Building real partnerships: How LEAP helped me create mutually beneficial relationships between U.S., German Airmen



Commentary by Lt. Col. Steacy W. Housholder
603rd Air Operations Center


1/21/2014 - Ramstein Air Base, Germany -- In a world of increasing threats and decreasing budgets, the ability to effectively work with our partner nations is critical. This skill set must be learned, and it must be practiced. The Language Enabled Airman Program is one way the Air Force is ensuring Airmen have this ability. LEAP is a career-spanning program that develops and reinforces foreign language capabilities and cross-cultural competence.

Understanding our allies goes well beyond simple translation. Foreign language ability, rooted in culture, gives a frame of reference and helps us pick up on the critical subtleties of what someone is trying to communicate. The immediate impact of culturally competent foreign language ability is more effective communication. The long-term impact is developing real relationships and trust with colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds.

I've been a LEAP participant for two years. The program is administered by the Air Force Culture and Language Center, part of Air University's Carl A. Spaatz Center for Officer Education, at Maxwell Air Force Base. A key feature of LEAP is participating in Language Intensive Training Events, or LITEs. The LITEs are rigorous, immersive language-based temporary duty assignments, either in the United States or in the country where the participant's foreign language is spoken. LITEs reinforce the language with practical application and, equally important, provide a firsthand cultural perspective.

My own experience in Germany is a real success story about how a cultural understanding can lead to more effective communication and directly impact our Air Force mission. I am a bomber pilot by trade, not a linguist. I flew B-52 and B-2 bombers for most of my Air Force career and was stationed in the Midwest for the entire time. Although I minored in German many years ago, I did not have a real practical command of the language. Surprisingly, it is challenging to find opportunities to build and maintain my language skills here at Ramstein. We are all simply too busy with our primary jobs. LEAP gave me a way to bring my foreign language skills as part of my daily job on the Target Effects Team in the 603rd Air and Space Operations Center.

In January, a German delegation came through the AOC here at Ramstein. I had actually worked for one of the delegates and had even shared a meal or two with him. He remembered me and asked if I could travel to the German National Combined Air Operations Center at Kalkar. My leadership had wanted to open up such a dialogue and initiative for some time, but when the opportunity actually came, it came because of individual trust and relationship building, not high-level discussions. Unfortunately, we were unable to make this trip because of lack of funding.

That's when the LEAP administrators contacted me about completing a LITE. I proposed tying my own LITE to my invite for a visit to the German CAOC. I put together a proposal to establish a foundation for practical interoperability based on our USAFE mission of engagement. This LITE would establish and reinforce connectivity between the U.S. National AOC at Ramstein and the German National CAOC at Kalkar. It could then be used as a template for future interoperability efforts with other national command and control agencies and with other partner nations.

I traveled to Kalkar in order to establish contact and determine the potential for command and control interoperability. I shared many meals with the German air force during this time, and I developed many new friendships. I saw more than just the German National CAOC, though, I saw the people. Speaking with them on a regular basis, on a more personal level, enabled me to see how I could ask them to work with us, not just what I could ask them to do for us. There is a subtle, yet important difference here. The result of work done from the first perspective is much more effective. To the unit, the purpose was to help with manning shortfalls. Functionally, this translated into the development of a contact list to link functional positions in the 603rd AOC with counterparts at the German National CAOC. This may have helped, but is not near as effective as it is when I put together a list of people, with whom I had already spoken. My LITE program enabled me to bring back personal contacts, not just phone numbers, for each of our positions in the 603rd AOC.

In addition to relationship building, we were all able to identify 27 specific discussion points and interoperability opportunities within the first week of my LITE program. This was very quickly expanded to over 70 initiatives. Training, exercises and operations were all considered as they related to hardware infrastructure, data connectivity and tactics, techniques and procedures. Barriers to interoperability and potential solutions were addressed. Full AOC interoperability will enable U.S. allies to provide much needed support in a financially, technically and politically feasible manner. The effort underscored, reinforced and established the need for expanded cross talk! We now regularly bring German officers into the AOC in order to train to work with our partner nations. There are naturally limitations and barriers, but identifying those is as important as breaking them down.

The work of establishing practical command and control interoperability is ongoing. It is expanding each week into new areas: space, communications, personnel recovery, airlift, and many more. We are now writing Memorandums of Agreement to formalize all these efforts and to emphasize the commitment of both the U.S. Air Force and German air force. Action officers and subject matter experts at multiple levels are regularly meeting to discuss workload sharing potential. As I reflect on where this has gone and on where it could go, I am reminded of where it all started. I am grateful to those in the Air Force Culture and Language Center, and especially those with the LEAP program, for giving me the tremendous support and opportunity to leverage my language skills for the Air Force. Language skills are force multipliers! We in the 603rd AOC are all now believers. My leadership would even like to facilitate future LITE programs all over Europe and Africa because of the direct impact that it has already brought us in the mission.

As crises continue to increase around Europe and Africa, changes in our force structure require us to increase our partnerships with allied nations. This workload sharing can relieve some of our (and their) manning shortfalls, not only in crisis, but also in steady state operations. The key to such a capability is in developing the necessary trust with individuals working for a partner nation. This will not happen if interactions never go any further than polite English greetings and tours of our airbases. As a foreign officer and good friend of mine once said, "Trust is built when someone is willing to step outside of his or her comfort zone, go to a foreign air base and share a meal with some new friends in their dining hall."

Editor's note: There are two application periods each year to participate in the Language Enabled Airman Program. One application period is for officers, and one is for enlisted Airmen. The next application period is for enlisted Airmen and is from Feb. 3 through March 7. Learn more about LEAP at culture.af.mil/LEAP.