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LEAP: The solution to language, culture barriers in large-scale military exercises

  • Published
  • By By Mikala McCurry, AFCLC Outreach Team

Large-scale military exercises across all branches focus heavily on integration with allies and partners as a cornerstone of the National Defense and National Security strategies. While seamless execution of this integration can pose a challenge when differences in language and culture are present, the Air Force Culture and Language Center offers a solution to overcome those barriers - the Language Enabled Airman Program, or LEAP.

A recent article in a defense trade publication highlighted the cultural and language challenges U.S. Air Force leaders faced during Northern Edge 2. U.S. Air Force pilots worked with their Japanese and French pilot counterparts during this exercise to demonstrate the concept of agile combat employment, which relies on working with allies and partners in the region for success. Exercise leaders emphasized the need to overcome language barriers before they could effectively accomplish the mission.

While focus is often placed on the tactical process of working side by side with ally and partner nations, many military leaders now recognize the critical importance of having cultural and language understanding along with technical expertise for true integration.

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to strengthen international relationships and work with our partners to build shared air and space capabilities and capacity, but we can’t stay connected and continue to strengthen relationships with our allies and partners if we don’t understand them,” Brig. Gen. William Freeman, commandant, Air War College, said during a recent Facebook live event. “We need Airmen with language, regional expertise and culture skills to accomplish this.”

That’s where LEAP comes in. The program serves as a force multiplier throughout the Department of Defense with a bench of more than 3,400 multi-capable, language-enabled Airmen who have proficiencies in language, regional expertise and culture across 97 strategic languages.

LEAP scholars are ready to deploy, at a moment’s notice, with the language, culture and technical skills needed in diverse environments to strengthen strategic connections with partners and allies and enable agile combat employment, or ACE.

“Language, regional expertise and culture skills are an enabler of ACE because it’s the only path to the type of integration that produces dominance in operational tempo when we’re working with our partners and allies,” said  AFCLC Director Howard Ward. “To defeat the strategy of our adversaries, our operational output as a team must be greater than the sum of the parts. LREC skills, in the hands of a force integrated by design with partners and allies, are required to produce that level of winning capability.”

Recently, LEAP scholars have supported several large-scale missions in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command region across all branches of service to help advance a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” as instructed in the Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Gen. Mike Minihan, commander, Air Mobility Command, utilized LEAP scholars to enhance understanding and integration with partners and allies during the command’s largest-ever full-spectrum readiness exercise, Mobility Guardian 23.

"Mobility Guardian 23 focused heavily on enabling ACE with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, which cannot happen if we don't understand each other. Having LEAP scholars in the mix during the exercise helped us take integration and understanding to a new level to lay the groundwork for a fortified, integrated and agile joint team ready to fight and win against our adversaries,” he said.

Cope North is another large-scale annual exercise held in the Indo-Pacific region where LEAP scholars played a key role in facilitating partnership building for the Air Force. Cope North 23 was a multilateral field training exercise focused on integration of large-force employment, ACE and humanitarian and disaster relief training. During this event, two Japanese LEAP scholars worked alongside Air Force airfield experts to facilitate an exchange of skills with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Royal Australian Air Force partners.

“Having support from language-enabled Airmen for this event is invaluable and vital for mission success. Cope North is historically the number one or two highest priority in Pacific Air Forces out of roughly 47 annual exercises, and the linguist support enabled the Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force to further interoperability with our Japan Air Self-Defense Force allies,” Cope North lead planner Lt. Col. David Overstreet said.

During Kamandag 6, a large-scale Marine Corps exercise held in the Philippines, LEAP scholars provided critical culture and language support along with their technical expertise from their career fields to completely transform the way servicemembers connected by bridging language and cultural gaps to strengthen the strategic bond between the two nations.

Brig. Gen. Jimmy Larida, Philippine Marine Corps, 3rd Marine Brigade, commanding general, emphasized the positive impact LEAP scholar support had on this exercise.

“In the 34 times that I have performed exercises with the U.S. Marine Corps, this is the first time that they've attached {LEAP} linguists - linguists who are truly one of us. And it has made a huge difference. My Marines trust them, and my Marines are drawn to them. This needs to happen, every single time from here on out,” he said.

Marine Corps Col. Thomas Siverts, commander, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit/Marine Rotational Force-Southeast Asia, also highlighted the critical importance of LEAP support to the success of Kamandag 6.

“The LEAP team enabled us to quickly establish trust with the 3rd Marine Brigade, and they facilitated an exceptional environment where both forces could learn from each other using our native languages,” he said. “The result was a great exercise that developed relationships, trust and interoperability at an unmatched pace. I will never do another bi-lateral exercise without requesting the language and cultural expertise that LEAP was able to provide.”

All DOD and intergovernmental agencies can utilize LEAP scholars for interpretation and translation support in exercises, conferences and other missions. To request LEAP scholar support, visit the Air Force Culture and Language Center website and select the Training Partnership Request option in the sidebar menu.

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