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Stop Calling It Soft Power! The Declaration Of Dependence On Language And Culture For Integrated Deterrence

  • Published
  • By Mr. Howard Ward, AFCLC

Stop calling it soft power!

Joseph Nye popularized the term “soft power” in his book Bound to Lead. Nye’s characterization of soft power influence versus kinetic force betrays the Air Force’s dependency on culture and language for partner interoperability and adversary understanding. A car without gas…a gun without bullets…a team without communication…these analogies of dependency describe our prospects if the force is not equipped with culture and language skills to implement the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the concept of integrated deterrence. This concept is predicated upon incorporating partners and allies at every phase of planning, campaigning, and force development.[1]

Culture and language skills across the general purpose force are necessary to make the jump from implied to specified skills to successfully execute integrated deterrence. Therefore, these skills are necessary, instead of ancillary, as the implementation of strategy depends on them. Therefore, these skills are more than just “soft power.” Thankfully, there are current efforts to produce those skills, but there are key challenges to optimum utilization.

As a global service, “the Air Force is a global network of aircraft, aircrew, bases, and supply lines and communication routes.” Furthermore, “Today, all over the globe, our Airmen are making themselves understood in Hindi, Italian, Arabic, Bengali, and Pidgin while our aircraft are making themselves understood in the tropics, Arctic and desert; over sea, mountain, and glacier.” These words are as true and current today as they were when Gen Hap Arnold penned them in May 1944 in a booklet entitled The Official Guide to the Army Air Forces.[2] Only 3 weeks before the D-Day invasion, where the Army Air Corps was leveraging technology, such as the Norden Bombsight, the P-51, an enormous fleet of new bombers, and new doctrine for the emerging concept of air superiority, Hap Arnold chose to highlight the Army Air Corps as a global network that depends upon Airmen with culture and language skills.

Things are no different today. While technology has advanced in a way that would make today’s Air Force unrecognizable to Gen Arnold, he would find instant familiarity in that working with partners and allies is still core to the successful application of airpower. When Gen C.Q. Brown, Jr. became the Air Force Chief of Staff, he issued key guidance is instructive along similar lines. His action orders for implementing his service strategy of “accelerate change or lose” included Action Order “C” for “Competition.” In this order, Gen Brown stated that the USAF “must study our adversaries and their ways of war to include their cultures and languages” to gain a competitive advantage.[3]

Sometimes referred to as “the operating system of humans,” culture presents a powerful lens for understanding human behavior. As any conflict is inherently driven by human decision-making, understanding an adversary’s culture and language offers many insights into their thinking. Analyzing what our adversaries say can contribute immensely to obtaining decision superiority. By accurately understanding our adversary's intentions in a rapid manner, we can qualitatively and quantitatively improve our decision speed. By retaining the initiative, our adversaries will remain reactive to the circumstances that we dictate.

Further demonstrating the dependency on culture and language, Gen Brown also gave us direction on building a force capable of global partnership. “Integrated by design” denotes something of importance that has never been communicated before to the general purpose force. Previously, the level of integration required for true interoperability has been spoken of as if it could be assumed. Gen Brown makes it clear that the forces he envisions as integrated are the product of deliberate development and designed specifically to work seamlessly with partners and allies. This very idea without culture and language skills is analogous to division by zero.

Gen Brown goes even further stating that a force that is truly integrated by design with partners and allies must have “global fluency.”[4] Gen Brown introduced the term not to describe an aspiration, but to communicate a required skillset. Gen Brown is signaling that in order to improve operational tempo in a world where events unfold at an unprecedented pace, we must know and understand our partners. While relationships can build familiarity, understanding of culture and language creates a lasting familiarity, even as the people may change. Therefore, culture and language are the constants that help manage expectations: “though I don’t know your name, I still know you.”

Gen Brown’s emphasis on the dependency on culture and language skills for strategy implementation goes beyond the traditional need to work with partners and allies. The Air Force has doubled down on conspicuous interoperability with allies and partners in its operating concept to support integrated deterrence through Agile Combat Employment (ACE). Culture and language skills are crucial as they underpin the effectiveness of several important components.

Spread through several of the core elements of ACE is the importance of integrating a host nation’s assets in operations. Due to the operational challenges, this operational concept requires the U.S. Air Force and partner air forces to work together seamlessly. As we know that forming discrete groups into a single cohesive team is already challenging enough even without cultural and language barriers; attempting to create a cohesive team with allies and partners who do not share the same language and culture presents a formidable challenge. Therefore, it is essential that our personnel have the culture and language skills that are critical to making this happen. The actual hard work required to execute ACE will therefore depend upon “Multi-Capable Airmen,” who have been identified as a key “enabler” in Air Force Doctrine Notes 1-21. Unfortunately, the term “multi-capable Airmen” has been mostly understood by the narrow definition of the ability to perform more than one technical specialty.[5] Yet, despite their technical agility, multi-capable Airmen will not have the same nimbleness in a multinational team if they are not equipped with the appropriate culture and language skills needed to perform tasks efficiently alongside their coalition partners.

Only through the successful integration of allies and partners by multi-capable Airmen armed with crucial culture and language skills can the critical operational outcomes of ACE be achieved. The improved operational tempo generated by our multi-capable Airmen would allow our combined forces to potentially create effects at a higher rate than an adversary. First, it plays a key role in “shaping adversary perceptions,” which is the key objective of integrated deterrence. The more US forces and our allies can demonstrate these crucial capabilities, the more we can convince an adversary not to engage kinetically. Second, if hostilities were to commence, this improved tempo would play a crucial role as it could potentially force our adversaries to be reactive and allow us to obtain decision superiority over them. Thus true multi-capable Airmen, armed with these crucial culture and language skills, would both help deter wars and execute them efficiently if needed. 

Furthermore, these culture and language skills can also help mitigate some of the inherent risks to operational effectiveness associated with personnel turnover. Change in personnel is a constant in the USAF as Airmen PCS, deploy, separate from the service, and retire. Culture and language allow relationships to flourish despite this constant turnover in personnel through expectation management. Even when the faces change, relationships can strengthen when there is a constant baseline of behaviors and competencies. The “Americans” are known, even if the “American” in front of me is new.

As Gen Brown has argued, culture and language skills are key to achieving the goals of integrated deterrence and to underwrite the application of airpower through ACE. Therefore, the idea that language and culture skills are just “soft power” is woefully obsolete. The strategic situation in the near future requires us to think differently about how we address the readiness of an expeditionary force with a global mission. First, moving culture and language from the notion of soft power into the mainstream requires a formal declaration of dependence. The institution has to recognize that integrated by design and global fluency will not happen if the skillset continues to be treated as ancillary “soft power” rather than the critical element of operational and strategic effectiveness that it is. As this will not occur on it own, there is a need for an enterprise roadmap that weaves culture and language into technical training and the progression of professional military education. It had to be codified in Air Force Instructions and career field development plans. It has to be resourced and properly accounted for in training records and readiness reporting. 

While language skills are critical, it is not feasible for every Airman to become proficient in a foreign language. That is why the Air Force established the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) and the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) as programs of record to deliberately develop and sustain Airmen with some level of existing language skill through a competitive selection process and posture them for utilization.

 Talent management processes and clear direction to career field managers that they share accountability for global readiness is crucial to ensuring the right skills are in the right place for the right mission, especially in overseas locations and combatant command assignments. Members of LEAP are national assets whose skills must be weighed equally with their technical skills in utilization. For example, a LEAP scholar deliberately developed with Japanese language skills that is sent to a EUCOM assignment undermines global readiness and return on Air Force investment when the same functional requirement exists at a location aligned with the language skillset.

There is also a treasure of usable culture and language skills that Airmen bring into the service with them. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the accession process specifically designed to capture and track that invaluable data. The Air Force needs immediate direction to collect data on global skills at all accession sources and ensure that the data flows into the personnel system of record. This will allow the Air Force to find Airmen with critical skills during times of need or to recruit them into competitive programs like LEAP. This can be done at no cost as there is already a foreign language self-assessment, that requires just two clicks to complete, and automatically ports the data into the personnel system of record.

Additionally, the service must commit to steady funding of culture and language skills development. Through the years, investment in culture and language has been mercurial. Viewed only as soft power, these skills are often interpreted contextually as nice-to-have rather than as must-have, leading to investment spikes with a new contingency or a cultural kerfuffle, and waning in times of fiscal constraint. Culture and language skills cannot be just-in-time trained as they require time and commitment. Senior leaders who rightly tout the dependency of operational outcomes on a globally fluent force must, in turn, ensure that programming and execution of funds support their strategic guidance.

Lastly, in order to prove their case, the DoD culture and language education community needs to speak with a singular voice in the language of the operational Air Force and inextricably link the value proposition of culture and language skills to successful operational outcomes. We are at a pivotal moment in history when operations depend upon culture and language skills for successful operational outcomes. Therefore, it is time to take our own advice and learn the language of operations and speak to senior leaders in that language so that the value proposition is clear and unambiguous.

It is in the DNA of the Air Force to think globally when it comes to operations and the network required to support the application of airpower. Our strategies and operating concepts further reflect recognition of the global nature of strategic competition. What is lacking is a formal recognition of the culture and language skillset that are required by the force to actually operate on a global scale at the high tempo necessary. Commitment to deliberately developing culture and language skills is foundational to winning in the strategic competition currently happening around the globe. If we are ever going to do it, now is the time for the culture and language community to speak in one voice and in the language of operations to model the way. Our world is increasingly global, connected, and coalition at the core. Events unfold too quickly to lose time through failures to connect or communicate due to barriers in culture and language. Stop calling it soft power…winning strategic competition depends on it.


Note: Special thanks to Dr. Susan L. Steen, Brig Gen (ret)/Dr. Gunther Mueller, and Brig Gen (ret)/Dr. Dan Uribe, teammates at the Air Force Culture and Language Center, for sage advice in the crafting of this article.

Colonel Howard Ward, USAF, Retired
Mr. Ward is the director of the Air Force Culture and Language Center. He had served as a C-130 navigator and has commanded at the squadron and group levels. He holds master’s degrees from Air War College in strategic studies and the University of Arkansas in operations management.




[1.] Department of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2022), 1-3,

[2.] United States, The Official Guide to the Army Air Forces (AAF): A Directory Almanac and Chronicle of Achievement (New York: Simon and Schuster, May 1944), 1, 6-7.

[3.] General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., CSAF Action Orders: To Accelerate Change Across the Air Force (Washington, DC: Air Force Chief of Staff, December 2020), 1-3,

[4.] “Air Force Chief Touts Integrated by Design as a Competitive Edge” FEDweek, July 28, 2022,

[5.] Department of the Air Force, Agile Combat Employment, Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21 (Maxwell AFB: LeMay Doctrine Center, 23 August 2022),

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