by Jason Kim
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.