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Report: Special operations forces need to rethink language training

Special operators speak 80 languages across the military but often don't sustain that skills, a new report says.
Patty Nieberg Avatar

U.S. Green Berets and elite Marine special operators are learning languages that aren’t always useful on deployments and missions abroad, a Government Accountability Office report found.

And those elite troops often let their skills in those languages lapse as their careers go on.

The new report sites examples like Special Forces soldiers who learn French as their assigned language, but find it useless in most European assignments, especially since the U.S. trains directly with French forces less often than many other allies in the region. Other soldiers who were trained to speak Russian told GAO investigators that rarely do in Eastern Europe and in some countries the language is even considered “culturally offensive.” 

And language skills fade, those troops said, with many telling the GAO that competing training priorities get in the way of sustaining their language skills.

“There’s a lot of skills that we have to maintain and most of those skills are related to survivability and lethality,” a retired Green Beret officer told Task & Purpose, noting that when “push comes to shove” the first thing that’s going to get dropped from a training schedule is the requirement to keep up with a language that’s not relevant to a deployment.

“Imagine if I spent a month in Indonesian language school and then got on a plane and went to Afghanistan and got killed,” he said. “Imagine how my wife or my parents would feel going ‘maybe he could have been training instead of sitting in a language that nobody speaks in the country.’”

The GAO found that more than just three of eight active-duty Army SOF formations — five Special Forces Groups plus Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations units — had 80% of personnel achieve a minimum proficiency on languages they were trained in during fiscal years 2018 to 2022.

Foreign language has long been a core skill for some special operations troops, whose missions are often to work and train with foreign militaries or recruit and train foreign fighters in unconventional, guerilla-style warfare. 

According to the report, about 13,000 U.S. special operations troops are trained to speak a foreign language, of which roughly 10,500 are in the Army, either in Special Forces, Psychological Operations or Civil Affairs. Marine Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, has about 600 of its top combat operators — known as Critical Skills Operators or, informally, Marine Raiders — trained in a foreign language, according to the GAO.

The Air Force Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Command do not have a foreign language requirement for any of their personnel, the report said.

Special operators across the military speak 80 languages. The report also noted that the Army spends over $30 million each year training its troops in a foreign language, far more than the other services, who spend about $2 million each.

Learning the wrong language

While special operators are tasked with speaking a variety of languages, sometimes troops never get a chance to even use it, let alone practice in their free time.

“I spent four months in language school to learn that language and I couldn’t find anybody on the planet to speak Indonesian,” said the former Green Beret, a retired Lt. Col. with over 15 years in Special Forces. 

Despite that, the Green Beret vet said the sense of understanding foreign cultures and “working with people who don’t look like me, translated very well to Afghanistan.” 

“The real story is we’re still exposing people from the most advanced developed country in the history of mankind to cultures that aren’t like theirs,” he said. “It does set the condition for them to perform better when we’re working with partner forces.”

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Since the Army and Marine Corps special operations commands do not assess whether assigned languages are “relevant” to deployments, one Green Beret questioned learning Russian when his job was to work with forces opposed to Russia.

“Learning the language of our enemies instead of our allies, kind of makes it harder for us to use our language. One of my biggest complaints has been, why don’t we learn our allies’ languages?” he said according to the report.

SOF personnel quoted in the report and interviewed by Task & Purpose acknowledged the benefits of learning foreign languages like better interpersonal communication and relationships with partner forces.

“The culture is wrapped around the language so if you can understand the language, you can understand more of the culture. If you can understand the culture, that will take you places where no conventional forces or not even SOF without language skills can go,” said David Cook, director of the Special Operations Association of America, told Task & Purpose. “That’s the whole goal.”

But sometimes, it doesn’t always translate to the field. Cook described his personal woes about learning Modern Standard Arabic which is the written, formal version of the language. He did not learn any of the Arabic dialects which he said would have been more useful when talking to partner forces or Middle Eastern populations.

“A lot of times I found that our partners couldn’t speak modern standard and that made them ashamed and it actually did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do,” Cook said.

A perishable skill

The GAO also found inconsistent consequences for SOF troops that don’t complete annual language training along with a lack of monitoring from unit commanders.

Less than half of SOF personnel completed any foreign language sustainment training and among those who did, the average number of annual hours spent maintaining their proficiency was less than required due to competing demands, according to GAO investigators.

SOCOM recommends 80 hours of annual sustainment training for languages like Spanish and French, and at least 120 hours annually on more challenging languages like Russian and Chinese.

GAO found between 2,200 and 3,200 of more than 7,000 Army SOF personnel per year completed sustainment training with a high of 56 hours to a low of 35. For the Marines, less than half completed any training and the ones that did some averaged between 21 and 24 hours annually.

Training officials from one Army SOF formation said that while all personnel are required to take annual language proficiency assessments, they were unaware of any consequences like delays or inability to deploy for service members who failed. Other Marine SOF personnel noted that leadership focused on training exercises over sustained language skills when it came to promotions.

“The Secretary of Defense should be holding unit commanders accountable for the language for efficiency,” Cook said. “On the flip side, there’s not enough people with the right skills at the right times that have to meet the whole laundry list of requirements.”

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