Why the Air Force’s best ‘secret weapon’ has nothing to do with airplanes

The little-known program may be one of America’s best tools for winning the next war.
David Roza Avatar
English is the international language of aviation, but it can be a useful asset to know the native language of whoever you are flying with. This imagined interaction shows the flight lead directing an "ops check," in Arabic to which the wingman (Pilot Two) responds "Two's 3.6," which indicates his or her remaining fuel in thousands of pounds. (Aaron Provost/Task & Purpose)

At the start of the classic World War II novel A Bell For Adano, the narrator argues that one of America’s greatest strengths is its “fund of men who speak the languages of the lands we must invade, who understand the ways and have listened to their parents sing the folk songs and have tasted the wine of the land on the palate of their memories.”

“[E]verywhere our Army goes in Europe,” the narrator continues, “a man can turn to the private beside him and say: ‘Hey Mac, what’s this furriner saying? How much does he want for that bunch of grapes?’ And Mac will be able to translate.”

About 80 years after the fictitious events of the novel, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Charlynne McGinnis found herself serving as the allegorical ‘Mac’ while teaching an airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance program to local special forces troops in her native country of the Philippines.

“The first day I said, ‘welcome to the class,’ I spoke with them in Tagalog and immediately, right after that introduction, students were like ‘oh here ma’am, here are the problems we are having right now with the program,’” McGinnis recalled. Knowing the language “just opens up a floodgate, like ‘now that I know you understand the culture and language, I’m going to tell you what’s really going on. I’m going to tell you the inside baseball.’”

McGinnis is one of 3,600 service members speaking more than 90 languages who have participated in the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP), which is part of the Air Force Culture and Language Center. The LEAP program takes airmen and Space Force guardians who have some proficiency in a foreign language – whether from growing up in a household speaking it or from learning it in a classroom – and sharpens that skill level and cultural knowledge so that the LEAP scholar can serve as a cultural and linguistic expert for their fellow service members.

To use the example from A Bell for Adano, it would be as if a few of the Macs who grew up speaking or learning Italian applied to a special program in the Army. If they were accepted into the program, the Army would use mentor sessions or send the soldier into an “immersion” experience with fluent speakers to make sure their Italian language skills and cultural knowledge were up-to-date. After that, the Army would enter all those Macs into a database so they could be called upon whenever Italian language and cultural skills were needed. 

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U.S. Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Kimberly Barton, company first sergeant with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ramchand Francisco, vehicle management superintendent with the 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron and a Tagalog LEAP Scholar attached to the 11th MEU, speak during a leadership symposium as part of KAMANDAG 6 at Camp Rodolfo Punsalang, Palawan, Philippines, Oct. 5, 2022. (Sgt. Dana Beesley/U.S. Marine Corps)

The hypothetical database actually exists with LEAP. The tool is particularly useful when the Air Force needs service members who not only speak a foreign language, but who are also experts in technical subjects under discussion. For example, when Filipino special operations forces told McGinnis about the specific technical problems they were experiencing with the ScanEagle ISR drone, she used the LEAP database to find Master Sgt. Timothy Tanbonliong, a fellow LEAP scholar who had the technical knowledge to address those problems. 

Being enlisted also helped the Filipino troops open up to Tanbonliong.

“The majority of these folks are enlisted, so I needed an enlisted person who knew the language and culture and who knew the processes involved with getting this aircraft flown,” McGinnis said. Tanbonliong “answered the call and said that was the best [temporary duty] of his career.”

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LEAP scholars have also used their skills to open doors for service members in other branches.

“The Marines would look to us to provide the ground truth without stepping on toes and providing cultural considerations to scenarios,” said Air Force Capt. Timothy Nolan, one of three airmen who embedded with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit as a Tagalog interpreter during an exercise in the Philippines last year, in a press release in October.

“Seeing our countrymen’s eyes light up and see that we are one of them, even though we wear a U.S. Air Force uniform … they want to open up and ask questions,” said another of the three airmen, Master Sgt. Ramchand Francisco. “They feel safe.”

The language of war

LEAP is not a weapons platform: it cannot break the speed of sound, infiltrate hostile airspace or jam enemy communications. But the bonds that the program is meant to build with America’s partners overseas may be just as important as any fifth-generation fighter jet in a possible conflict with China.

Allies and partners “are our backbone across the Indo-Pacific,” as Brendan Mulvaney, the director of the Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, put it in a 2021 video. Countries like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, “represent something the U.S. has many of, and China has none of: allies.” 

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Tech Sgt Kanako Fromm, a U.S. Air Force Language Enabled Airman assigned to the 374th Wing, helps interpret material with members of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force during the Pacific Unity Multi-Lateral Civil Engineer Key Leader Engagement, June 22, 2022 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. (Airman 1st Class Emily Saxton/U.S. Air Force)

But like any other relationship, military partnerships require mutual trust and understanding, which is not always easy to build over a language barrier or culture shock. The Air Force Culture and Language Center, which oversees LEAP, was founded in 2006 in part as a response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. service members sought to understand local languages and cultures in order to fight a more effective counterinsurgency. 

The U.S. military already has the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center for teaching service members foreign languages, but that institute specializes to teach service members new languages from the ground up. Meanwhile the LEAP program works with airmen or guardians who already have significant experience with a foreign language.

Once accepted into the program, LEAP scholars work with mentors online or participate in an immersion program, such as living with a family abroad, to bring their skills up to date.

“We develop you while you do your primary job so that when the Air Force needs you, you’re ready to come off the bench, what we like to refer to as ‘the bench of the willing and able,’” said Walter Ward, the director of LEAP. 

A retired Air Force colonel with thousands of hours of experience as a navigator aboard aircraft such as the KC-135 and the C-130, Ward himself witnessed the importance of foreign language skills while flying through stormy weather over France many years ago.

The French air traffic controller “was clearly exasperated” as aircraft asked him to divert from their course to get around the storms, Ward recalled. Luckily, the copilot on Ward’s aircraft spoke French, which gave his crew a crucial advantage. English is the international language of aviation, but when the co-pilot asked for divert instructions in French, the crew got what they needed “just like that,” Ward said, snapping his fingers.

“When the controller’s having a really bad day, there was some familiarity from an aircraft that he could not see except as a blip on the scope,” Ward said. “There was someone to connect with, a person.”

Ward referenced a quote that has been attributed to Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

‘How can I understand you?’

A prime example of that phrase came during Operation Allies Welcome, the effort to resettle tens of thousands of refugees who were evacuated from Afghanistan during the last weeks of the U.S. war there in 2021. With little time to prepare, U.S. bases around the country stood up “safe havens”: temporary housing areas where evacuees were screened and supported before being resettled elsewhere. The challenge was: how do you help all those newcomers adapt to a new country, a new culture and a new language in a short amount of time?

Space Force Lt. Col. Adam Howland and Capt. Ron Miller were at the center of the solution. Howland and Miller speak fluent Dari and Pashto, respectively, so between the two of them they could speak directly to many of the Afghans temporarily housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, sometimes to the surprise of the Afghans. At one point, Miller startled a group of four boys by walking up to them and joining in their conversation.

“One drops his ball and he goes ‘Are you speaking English? How can I understand you? Can I speak English?’” Miller recalled. “He was flabbergasted that he could understand this white guy in a uniform.”

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 U.S. Space Force Captain Ronald Miller, a Cultural Advisor and Assessment Team Lead with Task Force Liberty, speaks with the Afghan guests at Task Force Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, December 15, 2021. Being fluent in Pashto allows for smooth communication between Miller and the guests. (Airman 1st Class Darius Frazier/U.S. Air Force)

Miller said he talked 12 hours every day for three months during OAW, answering Afghans’ questions, helping them solve problems, teaching Afghans crash courses in English and American culture, teaching Americans crash courses in Afghan language and culture, and generally supporting the refugees. Some of the refugees had never been on a plane before OAW, and many of them still had family members back home now living under the Taliban.

“I’ve seen it firsthand that when you don’t have barriers: language barriers, cultural barriers, and you’re able to actually understand the other side, you can really begin to help,” he said.

Miller and Howland described several occasions where having cultural awareness helped defuse high-stress situations during OAW. For example, many Afghans have much smaller bubbles of personal space than most Americans. In fact, “it’s a sign of endearment when an Afghan stands incredibly close to you,” Miller said.

The processing facility at JBMDL, where many evacuees sought help in the resettlement process, was not set up to handle that cultural difference. The American workers answered evacuees’ questions from behind a roll-down cage, which, when combined with the cultural barrier, created an invisible brick wall between the two parties.

“In Afghan culture, that physical separation also demonstrates a degree of ‘give-a-care’ factor,” explained Howland. “That physical separation, that roll-down cage, increased or amped up the anxiety and the level of contention.”

Many of the Afghans already had enough stress to deal with, whether it was from missing children, difficult living arrangements with fellow evacuees, or the fact that their family members were still in Afghanistan. To mitigate the situation, Howland advised his airmen and guardians to come out from behind the roll-down cage and sit down next to evacuees who were particularly distressed.

“It would almost immediately defuse a portion of that stress,” he said. “That enabled our culture and linguistic team to help intercede and defuse some pretty bad situations.”

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U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Adam Howland, Task Force Liberty Lead Culture Advisor, shows his patches to an Afghan boy at Liberty Village, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Sept. 7, 2021.  (Spc. James Liker/U.S. Army)

It also helped that Howland had a network of contacts from previous visits to Afghanistan who served as vital relays between the Americans and the Afghans during OAW. In some instances, they were “the catalyst for communication and growth and coordination and defusing of tricky situations,” Howland said. “We had that preexisting relationship – they knew that we understood the culture and the language, and so it made the transition for so many of those Afghans much easier.”

Some of the newcomers showed their gratitude in unexpected ways. Miller was surprised to receive thank you letters, texts of ‘thanks’ in Pashto, Dari and English, and even artistic renderings of his face in paint, pencil and stone. One Afghan sent him a photo of a block of marble that the man’s cousin, still in Afghanistan, had carved Miller’s face into.

The cousin “looked me up on LinkedIn, took my profile picture, put it in marble as a ‘thank you’ and it’s sitting on a chair in the middle of a desert in Afghanistan right now,” Miller said. “I felt flattered.”

Pocket guides

Afghans were not the only ones who benefited from LEAP scholars during OAW. Howland and his team put together a guide meant to help military, State Department and other government employees better understand what the new arrivals were going through. Previous guides to Afghan culture were written from the perspective of Americans going to Afghanistan, but there was nothing to help Americans understand the perspective of an Afghan going to the United States.

Howland’s team developed a training suite based on what the refugees were experiencing based on JBMDL. The training was broken down into 12 domains of culture, which is also how AFCLC’s Culture Guide app is organized.

The app, which anyone with a smartphone can download, contains field guides for more than 70 countries. Users can click on a country and find concise, informative summaries of that country’s history, politics, religion, social norms, traditions of family and kinship, as well as more abstract concepts like how time, space, sex, gender and health are generally perceived in those countries. The app is meant to help bring service members up to speed on whatever country they are deploying to.

“If I am aircrew on a C-130 and I am getting tagged for deployment to Angola and I know that a tool like the field guide app exists, then I can go to that app and get some instant knowledge that is useful,” Howland explained.

Bite-sized guides are a tight format for explaining entire countries, and Howland acknowledged the difficulty. For example, in Afghanistan, there are at least five principal ethnicities, so “to try to talk about all of the cultural nuances of those various ethnicities in one guide is a real challenge,” Howland said.

“My experience, at least with the Afghanistan field guide, is that they did a decent job of identifying those broad things that apply generally across the country,” he added.

When greater cultural and linguistic expertise is needed, the LEAP program is designed to help. Though LEAP scholars are not always high in rank, their language and culture skills often mean they become the face of the U.S. Air Force or Space Force when they work closely with foreign troops overseas.

“I don’t want to make it seem bigger of a deal than it is, but in the RJAF, I am the American face,” said Maj. Wayne ‘Astro’ Mowery, a LEAP scholar who is fluent in Arabic. Mowery currently serves as an F-16 instructor pilot embedded with the Royal Jordanian Air Force. 

“Everyone knows my name,” he said. “That sounds bad when you say it like that, but it’s like, when they think of America, the first person they probably think of is ‘Astro the exchange pilot,’ because I work with them every single day.”

Mowery is a unique case among LEAP scholars. English is the international language of aviation, so technically he does not need to know Arabic to teach F-16 flying to Jordanian pilots. But Mowery’s main mission as an exchange pilot is not simply to teach F-16 skills: it is to build connections with allies.

“You can’t simply show up and expect to be respected because you’re a major or because you’re an American or because you’re an instructor pilot,” he said. “You have to build the relationship first, and language is the only way to do that. Language and cultural understanding.”

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U.S. Air Force then-Capt. Wayne Mowery briefed U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Mr. Henry T. Wooster, during a 2020 visit by the Ambassador to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base. Mowery is serving as an exchange pilot with the Royal Jordanian Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Knowing another person’s language and being humble about it “shows that you care about who they are culturally,” Mowery explained, and it can also break down barriers. For example, Mowery may be able to teach his colleagues in the RJAF about the F-16, but his colleagues can help Mowery learn more about Arabic, a language he has been passionate about since he first began studying it in college. Humility can also help navigate awkward moments, like when your name, “Wayne” means “where” in Arabic.

“Once translated, it sounds like I’m saying ‘oh hello, my name is ‘where,’” Mowery said. “It sounds like I’ve lost my name. That’s why the callsign helps. But the language piece enables me to understand why these guys are so confused that my name is Wayne.”

‘A military imperative’

Whether it helps to understand a name, to learn how to fly a fighter jet, or to appreciate the benefits of a scout drone, LREC (language, regional expertise and culture) is the “secret weapon that builds the relationships that allow the partnerships to be built which the National Security Strategy depends upon,” Mowery explained.

“I used to think LREC was just nice to have, but really I’ve come to understand it as a military imperative,” he added. “Underneath all the coalition and partnerships is strong LREC competencies and you just cannot assume that. You have to work at that, and that’s where the AFCLC really thrives.”

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 U.S. Space Force Captain Ronald Miller, a Cultural Advisor and Assessment Team Lead with Task Force Liberty, speaks with the Afghan guests at Task Force Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, December 15, 2021. (Airman 1st Class Darius Frazier/U.S. Air Force)

National security is not all that benefits from LEAP scholarship: the airmen and guardians themselves do too. With its long hours and technical jargon, military life can often distance service members from their civilian friends and family members. But McGinnis found LEAP to have the opposite effect, since it helped her reconnect with the place where she was born.

“Being a Filipino-American, an Asian-American and using my language and my culture to connect with my Filipino counterparts … not only brings joy to myself but also to the rest of my family,” said the airman, who grew up in the Philippines but who did not often speak Filipino after moving to the U.S. “The key takeaway was that despite being away from the culture and the language, I’m still connected.”

McGinnis’ experience points out a unique aspect of LEAP scholarship. Though much of basic military training and technical school is meant to break down former civilians and remold them into service members, LEAP taps into the diversity of culture and language that airmen and guardians bring with them into the military. Howland pointed out the core values of the Space Force’s Guardian Ideal: character, connection, commitment and courage. 

“At least in part, what character means to me as an ideal to strive toward is that diversity of thought that we come into the service with,” Howland said. “That strength of character, that diversity will enable us to defeat our near-peer adversaries, and I’m convinced of that. That is my opinion, but I very much tie that thread between the diversity [airmen and guardians] bring and the strength of their character, because they should never be afraid to embrace who they are.”

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