Success Bonus: What if We Got Serious About Winning?
My reserve unit just got an excellent new sailor because the active duty Navy is penny wise and pound foolish. He is a nuclear power technician (training cost to the USN $1 million plus) who was offered over a hundred thousand to re-enlist, but got out because his unit wouldn't temporarily transfer him to the Gulf so he could accept the bonus tax free. Instead of doing without his services for a few weeks at the cost of a few thousand dollars, they lost a million dollars worth of training forever. Now he's with my reserve unit in a new specialty that is paying him a smaller, but still substantial, bonus. Not everybody in the military is as apparently mercenary as this outstanding sailor, but all of us include an economic component to our service career decisions. Frankly, the pay structure encourages extra effort for all service members, and this is an accepted part of the volunteer military. What if we took that to the next level and started paying extra for skills that help us win our current and expected conflicts?
The most critical skill our troops lack on an individual level is language proficiency. Oddly enough, this is largely due to the US military possessing the best language schools in the world. Because the Defense Language Institute
(DLI) is dedicated to providing absolute fluency necessary for strategic communications and intelligence, they are neither prepared for or interested in providing training tactical pidgin level of skill. This is not a critique of the DLI. Their focus on excellence is necessary for today and the future and their record of accomplishment over the last sixty-five years is unparalleled. Any time since the beginning of WW II, we were able to point to the language instruction of the DLI and know it as the best in the world. But in the era of the “imperial grunt”, language skills are needed at every level of the deploying military. In addition to the thousands of perfectly fluent professional linguists, we need hundreds of thousands of troops every year who are capable of basic communications with people around the world.
Traditionally, the way this is handled is for an extra task to be added to the force requirement and everybody would pretend that an extra hour or more had been added to the day so this could be met. Then to ensure compliance, “assist visits” would rise from the depths to afflict the unworthy...that is...observe the dogs and ponies...I mean...provide guidance to the affected units. An entire new staff empire could be generated from this requirement, filling thousands of chairs far, far from anything resembling an actual enemy. Regrettably, this kind of pathology is unsustainable during a shooting conflict, so we need a minimally staffed, maximum results oriented method of improving language skills.
To accomplish this goal, an individual effort reward system should be put in place for service persons attached to deployable units. When a service member tests out at a given level of proficiency, they would be paid a monthly bonus for maintaining a critical skill. This cannot be just for deployed units, we need the incentive for units long before they arrive in country so they have time to train. The rewards also need to be applied to deployable reserve component because they often spend more time in training missions with indigenous peoples than active units do. This cannot be paid to chairwarmers in chairwarming units who have all the time in the world to develop skills they will never use. This should be administered at the unit level to reduce overhead. Although higher reward levels will require more specialized testing from experts, basic proficiency can be tested locally. Additional languages should be rewarded with additional bonuses, and the allowed language rewards list should be maintained at the command. No unit should have fewer than three languages rewarded, one of which must be outside the primary focus area (i.e. Arabic, Persian, and Mandarin). If possible, one unit-specific obscure language should be rewarded to allow semi-secure tactical communications on open channels in the manner of Navajo code-talkers.
Although the list of languages desirable is virtually endless, the following are both obvious and urgent: Arabic, Persian(Farsi), Kurdish, Azeri, Turkish, Swahili, Pashto, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, Serbian/Croatian, and Russian. Obscure languages can be a deceptive choice; Korean is fairly well known in Kurdistan, although the reverse is not true, for instance. The odds of a designated opponent's ability to decipher calls for fire from an isolated unit member better than the TOC should be the criteria for obscure language selection.
The total annual cost for this bonus program will be less than $5 billion across all services, both active and reserve components if everybody became expert linguists overnight. This is about five percent of the operating budget for Iraq alone, and will certainly add more than one twentieth to our operating efficiency. In a happier world, this would be provided tax free to everybody, but that isn't going to happen. What will work is to provide a real reward for really useful skills on an individual basis for individual effort. The biggest block to this program is that it won't provide any congressman's generous constituent a big new lump in their wallet. It will just improve our troop's ability to win.