As the US military's focus on competition with China grows, the US special-operations community is investing in a softer skill to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
At a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing in late April, leaders of the US special-operations community highlighted the importance of and need for special operators who are proficient in foreign languages.
Countering China through language
During the hearing, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, commanding general of US Army Special Operations Command, said the units he commands — including the Army Special Forces groups, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations teams — are arguably the most proficient and invested in language skills within the US special-operations community.
Among those units, Braga said, language skills are "maintained throughout through sustained training" and are tailored to specific regions because those units "stay regionally aligned."
US special operators have a worldwide presence and are deployed to more than 60 countries at any given time, where they train foreign forces or participate in deterrence and combat operations.
Braga said that despite putting a lot of effort into language skills, members of the US special-operations community can't speak the language of every country to which they might deploy.
"They're operating around the globe," supporting the priorities of every combatant command, Braga said, "but language is absolutely critical to being part of that interoperability. It's not just equipment, and it also shows that you care."
Those relationships that language skills foster and sustain are extremely value in great-power competition, whether the US is trying to maintain deterrence or fight a full-blown war.
"Human beings communicate by body language, chemistry, and words," said Lino Miani, a former Army Special Forces officer. "It is the combination of the three that really allows people to form bonds and communicate instinctively in the way that war sometimes demands."
To measure language skill, the US military uses the Defense Language Proficiency Test, which has four levels — 0 to 3. The training needed to use the language effectively can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year, depending on the complexity of the language.
"War is a complex endeavor and it's not always enough to just be stronger than the enemy," said Miani, who is chief executive officer of AeroEye, a security firm offering aerial surveillance services.
"Troops on the ground, particularly special-operations troops that are often isolated and/or embedded with allies or surrogates, will depend on their ability to understand complexity not just for mission accomplishment, but for survival," Miani added. "Language skills are the basic foundation of that understanding."
During the hearing, Maj. Gen. James Glynn, who at the time was commanding general of Marine Forces Special Operations Command, said that his command has shifted its focus to some of the "more significant languages" in the Indo-Pacific region, including Mandarin Chinese.
US troops should be skilled in Chinese, but the language has limited use, especially for official purposes, in many of the countries where US special-operators often work, Miani said. Proficiency in languages spoken in those countries is vital to reassuring partners and deterring foes.
While the Chinese have influence in those countries, "our success in those geographic areas will be more dependent on our skill with other languages, like Korean, Thai, Indonesian, or Tagalog," added Miani, who is president of the Combat Diver Foundation.
More language, more missions
Some special operators develop more language skills because of their mission sets. US Army Green Berets have a focus on foreign internal defense — the training, advising, and leading of partner forces — and as such have long focused on language skills.
But over the last two decades there has been a wider push for language capabilities among special-operations units.
"Language and culture have been part of our training pipeline since inception, and so every critical skills operator that is created or has been created over the course of the last 15 years goes through a language unique to the theater in which we intend or they are most likely to deploy," Glynn said about MARSOC.
One reason for the push was that during the global war on terror, better language skills often meant more missions, which in turn meant more funding and greater relevance for the unit.
At one point, foreign internal defense was the hottest mission set, and every unit — even Navy SEALs and Delta Force, which tend to focus on direct-action operations — jumped at the opportunity to conduct it in order to be deployed.
"Understanding our adversary through his own language and culture is important, but it is also important to understand our potential allies," Miani said. "Language skills are the basic foundation of this understanding."
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.