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Language Barriers Hinder Multinational Operations 


by Sandra I. Erwin 

U.S. military allies view language barriers, rather than incompatible technology, as a primary obstacle to multinational operations.

Computer networks can be connected rather easily, especially modern systems that are built with commercial technology. But the inability of troops from different countries to communicate because they don’t speak the same language creates more fundamental problems, said officers attending a U.S. Marine Corps war game in Potomac, Md.

Efforts by the United States and other NATO members to promote “interoperability” between military forces and to encourage countries to contribute troops to current operations fail to take into account the difficulties experienced by non-English speakers, said Lt. Col. Marc Humbert, a member of the French Joint Staff and a liaison officer at U.S. Joint Forces Command.

“The biggest challenge is language,” he said. “It’s a significant factor for us and other countries, working in an English-speaking environment. Some of us master the language, but to what level does it go? At what level can we integrate units? This is a very big issue.”

U.S. officials regard “information sharing” as the most significant hurdle in coalition operations, but often don’t take into account whether the information can be understood by those who don’t speak English. “Everybody has networks, and you can plug into the network, but if the information is in a foreign language, can you translate it?,” Humbert asked.

“From an operator’s perspective, the biggest thing is to exchange information,” said Australian Army Col. Don Freeman. But sharing data only achieves useful results “if you can exchange and understand the information.”

No easy fix exists to this problem, Humbert noted. “We have been trying to develop procedures. But I would submit that total integration is not possible with non-English speaking countries.”

Among French troops, a small number (between 10 and 20 percent) speak Arabic. But even they couldn’t communicate with Arab-speaking Iraqis, for example, because French-Arabs, who usually hail from Northern Africa, speak a different from of Arabic.

Other officers from English-speaking U.S. allied countries agreed that language differences can hinder interoperability. They also highlighted other reasons why multinational operations can be daunting.

“We have wrestled for years with interoperability,” said Maj. Sean Wyatt, of the Canadian Army.

One complaint often heard among allies is that U.S. military policies are too restrictive when it comes to sharing information. While the United States does curtail foreign access to military databases, it wants to bolster cooperation among allies, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Joe Angyal, who recently oversaw an interoperability exercise in Germany involving 43 countries, called “Combine Endeavor 2005.”

The event, hosted by the U.S. European Command was the “farthest-reaching” interoperability exercise to date, Angyal said in an interview. “We are testing some of the most advanced networking technology in the world.”

Security restrictions in many ways impede interoperability, but these types of exercises help countries prepare for joint operations, despite the policy obstacles, he said. “Our ability to share information is challenged not just from a technical perspective … Pretty soon you hit the wall with policy. That’s some of the barriers we are trying to break … We are striving to collaborate and trying to find ways to work together that don’t require separate networks.”

The European Command will sponsor a similar exercise next spring that will involve seven or eight African nations, said Angyal. “We are in open dialogue,” he said. “We have to want to agree to share information.”

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