Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

This episode is for the SOF nerds who understand the importance of foreign language capability in special operations.

It is also for those who want to know a little more about the language and culture programs that make, train, and sustain Army SOF.

Language, regional expertise, and cross-cultural competency (LREC) don’t get the same attention as sniper teams in ghillie suits or a bunch of operators touching down on the roof of a house off of a little bird.

But have no doubt, as Special Forces officer Tim Ball says in the episode, it is language ability (and the cultural-competency that comes with it) that sets Army special operations forces (ARSOF) apart from its peers in the other services (Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders, etc).

The episode is a deep-dive on ARSOF language training, to include:

  • Language standards have increased over time (From 0+ -to 1+ on the Oral Proficiency Interview as a graduation requirement)
  • The numerous language programs inside of SOF beyond initial acquisition, including advanced unit training, foreign immersion, operational unit exchanges, and on-demand computer-based online training (with live instructors)
  • The use of virtual reality to enhance language ability and cross-cultural competency

I really appreciated some of the comments that Tim made. He highlights the fact that ARSOF traditionally works with a partner force, and that parternship inherently involves lots of face-to-face communication.

The ultimate aim of language training is to prepare the SOF soldier to instruct and communicate in the target language – to stand up in front of a tough, dedicated fighting force, and communicate to them what it is they need to do.

Tim admits this is hard – not everyone achieves that level of language fluency.

But some do. And in just about every SOF unit, there is “that one” who really gets the language and becomes the de facto communicator on the team.

At the very least, the fact that every SF/CA/PO soldier goes through significant language training provides them with the tools they need to exchange basic expressions and pleasantries. Like it or not, there is an “ugly American” stereotype that precedes us everywhere we go. If you can blast through that by demonstrating basic understanding of the language, it goes a long way.

Related, Tim also wrote a great article on War on the Rocks discussing the role of language in special operations – and the fact that we’ve gotten better.

If you’re not already a subscriber of the Indigenous Approach, you should be. It’s a must-listen for me and bumps my queue every single time.

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The Military and Conspiracy Theories

Good write up on the military and conspiracy thinking at War on the Rocks.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is appealing to some servicemembers because its powerful narrative appeals to the same moral foundations which draw them to military service: care for others; sanctity of ideals; respect for authority; and the primacy of fairness, liberty, and loyalty.

Conspiracy Stand Down: How Extremist Theories Like QAnon Threaten the Military and What to Do About It – War on the Rocks

This is something I’ve written about before. The same base material that works to compel someone to join the military can be stirred towards conspiracy thinking – especially if one starts to become cynical.

The author points to another WOTR piece that calls for more mandatory training to “inoculate” the troops. While more mandatory training doesn’t ever seem like a good answer, this is probably going to need to happen. As ineffective and grating as annual training can be, the stuff does seem to stick over time. Most folks I know have gotten pretty good at rattling off the indicators of an insider threat.

Better, I thought, was the author’s call for more civic education. This problem is way beyond the scope of the military.

Maybe this isn’t the best example, but if we can ask school children to hide under their desks at the threat of nuclear war or rehearse school shooting scenarios, some modicum of media literacy training should be doable.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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Some thoughts on Major Gant…

I’ve read a lot of good articles on MAJ Gant over the past couple of weeks, timed of course with the release of ‘American Spartan,’ a very indulgent title choice, I think.

Joseph Collins wrote a great, succinct review over at War On The Rocks. His last paragraph is the critical one. In it, I think he captures the story hidden behind the hyper-masculine Spartan shield that the book tries to portray (as I can only imagine – I haven’t read it yet).

When we ask ourselves why Major Gant fell from grace, we also have to look in the mirror.  The all-volunteer Armed Forces — active and reserve components — are not made for a decade of large-scale, protracted warfare.  That fact, however, did not and will not stop us from engaging in protracted warfare.  The U.S. Government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace.  On the jacket of Tyson’s book, Gunner Sepp, himself a former special operator, writes: “There are many stories here.  One of the most troubling is about what happens to elite troops after their country has kept them in combat for more than a decade.”  Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders.  It will also be a blockbuster movie that probably will not be as good as the book.

What happens when we ask young, patriotic, hard-charging Americans to go overseas to fight a war “predicated on being implemented by geniuses?” In MAJ Gant’s case, he goes and tries his best to win.

What comes back?

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