March 1, 2012  

Our monolingual Air Force

It’s time to improve the service’s foreign-language programs

When I was an Air Force ROTC cadet, we were graced with a guest speaker and alumnus who had been lucky enough to find himself in the Air Force’s virtually unknown foreign area officer (FAO) program. Brandishing program leaflets and a Kazakhstani officer’s hat, the visiting major told stories of international associates and good times. As a Japanese language major, I was excited by the prospect of joining the FAO program. But most of my fellow cadets did their best to stifle yawns — and career-wise, they were better off not worrying about learning a foreign tongue.

The Air Force has long lagged the Army and Navy in fostering multilingualism in its junior officers. More barriers than paths exist for those who would learn about foreign cultures. In a world where English is aviation’s lingua franca, the service has muddled along with a series of half-supported training programs.

Yet the rise of coalition warfare means the Air Force cannot afford to go on this way. The service needs a clear path to incorporate talented and motivated officers at the right time in their careers, and a concise mission around which to implement an international program.


Until about 15 years ago, the service possessed virtually no international language career field, with the exception of relatively limited training for air attaches and the very thorough airborne linguist program. In 1997, the Air Force created an FAO program, largely by copying the Army’s, though lacking a formal school and defined goals. While participants were granted secondary career field codes (an important distinction from changing primary career codes), they were given no guidance, and the program faltered under lack of funding, lack of oversight and a perception as a “career killer” before finally withering on the vine. In 2005, the program was reborn under a revision to DoD Directive 1315.17. Yet the new international affairs specialist (IAS) remains an incomplete career path, excludes junior officers and lacks all-important mission focus.

Why the diffident record on an international program? Put bluntly, senior Air Force leaders, unlike their counterparts in the Army and Navy, have never been unanimously convinced that their service needs one.

The Air Force model of warfare has been largely unchanged since the service’s inception: Establish an airfield in a secure environment, set up local support for the flying war fighter and use the inherent abilities of an aircraft to proctor a war from a long distance. English’s status in global aviation means U.S. aircrews generally need no foreign language. A pilot can fly from the continental U.S., cross the ocean, navigate international airspace, enter hostile territory, release his payload or deliver his cargo, refuel in the air multiple times, return and recover at a U.S. airfield, speaking and reading English the entire time. Indeed, an entire air war can be fought with English-language charts and speaking with English-language aircrews and controllers.

Nevertheless, the Air Force’s need for officers who can speak a foreign tongue is growing. The U.S. is interconnected with foreign powers like never before. Its role in conflict prevention, both unilaterally and through enterprises like NATO, will only grow in importance as deterrence mechanisms gradually replace the need to maintain a prohibitively expensive standing force. It is through international experts like the IAS career field that the Air Force will get a say in how this future affects the service. Therefore, future Air Force interests will go hand-in-hand with knowledge gleaned by international professionals. The service will demand experts who can build national security from an international perspective, in cooperation with international partners.

The divert options, international support and foreign bases available to our aircraft were purchased at great cost and by the diplomatic skill of our military international affairs specialists. Because these diplomatic officers spent parts of their careers getting to know foreign military officers on a personal level, the U.S. has the political clout to secure promises of assistance in the event of military distress, to include the land foreign nations grant us to place runways and forward-deployed airbases. By skimping on its international programs, the Air Force risks losing these critical logistical components, especially if the Air Force cannot provide the exact type of professional who can maintain them. The use of “just-in-time” measures must cease if the Air Force is going to have a strategic role to play in future global operations.

In flying these global missions, aircrews and their logistical support staff often face myriad problems. They are routinely subjected to international boundary disputes, legal quagmires, cross-border quarrels that heighten tensions, and the effects of executive branch decisions on where they can and cannot fly. Flying farther away from friendly territory is riskier. Today’s divert option may be tomorrow’s no-fly zone. Moreover, junior level aircrew members function as front-line ambassadors, complete with their own personal prejudices and often possess little to no international training. As overseas bases continue to feel the financial squeeze of a contracting military, depending on friendly foreign airfields becomes increasingly important.


There are signs that things are changing. In 2009, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz published the “Culture, Region & Language Flight Plan.” The plan sets “cross-cultural competence” as “a development goal for all Airmen,” arguing that international skills “will produce ‘coalition-minded’ warriors who are better able to influence outcomes across the full spectrum of conflict.”

While “all Airmen” may be a bit too lofty of a goal under the current iteration of the Air Force’s international training program, it’s clear that cross-cultural competence training for some officers is warranted.

Indeed, the Air Force recently doubled its foreign liaison assignment requirements from 531 in fiscal 2010 to 1,050 in 2011. These officers will be placed in a variety of arms control specialist positions, as country desk chiefs, and in staff positions that will vastly increase the Air Force’s capability to tailor its mission to international needs. This move sends a clear message from Air Force leaders that the service’s mission fits with an international agenda and that it values an international perspective.

The new international affairs specialist career field is a major improvement over the old FAO career field, combining career stability with a multitude of international opportunities that seek to maintain Air Force international interests.

But the service needs to step up its efforts by better integrating IAS officers into the Air Force mission, realistically examining the resources needed to establish a professional IAS community and expanding language skill application beyond the intelligence community.

Motivated, linguistically talented junior officers, who will one day become linguistically talented senior officers, continually face tremendous obstacles on their way to become international professionals.

Additionally, junior officers who enter the service with language ability and motivation are currently unrecognized and given no broadening early enough in their careers. Like all language training, the earlier a person begins learning and the more frequent the studies the more efficiently he will learn.

A good start would be a simple exam taken before commissioning or as part of a commissioning requirement.

Also, funding is a chronic problem with international programs. With on-again, off-again funding, the Air Force cannot hope to maintain a cadre of international affairs specialists.

One more ray of hope is the 2010 founding of the newest language-identifying program, the Language Enabled Airman Program, or LEAP for short. This program seeks to identify language-capable airmen and grant them opportunities for training and career broadening at the junior level.

Combined with fundamental restructuring, better funding, and programs like LEAP, the Air Force can eventually find a solid and sustainable language solution. AFJ

Capt. John Wright speaks Japanese and is a C-17A Globemaster III pilot currently flying EQ-4B Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. He has made three deployments to the U.S. Central Command theater and saw combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.