Special Forces Language Training: What Would It Cost To Do It Right?
Sean P. Walsh
High-level language skills for Special Forces personnel are a requirement for current and future operations, but they are very difficult and costly to achieve and maintain. In response to the needs for high-level foreign language in Special Forces units, the United States Army Special Forces Command (USASFC) has set the ambitious goal of having at least one Soldier qualified at the 2/2 and 3/3 levels in each deploying twelve-man Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA). The Defense Language Institute (DLI) considers a 2/2 to be “Limited Working Proficiency” and is the minimum score for certification as a Defense Department Basic Linguist while a 3/3 is considered “General Professional Proficiency” and is the score needed for most positions in the Defense Attaché system. This paper determines the cost and time required to achieve USASFC’s goal in perhaps the most direct way possible: contracting a private company to provide intensive, long-term language training for 720 recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers.
This paper estimates the cost by first determining the gap in hours between the length of initial foreign language training at the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) and the length of language courses at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Language training at the SFQC is only designed to train students to the 1/1 level (elementary proficiency), while the DLI advanced courses produce 3/3 speakers and the DLI basic courses produce 2/2 speakers. This paper used the gap between the SFQC and DLI as an approximation of the additional training Special Forces Soldiers require to reach advanced proficiencies. This gap was then multiplied by the hourly rate for foreign language instruction at a major General Services Administration (GSA) certified foreign language contractor to determine the cost required to achieve proficiency at the 2/2 and 3/3 level in all SOF priority languages. A total cost for the program was then determined under four language distribution scenarios: a base scenario that evenly distributed languages in each Special Forces group, a current needs scenario that placed priority on operationally critical languages such as Arabic and Chinese, a low-cost scenario that assigned all Soldiers the easiest to learn language (and therefore least expensive) relevant to their assigned Special Forces group, and a high-cost scenario that assigned all Soldiers the hardest to learn language (and therefore most expensive) relevant to their assigned Special Forces group.
The total cost for this program would be approximately $20 million dollars for the base scenario and $23 million for the current needs scenario. As $23 million dollars may be too expensive in today’s fiscal environment, USASFC could lower costs by having less ambitious goals such replacing the need for a 3/3 speaker with a 2+/2+ speaker or having two 2/2 speakers on each ODA. Under a current needs distribution, these programs would cost only $15.9 million and $8.9, respectively.
Foreign Language Skills Are Key for Current and Future Special Forces Missions
Army Special Forces units, popularly known as Green Berets, are often confused with the broader term Special Operations Forces (SOF). SOF refers to all forces assigned to US Special Operations Command and includes not only Special Forces units, but also Navy SEALS, Air Force Commandos, Marine Corps Special Operations personnel as well as other Army Special Operations units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Army Special Forces are the Defense Department’s primary force for conducting Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense and, along with the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade and the 4th Military Information Support Group, are distinct from other SOF units due in large part to their language training and cultural and regional expertise. Active duty Special Forces qualified Soldiers are assigned to one of five regionally oriented Special Forces groups where the individual language and cultural skills of these Soldiers are leveraged to execute the regional specific missions of each Special Forces group. As an example, a Special Forces qualified Soldier initially assigned to the PACOM oriented 1st Special Forces Group would receive language training in an Asian language such as Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tagalog or Indonesian. This paper only conducts a cost analysis for Special Forces language training, but the results are relevant for other language capable Army Special Operations Forces units, specifically SOF Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations units.
Nearly fifteen years of post-9/11 operational experience have reinforced what Special Operations Forces leaders have long understood: that foreign language skills are essential to conducting the unique missions of Army Special Forces. Going back to their World War II roots in the OSS, Special Forces have long been distinguished by their foreign language skills. In recent years, these skills have only become more important. In the foreword to the Army’s most recent doctrinal publication involving Special Forces, ADP 3-05, Special Operations, USASOC commanding general LTG Charles T. Cleveland writes that success for SOF in future conflicts requires “a profound understanding of foreign culture and fluency in local languages.” Current SOCOM commander ADM William McRaven has frequently stressed the operational need for SOF personnel with “…languages, more cultural attunements, and regional expertise.”
USASFC Has Set Ambitious Goals For Its Organic Foreign Language Capabilities
In response to this stated need for high-level foreign language skills for Special Forces personnel, USASFC has declared ambitious goals. Beyond the basic requirement for all Special Forces soldiers to maintain a 1/1 in their assigned languages, the most recent USASFC Command Language Policy sets as the unit objective for each deploying ODA as having one Soldier proficient at the 2/2 level and one Soldier proficient at the 3/3 level. These goals are certainly ambitious given that the required minimum for Special Forces Soldiers is only a 1/1.
Extrapolating this requirement to every active duty ODA will require at most 360 2/2 qualified Soldiers and 360 3/3 qualified Soldiers. This number is based on a fully manned Special Forces organization of four battalions per Special Forces group, three companies per battalion and six ODAs per company. Not all Special Forces groups have grown a fourth battalion and this plan may be put on hold or even reverse as result of defense cutbacks, but this paper used the above figure in estimating costs and time requirements.
Current Special Forces Language Training Resources
Special Forces Soldiers are afforded essentially two types of language training: acquisition and sustainment. Currently, acquisition training comes in the form of Basic Special Operations Language Training (BSOLT). All students in the Special Forces Qualification Course now attend BSOLT as the last phase of the qualification course prior to graduation. BSOLT is 26 weeks for all students regardless of the difficulty of the language studied and students are required to achieve a 1/1 before they can earn their Green Beret. Foreign languages are grouped into four categories based on their difficulty. Category I languages, such as French or Spanish, and Category II languages, such as Indonesian, are the easiest to learn, while Category III languages, such as Russian, and Category IV languages, such as Chinese, are the most difficult. Special Forces students are assigned their target language based on their aptitude for learning foreign languages as demonstrated through scores on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery.
After graduation, Special Forces Soldiers continue to receive sustainment training and are expected to maintain a 1/1 in their designated target language. Soldiers who fail to maintain a 1/1 are not eligible for advanced skills training and are less competitive for promotion. Special Forces Soldiers who are assigned a Category I or II language must have, at a minimum, 80 hours of annual foreign language sustainment training while Soldiers who have a Category III or IV language must have 120 hours. In all cases only 40 hours of this annual training can be independent study, the remainder must be instructor led in some form. Based on operational needs and availability, Soldiers also have access to alternative training venues to include distance education through video conferencing, resident courses at DLI and participating universities, intermediate level courses specifically designed for Special Operations Forces and short-term overseas immersion programs.
Current Special Forces Language Training Is Not Sufficient To Meet USASFC’s Goal
An analysis of the current Special Forces foreign language program indicates that it will be almost impossible to reach the goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 qualified Solider per ODA without major changes to the training language program. Using training at DLI as the standard for the length of time required to achieve high-level proficiency, it is clear that there is an enormous gap between a typical Special Forces Soldier’s initial language training and what is required to achieve a 3/3 or even only a 2/2 in all but the easiest to learn languages.
At DLI, the basic course in each language is designed to reach a 2/2 level, the intermediate course a 2+/2+ and the advanced course a 3/3. Graduating the DLI basic course and earning a 2/2 takes between 26 weeks for Category I languages and 64 weeks for Category IV languages. If the DLI basic, intermediate and advanced courses were placed back to back to back, reaching a 3/3 would require 62 weeks for Category I languages and 158 weeks for Category IV languages. As BSOLT is only 26 weeks in length, there is a huge gap between initial acquisition and the DLI requirements for advanced proficiency. For Category I languages BSOLT is the same length as the DLI basic course, as a result it is likely that enough learners can earn a 2/2 out of BSOLT to meet USASFC’s goal of a 2/2 speaker per ODA. For the hardest to learn languages there is a gap of up to 38 additional weeks between the length of BSOLT and the DLI Basic Course. For achieving a 3/3, Category I languages have a gap of 36 weeks and Category IV languages have a gap of 132 weeks.
Scholarship on foreign language maintenance indicates that it is very difficult for learners with low initial acquisition levels to significantly improve their skills without another iteration of prolonged intensive study. In fact, according to a study by instructors at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, learners who do not initially acquire at least a 3/3 level of proficiency are unlikely to improve and in fact are likely to see their skills degrade outside of intensive formal training. This is significant for Special Forces Soldiers because it will be very difficult for them to improve their skills solely through independent study. Critically, however, if Special Forces Soldiers achieve very high levels of proficiency initially they are much more likely to retain those skills throughout their careers.
But even assuming that annual sustainment training will improve a Soldier’s language score over time, the gap between initial acquisition and a 2/2 or 3/3 level of proficiency is so great that it would take decades to make up the difference. Assuming a Solider only received the minimum annual language training and his skills increased at a constant rate, it would still take 13.5 years to reach a 3/3 in a language such as French and would take over 30 years to do so in a Category IV language like Arabic.
Unfortunately, studies by the Defense Department indicate that additional sustainment training must be intensive and lengthy to successfully raise a Soldier’s proficiency level. Short or part-time command programs will help sustain a Soldier’s skill but are not effective enough to raise a Soldier’s proficiency score. Only full time training seems to be truly sufficient to raise a Soldier’s score. Most of the additional training venues available to Special Forces Soldiers, such as online training or study at participating universities are not long or intensive enough to raise a Soldier’s proficiency level. Even overseas language immersion is not as effective or cost efficient as intensive daily training for acquiring higher-level langue skills. The cost of a single plane ticket to China, for example, would buy approximately twenty hours or more of intensive contracted training for three students. The learning center for Special Forces personnel, the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS), does offer intensive 32-week intermediate level SOLT where Soldiers are expected to graduate with a 2/2, but not all languages are currently offered and class sizes and numbers are not sufficient to meet USASFC’s goal.
What Type of Training Would Be Sufficient to Meet These Goals?
If regular annual training and the additional training venues currently available to Special Forces Soldiers are not sufficient to meet USASFC’s unit goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 qualified Soldier per ODA, then what methods would be sufficient? As described earlier, only long-term, intensive training can reliably improve foreign language proficiency. Though attendance at DLI or additional advanced and intermediate level SOLT classes would be optimal, this strategy would require support from outside agencies or lengthy implementation timelines. The simplest and most direct solution is for USASFC to take recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers and contract a private company to provide enough additional hours of instruction to make up the gap between SOLT and the DLI basic or advanced course. USASFC could select from a number of GSA approved contractors that already have the necessary capacity to train 720 Soldiers in any of the Special Operations priority languages. This solution would provide the intensive, long-term training that Defense Department studies and outside scholarship indicate are necessary to achieve high-level proficiency.
Estimating Training Cost: Methodology
The number of hours required to reach a 2/2 and 3/3 in each language was determined by multiplying the gap in weeks between the relevant DLI course length and the BSOLT by 30 hours per week, the theoretical maximum number of hours of weekly instruction. An hourly instruction cost was based on the per-lesson cost of a well-known GSA approved language contractor. The per-lesson cost of this contractor is $40.81 per 45-minute lesson. This per-lesson cost was divided by 45 minutes to determine the per-minute cost, which was then multiplied by sixty minutes to estimate an hourly rate of $54.41 for all languages. This rate is equivalent to an hour of instruction for up to three students in a single class.
Using these two figures—the gap between the length of BSOLT and the length of the equivalent DLI courses and the hourly rate—a total cost for each language and desired proficiency score can be determined. Total cost varies significantly between target languages based on their difficulty. A Category II language would cost an additional $14,691.60 after BSOLT to reach a 2/2, while a very difficult to learn Category IV language would cost $62,091.20. Cost and time vary even more at the 3/3 level. Category I languages would only require $58,766.40 and take an additional eight months after BSOLT. However, for Category IV the total cost would be $215,476.40 and require more than two and a half years of additional training after BSOLT. As mentioned above, these figures are for three person classes. Significantly, reaching a 3/3 in a Category I language costs less and requires fewer weeks than reaching only a 2/2 in a Category IV language.
Determining the total cost to reach USASFC’s goal requires making certain assumptions about language distribution within Special Forces units. Each Special Forces group has associated languages based on each group’s regional orientation. Because teaching cost increases as languages become more difficult to learn, the number of Special Forces Soldiers studying each language has a significant impact on the program’s total cost This paper analyzes four language distribution scenarios:
1) A baseline scenario that evenly distributed languages within each Special Forces Group. For instance, in the CENTCOM oriented 5th Special Forces group, half of the Soldiers were assumed to have Arabic as a target language and half were assumed to have Persian-Farsi.
2) A current needs scenario that distributed languages based on current operational priorities. For example, in the PACOM oriented 1st Special Forces Group, half of the Soldiers were assumed to have Chinese as their target language.
3) A low-cost scenario that analyzed each group with all Soldiers assigned the easiest (and therefore least expensive to teach) language associated with their Special Forces group. In this scenario, for example, the EUCOM and AFRICOM oriented 10th Special Forces group as assumed to have all 144 Soldiers learn French as opposed to a harder language such as Russian.
4) A high-cost scenario that assumed that all Soldiers would have the most difficult (and therefore most expensive to teach) language in their Special Forces group. For instance, in the Central Asia oriented 3rd Special Forces Group, all 144 Soldiers were analyzed with Pasto-Afghan as their target language.
Estimating Training Cost: Assumptions
This methodology did not see seek to balance current operational needs with the goal of acquiring high-level language skills, but only sought to reach USASFC’s language goal in the fastest and most efficient way possible. As a result this methodology did not take into account the opportunity cost of making 720 Special Forces qualified Soldiers unavailable for a maximum of thirty months after graduation. In addition, the methodology also attempted to be forward looking by assuming that all Special Forces groups have a fourth battalion to their organization. The methodology also assumed that for Category I languages where BSOLT and the DLI Basic course are the same length enough students will graduate BSOLT with a 2/2 to meet USASFC’s needs for 2/2 speakers in these languages. This assumption was made even though the graduation requirement for BSOLT is only a 1/1. Other, potentially significant costs such as housing or travel expenses for language students were also not included. In addition, this methodology only included the cost of language training for active duty Special Force groups and did not include the Army’s two National Guard Special Forces groups.
This methodology also did not take into account the possibility that some Special Forces Soldiers will have preexisting high-level language proficiency as heritage speakers or from training in a previous military occupational specialty. Finally, the methodology also assumed that no Soldier, except in the case of Category I languages, would score higher than a 1/1 at the end of BSOLT. Every Soldier that comes into Special Forces or completes BSOLT with 2/2 or 3/3 language scores would mean one less Soldier that has to have additional training to reach USASFC’s goal. Between the incomplete build of a fourth battalion in every group and taking advantage of preexisting high-level proficiency, USASFC may have to train significantly less than 720 Soldiers to reach its language goal. As a result, the total cost of this program could ultimately be several million dollars less than estimated here.
Estimating Training Cost: Results
Reaching USASFC’s goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 speaker per ODA would cost approximately $20 million dollars. The base scenario has a total cost of $19,605.124.00 while the current needs scenario would cost approximately 15% more at a total cost of $22,984,192.00. However, there is a major cost difference between the low-cost and high-cost scenarios. The high-cost scenario has a total cost of $25,935,571.20. It is significant that the highest possible scenario is only 15% higher than what current operational needs dictate. However, if USASFC attempted to meet only the letter rather than the spirit of its goal by choosing only the easiest to learn languages, it could meet its goal at a cost of $11,518,214.40. The significant difference between the low-cost scenario and first three scenarios is mainly due to the relatively high cost of teaching Category IV languages compared to easier languages. In the base scenario, teaching Category IV languages is 37% of the total cost of the program, even though only Category IV learners only makes up 21% of learners in the program. In the current needs scenario this affect is even more pronounced; teaching Category IV languages is 56% of the total cost of the program but Category IV learners only make up 39% of the learners.
Alternative Courses of Action
In the current fiscal environment, $23 million dollars may be too great an expense. However, USASFC could pursue a number of alternative courses of action that could come close to achieving their language proficiency goal at significantly lowered cost. In all scenarios, achieving a 3/3 level of proficiency in each ODA constitutes more than 79% of the program’s total cost (that is achieving 2/2 level for 720 Soldiers costs approximately 20% of the program’s total cost, while achieving 3/3 level for the other 720 Soldiers costs approximately 80% of the program’s total cost). As a result, lowering the goal for upper level proficiency has significant cost saving opportunities.
For example, a less ambitious goal of having a 2+/2+ qualified Soldier (the equivalent of the DLI intermediate course) instead of a 3/3 would reduce the cost of the “current needs” scenario from approximately $23 million to $15.9 million. Importantly, it would take only 85 weeks to fulfill this goal rather than 132 weeks needed to reach the 3/3 level. An additional course of action would be to have two Soldiers per ODA reach the 2/2 level. In this course of action, the “current needs” scenario would cost $8.9 million dollars, while the “low cost” scenario would only cost $2.5 million.
More dramatic courses of action may be able to achieve the spirit of the USASFC goal of increasing high-level proficiency within deploying ODAs. For instance, because of their relative greater focus on Special Warfare activities versus Surgical Strike missions, SOF Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations forces may be a more appropriate place for USASOC to develop high-level language skills. Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations units regularly deploy with Special Forces units and a 3/3 speaker in each Civil Affairs Team or Military Information Support Team could provide a similar level of mission effectiveness as having the same level of proficiency organic to the deploying ODA.
An even more radical option would be for USASFC to abandon its high-level language goal in favor of achieving high-level cultural competency. Without discounting the value of language skills for Special Forces Soldiers, former commander of 1st Special Forces Group and the Special Forces Language School Brigadier General Retired Russell D. Howard writes that “learning culture is easier than learning a foreign language, and more useful for the soldier in the short-term.” Having two Soldiers on each ODA earn a certificate of study in cultural anthropology relevant to their deploying region may help achieve a level of mission effectiveness similar to USASFC’s language goal at a fraction of the time and cost.
$23 million dollars is a major expense in today’s fiscal environment, and losing a portion of as many as 720 recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers for up to 30 months is a significant opportunity cost, but contracting a private company to provide intensive long-term language training is certainly the most direct and effective way of reaching USASFC’s language goals. This program can be thought of as a major, long-term investment that would meet USASFC’s language needs for possibly as long as ten to fifteen years. Once an initial cohort of 720 Soldiers were qualified at the necessary proficiency level, only a few new Soldiers every year would have to receive high level language training. In fact, because Soldiers at the 3/3 and 2/2 levels are less likely to lose language proficiency over time, less spending on language sustainment training within the Special Forces Regiment would be necessary. As a result, this program may actually be able to save USASFC money in the long term.
1] For scores needed for certification as a DoD Linguist see Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC Regulation 350-1, July 2004, 8-2 and
Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 2011, 27. Available from http://www.dliflc.edu/archive/documents/DLICatalog2011_2012_NEW.pdf.
 Philip A. Buswell (2011). Keeping Special Forces Special: Regional Proficiency in Special Forces. M.S. Thesis. Naval Postgraduate School: Monterey, CA, 48. Available from http://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=699535.
 Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-05, Special Operations, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2012), Foreword. Available from http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/adp3_05.pdf.
 William McRaven, Written Statement to the Senate, Advanced Policy Questions for Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, USN: Nominee for Commander, United States Special Operations Command, Senate Confirmation Hearing, 28 June 2011, 30.
 Headquarters, United States Army Special Forces Command (A), USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, March 2012, 5.
 For a detailed description of all Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Proficiency levels see Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 2011, 51-65. Available from http://www.dliflc.edu/archive/documents/DLICatalog2011_2012_NEW.pdf.
 Headquarters, United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, USAJFKSWCS Course Catalogue 2013-2014, 2013, 32, 47. Available from
 USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, 5.
 USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, 3.
 DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 35-44. All course lengths were cross checked in the Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATTRS)
 Frederick M. Jackson and Marsha Kaplan, “Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching,” Georgetown University Department of Languages and Linguistics, July 1999, 84-5. Available from http://www.639-3.org/archives/sla/gurt_1999_07.pdf.
 Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, A Manager’s Guide for DoD Command Language Programs, 37. Available from http://www.ut.ngb.army.mil/clp/clpm/regs/required/CLPM%20Handbook.pdf
 A Manager’s Guide for DoD Command Language Programs, 43.
 A 1 December 2013 search of courses available in the Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATTRS), showed Intermediate SOLT (ISOLT) courses in the following languages: Dari, Persian-Farsi, Russian, Arabic-MSA, Chinese Mandarin and Pashtu-Afghan. However, these courses are only capable of holding
 Scott McGinnis, “The Less Common Alternative: A Report from the Task Force for Teacher Training in the Less Commonly Taught Languages,” Association of Departments of Foreign Languages, 1994. Available from http://www.adfl.org/bulletin/V25N2/252017.HTM
 GSA Schedule for Language Services is available at http://www.gsaelibrary.gsa.gov/ElibMain/sinDetails.do;jsessionid=ECC9A52BB58185F2A3699E3FEFC68812.prd2cweb?executeQuery=YES&scheduleNumber=738+II&flag=&filter=&specialItemNumber=382+3
 Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-05, Special Operations, 8.
 Many authors have stressed the need for Special Forces to achieve high levels of cultural as well as regional proficiency in addition to language skills. See Buswell.
 Rusell Howard, “Cultural and Linguistic Skills Acquisition for Special Forces: Necessity, Acceleration and Potential Alternatives,” JSOU Report 11-6 (December 2011), 35. Howard points out in his study that learning culture and language simultaneously has a symbiotic effect that yields more long-term benefits than learning either alone.
 Howard, 36-7.