Air Force Committed to Increased Language Training
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley
Keynote address to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center's 68th Anniversary Dinner, Presidio of Monterey, Calif., Oct. 24, 2009
Thank you, Colonel (Sue Ann) Sandusky for that very kind introduction, and thank you Mr. De La Selva for hosting me tonight. It's a pleasure to return to DLI as a proud alumnus and an honor to speak with you.
It has now been over 35 years since I was here as a student, but I have only fond memories -- a beautiful location, great instructors, and superb training.
The close connection between DLI and the Naval Postgraduate School is also memorable. I recall the mid-day two-hour break in training which provided just enough time to drive down the hill and take a swim in the classic Greek-revival swimming pool that had been left over from the historic Hotel Del Monte.
I also recall the Army captain who was my class' senior ranking officer and the one person in the class who was always able to get a reservation for the Sunday brunch at the NPS Club, because the person taking the reservation always presumed he was a Navy captain.
DLI has excelled at teaching language proficiency to our national security community since its standup shortly before the attacks on Pearl Harbor 68 years ago.
And, your mission has taken on even greater importance since 9/11. After that fateful day, you've made great strides to surge your capabilities and capacity in languages like Dari, Pashto, and Uzbek, and I applaud you for your efforts. Your 26 language programs are rightly regarded as among the very best in the country.
It's not unusual for graduates of a six-month DLI course in a romance language to be more fluent than four-year university majors. Not resting on your many accomplishments, you continue to come up with innovative new programs like "Language Survival Kits" and "Headstart," to rapidly provide deploying Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines key language and cultural skills.
I am especially appreciative of your efforts in support of the Air Force. Last year, you provided resident training to more than 1,200 Airmen, and post-basic training to more than 700 Air Force linguists via mobile training teams, video-teletraining, web-based systems, and instructors assigned to support the language detachments at places like Offutt and Elmendorf Air Force Bases and other key locations. Airmen are putting these crucial language and cultural skills to great use around the globe.
As Secretary Gates has noted, "understanding the traditions, motivations, and languages of other parts of the world has not always been a strong suit of the United States. It was a problem during the Cold War, and remains a problem." And as much as we need these skills today, there is little doubt we'll also require them in the future.
We continue to face a challenging strategic environment, in which we'll require the assistance of allies and partners whose native tongue is not English. The 2008 National Defense Strategy articulates the importance of partner nations to solve global problems, recognizing that partners "often possess capabilities, skills, and knowledge we cannot duplicate. We should not limit ourselves to the relationships of the past. We must broaden our partnerships for new situations or circumstances, calling on moderate voices in troubled regions and unexpected partners."
This increasing need to work with many different peoples and form close partnerships underscores the need to communicate with them, to understand their culture, and ultimately, their world view.
As (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Admiral (Mike) Mullen put it when he spoke here in August, we need the ability to see our partner's problems through "their eyes," putting ourselves in a position to focus on their considerations in addition to our own.
This approach may take much longer and will involve patience, but as he noted, the outcome will be much more positive and long-lasting. And, your efforts here at DLI are laying the groundwork for our men and women to have not only the required language skills, but also the cultural intelligence to understand these different world views, and how they shape and motivate the strategies and behavior of both friends and potential foes.
A well-rounded understanding of the world and the diversity of its people and cultures which you promote here will make our country and our military a more effective leader and coalition partner in global affairs.
The Air Force needs these capabilities.
The first Air Force use of airborne linguists and intelligence analysts occurred in 1953 when we placed them aboard specially modified C-47s. Since that time, we've used these airborne personnel to great effect, helping us to better understand our adversaries and predict their actions. While these men and women have long understood the value of language and cultural skills, the events of the last decade have helped many more of our Airmen appreciate the importance of these capabilities.
In the past, some in the Air Force undervalued language and cultural skills for understandable reasons, among them a view of the world as seen from 30,000 feet. As one of our trainers recently observed, air operations began and ended on the same base, and we controlled them from an air and space operations center that was often far removed from the populace.
Many times in the past, the extent of our limited interactions with the local community was simply overflying it. This view is also reinforced by the happy coincidence that English has long been considered the international language of aviation, a situation further codified by the International Civil Aviation Organization decreeing as of Jan. 1, 2008 that all air traffic controllers and flight crewmembers engaged in or in contact with international flights must be proficient in English.
Additionally, our force was, and still is, organized for deployment differently than those of the Army, Navy, and Marines. Instead of being assigned and deployed as large formations to similar geographic areas where they can develop language and cultural expertise over a number of years, our men and women often deploy as individuals or small groups to separate bases, frequently to a different location every time. As you can imagine, this constant change of scenery makes it extremely challenging to build advanced regional knowledge.
But in-depth knowledge is more important than ever. As we sit here tonight, more than 4,200 Airmen are deployed on Joint Expeditionary Taskings, performing a wide variety of tasks, from convoy operations to intelligence operations, which bring them into regular contact with the local populace.
Additionally, our security forces and special investigators are now solely responsible for securing a number of our air and joint bases, a task that takes them outside the wire and requires close cooperation with local security forces. Our Airmen also now command almost half of the 14 Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and they interact daily with tribal chieftains, helping to rebuild their communities.
Airmen currently are helping Iraqi and Afghan airmen reconstitute their air forces by instructing them in a wide range of subjects; everything from flight training to sustainment and acquisition of aircraft. And think about the number of countries with whom Transportation Command must coordinate to provide logistical support to U.S. and NATO forces in land-locked Afghanistan. Simply put, our Air Force is executing a wider and more diverse range of missions today than ever before, and a large number of these taskings require increased language and cultural training.
To ensure our force is ready to meet these challenges, we've stepped out on a number of initiatives, to include how we educate our force. Starting with accessions, we've stressed the importance of foreign language training at our commissioning sources.
At the U.S. Air Force Academy almost 30 percent of the Class of 2009 graduated with a foreign language minor, and we require our ROTC cadets to take at least four semesters of foreign language training. We have also instituted foreign language training in our professional military education courses, to include electives in languages like Arabic, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese.
Besides accessions and education, the Air Force is working to ensure our force is more diverse to help us compete more effectively in an increasingly intense battle for workforce talent and to add the capabilities of native speakers.
We also need to identify within our workforce Airmen like Lt. Col. Pete Sipos, a 19-year Air Force veteran who was born to Hungarian parents in Long Beach, learned their native tongue while growing up, and is now a flight surgeon for the newly-formed Heavy Airlift Wing in Papa, Hungary. This wing is a partnership between the United States and 11 other nations, and by pooling resources on three C-17 aircraft, this initiative provides access to airlift for nations that may not be able to make a large capital investment.
Colonel Sipos has been absolutely instrumental in standing this wing up and has created a medical network of dentists, pediatricians, general practitioners, and hospitals in the local Hungarian community for the other members. As you can imagine, we didn't have too many other Airmen with his skill set, and having his capabilities resident in our force was critical.
Though Airmen like Colonel Sipos will be useful to our future, we also understand the need to focus our efforts in these areas. To that end, we recently published our Air Force Culture, Region, and Language Flight Plan and stood up an Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base (Ala.). This plan and center provide us the means to develop "coalition-minded" warriors with not only culture and language expertise, but warriors armed with regional knowledge and expeditionary and negotiating skills.
As part of this plan, we've made important strides in our foreign area officer programs, and specifically, our Regional Affairs Strategists. We are carefully managing this program to ensure these officers get comprehensive development and training; that our personnel value these assignments; and, that we value their service in this specialty.
In 2008, we completed a three-year increase in accessions and had great interest in this career field, with eight qualified applicants for every open slot.
Additionally, thanks to your efforts and our partners at the Naval Postgraduate School, we recently certified our first class of deliberately developed Regional Affairs Strategists after they finished their two-to-three year language and culture training programs. Beginning next year this program will include an additional six months in-country to complete their training.
These new strategists increase our inventory to 145 officers, with an additional 128 in the training pipeline and a goal of 500 by 2016. There are high-quality Airmen in these billets, and we have promoted them to lieutenant colonel and colonel at rates that exceeded promotion board averages.
Finally, this plan also focuses on our role as the executive agent for DLI's English Language Center. In this capacity, we are committed to providing English language training to our coalition and partner nations, and we appreciate that our partners are much like us, working to understand our language and culture as a way to better integrate with our military.
So as we seek to better understand our partners, and they us, the need for increased language and cultural training is crystal clear. There is no doubt that we require these skills now, and that we'll continue to require them in the future. Our goal remains clear: provide the combatant commanders with Airmen who possess the language, cultural skills, and regional knowledge to enhance joint and coalition warfighting.
While we in the Air Force have accomplished much in a short time, we know there is still much work to do. Your role in achieving this end state will be pivotal, and I look forward to working with the men and women of the DLI toward achieving it.
Thank you for your crucial work, and thank you for being here tonight.