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Defense > 3. Defense Foreign Language Support Contracts

The Department of Defense should explore opportunities to gain additional efficiencies in contracts for foreign language support, which is estimated to cost more than $1 billion annually, by addressing fragmentation in the department’s acquisition approach.

Why This Area Is Important

In recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) has invested billions of dollars to provide foreign language support to U.S. military personnel.[1] Specifically, DOD obligated over $6.8 billion from fiscal years 2008 through 2012 on contracts to acquire a variety of foreign language support needed to carry out diverse missions and operations both within and outside of the United States. These contracts provide services that allow U.S. military personnel to communicate and interact with multinational partners, security forces, and local indigenous populations. DOD has recognized these abilities are critical factors to mission success, particularly in light of recent operational experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Changes to the size and location of DOD’s forward-stationed or deployed military forces and a renewed emphasis on developing partnerships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa, indicate that DOD will likely continue its investments in foreign language support contracts for the foreseeable future.[2]

Since 2009, GAO has identified a number of management challenges that DOD faces in providing foreign language and cultural awareness training to U.S. military personnel. For example, in May 2011, GAO reported that DOD lacked an approach to integrate department-wide training efforts, which contributed to some fragmentation and inefficiency in identifying requirements for language and cultural awareness training for ongoing operations. Moreover, in February 2012, GAO identified overlapping and potentially duplicative foreign language and culture training products that were either developed or contracted for by the military services. DOD’s considerable investment in contracts for foreign language support both now and in the future, as well as the challenges GAO identified in prior work, suggests that additional opportunities may exist for DOD to gain efficiencies in its contracting approach.

[1]DOD has not defined “foreign language support” as a specific set of services or products; however, officials representing DOD components, which include the military services, combatant commands, and defense agencies, identified a range of services and products that they consider foreign language support, such as translation and interpretation services, the assistance of personnel who possess language skills and serve as role players, and foreign language instruction. Therefore, GAO uses “foreign language support” to refer to this range of services and products.

[2]Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities For 21st Century Defense (Jan. 3, 2012).

What GAO Found

DOD contracts for a broad range of foreign language support and has taken some steps to centralize its contracting efforts to increase collaboration among the DOD components, gain efficiencies, and control spending; however, the scope of these efforts has been limited to only certain types of services, and DOD has not explored whether additional opportunities exist to gain efficiencies across a broader range of foreign language-related services and products. As a result, DOD’s acquisition approach remains uncoordinated and fragmented. As GAO reported in February 2013, DOD sought to centralize and standardize contracting efforts for foreign language support across the department by designating the Army as an executive agent to manage contracting in this area. While the executive agent’s responsibility generally extends to all foreign language support contracts, under certain circumstances, DOD components can contract independently for foreign language support. For example, under DOD policy, certain types of contracts are exempt, such as personal services contracts established by in-theater and intelligence organizations.[1] In addition, exemptions for other types of contracts may be established by memorandum of agreement between the contracting entity and the executive agent.[2]

GAO found that the executive agent in performing its responsibilities has focused its efforts solely on arranging for contracts to acquire translation and interpretation services for contingency operations because of the rapidly increasing requirements for these services.[3] For these types of services, DOD components submit their requirements to the executive agent, which then validates the need and oversees contracts for the desired services. From fiscal years 2008 through 2012, the Army, as executive agent, obligated about $5.2 billion on contracts to provide components with translation and interpretation services for contingency operations. During the same time period, GAO reported that multiple DOD components contracted for foreign language support outside of the executive agent’s contracts, resulting in an uncoordinated and fragmented approach. Specifically, to support the needs of contingency operations, predeployment training, and day-to-day military activities, 159 contracting organizations in 10 different DOD components obligated approximately $1.2 billion on contracts for foreign language support outside of those managed by the executive agent for translation and interpretation services for contingency operations.[4] These organizations can have contracts that involve either one or more of the following foreign language support services. For example,

  • 30 organizations obligated approximately $955 million on contracts for foreign language and culture-enabled role players,
  • 93 organizations obligated approximately $25.4 million on contracts for foreign language interpretation or translation services for missions and activities other than contingency operations,
  • 24 organizations obligated approximately $2.1 million on contracts to provide language training for military personnel, and
  • 65 organizations obligated approximately $180.5 million on contracts that provided a combination of services.

DOD’s efforts to centralize contracting for certain foreign language support services under an executive agent has resulted in some efficiencies, but DOD has not taken steps to comprehensively assess whether additional opportunities exist to gain efficiencies and reduce fragmentation across a broader range of foreign language support services. For example, executive agent officials stated that by establishing a standardized process for department-wide contracts in the area of translation and interpretation services in support of contingency operations, the executive agent was able to build upon department-wide efforts to improve the security clearance process and reduce the amount of time it took to complete the security clearance vetting process for potential contract interpreter/translators from about 4 months to 6 weeks. However, DOD has not analyzed requirements and costs in foreign language support spending in other areas, such as foreign language-enabled role players, to determine whether any additional foreign language-related services warrant collaboration in joint rather than fragmented contracting. Best practices for service acquisition suggest that DOD’s acquisition approach should provide for an agency-wide view of service contract spending and promote collaboration to leverage buying power across multiple organizations. Implementing such an approach requires an analysis of where an organization is spending its money, which should be the starting point for gaining knowledge that can assist agencies in determining what products and services warrant a more coordinated acquisition approach.[5] Executive agent officials noted that their management efforts were focused on contracts specifically for foreign language translation and interpretation services associated with contingencies because of the escalating costs to provide these services for ongoing military operations. However, they agreed that a better understanding of the department’s spending on contracts for a broader spectrum of foreign language support services could better inform areas where the executive agent could focus its management efforts.

[1]A personal services contract is characterized by the employer-employee relationship it creates between the government and the contractor’s personnel. Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) § 37.104. These contracts, by their express terms or as administered, make the contractor personnel appear to be, in effect, government employees. FAR § 2.101. Personal services contracts are generally prohibited; however, personal services contracts that directly support the mission of a defense intelligence component, counterintelligence organization, or the Special Operations Command of DOD are authorized by statute. 10 U.S.C § 129b(d).

[2]Department of Defense Directive 5160.41E, Defense Language Program,
(Oct. 21, 2005).

[3]A contingency operation is a military operation that either (1) is designated by the Secretary of Defense as an operation in which members of the armed forces are or may become involved in military actions, operations, or hostilities against U.S. enemies or against an opposing military force or (2) results in the call or order to, or retention on, active duty of members of the uniformed services under certain statutory provisions or any other provision of law during a war or during a national emergency declared by the President or Congress. 10 U.S.C. § 101(a)(13).

[4]The total obligation amount does not include $394 million in obligations for contracts that the executive agent considered exempted from its program. The number of contracting organizations does not add to 159 because several organizations had contracts for more than one type of foreign language support service as well as contracts to provide a combination of services.

[5]GAO, Best Practices: Using Spend Analysis to Help Agencies Take a More Strategic Approach to Procurement, GAO-04-870 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 16, 2004).

Actions Needed

DOD has taken steps to centralize contracting for foreign language translation and interpretation services for contingency operations to increase collaboration and gain efficiencies, but its acquisition approach for other types of foreign language support services remains fragmented across multiple DOD components. Without a more complete understanding of where the department is spending resources on foreign language support contracts, DOD has not had the information it needs to make informed decisions about the types of services that could be managed by the executive agent or provide reasonable assurance that it is fully leveraging its buying power for foreign language support services. As a result, GAO recommended in February 2013 that the Secretary of Defense should take the following action:

  • direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to conduct an assessment of its current approach for managing foreign language support contracts. At a minimum, such an assessment should include (1) an analysis of spending for other types of foreign language support services and products that have been acquired by the DOD components outside of the executive agent, and (2) based on the results of this analysis, a reevaluation of the scope of the executive agent’s efforts to manage foreign language support contracts to determine if any adjustments are needed.

Because multiple DOD components have contracted independently for other foreign language support outside of the executive agent’s contracts in various ways and cost information is not collected in a centralized manner, determining definitive cost savings in this area is challenging. GAO was able to determine that DOD components have obligated at least a billion dollars since fiscal year 2008 to acquire foreign language support outside of the executive agent’s contracts. GAO’s prior work has found that agencies, including DOD, reported savings ranging between 5 and 20 percent when strategic sourcing contracts were used by implementing more coordinated acquisition approaches rather than fragmented contracting. Therefore, on the basis of the level of investment that DOD is making in foreign language support contracts, it appears that DOD has viable opportunities to achieve significant cost savings if it increases its visibility of spending across a broader spectrum of services and products by implementing the action outlined above.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section. GAO reviewed DOD’s acquisition approach for foreign language support contracts, including all DOD organizations that had contracted for foreign language support from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2012, and assessed the department’s management effort to establish an executive agent for foreign language support. GAO obtained and estimated contract obligations on DOD contracts for foreign language-related services and products for fiscal years 2008 through 2012. In addition, GAO interviewed relevant DOD and military service officials. Table 2 in appendix IV lists the contracting organizations GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the February 2013 report on which this analysis is based, DOD agreed with our recommendation and stated that the Defense Language and National Security Education Office will lead the assessment for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. DOD stated the target date for completion of this effort is June 2015.

DOD also stated that requirements for foreign language capability are in constant flux and that the department is challenged to meet ad hoc and surge requirements, primarily because it takes years to develop organic capacity for these capabilities. DOD noted that it turns to contractors to help meet these ad hoc and surge requirements. DOD stated that GAO’s February 2013 report employed a broader definition of “foreign language support” than understood between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Army G-2 when establishing their contracts for foreign language support under the executive agent relationship. DOD noted that under its definition, language training, cultural training, cultural advisors, cultural subject matter experts, and cultural role players would not fall under the current contract foreign language support executive agent or be subject to the same foreign language support contracts.

GAO agreed with DOD’s characterization of the definition of the term “foreign language support” used in the report. As stated in the report, DOD had not defined foreign language support as a specific set of products and services. Therefore, GAO used a broader definition to reflect the range of services and products that were identified and considered by DOD officials to be foreign language support. The report also reflected DOD’s point that the executive agent chose to focus its efforts solely on arranging for contracts to acquire translation and interpretation services for contingency operations because of the rapidly increasing requirements for these services. The report further noted that because there is a significant amount of spending for other types of foreign language-related services and products outside of the executive agent’s contract, DOD may be able to gain additional efficiencies if it assesses its spending across a broader range of foreign language-related contracting activity. GAO also recognized that other foreign language-related services may involve other variables, such as different sets of skills, which DOD would need to take into account as it reassesses its current approach.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DOD for review and comment. DOD provided no additional comments. However, in light of the continued budgetary challenges facing DOD and the federal government, GAO urges DOD to consider taking action sooner than its stated target date of June 2015. DOD also provided technical comments, which were incorporated where appropriate.

For additional information about this area, contact Sharon Pickup at (202) 512-9619 or

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