing their tactical mission.  Instructional resources would also be less demanding than that of language instructors.  The college partnership route could be pursued to leverage civilian expertise, and the use of regionally focused internal assets is also available.  Soldiers and civilians working in career fields such as foreign area officer, strategic intelligence, strategic plans and policy, or closely related skillsets are an appropriate pool.  Also within the echelons of the GCC and subordinate units, there are likely many individuals with extensive regional experience or advanced degrees that could teach or provide training in these topic areas at the 100 level with an approved curriculum. 

The tactical aspect of culture, which is more closely related to behavioral customs and courtesies that are important to interacting with host nation personnel, is gained throughout both language and cultural training periods.  Instructors can incorporate modules that address practical aspects of how to behave and engage during their respective topics of instruction.  Doing so would provide both a cultural and language context in which to learn and apply these customs and courtesies as opposed to providing a rudimentary checklist of do’s and dont’s.  Leaders must be careful not to relegate cultural education to a slideshow built using CIA world fact book information regurgitating facts with no contextual applicability.  It also cannot simply be about individual behaviors and courtesy considerations of ethnic groups, although interesting and important.  Cultural education should not be taken lightly and must incorporate a multidisciplinary approach, and the proper resources mentioned above should be utilized.

Some Final Considerations

Getting language and culture right is tough.  There are no shortcuts, magic programs, or revolutionary learning methods that produce effective skillsets with minimal time input.  As such, if language and culture are to be taken seriously during regional alignment training, the GCC should serve as the proponent for training and certification prior to a regionally aligned force deploying.  The GCC will know best how and where to utilize the aligned force.  Additionally, skills that are required for jobs such as security cooperation and partner building can be emphasized or deemphasized depending on the tasks that the GCC expects the aligned force to complete, saving valuable time to refocus on other applicable tasks.  In this context, two areas leaders should avoid are contract and unit led training solutions.

A simple solution that has been pursued far too frequently in my humble opinion DOD-wide, would be to contract out language and culture training.  No doubt there are numerous DOD contractors that could easily meet this requirement.  But if regional alignment is to be taken seriously for the strengths it offers, the GCC must be directly involved in training.  Perhaps a J3 subordinate staff office could serve as the aligned force training and certification proponent.  Contractors with relevant, specialized language and regional cultural education, training, and experience should augment military-led training teams supervised by the GCC.  What leaders should not resort to is complete reliance on contracting to provide language and cultural training with a short, improbable, and unrealistic timeline for completion.  If such a path is pursued, although contractors may enthusiastically attest to their ability to provide quality training in the given timeframe while meeting all of the contract requirements, two critical skills afforded by regional alignment may not develop to maximum effectiveness.

Another solution that is ill advised would be to allow the regionally aligned brigade to conduct it’s own culture training.  Although on the surface this task could fit in an S2 or S3 sections’ missions, intelligence and operations personnel are not by default culture experts.  What needs to be avoided is to force a maneuver S2 section to regurgitate open-source information into slideshow format and provide cursory “cultural awareness training” to the deploying unit.  Although there is an important role that the S2 section performs in relation to the region, cultural training cannot be properly executed under the auspices of an S2 or S3 section.  Culture is expansive and a complex topic that is best left to professionals, military or civilian, that are deliberately trained in and experienced with the culture of the region.  

In conclusion, to ensure the regionally aligned force develops proper language and cultural skills, the GCC must lead and supervise all region-related training.  This does not mean the GCC or a subordinate element must take on the entire role in an instructional sense.  Rather, whether the training solution is drawn purely from internal assets or supported by contractors and public institutions, the gaining GCC should publish all requirements, provide a clear mission, and supervise all phases of training for the regionally aligned force.  Doing so provides training consistency, learning accountability, and mission relativity to the region.

About the Author(s)

Major Jason Kim is a US Army Northeast Asia FAO, and is enroute to serve as the US TRADOC Liaison Officer to the Headquarters, Republic of Korea Army TRADOC located in Taejon, Korea.  Major Kim’s basic branch is military police and he has served in a variety of assignments to include company commander, garrison executive officer, military advisor, and combined/joint staff officer.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems Engineering from the US Military Academy at West Point and a Master’s in International Affairs with a regional concentration in Japan and Korea from the University of California San Diego. 


Scott Kinner

Sat, 11/24/2012 - 9:44am

In reply to by G Martin

Thank you for saying it another way - in an uncertain environment, with limited resources, you are best served by a general purpose, learning organization which can respond immediately and adapt accordingly. With the meagre funds available, develop a strong cadre or pool of specialist resoruces that can rapidly be expanded to the particulars of the situation actually faced.

Cannot, and should not be experts, in everything. Focus on the primary weapon - brilliant.

G Martin

Fri, 11/23/2012 - 4:29pm

2 weeks for a "deep" culture class which includes "country specific modern history, sociology, economics, and government"? Language immersion for 30 days, twice a year? Who are we kidding?

History, sociology, economics, and government are subjects that take years for PhD-types to study- and even then actual knowledge is elusive as these aren't hard science subjects. Try getting two economists together in a room to agree on an explaination of why we are in the economic situation we are in now and what we should do about it.

I think language is a lot like pistol shooting. Unless you practice it- a lot- then you can't do it that well and lose capability almost immediately. But, most experts I engage with also advise against spending too much time and money on one's secondary weapon. Since the likelihood of actually using one's secondary weapon and the lack of relative capability of it render the time one spends on it as time better spent doing something else- most rightly concentrate on their primary weapon. Language, likewise, would take such a long time to be useful that it is highly questionable whether it would be worth what would then be ignored. Excepting South America, a regionally-focused unit would be frustrated at attempting to pick a language to concentrate on anyway.

Lastly, the point about doing something "different" to accomplish one's mission and the implied task of understanding regional security issues ignores the problems we have currently doing both of those. I submit these are institutional issues and won't be solved at the Brigade or even higher levels. They have emerged and are intertwined in my view with the very fabric of our structure, norms, doctrine, and systems.

No, instead if I was a brigade commander I would steel my battalions for the uncertainty they will most assuredly face by running them through a gauntlet of random tasks more associated with high-intensity conflict than anything else, with maybe one or two less-than-intense tasks. By keeping things random it might encourage adaptability and a learning capability- in my opinion the most valuable assets we require in the CoE.

Make no mistake- if we are involved in "regional assitance" to partner forces, most will be after our money, equipment, and the benefits of being associated with us- not our methodology or some kind of cultural closeness. I submit that we've oversold whatever benefit having a brigade- or members therein- of culturally astute and language-gifted soldiers would give us- even assuming we could get those capabilities (the fact we haven't been able to do that for to support Afghanistan should call into question the entire concept). Outside of a few higher-ranking officers, FAOs, and SF guys who are constantly deployed to the same places and/or interact with the same high-profile figures in a country- I submit we really don't need anyone else being culturally astute or language-capable for any given country.


Wed, 11/21/2012 - 11:17am

language-as a means of communication, although the Assistant is weak. Knowledge of culture is not critical, but will bring respect for indigenous people. The only real action for the good of the country and the people, will bring success

Bill M.

Thu, 11/22/2012 - 12:59pm

In reply to by tomkinton

Enmity or affinity? My thoughts are the U.S. can follow both. Affinity for our friends and enmity for our enemies (which there are few of). Affinity will not win over our enemies in the vast majority of cases, so enmity must be pursued with sufficient vigor to break our enemy's will to fight (our eliminate them), and done in a way that doesn't undermine our affinity efforts with our friends. We don't do either well, and we further set ourselves up for failure when we attempt to consider them two different strategies instead of two different lines of effort that complement the same strategy.


Mon, 11/19/2012 - 11:28am

Posit: until the United States chooses to follow one or the other, enmity or affinity, for more than eight years, DoD will be playing catch-up to the prior four (or eight) years' policies.



Mon, 11/19/2012 - 3:31am

In reply to by Bill C.

I'm all for taking advantage of opportunities, but it's natural for the military to have a certain threat-centric focus, given its responsibilities. It's also true that while there are many opportunities in this world, most are not pursued through the use of military force, and when someone proposes the pursuit of opportunity through armed force that proposal must be very carefully evaluated.

The military action in Libya might be considered pursuit of opportunity through armed force. The same might be said of Iraq, with the difference between them illustrating the value of limited action and limited risk, whatever one pursues. Opportunity is usually accompanied by risk, and both must be weighed realistically before force is committed.

I would certainly not consider Afghanistan to be a war of opportunity.

Bill C.

Sun, 11/18/2012 - 8:57pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

Scott asks: "What do we want our military to be able to do? More importantly, out of all the possible threat scenarios we face, from near-peer competitors to asymmetric adversaries, which are those for whom we feel we must prepare and which are those for whom we feel we can accept risk?"

In order to answer Scott's questions, let me first suggest that we have to largely get rid of the idea of "threat" and move on to the idea of "opportunity."

For comparison, let us look to the mid and latter 19th Century and ask what kind of threat -- to the United States -- was posed by either China or Japan? Would the answer be: None?

Yet in the mid to latter 19th Century, in what role was our military used in both China and Japan? And to what end?

Once we get past the 20th Century idea of "threat" and return -- as we seem to be doing -- to the mid to latter 19th Century idea of "opportunity;" only then do I believe that we can come to understand "what we want our military to be able to do" in the 21st Century.

Thus, as to the use of our military forces in the 21st Century, and having demoted the idea of "threat" -- and promoted the idea of "opportunity" -- then for which of the various opportunity scenerios before us must we surely prepare? And for which of these opportunity possibilites can we (because of their lesser importance, lesser priority and/or lesser chance of success) forego prepartions?

Based on this new understanding (post-the Cold War, the force is to be used more to embrace and capture the significantly increased number of opportunities before us, and used less to deal with the significantly decreased number of threats to our safety and security), how then do we feel about, among other things, (1) the regional alignment of brigades and (2) the suggested requirement for language proficiency and cultural awareness training?

Bill C.

Sun, 11/18/2012 - 10:21pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


Would also appreciate your thoughts on my 7:57pm comment above.


Sun, 11/18/2012 - 9:58pm

In reply to by Bill C.

The problem with this theory is that the "non/less market friendly states" are for the most part completely irrelevant to the global economy, and nobody gives a rat's ass about them or about making them friendlier to the market. It's only when they become an active PITA that we send military forces to deal with them. Because the decision to do that is typically reactive rather than proactive, long term implications are generally not though through very carefully.

Would anyone have sent military forces to Afghanistan if the only issue was their "non/less market friendly" status? Of course not. Afghanistan is utterly irrelevant to the global economy; the cost of imposing market friendly ways on it would vastly exceed any imaginable benefit. It's only when the "ignore-avoid-contain" policy generally applied to non-market friendly states ended with 9/11 that anyone had any interest in changing Afghan ways.

If there was really a general policy of transforming "less/non market friendly" states you'd see a lot more concern with the likes of Myanmar, Chad, the DRC, Somalia, the Sudan, Mali, etc. Nobody cares if these countries are market-friendly or not, as long as their mess stays within their borders. So we ignore them until the mess spills, then we dive in with our eyes shut and our arms flailing.


Sun, 11/18/2012 - 3:22am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill - in theory I completely agree. In reality, I think you can drive a truck through that requirement. Perhaps this will become more evident if/when OEF churn slows/ceases and a new crisis/contingency does not arise so units can really align. I understand what you are describing as a SOF (or really a DOS) requirement because they have personnel continuity and authorities ($) to actually do BPC. Do our squad leaders need to give hip pocket classes to HN mil in the local language during annual exercises? I am still not clear to what extent there is a requirement for language capability throughout the ranks. It would be nice to have but given the cost, there needs to be some cost-benefit analysis to support. My 2c.

Bill C.

Sat, 11/17/2012 - 2:08pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

JT and Scott:

Let me take a stab at "the real requirement:"

Herein, let me suggest that it is:

To stand against those individuals, groups and states who refuse to give up their non/less-market-friendly values, attitutes and beliefs -- and/or their non/less-market friendly ways of life and ways of governance -- so as to better accommodate the wants, needs and desires of global economy. (Those who stand in the way of progress so-to-speak.) And those who would actively resist accordingly.

This being a significant role of our -- and our allies and partners' -- military, police and intelligence forces in the post-Cold War world.

(Such things as Building Partner Capacity [BPC], for example, to be understood within this context.)

The need for language proficiency and cultural awareness -- and, indeed, the need for regional alignment of brigades -- to be weighed and evaluated against this requirement.

Scott Kinner

Sat, 11/17/2012 - 12:56pm

In reply to by J.T.

JT - and you strike at the heart of the matter...what is the real requirement? The answer - there is none.

This entire discussion underlines that we have failed to address and answer the basic question - what do we want our military to be able to do? More importantly, out of all the possible threat scenarios we face from near-peer competitors to asymmetric adversaries, which are those for whom we feel we must prepare and which are those for whom we feel we can accept risk?

My issues with regionalization run the gamut from the philosophical (what is the purpose of the military) to the practical (the world is run by C+ students). But the fundamental issue is that above - to what purpose do we want our military to function as part of DIME?

I would argue that the military supports soft power but is NOT the core of soft power. The military is like a requirements vacuum cleaner - because it has things and people it tends to end up on the dime for all sorts of side projects - such as making the personnel of the general purpose force into some kind of therapist-warrior hybrids. "I have to kill you, I'm sorry, how does that make you feel?"

They can be therapists - great therapists - that have side arms, or they can be warriors - great warriors - that possess a modicum of tact and politeness. I vote - especially in an austere fiscal and resource environment - for the latter...

J. Kim

Sat, 11/17/2012 - 12:15pm

In reply to by J.T.


You bring up two really great points. It would be great if tactical level S2 shops could more capably advise commanders on regional/cultural issues. Training intelligence individuals above the baseline culture requirements found in the Army Culture/Foreign Language Strategy (ACFLS), through formal GCC-supervised courses such as the Asia Pacific Orientation Course (APOC) could be a good starting point. Perhaps assigning a culture and language expert in the S2 section from the 35-series MOSs, as listed in appendix E of the ACFLS could also be a start, particularly for the aligned brigade.

For language - I recall during advisor training we were cycled in a 90-day training timeframe. Of those 90 days, approximately 4 hours each week, totaling 48 hours, was devoted towards language training in Arabic. The instructors were from DLI, and the material was applicable. Yet the time devoted just wasn't enough, particularly when we had a myriad of other training requirements to complete. It was hard to focus on language. Determining the requirements should come from the GCC based on the mission it expects the aligned force to perform. The availability of interpreters, language tools, in-country language training resources, friendly units that have language abilities, and the degree to which the language must be utilized for the mission all play a part. I believe with these variables defined, it's possible to develop a language training program that meets the GCC utilization requirement for the aligned brigade.


Sat, 11/17/2012 - 7:59am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill, The answer is yes. Valid points brought up about who gets it, how much, etc. GPF is not SOF and we don't need a bunch of anthropologists in the ranks. First, Intelligence needs to more capably advise commanders on regional and cultural issues from the RCT/BCT to the platoon level. Start investing here. Language is a harder nut to crack. What is the real requirement?

Bill C.

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 11:04pm

Given that our objective today -- much as it was during the Cold War -- is to overcome those obstacles which tend to stand in the way of the global economy; these such obstacles often being considered to be the non/less-market-friendly attitudes, values and beliefs of various cultures -- and/or the non/less-market-friendly ways of life and ways of governance of different states and population groups,

Then, given this enduring objective, does the requirement for broad area language and cultural proficiency make more sense today than it did in the recent past (Cold War)?


Sun, 11/18/2012 - 1:54am

In reply to by J. Kim

many causes, but the crux of the matter is that the Army is regionally aligning forces - at BDE, CORPS & DIV - so we look useful. RAF makes everyone look busy: allocated units actually have missions for as long as we have them; the remaining units are regionally aligned and 24 month ARFORGEN means BCTs turn every year so one year to prep, the next year to be on call.

However, we're going to rotate Soldiers among the BCTs, change the BCT:GCC alignment annually, prioritize Decisive Action training and place all language & cultural training after the BCT has completed its DA certification. The lang & cultural training pieces are largely wiped aside, especially since there's no expectation that the entire BCT will ever be used, but pieced out & built into "good enough" solutions to meet the GCC/ASCC requirements. This is cost-effective, but the discussion is in the TSIRT 8-hour range ... any 'intended benefits' go up in smoke. Our Soldiers will essentially go in just as cold as now.

Inherently, focusing on DA is right. RAF is a reasonable basis to flex from since we can't project the next problem area & our civilian and senior mil leaders won't dedicate themselves to providing a strategic framework. We can't all fit on the Korean peninsula, and a lot has happened elsewhere in the last 60 years.

Done well, RAF could embrace many of MAJ Kim's suggestions - but would have to create habitual BCT-GCC relationships, and maintain real stability for Soldiers & families by keeping them in the same units long-term (British Regimentalism, perhaps?). Otherwise, universities will not build programs similar to those between 1/1 ID and KState and KU/CGSC and the time spent with DLI teams and others will be sunk costs.

The fundamental questions the Army needs to answer are:
- What is it we do,
- Where do we do it,
- How should we get about doing it right?

If we do DA, and we're going to do it everywhere, and we're going to do it through a CONUS-based, expeditionary model with reduced forward presence ... it can be done through RAF. But it requires:
- habitual relationships
- regimental organizational structure where Soldiers stay in one place or are levied between two locations
- reduced whole-scale abrogation of personnel management to HRC
- use of Total Force incorporating enabler agents in USAR and NG

J. Kim

Sat, 11/17/2012 - 1:18pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

Hi Scott - I agree with your logic on GPF going where they ned to go, regardless of aligned forces. There are many valid reasons for/against big Army regionally aligning. However, it is the current COA at this time, and in order to make it as effective as possible to accomplish mission, finding the right balance of language and culture is going to be key, particularly if it survives first contact and continues to reflect the force disposition in the future OE. Language and cultural expertise are difficult to grow quickly, but with aligned forces we are not expecting a brigade of lang/cult experts. At the same time, we are not wanting a brigade with their generic, AFLCS-dictated amount of annual lang/cult ability. The middle ground, mainly for the aligned brigade's subordinate element that will be spending X-months in country, is what we should try to identify and achieve. It will be interesting to see how the whole alignment plan evolves.

Scott Kinner

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 9:43pm

In reply to by J. Kim

Jason - it doesn't matter if regionally aligned forces are "a go" or not. It was a "go" when the Army rearranged its divisions into pentomic structures to survive on a nuclear battlefield only to abandon the concept a few years later. It was "a go" when the Army abandoned the regimental system only to generally recreate it with brigades. It was "a go" when the Army left Vietnam and concentrated on the Fulda Gap and the European Central Plains only to find its next major campaign of any duration was another counterinsurgency.

Big Army does a lot of things - but here is the one thing it does all of the time regardless of the latest version of "Operations" or the latest policy statement - it deploys general purpose forces all over the world. The 10th Mountain Division doesn't do any mountain fighting, but it does go to Somalia and Iraq. The Army is moving to a modular, brigade-centric focus, not because specialization is required, but because the ability for anybody, to go anywhere, at anytime is the demand signal.

As I stated in my SWJ article "People and Culture - Who Cares?" it is important to retain significant operational culture and language capabilities which can be rapidly expanded when required. Maintaining those capabilities allows for precision employment of them - think of a culture and language "schwerpunkt." A review of the operational deployments of the joint force over the last five decades reveals that outside of the force structure demanded by the various combatant command OpPlans, regionalization is a chimera. The Somalias, Kosovos, Haitis, and others demonstrate that a general purpose force capable of rapid deployment to any environment across the ROMO is far more valuable then artificially regionalized forces.

When a force is required to do many things with a smaller budget, it responds with a general purpose force, vice a specialized and regionalized, force.

Thanks everyone for the comments. I agree that language and cultural training are time consuming, resource intensive feats that can't be universally applied with an expectation of high proficiency. However, the regionally aligned force is a go, starting early next year. One of the capabilities that has been emphasized by senior leaders is the aligned force's ability to work more closely, consistently, and effectively with the region and its populace - two subjects clearly coming into play are language and culture. Completely agree with Tiger5-0 that the juice just may not be worth the squeeze, but a little juice could go a long way in a host nation OE. Given the intent for additional brigades to be regionally aligned sometime in the near future, I stress that a balanced, effective, but most importantly feasible training program should be considered to leverage the intended benefits. As difficult as language and culture are, devoting time to develop a plan that can train and educate the selected element from the aligned force operating in country, as hard as it may be, could pay off in partnership efforts. Attaining graduate-level regional expertise and 2/2 are desired end states from institutional training and should by no means be used as measures of effectiveness for regionally aligned forces. Since forces are regionally aligned and elements of those forces are going to operate in country, language training and culture education should be implemented to a practical, balanced degree as opposed to sending them in "cold."


Fri, 11/16/2012 - 12:40pm


You are theoretically correct: DoD (not just DA) needs culurally learned (learn-ed) uniformed assets as advisors to Commands.

There are 1.5 million mofo's in and out of uniform; we are Americans. We come from everywhere, we've been everywhere, we know the languages. We are Privates, Colonels, Major and minors. And we are SF, IN, CA, ABCD-EFG. And here's the problem: HRC/AR-PERSOCM/ARPERCEN whatever you call it and the Army's TDS (turf defense system) will not allow those folks who already know the language/culture to be traded out of one command into another.

Case in point (in the affirmative): March, 2003, Camp Commando, Iraq. I'm a linguist team chief, Army CA, and someone from across the berm asks me for Arabic speakers. Duh. So I don't have any, but the Marine E2 cleaning the porta-johns was a NATIVE ARABIC SPEAKER. I walked him into CW5 (name withheld)'s office and in ONE HOUR he was on a bird North to assist THE ARMY...........can any of us visualize this happening if the dude was an ARMY E2????

Jason, you aren'e wrong. It's just that this kind of thing has been tried before and it's a flavor of the day thing. As your friends about Parker's 'culture/language center of excellence' at SWCS. Oh, wait.........

Sigh. Fix the OER system, fix behavior issues (Petraeus). Fix HRC, fix the Army.

What we need is the authority to swap players from team to team. And without transformational leadership (puke) it will never happen in a timely-enough manner to support BSO needs on the ground.

We just spent ten years validating the contractor-linguist paradigm and it worked ok (puke, again). Sure, it cost a lot of money but we came out on the other side pretty much ok.

Tracking an individual from cradle to grave in the FAO program is a good thing; we all need the chance to work at Langely after we hang it up. But the fact is, there are far too many variables today, when the US's foreign policy is to become partially engaged in every nook and cranny of the globe. We just can't know everything about everything (sorry NSA/Utah Data Center). As soon as we 'know it', 'it' will change.

2 cents on a Friday.


Fri, 11/16/2012 - 12:33pm

I hate to pile on, but I have to agree with the other commenters. No one will argue that language proficiency and cultural awareness are unimportant. The question is who is trained, to what level, in what language(s)/culture(s), and for what purpose.

Like other skills, there are varying degrees of ability to communicate in a foreign language and understand that culture. Does a Soldier with a limited-duration FID mission need to be able to recite classical Arabic poems in Arabic?

From another angle; we all agree that life-saving medical skills are important. We have accepted that every Soldier cannot be (due to aptitude, training resources, etc) a trauma surgeon. So we provide varying levels of training, and accept risk. We give every Soldier basic skills, some intermediate skills, and a few get advanced training.

Given the constraints of time, money, and aptitude, the Army has to acknowledge that not every Soldier can be a 4/4-speaking cultural expert. At the same time, the Army needs to do a better job at identifying and training those individuals who do need these skills to successfully conduct their mission.

The Buk

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 11:59am

I would have to agree with Ken White's and Tiger5-0's comments. We don't have enough time as it is to train the fundamentals, much less cultural and language training that we have the possibility of never using. Extensive cultural and language training sounds great in theory but in the zero sum world of the battalion and brigade training calendar, it just isn't practical.

I thought I'd need to learn Serbo-Croat once, so I spent quite a bit of time learning it only to need Arabic. I don't need Arabic anymore and even if I did what little I knew is gone now. I am currently in need of Pashto/Dari and that would change if I go to 2/1 ID which is regionally focused on Africa.

In Africa, there are about 1200 languages and about 100 "Common" languages. Even if you narrow it down to the troubled areas where we are most likely to deploy that is still about 30. And that is not even taking into account the specific cultural nuances of the area.

Another way to look at it is to look at America. If you were going conduct COIN in America, you should probably pick up some English. But what if you get stuck in a Spanish speaking neighborhood? Fortunately, you deployed to Pittsburgh so your English is good enough (barely). However the hour long powerpoint on America that Joe received prior to deployment wasn't nearly detailed enough. Also, the 3 days of Academics that you spent studying for your original deployment area to Wisconsin wasn't enough to even remotely understand the complexities of Three Rivers' culture and politics. Most unfortunately, your interpreters from California and Mississippi had no idea that the quickest way to get shot in the head in Pittsburgh was to mess with someone's Terrible Towel....
How would you know that unless you had a extensive cultural training from a native Pittsburgher? And what was the likelihood of that happening?

I know that was a tongue in cheek example but it is exactly what we are going through right now in Afghanistan. Logar, Kunar, Ghazni, Helmand, Nuristan, Khost, Bamyan etc all have different cultural norms that no amount of cultural training could have prepared us for. The most efficient way to learn it is unfortunately on the job and taught by natives.

A focus on the fundamentals of warfighting and COIN would be a better use of valuable training time.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 11:35am

When working in foreign places to help mitigate or resolve populace-based (irregular, non-standard, etc) problems I believe there are three things that are very important that we seem to have totally lost the bubble on:

1. To be effective tactically one must have a deep understanding and concern for how people are different.

2. To be effective strategically one must have a deep understanding of how people are the same, and what aspects of human nature are the primary drivers of such instability and conflict.

3. To conduct effective operations one must have a fusion of both to the degree possible, but if one can only have one, understanding how people are the same and that every culture is different is far more important than being an expert on any one specific populace or place.

Ken White

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 11:00am

Once upon a time in Special Forces, I was taught German. When I was in an Airborne Division assigned to the old Strategic Army Corps, I was taught some Spanish and a bit about the diverse cultures of South and Central America.

I have never been deployed to or stationed in Germany or Europe, South or Central America -- but I've eaten a lot of rice. Some of that consumed while serving as an Advisor to the South Vietnamese (a language and culture about whom I was taught nothing but learned a little. Very little...).

We need Foreign Area Officers with language and cultural knowledge, no question. We need a few NCOs who also possess such knowledge. However, to try to foist this on the bulk of the Army, the General Purpose Force is an exercise in job justification that is not needed; will create a 'skill' or set of 'skills' that someone will likely insist on being used since it is being paid for and whether it makes an ounce of strategic sense or not; will be a significant training distractor and will almost certainly be costly failure. We've been there, we've done that -- it was a waste then and will be this time...


Fri, 11/16/2012 - 9:50am

A language and regional expertise capability for conventional forces is a Herculean challenge that may not have the juice worth the squeeze. DoD policy defines regional expertise as capabilities in one or more foreign languages and includes an understanding of geographic, social, and economic issues of a region and many include unique expertise in one or more countries in a region at the graduate school level. The United States recognizes 195 countries in the world of which there are 200+ languages (and 6909 dialects). When considering language skills alone only 70 languages (7 critical) are recognized as needed to support national security. By comparison, the most populated forces with language training, SOF, is limited to only ten languages selected and used for initial training. However, as DoD policy notes, having language capabilities in SOF does not confer the capability to understand the dynamics of the history and culture of those 195 countries and associated regions. It specifically notes SOF as language capable with regional orientation and “may not possess a high degree of language skill and regional expertise in the area in which they are assigned to operate.” As former Army special operator and counter-insurgency advisor Andrew Exum notes, “If these soldiers had been immersed in two years of intensive language training and an additional four years of education in the people, tribes, history and cultures of Afghanistan, at the end of those six years, they would still have only a fraction of the local knowledge of an illiterate subsistence farmer native to the region."