Less than half of Army and Marine Corps special operations personnel completed required foreign language training, prompting calls for reform.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has revealed that fewer than half of all Army and Marine Corps special operations personnel completed their annual foreign language training in recent years. The report highlights the need for an overhaul in how the community prioritizes and accounts for language standards. The GAO reviewed five years’ worth of data and conducted interviews with special operators and commanders to assess the status of foreign language proficiency within special operations. The findings shed light on the challenges faced by these elite forces in maintaining and sustaining language skills throughout their careers.
Language Training Requirements and Challenges
After completing their initial training for their respective Special Operations Forces (SOF) military occupational specialties, Army and Marine Corps special operations personnel are assigned a foreign language that they are required to learn and sustain throughout their career. However, the GAO report found that many operators struggled to complete their language training due to various challenges.
The report noted that training for other skills qualifications, deployments that did not require language training, and a lower prioritization of language training by their chain of command often resulted in incomplete language training. Several operators and commanders interviewed for the report highlighted that sustaining foreign language skills did not contribute to career advancement, with leadership focusing more on other skill sets trained at Joint Combined Exchange Training events.
Completion Rates and Training Hours
The GAO report revealed that less than half of Army and Marine Corps SOF personnel completed any foreign language sustainment and enhancement training. For the Army, this amounted to between 2,200 and 3,200 personnel out of over 7,000 SOF personnel completing the training. The average number of training hours ranged from a high of 56 hours in 2019 to a low of 35 hours in 2021. For the Marines, between 128 and 262 out of over 600 SOF personnel completed language training, averaging between 21 to 24 hours per year.
Training Requirements and Deployment Challenges
Training requirements for foreign language proficiency vary depending on proficiency levels. Official U.S. Special Operations Command guidance directs SOF personnel to complete between 80 to 120 hours of formal foreign language training annually. However, the report highlighted challenges in matching language training with deployment cycles. Operators often did not know their deployment location until three or four months before deployment, making it difficult to prioritize language training for specific regions. The report cited an example where French was an assigned language, but it was not widely spoken in locations where SOF personnel were deployed in Europe.
Lack of Mission Analysis and Relevance
The GAO report found that commands were unable to explain the mission analysis used to determine the languages needed. The report also analyzed 198 deployments over a five-year period to 24 European countries and found that the assigned languages were of “at least moderate relevance” about 52% of the time and of low, very low, or no relevance about 48% of the time. This lack of alignment between assigned languages and deployment locations further contributed to the challenges faced by SOF personnel in maintaining language proficiency.
Lack of Accountability and Recommendations
Neither Army nor Marine Corps special operations commands held unit commanders accountable for monitoring whether SOF personnel completed annual foreign language training. In response to these findings, the GAO report recommended that commands monitor the relevancy of assigned languages at deployment locations, enforce procedures that specify consequences when personnel fail to meet language standards, and hold unit commanders accountable for monitoring and reporting language training completion. Pentagon officials agreed with these recommendations.
The GAO report highlights the need for an overhaul in how language training is prioritized and accounted for within Army and Marine Corps special operations. The findings reveal the challenges faced by special operators in completing language training and maintaining proficiency throughout their careers. By implementing the recommended changes, including increased accountability and better alignment of language training with deployment requirements, the special operations community can enhance its foreign language proficiency and better support its missions around the world. It is crucial for these elite forces to possess the necessary language skills to effectively communicate and operate in diverse environments, ultimately ensuring the success of their missions.