None of the Air Force linguists spoke Ukrainian. Then Russia invaded.
The Pentagon knew something was brewing in Ukraine.
Air Force reconnaissance planes had flown over Eastern Europe for months, staffed with military linguists who could interpret what neighboring Russian forces were discussing as they prepared to invade the Neighboring Ukraine in February. The United States had pledged solidarity with Europe’s second-largest country and approved more than $1 billion in military aid.
There was just one problem.
“We don’t have specific Ukrainian linguists. We don’t train Ukrainian,” the master sergeant said. Bobby Brown, airborne language analyst program manager, told the Air Force Times recently during a visit to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
As the situation along Ukraine’s borders – and ultimately, within them – grew more serious, the Air Force raced to find troops capable of passing the test of Pentagon’s Ukrainian proficiency.
Some with family ties to the country already spoke it, while others with an appetite for languages set out to learn it. Airmen studying Russian could also help in a pinch, as the two share similar alphabets, grammar and vocabulary.
“The Air Force Department has the ability to track language capabilities in military personnel systems and can quickly identify Airmen/Guardians with the required language skills, including Ukrainian,” the agency said Friday. Service spokesperson Laura McAndrews.
The Air Force “jumped to meet the emerging need” for Russian-speaking analysts early in the conflict, she added.
McAndrews declined to answer the number of Ukrainian and Russian linguists currently supporting US and NATO operations related to the four-month war, citing operational security.
The Pentagon’s Defense Language Institute trains service members in a dozen languages, including French, Spanish, Indonesian, Farsi, Russian, Tagalog, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Pashto and four dialects Arabs. The most difficult courses can last more than a year.
These airmen tend to specialize in one of a few key languages at a time – usually Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Arabic. But it’s more complicated than knowing how to request a bathroom.
Crypt language analysts, as they are officially called, intercept messages and conversations from foreign troops and policy makers so that the United States is informed of its possible next steps. This comes in handy for tracking troop movements in the field in real time as well as planning longer-term missions.
“We have our own slang and our own acronyms and things we talk about that are not conversational language,” said Maj. Eric Armstrong, an RC-135 Rivet Joint pilot who is now deputy director of the rebuilding effort. from the base at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, where airborne linguists are first stationed at the 97th Intelligence Squadron.
“They need to understand the military language of the mission…so they can get, ‘This type of person is probably talking to this type of person in this role about these things,'” he said.
Intelligence is channeled through organizations such as the National Security Agency and shared with countries that work with the United States. This collaboration helped Ukrainian troops kill several Russian generals and sink a key warship in the Black Sea.
“If it’s a threat to our partners, we’re able to tell them that threat,” Armstrong said. “We may not have to give them the whole ‘who, what, why and where’, but we can tell them, ‘Hey, there’s something dangerous and be careful.’
Service members who are proficient in other languages can also help train foreign forces.
For example, Air Force Captain Jordan Garcia acted as an interpreter for Ukrainian students at the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School, a U.S. Navy program in Mississippi that trains troops from foreign special operations to tactics and strategy earlier this year.
Garcia, who speaks Ukrainian and Russian, was part of the Air Force’s Language-Enabled Airman program. The initiative offers online courses for active duty Airmen and Space Force Custodians to gain a working knowledge of a foreign language.
“Being up and running was essential, so there wasn’t a lot of time to get familiar with the technical terminology related to the topics,” he said in a May 12 statement. “My development through LEAP training and eMentor courses helped me adapt and learn at the speed I needed.”
Garcia spent three weeks with the Ukrainians as they completed courses in patrol boats, diesel systems maintenance and international tactical communications. The students were in Mississippi when Russian forces invaded their home country on February 24.
“One of the Ukrainian students originally worked as an interpreter for the other students,” Garcia said. “After following her for a day, I stepped in and did the interpreting for all the Ukrainian students so she could focus on learning the material.”
In many cases, getting someone up to speed with deciphering military chatter in a foreign language – heard over creaking headphones, during a crisis, with little backup – requires cutting what is typically an 18-month process into a few weeks.
The US military faced this time crunch by pulling out of its two-decade war in Afghanistan last summer.
In May 2021, the Air Force had just eight linguists who spoke Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages spoken by about half the population, said Armstrong, who helped run the retired as Director of Operations at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, before moving to Offutt.
“It was an absolute nightmare. Between [RC-135 Rivet Joints and EC-130H Compass Calls], we separated them as best we could,” Armstrong told the Air Force Times in April. “We brought in people who had already gone to other languages, but weren’t quite qualified yet.”
This included two Chinese experts who had previously studied Pashto.
“Trying to spin them in order to safely cross the pullout from Afghanistan was a challenge,” Armstrong said.
That number grew from eight people to about 130 Airmen who provided language support during the massive U.S.-led humanitarian evacuation and domestic relocation effort, McAndrews said. These Airmen acted as advocates for the Afghan evacuees as they tried to find a way forward with the U.S. military, federal agencies and non-governmental organizations.
“For Operation Allies Refuge/Operation Allies Welcome, the linguist teams in the camps have been a key asset. With linguistic and cultural expertise, they were injected into every role at every step of the process without any formal training for this type of assignment,” McAndrews said.
Despite a constant need for foreign language fluency in its ranks, the Air Force has not found a way to avoid the last-minute rush for multilingual Airmen in an emergency.
Part of the problem is that the service must reserve places at the Defense Language Institute five years in advance. The army is in charge of training there analysts of cryptological language.
“We basically have to plan for the disorders, the crises of the world, five years from now – we can’t really do that. It’s constantly a struggle,” said Brown, a Chinese scholar.
He noted that the military tried ways to quickly reassign its linguists as needed, but it didn’t go well.
“They’re trying, as best they can, to keep everybody going and keeping everybody relevant,” Brown said.
McAndrews said the Air Force launched a pilot program, dubbed “Linguist Next,” at the institute with the goal of accelerating language expertise. The service hopes that more frequent proficiency testing will build this knowledge faster than in the regular IDD course.
Entrepreneurs also help retrain linguists who need to brush up on a new language, she said.
The military wants additional and more stable funding for its various foreign language teaching programs for a more stable bank of polyglots. For now, the Air Force is prioritizing languages that align with national defense strategy.
This document positions the United States in military competition with China and Russia, with less emphasis on fighting North Korea, Iran and violent insurgencies around the world.
“Language actions across the Air Force are in high demand and are an important and expensive resource to build and maintain,” McAndrews said. “The Air Force works closely with the Department of Defense through a multitude of task forces to find the right balance of capability to meet our nation’s and service needs.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .