Talking the Talk: Language Capabilities for U.S. Army Special Forces
In the mid-2000s, a series of U.S. Army Special Forces recruiting posters began appearing on Army installations across the country. One particular poster prompted more than a few eye rolls and laughs from the Special Forces community (commonly known as the Green Berets). The poster showed a Special Forces soldier conducting a military free-fall parachute jump. The caption stated, “The HALO [high altitude, low opening] jump wasn’t the hard part. Knowing which Arabic dialect to use when I landed was.”
From a recruiting standpoint, the poster hit all the marks. It took the excitement of a commando-style free-fall jump, combined it with the lesser-known expectation for a Green Beret to be a culturally adept warrior, and pushed it over the edge by portraying the jumper as a suave polyglot, capable of switching in and out of complex dialects at will.
In reality, most Green Berets aren’t fluent in the language assigned to them as they progress through the Special Forces Qualification Course. While they all achieve a basic standard in order to graduate from the course, most find it hard to become fluent in a second language, like most adults. For a command that describes itself as “the Nation’s Premier Partnership Force,” this raises an important question: How much language training and proficiency are enough for Army Special Forces?
Since their inception nearly 70 years ago, language training has been a constant for Special Forces. Over the past 10 years, Special Forces have seen a renewed focus on this language training, with increased standards and new training resources. As a result, today’s Green Berets possess sufficient language skills to conduct partnered operations across a wide variety of complex mission sets.
Origin of the Capability, Evolution of the Requirement
The founding and history of Army Special Forces are well known. Following the end of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services was disbanded. Some of its members would go on to form the nucleus of the CIA, while others would remain in uniform and advocate for the development of similar capabilities within the Army. In 1952, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was activated under the command of Col. Aaron Bank. Bank served in World War II as a member of a Jedburgh team. The Jedburgh teams consisted of three members: a commander, an executive officer, and a radio operator. The intent of the teams was to drop behind enemy lines, link up with resistance forces, and conduct sabotage operations in support of Allied conventional forces.
Because of the nature of the Jedburgh mission, a language requirement was identified for selection of its members. For teams dropping into occupied France, members were chosen from American, British, and French forces, with at least one French officer on every team. The recruitment and screening for the American and British members started with a review of personnel records for French speakers. Jedburgh teams would be behind enemy lines in France, working with French partisans and attempting to blend into the populace whenever necessary.
The Jedburgh concept was carried over to U.S. Army Special Forces after the war. Bank and other Office of Strategic Services veterans envisioned Special Forces as an enabler of partisan forces in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The language requirement for the unit became significantly more complex with this expansion of potential areas of operation. A number of Eastern European refugees were recruited into Special Forces under the Lodge-Philbin Act, which provided the force some native speakers. Language training was included for non-native speakers as part of their training pipeline into Special Forces.
Over the next 60 years, through dozens of conflicts and several major wars, language training has remained a constant in Special Forces training. Special Forces never found itself behind Soviet lines organizing Eastern European partisans in a conflict, but it has nevertheless established itself as the premier partnership and advisory force for the U.S. military. No matter what the mission, Special Forces units were almost always working with a foreign partner force. To help focus the force and develop regional expertise, Special Forces Groups were assigned specific areas of responsibility, with languages assigned accordingly. For instance, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) operates primarily in Central and South America and its members are predominantly trained in Spanish. 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) continues to operate in Europe, with its members trained in either French, German, or Russian.
The Push to Fix Special Forces
Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, special operations forces were thrust into the public spotlight in an unprecedented manner. Special operations forces as a whole were deployed nearly nonstop for the next 20 years. The continued deployment of special operations forces, along with multiple high-profile discipline issues, led to special operations forces coming under a new level of public scrutiny. Articles began to appear frequently, with authors providing their suggestions on how to “fix” special operations forces. U.S. Special Operations Command ordered its own internal review and released a nearly 70-page report on the force’s culture and ethics in early 2020.
Language proficiency among U.S. Army Special Forces did not escape this scrutiny. A recent War on the Rocks article examined language skills as part of the Special Forces role in “great-power competition,” coming to the conclusion that these skills have atrophied. The reasons for this atrophy read like the greatest hits album for why special operations forces are broken as a whole: over-reliance on direct action missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequency of deployments, and an absence of higher-level command emphasis on skill sets outside counter-terrorism. The authors suggest that the fix for this is a reset in Special Forces, focusing on its original mission of enabling resistance forces behind enemy lines.
While the authors correctly point out that language is an important skill set for U.S. Army Special Forces, it is also worth looking at the specific language requirements for Special Forces day-to-day operations and what the current training and sustainment standards are within the force. A closer look at language capabilities in Special Forces reveals that its leadership has already taken concrete steps over the past decade to reemphasize language skills among the force and that the current standards for language are adequate for today’s mission requirements.
Training and Sustainment
Language acquisition has always been part of the Special Forces training pipeline, and the current Special Forces Qualification Course is no different. The Qualifications Course (commonly referred to as the “Q-Course”), is between 54 and 56 weeks long for all but the personnel who undergo additional medical training to qualify as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant. The course covers a wide range of skills, including small unit tactics, irregular warfare skills, and individual specialties like communications or engineering. Despite the importance of these requirements, the Qualifications Course dedicates the majority of its time to language acquisition. For more complicated languages such as Arabic or Mandarin Chinese, students spend 24 weeks dedicated to learning their language. That’s nearly 45 percent of the Qualifications Course, by far the most of any topic covered. In previous years, language training was often one of the first phases students would go through in the Qualifications Course, and students would often have additional training to complete outside of language class in preparation for the rest of the course. To minimize these additional requirements, language has now been moved to the final phase of the Qualifications Course, allowing students to dedicate almost all of their attention to language acquisition, with minimal distractions.
Sustainment of language skills has also been looked at carefully for some time now. In 2009, a study was commissioned by the Special Operations Forces Culture and Language Office at U.S. Special Operations Command. The purpose of the report was to “inform strategy and policy to ensure SOF [Special Operations Forces] personnel have the language and culture skills needed to conduct their missions effectively.” As a result of this study, higher-echelon special operations commands took numerous steps to ensure continued language proficiency among Special Forces, slowly implementing increased standards over the next decade as more resources were provided to the force.
First, a common standard was set for all Special Forces members to achieve and maintain. This starts with annual testing in either the Defense Language Proficiency Test or an Oral Proficiency Interview. After the 2009 study, Green Berets were required to score at least a “1” on at least two elements of the Interagency Language Roundtable performance criteria for promotion and advanced schooling. At the time, this was the same standard required for graduation from the Qualifications Course. The command also placed an additional requirement on the force dictating how many hours per year had to be dedicated to language training. By 2017, that standard included 120 hours annually for a category 3 or 4 language (e.g., Arabic or Chinese) and 80 hours annually for a category 1 or 2 language (e.g., Spanish or French).
In 2018, after giving the force several years to adjust to the new yearly requirement for language training, standards were increased. By this point, students graduating from the Qualifications Course were now required to score a “1+” on at least two elements of the Interagency Language Roundtable performance criteria. To match this requirement, the force itself was notified that the 1+ score was now the standard for annual refresher training.
To help Green Berets maintain their language skills, higher-level commands dedicated a considerable amount of resources over the past decade to the Special Forces Groups. Each group now has a state-of-the-art language facility with contracted instructors who run courses throughout the year. Recognizing the requirement for time in the facilities, Special Forces detachment leaders plan their language training well in advance. Often, teams will schedule language training immediately following a long deployment in order to give team members a predictable, low-stress schedule that allows them time to be home with their families. During semiannual training briefs, commanders will almost always highlight to their higher command exactly when they have language refresher training scheduled for their soldiers.
For those not able to attend training at the language facilities, online virtual learning resources have been provided. Green Berets can sign up for the Special Operations Forces Teletraining System, which allows them to either sign up for a dedicated course or to simply connect with a tutor who can work with them during open hours. This is all done online, from whatever location the Green Beret might find himself or herself.
With the new standards also came new incentives for Green Berets to maintain their language skills. Prior to 2011, a Green Beret had to score a 2/2 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale in order to receive language proficiency pay. But after instituting the new standards, U.S. Special Operations Command also instituted a new pay system, providing monthly language proficiency bonuses starting at the 1/1 level.
The resources are available, and the command emphasis on language is clear. But the question remains: Is it enough? The 1+ Interagency Language Roundtable rating is defined only as “elementary proficiency, plus.” Is that level of competence enough to ensure Green Berets can accomplish their mission?
Complex Missions, Complex Requirements
U.S. Army Special Forces have been thrown at every imaginable problem set since its inception in 1952. Green Berets have been called upon to conduct counter-insurgency operations in Central America, direct action raids against high-value targets in Iraq, special reconnaissance missions in Laos, and an unconventional warfare campaign in Afghanistan. The common thread is that all of these missions were partnered operations. No matter what a Green Beret is doing, it’s with a foreign partner force. With that expectation comes the requirement to communicate with the partner force in some way. But preparing for that communication through targeted language training poses its own challenges.
In 2001, Green Berets from 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) were the first element of the U.S. military to enter Afghanistan. At the time, 5th Group’s trained languages included Arabic, Farsi, and Russian. The teams entered a completely unknown environment, with little external support, in order to link up with partner forces that spoke primarily Pashto or Dari. Despite this gap in language capability, the Green Berets (with assistance from CIA pilot teams already on the ground) were able to not only link up with their partner forces but also accompany them in combat during a lightning-quick campaign that drove the Taliban from power. A similar situation occurred in northern Iraq in 2003, when 10th Group, (trained primarily in European languages), accompanied Kurdish partner forces against the Iraqi military.
These two examples illustrate the difficulty in predicting what languages will need to be spoken, and when. 5th Group’s responsibility for the U.S. Central Command area of operations (the Middle East) led it to train for proficiency in the most widely spoken languages, such as Arabic. In 2001, no one predicted the sudden requirement to conduct partnered operations in Afghanistan, leaving no time to train the force in local languages and dialects. Yet, despite this lack of language capability, 5th Group was still able to accomplish its mission.
Each group tries to ensure a variety of languages throughout its teams to provide versatility. While most groups retain certain “core” languages, the current fight also dictates what training is provided to students in the Qualifications Course. When 10th Group started rotating into Iraq in the early 2000s, higher commands recognized the need for Arabic speakers within the group and started assigning it to students in the Qualifications Course who would eventually be assigned to 10th Group. But while this helps meet current needs, it also leaves long-term problems when conflicts end or focus shifts elsewhere. In 2011, you could still find Green Berets in 10th Group trained in Serbo-Croatian, a legacy language from when the group was actively involved in Kosovo.
Because of the difficulty in predicting exactly what languages are needed when, Special Forces leadership has opted over the years to target just a handful of languages per group, focusing on the most commonly spoken languages in its area of operations. It would be ideal to create a detachment of Green Berets trained in Lithuanian who then only conducted missions with Lithuanian partner forces. But in reality, detachments have to be prepared to go to a variety of locations within their area of responsibility in any given year. A detachment that deploys to train with Lithuanian forces for one mission may find itself working with Polish special operations forces on its next trip. Investing a large amount of time into training a detachment to be fluent in Lithuanian would be an ineffective use of resources, when that detachment can almost certainly expect deployments to other countries.
Special Forces leadership also has to contend with other requirements besides language training. In order to link up with and train a partner force, Green Berets have to master basic combat skills while also perfecting advanced infiltration techniques. With a finite amount of time and resources to train before a deployment, Special Forces commanders have to carefully plan what tasks to train on and accept risk in certain areas. This applies to language training, where commanders have to decide how much is enough. This is exactly why higher special operations commands have set the standards currently in place. By doing so, they establish a baseline expectation for what a Green Beret needs to accomplish the mission, and this is deliberately short of fluency. The amount of time required to produce true fluency in a language would essentially eliminate most other training opportunities, leaving only a linguist with no way of getting to the battlefield and few skills to offer the partner force outside of a pleasant conversation.
What Language Skills Are Actually All About
What do language skills actually provide a Special Forces detachment when conducting its missions? Ideally, Green Berets would live among a population, fluently conversing with their partner force. Reality, however, is much different. The average language skills possessed by a Green Beret may not allow for a fluent conversation with a partner. But they do provide one important element that applies across any mission a Green Beret might be assigned — they help build rapport with the partner force.
Building rapport is the key to a Special Forces team accomplishing its mission. Interacting and getting along with its partner force is usually the most important task the team has to accomplish. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all the team members have to be fluent. Even a basic understanding of a language, and demonstrating one’s willingness to learn and speak it, allow for an establishment of rapport across what are often very different cultures.
A Green Beret trained in Modern Standard Arabic and deployed to Iraq isn’t going to have many fluent conversations with his counterparts who speak an Iraqi dialect. But he can exchange simple pleasantries, ask about his counterpart’s family, and understand basic military terminology — all while getting a laugh out his new Iraqi friends who might describe his school-taught Modern Standard dialect as “fancy Arabic.”
Once it’s accepted that in most cases the purpose of language training isn’t to achieve fluency, it allows standards to be set that are more realistic for the missions expected from today’s Green Berets. The Interagency Language Roundtable scoring scale notes that at a 1+ rating, speakers “[c]an initiate and maintain predictable face-to-face conversations and satisfy limited social demands.” Meanwhile, listeners demonstrate “[s]ufficient comprehension to understand short conversations about all survival needs and limited social demands.” This level of speaking and listening is more than enough for Green Berets to converse with a partner force that speaks the same language, get across basic ideas, and potentially work around a situation where an interpreter or English-speaking member of the partner force isn’t available.
How to Improve
While it may not be realistic to produce Green Berets fluent in complex languages and dialects, it is also antithetical to special operations culture for a unit to accept the status quo and not seek improvement. The time required to produce fluency simply isn’t available. So how can U.S. Army Special Forces produce at least a small population of Green Berets who possess language skills beyond the standard already required? This is where advocates of Special Forces looking to its origins for answers are correct.
The early days of Special Forces saw a large number of Eastern European refugees join its ranks through the Lodge-Philbin Act. These individuals brought with them an incredibly diverse set of language skills and provided native, fluent speakers at the Special Forces detachment level. Is it worth looking at a similar program for today’s Special Forces?
In today’s world, 56 percent of Europeans speak more than one language, and it is estimated that more than half the world is at least bilingual. But when it comes to Americans, that number drops to 20 percent. Fluent speakers in a language don’t appear overnight, but native speakers can be recruited by the community.
U.S. Special Operations Command recently produced a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, which acknowledges the shortfalls across the special operations community when it comes to diversity within the ranks. While the report was written and published partly due to prodding from congressional oversight, it’s also representative of the special operations community’s commitment to continued introspection and self-evaluation. The report itself acknowledges that “[special operations forces] diversity includes … language abilities” and establishes a line of effort centered around attraction, assessment, and selection.
This is where Special Forces can truly increase its language capability. The Office of Strategic Services started its Jedburgh recruitment process by screening personnel files and looking for existing French language capability. Today’s force should do something similar. What language capability currently exists across the Army? While there’s no guarantee that finding a recruit with a language capability will translate into someone who makes it through the training pipeline, it’s a good start for finding a more diverse force with language capabilities that exceed what can be taught in a schoolhouse to someone acquiring the language for the first time.
Special Forces should also increase targeted recruiting of native speakers off the street. The Army already has several diversity initiatives in place, such as the Strategic Officer Recruiting Detachment, which seeks to increase diversity within the Army’s officer corps. The Special Operations Recruiting Battalion should look at some of these same diversity initiatives to incorporate them into its own recruiting strategy as it looks for Special Forces candidates with specific language skills.
Outside of the Army itself, there are also ways to implement measures that will help find native speakers to assess for Special Forces training. The Global Special Operations Forces Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing special operations forces’ “capabilities and partnerships,” recently released its Special Operations Forces Imperatives 2021 report. Within this document, the foundation notes that the community is currently seeking “greater diversity and people with skills from cultures that are not common in the current force.” As a solution, the foundation proposes a “modern day Lodge-Philbin Act designed to recruit a diverse and robust number of men and women … that are from nations that are critical to the U.S. National Security Strategy.” That diverse force should include more than the Eastern European makeup of the 1950s and should also look for native Arabic, Russian, and Chinese speakers. It’s admittedly a difficult task, with a limited pool of candidates, but that shouldn’t stop U.S. Army Special Forces from seeking out native speakers who can meet the arduous standards required of a Green Beret.
While the language capabilities of a Green Beret have varied over the years, proficiency in a foreign language is a skill that has received consistent attention from special operations leadership and remains a critical capability. It’s also one of the central elements to what differentiates U.S. Army Special Forces from other special operations units, due to the unique and varied mission sets required of Special Forces. Select Navy SEALs and Army Rangers receive language training as well but — unlike Green Berets — they aren’t spending 120 hours a year in the language lab on top of their other training.
Special Forces leadership has provided the resources, time, and funding to ensure language skills are sufficient for the majority of the mission sets facing today’s Green Berets. Given the current standards, every qualified Green Beret has the capability to engage with a partner force in their target language and build rapport. To expand this capability, Special Forces leadership should continue to seek out qualified native speakers from both within and outside the Army and aggressively recruit them for the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course. If it does, then choosing the proper Arabic dialect after a military freefall jump could really be the hardest part about being a Green Beret.
Maj. Tim Ball is an Army Special Forces officer and a National Security Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.