A senior U.S. defense official suggested before Congress yesterday that a lack of foreign language capabilities in the federal government could potentially pose a national security risk.
“Let me begin by stating that Defense Secretary [Leon E.] Panetta has long believed that having a strong language ability is critical to national security,” Laura Junor, deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness, said in testimony before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee “We’re committed to fielding the most capable force that we can deploy.”
Junor said mission success is directly connected to the ability to communicate effectively with local populations and international partners. “Our current challenge lies in filling language-required positions with personnel that possess the requisite language skills,” she said. “We’ve been reducing this deficiency, but we need help. We need our nation’s schools to develop students with these skills from which we can recruit to meet our needs.”
“Studies show that exposure to foreign language and early language learning greatly facilitates language acquisition,” Junor said. “Therefore, bringing in individuals with foreign language skills makes it easier to train people to higher levels of proficiency. We are working to overcome these challenges through collaborative, interagency strategies to achieve our vision for language, regional and cultural capabilities,” she added.
These strategies, Junor said, address the importance of identifying language needs, acquiring and sustaining language skills, enhancing language careers, building partners and increasing surge capacity. “The department is improving the identification of its language needs through standardized, capabilities-based processes,” she said. “These processes enable the combatant commanders to articulate their language needs and provide them to the military services who supply the staff to meet those needs.”
DOD is also actively engaged with other federal agencies such as the National Security Education Board and the Defense Language Steering Committee, Junor said. “By experience, we’ve learned the importance of building a surge capacity to yield language expertise quickly and at a reasonable cost,” Junor said. “The department’s National Language Service Corps provides a pool of qualified volunteers with high levels of proficiency, in both English and foreign languages who can serve, and then be activated, as temporary government employees when needed.”
Junor said there has been “real progress made” in improving foreign language skills, regional expertise and cultural capabilities to meet 21st Century national security challenges. “Although we have achieved much success, we acknowledge that much work remains,” she said. “Our vision and strategy are designed to build language and cultural capabilities so they are available to DOD and other federal agencies when needed.”