Do We Still Have a Coalition of the Willing? Reinforcing National Security through Dedicated Cultural Training

By Mary Ogilvie
Estimated Time to Read: 13 minutes

Abstract: The U.S. has been working with collation partners for decades to address matters of global and national security. Alongside over 80 partner nations, the U.S. has accomplished milestones in the Global Fight against ISIS, which would not have been possible without such a combined front. Part of these successes are due to the DoD’s shift a decade ago to incorporate partner nations in our military processes to fuse holistic intelligence for decisionmakers through multiple coalition intelligence cells around the world. As the battlespace continues to shift from years of counterinsurgency to face revisionist powers and rogue states, the personnel identified to fill critical positions that interact with coalition members will determine the successes of future conflicts. This essay will describe some recent advances the US Air Force has made toward improving coalition intelligence operations and recommend ways to improve selection and training programs in the future.

America’s ability to build and maintain partner alliances has diminished in recent years but remains a necessary competitive advantage it must maintain over its rivals. Implicit in the US’s need to work with allies toward mutual goals is the imperative to improve intelligence sharing and partnering. Currently, the United States Air Force (USAF) does not have a structured training program that adequately assesses and trains personnel to fill critical positions in culturally diverse settings. Without this, the USAF is compromising key coalition relationships and assets that greatly contribute to the efforts and legitimacy of its international engagements. By establishing a method that integrates a prerequisite cultural awareness screening process with a training program to expand the cultural skillsets of those charged with interacting with coalition forces daily, the Air Force can ensure the U.S. will continue to grow and strengthen relations with its allies.

Investing in training for positions that interact with coalition partners daily will not only help strengthen and expand relationships that date back to WWII, but it will also solidify U.S. national security. The current U.S. National Security Strategy states, “Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States. They add directly to U.S. political, economic, military, intelligence, and other capabilities. Together, the United States and our allies and partners represent well over half of the global GDP. None of our adversaries have comparable coalitions.” The National Defense Strategy further emphasizes this point by stating, “We will develop enduring coalitions to consolidate gains we have made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, to support the lasting defeat of terrorists as we sever their sources of strength.”

The Advantage of Willing Coalitions

Perhaps one of the best examples of the importance of a coalition coming together to synchronize military power and actionable intelligence, which is gathered from and vetted by multiple sources to enable decision makers to take appropriate and timely actions, dates back to Operation Overlord in World War II.  As the decisive turning point in the war, the operation’s design and combined planning highlighted the sheer magnitude of what synchronizing all aspects of Allied capabilities could yield. Planners were able to organize over 1.5 million American and 600,000 British servicemen distributed throughout 2,000 camps and airfields into 20 U.S. and 16 British, Canadian, and Polish divisions in addition to ground, sea, and air forces. Above all, the combined power and intelligence behind the planning of the attack resulted in the first ally breach in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

Since then, the U.S. has continued working with coalition forces to augment its ground, air and naval, and other multi-domain capabilities around the world. From the post-WWII creation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which established an alliance to respond collectively to armed attacks, to the global coalition against Daesh, which was comprised of 82 partner nations, the U.S. has continued to fortify partnerships across the world to further national and global security. Fast forwarding to the early 2000s, the DoD recognized the importance of establishing intelligence fusion cells as the U.S. entered complex counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  In 2010, conversations with intelligence analysts at various agencies and military commands surfaced criticizing how the U.S. intelligence construct did not address fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operated. In response, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) directed the creation of stability operations information centers, or SOICs, to include local nationals to help create intelligence that incorporated multiple factors, including local populations, economic issues, development issues, and, to a lesser extent, the host-nation government. However, due to classification issues of coalition partners, these centers were not located within the main intelligence fusion cells. In 2014, the first actual coalition cell was created within an air operations center to formally support a Combined Joint Task Force.

The US Air Forces Central Command formed the Coalition Intelligence Fusion Cell (CIFC) at Al Udied Air Base, Qatar in 2014 initially with only three partner European nations. In the six years since, the cell has grown to encompass personnel from 12 NATO and Middle Eastern nations. Currently, the CIFC mirrors a U.S.- led intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) division with various sections that help complete the intelligence cycle: airborne intelligence collection, imagery analysis, and targeting. Each member is trained to fill the specific needs of that section allowing that individual to hit the ground running when they reach the CIFC and subsequently integrate with the rest of the CAOC.  It does not, however, instill develop within its analysts the most important aspect of working in a coalition intelligence environment: cultural intelligence.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

Today, across multiple major commands, the Department of Defense employs coalition intelligence cells to augment air operations centers to deliver timely, accurate, and actionable intelligence, and, importantly, to provide legitimacy when the U.S. and its allies launch air campaigns in geographically contested areas. During my time as its deputy chief from October 2019 through February 2020, the CIFC at Al Udied directly contributed to the military’s success in defeating the physical caliphate of ISIS, to include enabling numerous kinetic strikes, thousands of hours of  ISR support to ground forces, and critical intelligence from coalition special forces. As many U.S. Central Command’s ISR assets were reallocated to support other major commands in 2019, CIFC negotiated ways to leverage partner aircraft to fulfill thousands of ISR requirements that would have otherwise gone unfilled. Furthermore, as CIFC continued to promote how to leverage partner capabilities to task forces supporting Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), it was able to secure the extension of partner contributions, to include numerous Eurofighters, to combat and ultimately defeat Daesh. From the tactical to the strategic level, dozens of coalition fusion cells were created to augment operations abroad. Fortunately, the CAOC had a pool of analysts available with experiences in specialized DoD cultural programs and/or had existing cultural experiences in various AF language programs from which the ISR Division Chief could leverage in support of these cultural intelligence efforts. Unfortunately, the selection process for positions in CIFC and other coalition cells is usually random and tailored only to billet-specific responsibilities, which systemically prevents proactive talent management.

The Necessity of Wearing Blue and Green Hats

Today, the battlespace is evolving, moving from years of counterinsurgency operations to facing revisionist powers like Russia and China, while also continuing to counter the destabilizing efforts of Iran. The complexity of the current security environment demands that the U.S. evaluates if the DoD is ready in terms of manpower, equipment, and training readiness to execute combined operations of similar sophistication. Unfortunately, U.S. servicemembers filling these coalition-engaging billets are not practiced enough in service-based skills to hold a unified front against emerging threats. Building a culturally empathetic force that is able see through the lens of U.S. allies and enemies is the most critical step in building and strengthening this ability to connect with allies and understand how the enemy thinks and acts.

There have been multiple studies since the turn of the 21st century that underpin the importance and necessity to build a work force that can see beyond cultural-level differences in today’s globalized economy. In his widely acclaimed research, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner recognized that there are multiple forms of intelligence critical for solving problems, beyond that of the traditional focus on academic and cognitive problem solving capabilities. One of them is cultural intelligence, which Dr. Soon Ang of the Nanyang Technological University calls the capability to function and manage effectively in culturally diverse settings. Since the publication Dr. Ang’s work on cultural intelligence in 2007, which proposes a set of capabilities comprising mental, motivational, and behavioral components that focus specifically on resolving cross-cultural problems, there has been an uptick in scholarly dialogue on the importance of focusing on these capabilities when hiring and training our work forces to resolve cross-cultural barriers.

These mental, motivational, and behavioral components, or the ability to recognize one’s own biases and how they shape views on other cultural norms, the ability to direct attention and energy towards understanding these cultural differences, as well as the ability to exhibit verbal and nonverbal actions in culturally diverse settings respectively, are now incorporated into training programs of Fortune 500 companies due to the need to train and select the appropriate individuals for international affairs. In fact, according to a survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit, 90 percent of executives from 68 countries cite ‘cross-cultural management’ as a top challenge in their industries. As such, companies like Berlitz and Prudential have dedicated intercultural service divisions, while others like Coca-Cola and Google invest in Intercultural assessments that can be used as part of the onboarding process. By 2024, the cross-cultural training market is expected to grow by USD 1.22 billion.

Putting Cultural Intelligence into Practice

An after action study carried out by the DIA at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence at Fort Hauchuca (USAICoE), which took feedback from participants at a mock Coalition Intelligence Fusion Cell Course (CIFCC), highlighted themes that align with the aforementioned need to incorporate cultural intelligence training. U.S. allied partners commented on the need for joint and combined instruction and outlined several requirements to build a successful cultural intelligence training program: 1. Describe the “how” of U.S. information sharing; 2.  Discuss and understand bilateral agreements and how they can influence the collection and targeting cycle; 3. Understand and expand the Foreign Disclosure Office (FDO) process to seamlessly integrate intelligence sharing; 4. Establish better architecture for communication between allied and U.S. intelligence channels 5. Define how to continuously update and approve an evolving CONOP; and 6. The need for mid-level company grade officers to work together in order to develop common solutions to overcome the multiple barriers encountered in a collation environment. In summary, the coalition commented on the need to reduce the U.S.-centric focus of the intelligence and targeting cycle by implementing procedures and transparent direction of expectation that allow for all nations to both contribute and receive actionable intelligence.

The first two USAICoE-led iterations of the CIFCC took place in 2017 and 2018, at which representatives from all FVEY countries came together to participate in and refine the course on how a multinational coalition can provide timely and accurate intelligence to the warfighter. According to the course description, the ultimate goal of the course was to reduce the cognitive barriers that inhibit common efforts among habitual mission partners to increase interoperability of intelligence activities in a joint environment. While all participants agreed that a course of this nature was necessary to prepare intelligence personnel to work efficiently in a joint environment, they also agreed that the current course did not effectively meet the intelligence demands for leaders in a multi-national environment. The course was developed to mimic the structure of a U.S. intelligence cell structure but with the addition of coalition partners. As highlighted above by the course feedback, this did not allow for coalition members to become truly incorporated in the intelligence process. As such, frustrations arose from both parties, to include easily avoidable biases such as U.S. partner expectations that certain collection and targeting processes did not need to be explained as they were already predetermined as the best fit for a joint environment.

Even though working in a coalition environment is not new, a functioning coalition intelligence cell is a nascent concept. As such, there is no formal training one must undergo, besides those dictated by the actual billets on how to perform daily intelligence tasks. While having an existing language skillset through programs such as the Language Enabled Airman Program is beneficial, it is not an expedient or encompassing solution for all troops slated to work with multinational partners. However, by extending deployment lengths for certain billets to at least six months, in conjunction with a two-part screening and training curriculum, the U.S. Air Force could invest a more into a measured application to select and train those best suited for these jobs.

Is It Possible to Train Intercultural Capabilities?

Luckily, intercultural competency evaluations exist to address areas that need to be developed further, as well as DoD language and cultural programs of the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) that are well equipped to improve future airmen’s cross-cultural competences. Both the Intercultural Adjustment Potential Scale (ICAPS) and Cultural Intelligence Scale (CQS) focus on measuring an individual’s intercultural skills and areas that may need improvement, to include emotion regulation, critical thinking, openness and flexibility to different leadership traits, tolerance for ambiguity, and emotional commitment to traditional ways of thinking. If AFCLC were to administer these instruments to understand levels of cultural intelligence across a group and address areas that may present challenges, individuals could then carry on those lessons to be further developed by hands-on training in a follow-on Mission Qualification Environment (MQE) as the one led by USAICoE. By incorporating this training in a mock coalition intelligence fusion cell course, which would serve as the individual’s mission qualification training (MQT) for a CIFC, U.S. analysts/Airmen can receive direct feedback, and engage in developing characteristics that will allow them to thrive in a multicultural environment—all without the risk of jeopardizing critical partnerships during follow-on assignments.

Now more than ever, as our battle space is shifting, ACC needs to implement a concrete training plan for personnel working in a coalition before the next major conflict when we will need our allies the most. No AFOQT or cultural Power Point could prepare young officers and enlisted personnel for the turbulent events that unfolded in just one year at the CAOC, to include: how to carry on with operations on the day of the Turkish offensive into Syria; how to work with foreign disclosure offices on pushing out pertinent information as quickly as legally possible while our bases in OIR were under attack, or how to deal with the prospect of partners potentially dialing back their contributions to OIR until otherwise convinced staying would benefit their national objectives. While CIFC personnel were trained how to carry out their roles during these events, how they communicated with the coalition members had profound effects on the messages they relayed back to their home countries. The Department of Defense needs an established training plan which incorporates baseline Cultural Quotient (CQ) assessments and creates tailored follow-on practical training opportunities for anyone slated to fill coalition roles. By establishing screening prerequisites like the Intercultural Adjustment Potential Scale (ICAPS) and Cultural Intelligence Scale (CQS), followed by hands-on training through a mock collation MQT, such as Fort Bragg’s course to allow applicants to develop necessary intercultural traits, the Air Force can begin to properly implement a training model for working in a multicultural environment.  Implementing dedicated cultural intelligence training is needed immediately, otherwise the U.S. risks embarrassment in front of our allies, breakdowns in crucial information gathering and sharing, and ultimately a degradation of combat effectiveness in the coalition fight.  The start of the next big fight, when the U.S. needs our allies the most, is too late to effectively train the right people for the right roles and will significantly degrade coalition forces’ ability to accomplish its shared mission in any domain or on any battlefield.

Captain Mary Ogilvie is an all source intelligence officer at the 58th Special Operations Wing, Kirtland AFB. During her time in the Air Force, she has been assigned to both European and Central Command theaters. Her previous experience includes tours at the Joint Intelligence Operations Center in European Command, as well as an Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance analyst and deputy to the Coalition Intelligence Fusion Cell in Central Command.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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