Saturday, April 09, 2005

Military Triples Its Spending on Arabic Language Acquisition


military seeks linguists to fight terrorism
Fri April 8, 2005 2:05 AM GMT+05:30
By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military needs a new corps of linguists for the war on terrorism who can catch hidden meanings in a mix of dialects, even over a crackling cell phone line, a senior Pentagon official said on Thursday.

The "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap" announced last week is seeking to forge such language skills as well as greater regional knowledge, along with more basic language abilities among a broader section of the military, said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

"The secretary (of defense Donald Rumsfeld) for some time has been concerned that the department's linguistic capacity is not what it used to be," said Chu, referring to the Cold War when the military felt it had the skills it needed.

Chu told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon that during the Cold War, the military generally needed to be able to translate or understand fairly straightforward "order-of-battle information," such as military documents or commands spoken in standard dialects.

"What we recognize in the war on terror ... is (that) at least for some of our linguists, that's not good enough," he said. "If you're dealing with people speaking on cell phones, who are deliberately camouflaging what they have to say ... boy, you've got to be at a different (skill) level."

"It's not just straightforward 'where is the power station' kind of stuff," he added.

The Pentagon, CIA and other agencies have often bemoaned a shortage of linguists in Arabic and other "exotic languages" and said there was a backlog of material obtained by satellites, bugging and spies that needed translation.

Memories are still fresh of two messages intercepted from suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network on Sept. 10, 2001, that said, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "The match begins tomorrow." They were translated on Sept. 11 and only given to policy-makers on Sept. 12.


The Cold War focus on Russian and other Eastern European languages has given way to a need for speakers of Arabic, Persian, Pashto and other languages spoken in countries linked to the war on terrorism. Chinese and Korean are also gaining prominence.

As part of its efforts to beef up language skills, the Pentagon increased the budget of its language school by about $50 million in fiscal 2005 to $153 million. The 2006 budget requests an additional $45 million, with a further increase of $330 million projected from 2007 to 2010.

The military is also planning to offer incentive pay of up to $12,000 a year for language skills, link those skills to promotion and make them a requirement for officers, Chu said.

Announcing the major shift in its language training and recruitment policy last Thursday, the military said languages were now being considered as important as weapons systems.

The military is seeking to recruit staff from immigrant communities within the United States that speak the needed languages, while hiring and training non-native speakers to reach greater proficiency.

Chu said an Army program had already recruited about 200 people from Arabic, Pashto and Dari-speaking communities in the United States over the past two years, adding that 50 of the recruits were already deployed in the field.