A Foreign Area Officer (FAO) is a commissioned officer from any of the four branches of the United States Armed Forces who is a regionally focused expert in political-military operations. Such officers possess a unique combination of strategic focus and regional expertise, with political, cultural, sociological, economic, and geographic awareness. Foreign language proficiency is necessary in at least one of the dominant languages in their specified region. A FAO will typically serve overseas tours as a defense attaché, a security assistance officer, or as a political-military planner in a service's headquarters, Joint Staff, Major Commands, Unified Combatant Commands, or in agencies of the Department of Defense. They also serve as arms control specialists, country desk officers, liaison officers, and Military Personnel Exchange Program (MPEP) officer to host nation or coalition allies. Recently, increasing numbers of FAOs are serving as political and cultural advisors to combatant staffs in support of the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan. Presently, there are just over 2,200 FAOs in active operational capacities, while roughly 25 percent are still in training. The services plan to recruit and train more than 170 a year, with almost 1,100 new FAOs entering the program by 2014.
Roles and responsibilities of FAOs are extensive and varied. They advise senior leaders on political-military operations and relations with other nations, provide cultural expertise to forward-deployed commands conducting military operations, built and maintain long-term relationships with foreign leaders, develop and coordinate security cooperation, execute security assistance programs with host nations, and develop reports on diplomatic, information, military, and economic activities.
The Army Foreign Area Officer Program is a single-track FAO program managed by G-35, SSF, which is the Strategic Leadership Division. It is by far the largest and oldest FAO program of the Services. The Proponent Office is responsible for establishing policy guidance and FAO career field development as well as establishing specific programs focused on the accession, training, education, distribution, utilization, deployment, and separation of FAOs. Currently, there are 1,257 Army FAOs either in training or fully qualified. Army FAOs are categorized by areas of concentration that correspond with their respective military occupational specialty, further grouped in scope by functional areas. Army FAOs are divided into nine categories of regional areas of expertise and language skills:
- 48B - Latin America
- 48C – Europe
- 48D – South Asia
- 48E – Eurasia
- 48F – China
- 48G – Middle East
- 48H – Northeast Asia
- 48I – Southeast Asia
- 48J – Africa, south of the Sahara
The International Affairs Officer Program replaced the FAO and International Relations Officer Program in the Marine Corps in 2000, which is an umbrella program that governs two separate, but interrelated military occupational specialty: the Foreign Area Officer (994x) and the Regional Affairs Officer (982x) designations. Much like the USAF dual-track system, RAOs are basically FAOs without local language skills. There are approximately 280 FAOs and 80 RAOs in the Marine Corps, distributed amongst the following specialties:
- 9821 – RAO Latin America
- 9822 – RAO former Soviet Union
- 9823 - RAO China
- 9824 – RAO Middle East/North Africa
- 9825 – RAO Sub-Saharan Africa
- 9826 – RAO Southwest Asia
- 9827 – Western Europe
- 9828 – Eastern Asia (excluding China)
- 9829 – RAO Eastern Europe (excluding former Soviet Union)
- 9940 – Basic FAO
- 9941 – FAO Latin America
- 9942 – FAO Former Soviet Union
- 9943 – FAO China
- 9944 – FAO Middle East/North Africa
- 9945 – FAO Sub-Saharan Africa
- 9946 – FAO Southwest Asia
- 9947 – FAO Western Europe
- 9948 – FAO East Asia (excluding China)
- 9949 – FAO Eastern Europe (excluding former Soviet Union)
- Foreign Area Officer (FAO) (Active Component only): 1710.
- Foreign Area Officer (FAO) in training (Active Component only): 1710, also known as FAO Under Instruction.
Navy FAOs are apportioned amongst the five regional Unified Combatant Commands:
- United States European Command
- United States Central Command
- United States Africa Command
- United States Pacific Command
- United States Southern Command
The International Affairs Specialist Program is the Air Force component, and encompasses two officer types: the Regional Affairs Strategist and Political-Military Affairs Strategist. Both tracks remain under the Air Force Specialty Code 16: 16F for RAS and 16P for PAS. PAS development begins in conjunction with Intermediate Developmental Education, and officers serve in similar positions as RAS officers do, but perform duties that require a broad knowledge of political-military affairs rather than regional expertise with foreign language skills. RAS officers are distributed amongst the following subcategories:
- A – Attaché
- B – Central Asia/East Europe/Russia
- C – Latin America
- D – East Asia/China
- E – Southeast Asia
- F – Middle East/North Africa
- G – Sub-Saharan Africa
- H – Western Europe
Accession & training
Acceptance into the FAO programs typically requires at least 7–10 years of commissioned service, since most FAO positions are designated for that of a field-grade officer (Marines being the exception, whom only require 3 years). The FAO accession process is lengthy process and requires meticulous review of every candidate applying. While all DoD branches are in the process of expanding their FAO (or FAO equivalent) Programs, FAO accession remains one of the most highly competitive processes of the US military. On average, more than eight candidates compete for every single FAO slot available. Generally speaking, applicants must have at a minimum the following:
- Top secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance, (or at least be eligible)
- Primary MOS or warfare area qualification
- Broad military experience in their assigned MOS
- A score of 95 or better on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery or a Defense Language Proficiency Tests score of 2/2.
- 2.7 GPA or higher (on a scale of 4.0) with an undergraduate degree
- Must have a rank of O3 or above
FAO training varies amongst all four DoD branches, but usually takes a minimum of 3–5 years before FAOs can utilize their skills in an operational capacity, depending upon the qualifications of the candidate at the time of accession.
- 1 year at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California where a graduate degree is completed in national security affairs with an emphasis on the target region.
- Foreign Area Officer Orientation Course, a 3-day introductory course into their career path.
- 6 – 15 months of basic language training, depending upon the language(s) selected and the level of difficulty, at either the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey or Defense Language Institute-Washington.
- 6–12 months conducting in-country training for area familiarization, language enrichment, professional development in the target region, etc.
- Subsequent FAO tours.
- Joint Foreign Area Officer Skill Sustainment Pilot Program, an advanced education course for mid-career FAOs piloted by political scientist Tristan James Mabry at the Naval Postgraduate School.
A long road exists between accession and full FAO qualification. It takes between 3–5 years of training, education, and actual FAO tour performance before FAO trainees are ever even considered for full designation and qualification as an FAO. Standard requirements of fully qualified FAOs generally include the following:
- Advanced degree(s) with a regional focus.
- Defense Language Proficiency Test score of 2 in listening and 2 in reading, and a goal of 1 in speaking.
- Regional Expertise at a level 3 or above, per Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Instruction 3126.01.
- Defense Language Aptitude Battery general score of 95 (prior to being considered for acceptance into the FAO program).
- Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance.
- Joint Professional Military Education Phase 1 complete (if applicable, typically for Navy and Marines).
- Overseas assignment and screening clearance.
- At least one overseas FAO tour in progress or completed.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness is the proponent for FAO programs for the DoD. He or she establishes DoD accession, education, and utilization policy for Foreign Area Officers. FAO guidance, directives, and standards for all military branch FAO programs are promulgated by DoD Directive 1315.17. The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence oversees FAO capabilities, needs, and utilization in the DoD Agencies that they respectively supervise. For combat support activities, such oversight is conducted in conjunction with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Defense Language Office ensures a strategic focus on meeting present and future requirements for language and regional expertise, among military and civilian employees. This office's main responsibilities are to oversee and manage the implementation of a comprehensive Department-wide Language Transformation Roadmap; identify policy, procedural, and resource needs associated with providing needed language capability; oversee policy regarding the development, management, and utilization of civilian employees and members of the Armed Forces; and conduct research and analyze studies, reports, and lessons learned from the Global War on Terrorism and current military operations as they pertain to language and regional area expertise.
While promotion levels vary between the branches, retention rates of FAOs are higher than service averages. The bulk of the FAO community is primarily composed of field grade officers, though general and flag officers include General John Abizaid, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, Brigadier General Charles Hooper, Brigadier General Richard M. Lake, Brigadier General Henry Nowak, Brigadier General Mark O’Neill, Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, and Rear Admiral Douglas Venlet.
This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Government.
- Department of Defense. “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap” 2005.
- Wolfowitz, Paul (April 28, 2005). "Department of Defense Directive 1315.17 - Service Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Programs". Deputy Secretary of Defense. United States Department of Defense. http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/131517p.pdf. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Boraz, LCDR Steven C. (June 2005). "Behind the Curve in Culture-Centric Skills". Proceedings. http://www.donhcs.com/hsr/20_october/doc/Boraz%20Behind%20the%20Curve%20culture%20centric%20skills.pdf. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Morgan Jr., VADM John G. (May 4, 2006). "OPNAVINST 1301.10B Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Program". Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans, Policy, and Operations). United States Navy. http://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/01000%20Military%20Personnel%20Support/01-300%20Assignment%20and%20Distribution%20Services/1301.10B.pdf. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
- Casey, Jr., GEN George W. (February 1, 2010). "Department of the Army Pamphlet 600–3: Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management". Chief of Staff of the United States Army. United States Army. http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/p600_3.pdf. Retrieved 20 April 2010.
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