Language Programs Needed For Special Operators

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

TAMPA, Fla. — As Special Operations Command shifts to a more global focus, its personnel have an urgent need to learn new languages, particularly in African, European and Asian countries, officials said May 21.

Special operators over the past decade have worked alongside tribes and local communities in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries building relationships. This required them to become fluent in Farsi, Urdu and other local languages, said Chief Master Sgt. Greg Smith, with Special Operations Command Europe. But now operators need to rapidly learn a variety of different languages.

"There has been such a focus on Farsi, Dari [and] Urdu,” Smith said during a panel discussion of senior enlisted advisors at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. As special operators go back to their theater commands — which include regions such as Africa, South America and Europe  — leaders have found “a tremendous atrophy of some core languages.”

In Europe, there are 24 core languages, not including dialects, Smith said.

In Asia, there are more than 3,000 dialects, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tony Pettengill Sr., of Special Operations Command Pacific.

Smith called on industry to develop new technologies that can help operators learn languages rapidly. "There is a tremendous market out there." 

Currently, personnel stationed in Pacific nations use a combination of language institutes, open-source language tools and videos to practice, Pettengill said. There is a need for cost effective tools because paying thousands of dollars for translators is unfeasible. “We just can’t afford to do that,” Pettengill said.

Effective communication with partner nations is key to developing strong relationships, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Gibbs of Special Operations Command Africa.

“Language … adds to our effectiveness with our interagency partners. Often times, that’s the first thing a country team is going to ask: 'Do we have a language ability?'” he said.

Costs are also a major factor when considering where to invest across all acquisition programs, said Chief Master Sgt. Matt Caruso, from Air Force Special Operations Command.

“Do not price yourself out of the ability to give to the components,” Caruso said. “The bottom line is, money is an issue now. Some of this technology advances very quickly, [and] it becomes pricier and pricier.”

It is getting to the point where the command has to prioritize who trains with certain technology, and that is not what the service wants, Caruso said.

Members of the panel also stressed that interoperability with partner nations is a priority. They called on industry to work with Special Operations Command to create communication devices that will allow them to connect with partner nations more easily.

For the past 13 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, special operators did not have to worry about interoperability, said Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris. But now, as the force refocuses, they must be concerned about it.

Many countries simply do not have the technology or infrastructure to allow the seamless distribution of information and intelligence, he said.

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, PsyOps

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