Defense to begin recruiting foreign language corps

The Defense Department is assembling a corps of people fluent in critical foreign languages to serve the nation during times of emergency or international need.

By 2010, the department will recruit at least 1,000 people to serve in the new National Language Service Corps, said Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of Defense for plans and head of the Defense Senior Language Authority. "We're going out to America and asking those who have foreign language skills to come and use them in support of the U.S. government," she said.

Congress gave Defense the authority to start a pilot project to create the corps in the fiscal 2007 Defense authorization act.

While the pilot launched last year, the department has not yet begun recruiting. The early stages have involved developing a concept of operations as well as determining how to recruit, test and certify people with foreign language skills, said Robert Slater, director of the National Security Language Program. Now that much of that groundwork has been laid, the department plans to begin recruiting this month.

To entice people to serve, the Pentagon plans to launch a Web site highlighting the benefits of serving in the language corps. Slater said incentives include not only competitive compensation but the advantage of being identified with an organization that values foreign language skills and the use of government-funded software to maintain language skills.

"The Defense Department and the federal government at large have spent a lot of money developing language maintenance and enhancement technology," Slater said. "We're capitalizing on the technology that's already developed and making it available."

The department is developing a list of languages deemed critical, and plans to have it finalized in the next couple of weeks. The list will include at least nine languages, but Arabic probably will not be among them. "Arabic is a heavily recruited language already," Slater said. "We'd rather look at some other languages right now."

The pilot project includes a $19 million contract awarded to General Dynamics Information Technology under which the company will create a language training and communications center, recruit corps members and provide personnel support.

"General Dynamics has assembled an outstanding team of consultants and subcontractors to represent all the expertise we need to build this -- language testing, marketing and human resources," Slater said. "They're ahead of schedule in terms of progress."

He said the department hopes to assess by the end of this year whether the pilot is working. If it proves successful, Defense will structure a proposal to make the language corps permanent by the end of the pilot in 2010.

While the project is being run within Defense, the concept holds benefits for the rest of government, McGinn said. "We looked at other agencies to determine what their needs might be," she said. "We're working to understand how [other agencies] can use this corps of people and bring them in when there are national needs."

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