We might not be speaking the same language.
From Afghanistan to Africa, it is unclear whether the U.S. military is building the skills needed to communicate with allies and foes, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Al-Qaida’s violent extremism and wars in the Middle East have pressured the Department of Defense to step up its language abilities over the past five years.
The military has also made strides with pre-deployment education and training centers.
But the DOD still "lacks a complete understanding" of how equipped it is to deal with cultural divides during military conflicts in foreign lands, the GAO determined in a report completed last month.
"Ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as the newly begun efforts of U.S. Africa Command — provide daily reminders of how complex and difficult these missions are," the agency said.
DOD has no yardstick to measure its understanding of new languages and regions, no price tags for new efforts, and no way to find risky gaps in its abilities, the agency concluded.
In a response, the DOD said in an attachment to the report that it would make a new master plan by September that will set hard goals and also create benchmarks that the military services could use to measure language skills.
The GAO assessment aimed to steer defense efforts back on track after five years of change.
Cultural fluency and language skills could be a key in places such as Iraq, where U.S. forces still rely heavily on local interpreters and, at times, early cultural misunderstandings frustrated efforts.
In 2004, the Defense Science Board warned that DOD "should treat developing language skills and regional proficiency as seriously as it treats combat skills."
The agency has pumped energy — and money — into its language programs.
DOD received about $500 million in federal funding for 22 language and cultural programs in 2009. Plus, another $1 billion is likely this year from an Army contract for linguist services, DOD told the GAO researchers.
The programs might be providing training but the DOD could not say how they fulfill overall language needs, the GAO said.
Meanwhile, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are moving to improve language skills.
Pre-deployment training is offered by all the services, though individual commanders decide how much training is needed and how much time is available, the report found.
Also, centers have been set up in the four services to educate servicemembers on language and culture, and that training is moving into the military’s general education curriculum.
The GAO said future benchmarks set by the DOD could help the military assess progress, while finding and filling needs downrange.