The Pentagon has ordered a broad effort to expand the foreign language skills of the U.S. military, calling for recruitment of more foreign language speakers, higher proficiency levels for linguists and increased language instruction for U.S. forces.
Among measures still under consideration, a senior defense official said, is adoption of a requirement that all or most U.S. military officers understand a foreign language.
The moves reflect plans by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his team to better prepare U.S. forces for more operations and training missions in foreign countries and for working with international coalitions. In recent strategy statements, the Rumsfeld group has made clear that as part of the war on terrorism, it expects the U.S. military to take more action abroad to prevent nations from falling prey to terrorists or being undermined by such other threats as insurgency, drugs and organized crime.
"This new approach to warfighting in the 21st century will require forces that have foreign language capabilities beyond those generally available in today's force," a new Pentagon report said.
The report expressed high-level concern about what it said are serious shortfalls in the language skills and cultural awareness of U.S. forces. It faulted the Defense Department for doing poorly in retaining troops with language experience or training in regional areas. It also acknowledged that defense officials have done little to determine what language talent exists in the force, saying such talent "is unknown and untapped."
"Language skill and regional expertise have not been regarded as warfighting skills and are not sufficiently incorporated into operational or contingency planning," said the report, released to little notice last week. The ability of U.S. troops to communicate in and understand foreign cultures, it added, has become "as important as critical weapons systems."
Much of the Pentagon's approach to language skills dates to the Cold War, said David S.C. Chu, the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel. The emphasis then was on training translators for intelligence work, mostly focused on the old Soviet Union.
Now, Chu said, the challenge goes well beyond sustaining a small cadre of professional linguists, extending to large numbers of combat forces and requiring knowledge of such languages as Arabic and Chinese.
"We're really aiming to move a big part of the force -- that would otherwise only know a few words or nothing -- up to some kind of middle category," he said in an interview.
One option under review is whether to require every officer, in Chu's words, to "have some degree of competence in one or more of what we call the 'investment languages,' " meaning Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. "We've asked the military services for a concept on how we'd do this," Chu said.
According to Pentagon figures, about 84,000 service members have some language proficiency. Of those, about 19,000 have had their language skill certified and receive "proficiency pay." About 1,900 service members are listed as proficient in Arabic.
No decision has been made on how many more professional linguists are needed or what percentage of the U.S. military should receive language training, Chu said. But he described last week's report as meant to signal that quiet efforts begun in 2002 to address the language issue would be giving way to bolder action.
Titled "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," the report outlined a series of directives to the military services and regional commands, with deadlines for action stretching over the next several years.
By the end of the year, for instance, a Pentagon survey is to be conducted to determine how many military and civilian personnel in the Defense Department speak a foreign language. A Pentagon "Language Office" is being established, and a "language readiness index" will be devised to measure the military's capabilities.
Additionally, the services have been ordered to develop plans for recruiters to step up efforts among university students with foreign language skills, and in immigrant and "heritage" communities in which foreign languages are widely spoken.
Officials are looking as well at ways of quickly expanding the number of language specialists in the event of a foreign crisis, by streamlining procedures for hiring contract linguists and by compiling a database of linguists who previously worked for the Defense Department. A pilot program for a Civilian Linguistic Reserve Corps also is being launched.
The minimum proficiency standard will be raised, particularly for those headed for military intelligence work. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most proficient, the traditional requirement for graduates of the Pentagon's Defense Language Institute has been achievement of a level of 2 in reading, listening and speaking. That will jump to a level of 3 for some graduates, reflecting what officials say are the greater demands of counterterrorism work.
"This is not just figuring out how many tanks the enemy has," Chu said. "This is more nuanced work. This is tracking people who communicate with allusions, with metaphors."
To improve retention of troops skilled in a foreign language, the Pentagon intends to provide higher pay and greater chances of promotion. Chu acknowledged that the Pentagon has not done enough to keep these forces, particularly Army specialists known as "Foreign Area Officers" with extensive regional experience. Most of these officers often have not risen above the rank of lieutenant colonel, Chu noted.
"Fortunately, there was a cadre of people who loved doing this kind of work, even if we didn't manage them all that well," he said. "Now we're saying this is an important warfighting skill, and we have to nurture and manage it."