Military Training:

Strategic Planning and Distributive Learning Could Benefit the Special Operations Forces Foreign Language Program

GAO-03-1026: Published: Sep 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2003.

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Of the 44,000 special operations forces (SOF) that perform difficult, complex, and sensitive military missions on short notice anytime and anywhere in the world, more than 12,000 (28 percent) have a foreign language requirement to operate in places where English is not spoken. In the Senate Report on the Fiscal Year 2003 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated that GAO review SOF foreign language requirements and training. In this report, we (1) assess the U.S. Special Operations Command's recent actions to improve the management of the SOF foreign language program and the delivery of training, and (2) identify ways for the command to deal with ongoing challenges that limit SOF personnel's access to language-training opportunities.

Recent actions taken by the U.S. Special Operations Command are starting to address some long-standing problems with the management of the SOF foreign language program and the delivery of language training. In September 2002, the command consolidated all training under a single contractor to provide a universal, standardized curriculum and a range of delivery mechanisms for Army, Navy, and Air Force SOF components. Initial assessments suggest that the contractor's offerings are meeting contract expectations. In other actions, the program is completing an overdue assessment of SOF language requirements, developing a database of language proficiencies and training, and finding ways to take advantage of other national language-training assets. While promising, these ongoing actions are taking place without the benefit of a cohesive management framework incorporating a strategy and strategic planning to guide, integrate, and monitor its activities. Without such a framework, the program risks losing its current momentum and failing to meet new language-training needs that SOF personnel are likely to acquire as they take on expanded roles in combating terrorism and other military operations. The SOF foreign language program continues to face challenges, such as more frequent and longer deployments, that limit personnel's access to language training. Army Reserve and National Guard SOF members face additional difficulties in gaining access to centrally located training because of geographical dispersion and part-time status; they also have lower monetary incentives to acquire language proficiencies and fewer training opportunities. As a result, most SOF personnel have been unable to take needed training or required tests to qualify in their respective language(s). To address these challenges, program officials are looking into distance/distributive-learning approaches, which offer "anytime, anywhere" training that would be highly adaptable to SOF personnel needs, but they are still at an early stage in their evaluations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 30, 2005, the USD P&R, Dr. David Chu, signed a Directive-type memo approving a change to DOD Instruction 7280.3,"Special Pay for Foreign Language Proficiency" to approve payment at proficiency level on as indicated in Table 1, "DOD Special Pay Rates for Foreign Language Proficiency" and in paragraph 6.3.5. Payment of the new rates is scheduled to take effect on June 1, 2006. Also, in January 2006, the approved FY06 National Defense Authorization Act aligned payment for Reserve and Active force components and increased the Department's flexibility to make equitable payments by changing Foreign Language Proficiency Pay from "special pay" to "bonus pay" status. These changes are being incorporated into DOD Instruction 7280.3.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretary of Defense should evaluate current (1) foreign language proficiency pay rates and (2) pay and allowance funding levels for Army Reserve and National Guard personnel to determine if changes are needed to provide them with a greater incentive to undertake language study and allow for more personnel to attend language schools and other training venues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to DOD, SOF units currently employ a variety of distributive learning alternatives to maintain their language skills. However, distributive learning is ineffective for initial acquisition training, which is the largest challenge. USSOCOM is a strong proponent of distributive learning as a sustainment or key phrase training medium and has applied appropriate funding to this alternative. However, USSOCOM will not replace effective resident training with distributive learning until the products are proven to be at least as effective, and more efficient, than what they replace.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the management and delivery of foreign language training for special operations forces, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command to incorporate distance/distributive-learning approaches into the program to improve the special operations forces' access to language training, and if additional resources are required, to request them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, DOD reported that the SOF language strategy was in staffing. However, in July 2005 DOD reported that no action had been taken on the language strategy because the proponency for the joint SOF language program has moved twice since July 04. Work on the SOF language strategy was to have resumed in the summer of 2005. However, in May 2006, DOD reported that no action had been taken by USSOCOM. In March 2007, DOD reported that no action had been taken due to comprehensive engagement in the QDR and Irregular Warfare Roadmap Working Group. According to DOD, work will commence this fall with a May 2008 target for the Commander, USSOCOM to approve it.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the management and delivery of foreign language training for special operations forces, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command to adopt a strategy for meeting special operations forces' foreign language requirements and develop the necessary strategic-planning tools (a strategic plan with associated performance plan and reports) to use in managing and assessing the progress of its foreign language program and to better address future human capital challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The DLPT5 (Defense Language Proficiency Test) web-delivered test for listening and reading skills has been implemented in 16 languages. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center offers Oral Proficiency Interviews (OPI) in a total of 121 languages and dialects and has increased its faculty to certified OPI testers from 288 to 398. Also, OPI computerized tests should be available in December 2007 in four languages. If successful, additional languages will be added in the future.

    Recommendation: Furthermore, the Secretary of Defense should examine options for increasing the use and availability of oral proficiency foreign language testing to provide additional opportunities for SOF personnel to test and qualify in their respective languages.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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