The Washington Post reported last month that the Pentagon has recommended ending a program that gives foreign-born troops with medical and language skills leverage in gaining citizenship. Congress has weighed in since then, and some recruits under threat of deportation have sought preemptive refuge.
Advocates, defense analysts and the military’s own assessments of the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program point to an initiative that, when working as designed, benefits national security, reduces recruitment and training costs, and provides a steady stream of troops.
But internal discussions point to concerns over security risks and even internal mismanagement as a reason to scuttle the program that has minted 10,400 troops since its implementation in 2009. The Pentagon has declined to comment on the program’s future, citing a host of related lawsuits.
Ending the program could produce some unintended consequences that affect the military’s ability to executes its missions around the world. Here are a few:
Valuable use within Special Operations Command
Special Operations Command, which specializes in missions to train and advise foreign militaries and militias, has been a vocal supporter of the program since its onset. The command was heavily involved in creating the program in 2008, and personnel with especially crucial skills are prioritized for Special Operations assignments, a Pentagon overview of the program said.
Then Sgt. Saral K. Shrestha, a Nepalese native and MAVNI recruit, was tapped by the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group for his fluency in Urdu on a deployment to Afghanistan. He would later win the Army’s soldier of the year competition in 2012.
Special operators spend time and resources to groom culturally attuned translators to become their eyes and ears in often hostile environments, where trust can mean the difference between mission success and failure, said Paul Scharre, the director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Linguists in the program cut through the middlemen, Scharre said.
Scharre served in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger and worked with both local translators and Afghan-born contractors who lived for years in the United States. While he has not worked with MAVNI program recruits specifically, he said translators with American insight are “far and away” the most valuable on the battlefield.
“They can bridge cultural divides and explain why locals are behaving in a certain way that U.S. troops can understand,” Scharre said, describing one translator born in Afghanistan who had lived in San Francisco for many years.
An Air Force Special Operations information page listing vital languages overlaps with global military operations. Slots in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 for French, Arabic, Korean, Polish, Swahili and Somali are listed as filled, dovetailing with ongoing missions against the Islamic State and reinforcing NATO allies against mounting Russian aggression.
The need for native speakers of Dari, another language spoken in Afghanistan — where Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will soon unveil a new strategy for the nearly 16-year old war — is listed as unfilled.
Dental clearances for deployment
Dental work is not typically in the national security conversation. But it’s among a checklist of health-related issues all troops must pass to receive orders for combat deployments, and physician shortages have the potential to affect the amount of troops the military can send to war.
The MAVNI program filled an immediate need addressing vacancies in the Army Reserve Dental Corps, with nearly half of empty slots filled the first year of the program in 2009, said Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who led the program’s design and implementation.
Now two-thirds of all Army Reserve dentists are program recruits, according to NPR, which points to a quiet reliance on a pipeline of trained medical professionals with one big incentive to sign up that U.S.-born recruits do not need: citizenship.
Personnel funds dipping into operations
While program recruits are a fraction of the military’s roughly 2.2 million active troops and reservists, the potential of losing access to their highly specialized skills could have outsize security consequences, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rising personnel costs means it is generally more expensive to recruit new troops than to retain those already in service. Recruitment of U.S. citizens with critical skills is particularly difficult and expensive when competing with the private sector, Harrison said.
“If you’re going to avoid skills shortfalls, it might mean siphoning resources from other accounts,” Harrison said.
“The Defense Department will often pull money out of operations and maintenance accounts” to cover personnel costs, he said, leaving, for instance, less funds for replenishing stocks of munitions drained from counter-Islamic State operations and repairing vehicles damaged in combat.
Program recruits have also been a reliable way to inject motivated troops into the force. The Pentagon’s review of the program found the recruits have a lower attrition rate than U.S.-born service members, which would save the military recruiting funds down the road.
And linguists who stay in uniform would blunt costs of finding third-party translators, Harrison said.
“When you lose a linguist, you end up buying them back at a higher rate through a contractor,” he said.
The MAVNI program has not always worked as intended. The program, which is renewed on a yearly basis, has been suspended several times since 2009 for security reviews and internal questions about its efficiency.
Pentagon reviews of the program point to dissatisfaction with some recruits over their specialties being underutilized, or by being placed into jobs unrelated to their skills.
But that’s an agencywide issue, Scharre said.
“The military has a problem of thinking of people as interchangeable cogs rather than looking at individual skill sets,” he said.