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 Air Force “Diversity” of Languages: A Strategic Concern

Given the Pentagon’s focus on diversity in recent years, it is odd that the Air Force’s leadership recently approved the inactivation of its only Regular Air Force squadron that deploys Combat Aviation Advisors (CAAs) capable in local languages to U.S. partner nations around the globe. The squadron conducts special operations “by, with, and through” these partners’ air forces.

This unit, the 6th Special Operations Squadron (6SOS), was inactivated last month, its highly trained and experienced personnel either retiring or moving on to other assignments. Its Air Force Reserve counterpart, the 711th Special Operations Squadron, will go away at the end of September 2023. As CAAs explain, the Air Force has no replacement plan for maintaining this institutional knowledge in the future.

Consequently, today, from a high of nearly two hundred advisors, only approximately thirty remain available if needed – a woefully insufficient number.

The implicit assumption that the future Air Force can flourish in an “English only” world is seriously flawed; while English is the predominant language for international civil and military flying, many partner nations and local air forces – particularly those in global hotspots in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific region – lack the English skills typically found in, say, the traditional NATO countries. In some newer NATO countries, often only the pilots speak English. A critical specialty such as an aircraft maintenance officer, however, is unlikely to know English. That is true within NATO. Outside of NATO, the language issues are even worse.

This is a strategic issue, and to appreciate its grave implications one need only consider the growing threat China poses to Africa and other regions where combat aviation advisors typically deploy.

A century ago, English geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder advanced what he called the “World-Island” concept. Basically, whoever controlled the World-Island – the linked continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa – would control the world.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has embraced Mackinder’s theory. Flushed with cash from a rapidly growing economy assisted by a combination of helpful U.S./ Western trade policies, intellectual theft and espionage, and unhindered by environmental concerns, they are aggressively building infrastructure – marked by their $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative – and military bases, increasing their influence in various countries. China is particularly active in Africa, opening, in 2016-17, a base in Djbouti, the PRC’s first “overseas” military base.

And Djbouti was just the first: in December 2021 the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed Biden administration officials had “warned that Beijing plans to establish a permanent military installation in Equatorial Guinea,” one of Africa’s smallest countries, yet possessing huge – and thus hugely attractive – crude oil reserves. One leading military historian views these and other Chinese behaviors as mirroring Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the 1930s-to-World-War-Two period, with China now having swapped roles with Japan.

If not engaged in outright base-building, China is not shy about exerting more subtle economic and diplomatic pressures. In 2018, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) broke ties with Taiwan and established the same with the PRC, after the Xi regime bought off the pro-Taiwanese element in the former French colony.

One CAA, a field grade officer with extensive experience in Burkina Faso, where Islamist influence especially in the north – in addition to China’s purchased influence – threatens the weak government, called it “a cornerstone country” for the United States in the region. He also assessed that a small investment of U.S. special operations personnel there – half a dozen, perhaps – could make a huge difference in a whole-of-government approach. (Recently, Chinese pressure on the government of the Solomon Islands led to port-entry denials of American and Australian ships, an incredible development given that 80 years ago thousands of Allied sailors, airmen, and soldiers perished while freeing the Solomons from Japanese occupation.)

In the midst of this accelerating U.S.-Chinese competition for global influence several CAAs recounted the importance of language skills not only with the Burkinabe but also with U.S. military counterparts in Mauritania and Niger. For example, in Mauritania on one deployment several years ago, having just one French speaker and one Arabic speaker on the team (of about 15) proved crucial because both languages were used within military circles. In another case, an advisory team fortuitously included a native Spanish speaker who instructed in Spanish because his Mauritanian counterpart had grown up in the Canary Islands where his father, a Spaniard, had taught him that language. While deployed to Mauritania, all of the American advisor’s instruction was conducted, surprisingly, in Spanish.

In addition to the primary advantage of aviation-related instruction, skill in local languages also may enhance advisors’ “force protection.” During 2018 in Burkina Faso, a tense situation following a terrorist attack was defused when a CAA spoke – in French – to a nervous Burkinabe guard, informing him that the men with him were Americans and they were authorized on the flight line. The non-English-speaking guard immediately turned from fingering his trigger to visible relief that the Americans were there to help.

The importance of U.S. aviation advisors building rapport with partner air forces through language capability is greater than for ground advisors. As CAAs explain, air forces in developing countries tend to be manned by the elite class. Many air force personnel enjoy ties with the national leadership through marriage or tribe. When a small team of American advisors arrives in-country and has the ability to engage directly with the partner’s air force without the need for a translator, there is credibility, rapport, and the real opportunity for “buy-in” on the host’s part. The significance of such engagements is, in a word, strategic.

If future circumstances dictate – as they almost certainly will – that we rapidly develop a larger cadre of foreign language speakers, doing so will be far from easy. Language training for combat aviation advisors takes between four and eight months depending on the difficulty level.

This issue is not restricted to Africa. Poland and Estonia are good examples, where CAAs have reported that skill in those nations’ tongues remains a rapport-builder for air advising.

For the last two years, the Air Force has touted its version of diversity non-stop. If the service is, indeed, serious about meaningful diversity, it will immediately recognize its huge mistake in inactivating the U.S. Air Force’s most linguistically-and-culturally-diverse active component squadron and will take the necessary steps to return it to an operational, funded status.

Moreover, there is reason for encouragement. A decade ago, and without any explanation provided to the affected subordinate commanders, within weeks Air Force leadership took the 6SOS from a planned major reduction to a sudden doubling in size.

Nearing the end of 2022, the Air Force remains focused on superficial rather than substantial diversity. It has been more concerned with diversity of color over capability, pigmentation over performance, melanin over merit.

This approach guarantees the continued lowering of U.S. combat readiness.

Meanwhile, our competitors, unhindered by such silliness, appreciate the Americans’ help toward achieving their Mackinder-based ambitions around the world. It is time for Air Force leadership to (again) reverse course with its combat aviation advisors and immediately restore a language – and culture-based capability – that holds strategic advantage for the nation.

– Forrest L. Marion, PhD

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