70th ISRW optimizes language capabilities through local Chinese-Mandarin initiative

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Franklin R. Ramos
  • 70th ISRW Public Affairs

The 2022 National Defense Strategy directs the Department of Defense to act urgently to sustain and strengthen U.S. deterrence, with the People’s Republic of China as the DoD’s pacing challenge. To help optimize Air Force cryptologic language analyst (CLA) capabilities, the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing is providing its first local training to re-language Airmen into Chinese-Mandarin specialties.       

As America’s Cryptologic Wing, the 70th ISRW’s mission is to lead global cryptologic operations; delivering actionable intelligence and decisive options to prevail in an era of great power competition.

“Our cryptologic warriors are critical in providing Joint Force commanders with knowledge to help make advantageous decisions on the battlefield,” said Col. Celina E. Noyes, 70th ISRW commander. “As our competition continues to advance and adapt in a highly contested ISR domain, we must ensure our Airmen are trained and prepared to meet the demands of any future conflicts.”

CLAs typically specialize in one specific foreign language while working in the field of signals intelligence and cryptology. Their primary responsibility is to analyze and decipher foreign language communications and signals, with a focus on intercepting and interpreting messages sent in various languages, often encrypted or coded, for intelligence purposes.

However, as mission sets shift, certain languages become less relevant in today’s geopolitical landscape. By specializing in a new language, these Airmen can be aligned to meet current and future mission needs.

“We have some Airmen that just don't have missions that they can work, due to their language no longer being actively used,” said Master Sgt. John-Marvin Mercer, 70th ISRW command language program manager. “A lot of them are doing administrative jobs or serving as program managers. They are not being utilized in that [language] specialty of what they should be.

“So, if we can re-language them, it gives them that opportunity to serve in that capacity. We have more than enough Russian and Chinese missions to go around. It'll hopefully give them a lot more longevity in their career as far as mission set goes.”

This retraining opportunity was open for Airmen with up to 15 years of time in service. This allowed the 70th ISRW to reinvest into its cryptologic warriors while retaining their leadership and career experience.

We've got Airmen that have already shown that they have the talent to be good linguists,” said Mercer. “Whenever it comes to optimization and where we are, it's extremely beneficial to take someone that has that experience and can transition from one language to another, as opposed to, taking someone that's brand new and fresh that may not have the leadership or breadth of experience that an NCO would already have.”

The Air Combat Command Intelligence Directorate provided the 70th ISRW with $331 thousand to fund the 63-week course, which began Aug. 28, 2023. Eight Airmen volunteered for this opportunity and will undergo training at the Berlitz Odenton Language Center, Odenton, Maryland, instead of attending a Defense Learning Institute Foreign Language Center located in either Monterey, California, or Washington D.C. This local initiative is estimated to save the Air Force approximately $1.5 million, including reduced permanent change of station costs related to training.

“This program shows that there are other more cost-efficient locations where [the Air Force] can send its members to learn a new language, increasing the workforce's flexibility,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lauren Rickard, 29th Intelligence Squadron multi-disciplined language analyst and a current student. “Airmen who are stationed in Fort Meade can stay local to re-language, which can help members who may need to stay in the area to take care of family. This could also benefit other linguists at other bases so that the Air Force does not need to pay to have Airmen PCS.”

Mercer praised how Berlitz has been a great partner with a great program to help ensure the wing’s cryptologic Airmen are proficient within their trained language. Berlitz has worked with the 70th ISRW in the past offering a Russian language course for CLAs.

“Learning a language in general is very difficult,” said Mercer. “I don't envy what they must go through, Chinese and Russian are both extremely hard languages. Chinese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.”

Overall, learning a new language within a certain time frame can pose a challenge to any Airman. Textbooks and apps are being used to help the students decipher the material and better understand the language. This allows the training to be tailored to an individual’s preference of learning.

“Utilize your resources,” said Rickard. “Try everything until you find what works for you, and then use it until it stops working, then find the next thing that works for you. Flexibility may be the key to air power, but it is also the key to language learning. You are going to make a lot of mistakes, but that’s okay; there are 1001 lessons in defeat and only one in winning, so do not give up.”

This course will hopefully pave a way for more Airmen to become certified in Chinese-Mandarin.

“Without sufficient Chinese linguists, adversaries could easily exploit that intelligence gap, and we could be caught unaware and lose assets because we were unaware of an impending attack,” said Rickard. She added that understanding a foreign language is critical to building context that shapes options for senior leaders.

Upon completion, the newly trained Chinese-Mandarin CLAs may be reassigned to one of the wing’s geographically separated units that span 28 locations worldwide. Empowered with their honed skills, they will contribute to missions that fortify our nation's readiness to win any fight, anytime.