U.S. Military Slashes Foreign-Language Training

The cut to immersion programs comes as the Pentagon redirects resources to Trump’s border wall and reduces America’s troop presence overseas.

Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command David Halverson observes an Arabic immersion class at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center's facility in Seaside, California, on Feb. 20.
Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command David Halverson observes an Arabic immersion class at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center's facility in Seaside, California, on Feb. 20. Defense Department Photo

As U.S. President Donald Trump diverts more military resources to his long-promised wall with Mexico and seeks to reduce the United States’ troop presence abroad, his Pentagon is slashing funding for the Defense Language Institute’s overseas immersion programs, which help prepare students for duty abroad.

About 700 foreign-language students were preparing for their immersion courses when their funding was abruptly pulled this year.

“We were in the process of getting visas, and they cut it,” said one student whose Spanish-language immersion to Chile was cut in February. “They had already bought our flights.”

The cancellation of the Defense Language Institute’s immersion programs for all of fiscal year 2019 is part of a broader mandate by the U.S. Army to reduce spending on what the military calls “temporary duty”—travel or a limited assignment to a location other than the soldiers’ permanent duty station, said institute spokesperson Natela Cutter.

The Defense Language Institute cut is temporary; barring further guidance, the school intends to restart its immersion activities in fiscal year 2020, Cutter stressed.

The decision was not tied to Trump’s long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a senior defense official told Foreign Policy. But it comes as the Pentagon is diverting billions of dollars from other military priorities—construction projects, the war in Afghanistan, and a new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, to name a few—to fund the wall and border deployment.

“There is probably no better rhetorical analogy for this administration’s foreign policy than cutting Spanish language immersion programs [while building] a wall on the Southern border,” said the student, who requested anonymity.

The cut also comes as the Trump administration seeks to reduce U.S. military presence around the globe, withdrawing forces stationed in Syria and Africa.

On a macro level, the temporary duty cut will have a “pretty mild” impact, primarily manifesting in delays or cancellation of travel for conferences or courses, said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But for the individual soldier, “it can be very disruptive” to career development, he said.

For the Defense Language Institute students, many of whom are preparing for foreign area officer postings, exchange officer programs, or intelligence analyst jobs, the three-week to six-week in-country immersion programs are “irreplaceable,” both for language training and cultural understanding, according to the institute’s website.

Students who participate in the Defense Language Institute’s in-country immersion programs attend language and culture classes with the host institute and take part in daily “out-of-class activities” and weekly excursions, according to the institute. The school, which attracts students from the four U.S. military services, not just the Army, conducts programs all over the world, from Latin America to Africa and Asia.

During fiscal year 2018, the Army spent more than $1.5 billion on temporary duty expenses, Army Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a Jan. 15 memo obtained by Foreign Policy. Temporary duty assignments usually come with per diem pay, covering lodges, meals, and incidentals.

In the memo, which was distributed across the Army, Esper directed the service to reduce temporary duty expenses by 10 percent in order to focus resources on “higher priorities.” These areas are “readiness, modernization and reform,” according to an Army spokesperson.

“It is about leveraging information technology rather than travel,” a senior defense official told Foreign Policy of the change. “It is really about getting people to think about doing things better as part of [Esper’s] reform line of effort—being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

The last time the U.S. military cut temporary duty expenditures was 2013, as a way to offset congressionally mandated budget cuts under sequestration, Harrison said.

“Normally that’s the kind of thing that gets cut when you see the budget declining,” he said, noting that it is odd that the Army’s temporary duty cut comes as the U.S. military’s budget is increasing year after year.

But despite increasing budgets, the Army has been rummaging in the couch cushions to come up with additional resources for modernization and reforms. The temporary duty cut was part of what the Army calls the “night court” process, which took a detailed look at existing programs to see which ones were essential to the service’s goals, the senior official said.

As of October 2018, the service had found roughly $25 billion through the night court process to apply to its top priorities, which include a next-generation combat vehicle, air and missile defense, and increasing soldier lethality.

“Even though budgets are increasing, reform goes on because you can always modernize faster,” the official added.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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