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Lingua Franca

January 12, 2012

In a painful public relations turn for Iran following its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz; US sailors (both Navy and Coast Guard) have rescued Iranian mariners twice in the past week.  The first incident was a dramatic rescue from Somali Pirates reported by C.J. Chivers.

In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month.

The rapidly unfolding events began Thursday morning when the pirates attacked a Bahamian-flagged ship, the motor vessel Sunshine, unaware that the Stennis was steaming less than eight miles away.

It ended Friday with the tables fully turned. The captured Somali pirates, 15 in all, were brought aboard the U.S.S. Kidd, an American destroyer traveling with the Stennis. They were then shuttled by helicopter to the aircraft carrier and locked up in its brig.

Yesterday’s rescue was a little less dramatic, unless you were one of the Iranian sailors on the sinking ship

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter rescued the mariners after getting distress signals from the Iranian cargo vessel Ya-Hussayn.

“It was hailed by flares and flashlights from the Iranian cargo dhow and the dhow’s master requested assistance from the cutter indicating that the engine room was flooding and deemed not seaworthy,” said Little.

The U.S. Navy says the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the Iranian crewmembers to safety aboard the U.S. cutter Monomoy.   A Navy statement quotes the owner of the Iranian vessel as thanking the U.S. seamen for rescuing the sailors, saying that without the Americans’ help, they would be dead.

Both of these incidents point to the professional nature of our naval forces.  The Navy and Coast Guard should be proud of the way they represented their country and the goodwill they generated in the Middle East and specifically inside Iran.  While this clearly doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the relationship between the US and Iran, it may help to ease tensions.

<<Speaking of tension, I want it to be noted that I have managed to make it this far without cracking on the Coast Guard in any way or questioning why exactly they were 5000 miles away from any US coastline>>

However, the part of the story that I specifically want to focus on is from the official blog of the US Navy.

When English and Arabic bridge to bridge hails from Kidd failed to sort out the situation aboard the pirated fishing vessel Al Mulahi, the CO of USS Kidd, Commander Jen Ellinger, and her team cleverly thought to try other languages.  Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, a gas turbine electrician Chief from India who speaks Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi was able to communicate to the Captain of the pirated vessel in Urdu which the [Somali] pirates did not understand, this tipped the Kidd that that the crew was being held hostage. Other languages spoken by Kidd’s crew include Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Cambodian, Thai, Spanish and Chinese to name some.

This jumped out at me for a couple of reasons.  First, and I promise not to get all Lee Greenwood on you, but there is something purely American about the fact that our Navy is literally made up of people from around the world.  This should make you proud.  Second, Chief Sidhu doesn’t have a linguist MOS (yes, I know the Navy actually calls them rates, but nobody outside the Navy understands this and it makes the rest of us crazy when you try to explain it).  Third, it doesn’t seem like the languages spoken by the crew was in any way tailored for region since the list is missing a couple of key ones like Farsi and Pashto.  Now this could simply be me reading too much into the text of the blog, but the implication is that it was pure luck that Kidd sailors spoke a language that allowed them to communicate with the Iranian captain (bonus that it was a language not spoken by the Somali pirates).  However, without this ability to communicate with the captain of the hijacked vessel, the whole situation could have played out very differently.

The issue of language seems like an important one to highlight since the President and Secretary of theDefense have just released the newly tailored ‘Strategic Guidance’.  By any reading of this document, it pivots on an increased emphasis on the Navy with a focus on the Pacific and a step away from “large land wars in Asia,” to quote a certain former Secretary of Defense.  While there is much to discuss in this document (go read Gulliver’s take here and here and Jon Rue’s take on it here), there seems to be an opportunity to take a some lessons that our COIN forces have been learning (often the hard way) over the last decade.

One of those lessons is the importance of understanding local languages and the cultures we operate in.  In this regard we were horribly unprepared for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Organizationally, we made strides in these areas by increasing access to linguists (both military and civilian), standing up Human Terrain Systems and eventually deploying so often that many military personnel learned local languages and customs by osmosis.  On balance, these all had positive effects on our cultural understanding, but they were too little, too late.  Unfortunately it does not appear that the Army and Marine Corps will be able to retain this skills since they have not been properly institutionalized.  According to a set of GAO reports released in 2011, as we were in the process of winding down operations in Iraq, the Army and Marine Corps are sill not properly tracking and sustaining language training.

The Army and Marine Corps have not developed plans to sustain language skills already acquired through predeployment training. The services have made considerable investments to provide some service members with extensive predeployment language training. For example, as of July 2011, over 800 soldiers have completed about 16 weeks of Afghan language training since 2010 at a cost of about $12 million. DOD and service guidance address the need to sustain language skills and the DOD strategic plan for language, regional, and culture skills calls for the services to build on existing language skills for future needs. However, we found that the services had not yet determined which service members require follow-on language training to sustain skills, the amount of training required, or appropriate mechanisms to deliver the training. Although informal follow-on training programs were available to sustain language skills, such as computer-based training, these programs were voluntary. In the absence of formal sustainment training programs to maintain and build upon service members’ language skills, the Army and Marine Corps may miss opportunities to capitalize on the investments they have already made to provide predeployment language training for ongoing operations.

If you’re a masochist, you can read the full reports here and here.

So, this is where we come back to the Iranian fishermen and the US Navy.  Barring something unforeseen, in the very near future we are not going to have hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines conducting large scale operations throughout the Middle East.  That means that within the traditional military (ignoring Special Forces for the purpose of this post) a much larger portion of the “Hearts and Minds” burden will fall on the US Navy.  I have no idea what the language and cultural training standards currently are for the US Navy or how well prepared they are to interact with the populations that they may encounter.  However, as we pull back from the Middle East and refocus on Asia Pacific, it seems very likely that our opportunities to interact positively with populations that are skeptical or downright hostile to the US will be reduced.  That means that when we do have those opportunities to interact, such as with the Iranian sailors over the last week, it is critically important that it is positive.

Hopefully, the next time @Attackerman tweets this, the response will come straight from @USNavy.

  1. Andrea permalink
    January 13, 2012 12:37 am

    Excellent post highlighting the benefits and needs of language skills in the military today – thank you so much for bringing this discussion to the forefront. I especially enjoyed the following points:

    1. Some of the best linguists in the military today are not “linguists”. Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, whose language skills proved critical in the rescue of the Iranian fishermen, was not a linguist but a gas turbine electrician. The US military’s greatest language asset are native speakers and non-citizens with English fluency who may never attend formal military language training. We are fortunate to have sailors, airmen, soldiers, and Marines from our nation and abroad who, along with their service to our nation, offer such a valuable skill in our defense and the defense of others. It is imperative that we continue to offer these personnel foreign language proficiency pay, whenever possible. Additionally, I would argue that it would of great benefit to enable native speakers to network with linguists and others within their unit in an effort to provide localized language maintenance and training.

    2. I agree that it would better serve the military to station service members with foreign language fluency in duty locations or positions where these languages are best utilized. The inability to assign linguistically skilled personnel in a thoughtful manner may be a factor of insufficient tracking/awareness of bilingual personnel or possibly a limited number of bilingual personnel or relevant assignments for those personnel. What are your thoughts on this?

    3. Finally, I agree that we are not doing enough to be in the vanguard of language proficiency. Oftentimes, language training comes as an auxiliary objective in preparing our troops for the battlefield. While I applaud the quality of the programs set up with such little time, it often comes in as “too little, too late” as you observed. Not being ahead of the curve with regards to our existential linguistic needs means that we are either playing catchup in terms of course development or we are pushing troops through that are not well trained in these languages we expect and need them to understand. Furthermore, your point regarding the loss of already acquired skills is salient. The military has invested a great deal in language training with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq and would be almost tragic to allow that investment to fall to the wayside because of failures in tracking or sustainment planning. What do you think the military can do to ensure our force is best prepared in terms of language readiness and maintenance?

    • jimmysky77 permalink
      January 16, 2012 3:33 pm

      1. Agreed that some of the best linguists in the military aren’t formally “linguists” (Chief Sidhu is clearly a prime example). One of the things that we have not mentioned yet is the fact that the military could potentially save vast sums of money in language training by recruiting native speakers instead of training farm kids from Kansas. As an added bonus, non-citizen recruits wash out at 1/2 the rate of citizens, a fact that was brought to my attention by a brilliant former DoD linguist recently ( Unfortunately, my guess is that this will not change unless the incentives for recruiters change. As I recall, recruiters do not have any incentive to bring skilled linguists into the military, nor are they penalized if their recruits wash out of basic (please correct me if I’m incorrect on this). Additionally, I believe that proper tracking and continuing use of language proficiency pay would help to maintain/improve language skills.

      2. I think the limitation in assigning skilled linguists to their geographic area is largely due to the fact that language tracking is routinely divorced from the assignments process (at least in the Air Force). There was no concerted effort to optimize assignments based on languages spoken. Changing this system would certainly help.

      3. Sadly, with a movement away from ground combat and COIN, I don’t think that the military will improve its language tracking ability. I believe that until there is a complete mindset change toward what the ‘Train and Equip’ mission of the military entails, language training will not become internalized. If language training starts to become codified and treated akin to a secondary MOS/AFSC/Rate and becomes something that supervisors are responsible for then you may begin to see an improvement in overall levels of language skills. As it stands now, the initiative to maintain language skills was placed totally on the individual troops (for those w/o linguist coding). Until that changes and becomes something that is briefed at unit staff meetings, the rates will not improve.

      The only Service that I believe is really poised to capitalize on this is the USMC. By virtue of their expeditionary mission, they have the clearest doctrinal need to speak foreign languages. I know they had announced a program to train all officers and NCOs as a kind of FAO-lite force where they would each be assigned an area and a language to learn, however I don’t have any insight into the current disposition of that program.

      Anyone else have insights on this? Rue?

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