View Full Version : The Army's FAO Program -- Room for Improvement?

09-29-2010, 05:07 PM
I'm new to posting to the SWJ community. I've got a draft piece on the Army's FAO program. My thesis is that it's a good program, but that there's room for improvement.

The community's thoughts are appreciated.


Tom Odom
09-29-2010, 05:44 PM
Interesting paper and you raise points that have been debated before. The critical decison that has to drive FAO training is the intended role of the FAO. I maintain it is strategic scout and that the only way to do that is focus on the region, whether deployed or in a CONUS assignment.

Operational relevancy is driven by that competency. We used to hear that FAOs gained credibility by the fact that they commanded a battalion. Damn few commanded and most of the ones who did were useless as FAOs. They had not developed the sensing for their region to make them competent FAOs. There are exceptions of course; Old Eagle is one.

Language competency is always an issue and one we are not likely to completely fix. I will tell you that State and CIA have not fixed it either, regardless of what those agencies claim.

Final thought on relevancy and competency; where the Army could make FAOs more relevant at the senior officer level is make sure that FAOs are included in the resident war college classes. We are the only element in the Army that deals with strategy and regional issues as our central focus. We are also the most experienced hands in the interagency game. Teaching future senior leaders by teaming them with FAOs would help educate that leadership.

Some will get it. Some won't. I was fortunate in 2009 to serve as a POLAD to one who understood.

Best regards,


Old Eagle
09-29-2010, 09:08 PM
Good paper, but it would be stronger with more facts and statistical analysis, especially if this is an academic endeavor. Anecdotal evidence is always heavy on the anecdote and light on the evidence. (Sorry for the discourse, but I teach in my spare time.)

As Tom mentioned, these issues continue to rear their ugly little beanheads over and over. There is no definitive solution; we can only try to get "good enough". There are numerous opinions on how to do that, but that's what most of them are, just opinions (defn of opinion -- like certain body parts, everyone has one and I think yours stinks).

I come from the school that says that operational assignments matter. I wrote so in a passionate article in the FAO Journal about 100 years ago. I did manage to balance operational and FAO assignments, and was a better FAO for it. The other school of thought holds that if you spend too much time with troops, your FAO skills atrophy too much. I was taught early on in my career that if you want to be competitive, you worked harder and sometimes longer to keep to the head of the pack. With the internet, that is much easier than "back in the day." I can read all sorts of foreign publications, monitor regional discussion boards, etc. And as important as regional skills are, I will also tell you that the more general FAO skills involving cross-cultural communication, critical thinking, etc. can be applied outside the region. When I arrived in Afgh, I hardly knew "boo" about the country and the situation on the ground, in spite of self-taught crash courses before deployment. Yet my general skills helped me "read" my counterparts, take socially appropriate actions, and drink tea until I almost peed my pants.

You have certainly hit several high points of the challenges out there. I would love to see the numbers involved from the proponent's office. The Army's approach to your issues has varied over the years. There are a coupla good historical pieces out there that track some of the developments and changes over the years.

PM me and I'll work up some more coherent thoughts.

09-30-2010, 09:21 PM
I have no knowledge of the US FAO programme, except for Tom's book and reading comments here, nor whether other nations have similar schemes.

I am mindful that desk bound alternatives exist - in theory IMHO - and ones that have no "boots on the ground". As illustrated by an article in The Economist on computers and social networking analysis:http://www.economist.com/node/16910031?story_id=16910031

Thankfully it cites a project on the Sudan (which Toms knows IIRC):
Country analyses have great potential in peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations, according to Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She is developing a societal model of Sudan with a team of about 40 researchers. Foreign aid workers and diplomats frequently stumble in Sudan because they fail to work out which tribal and political leaders they should work with, and how.

Ms Carley’s model, known as ORA, analyses a decade of data on such things as weather, land and water disputes, cabinet reshuffles, reactions to corruption, court cases, economic activity and changes in tribal geographic maps. Within the information that emerges are lists of the locals most likely to co-operate with Westerners, with details of the role each would best play. This depth of insight, a demonstration of the power of network analysis today, will only grow.

John T. Fishel
10-01-2010, 12:18 PM
FAOs would rotate between branch and FAO assignments with no penalty for the extended FAO training. Well, the world is not ideal. The attempt to fix some of the inequities that came in OPM XXI did smooth out the FAO career path to rank, Unlike the bad old days, few of today's FAOs will retire as Majors while many more than in the past will retire as full Colonels. What won't happen is that FAOs will not make general without the help of the Fairy Godmother Department (which everyone knows is quixotic at best:)). So, there will be no more Fred Woerners, Karl Eikenberrys, John Ellersons, Joe Stringhams, et. al.

A second point is that if you want to put FAOs in command positions for MiTTs, you will have to direct the command selection boards to weight FAO much more highly. In the bad old days, this kind of thing was done, but haphazardly. That was, in fact, how John Waghelstein got selected for Colonel and was positioned to be selected to command MILGP El Salvador.

Third, I beg to differ on language. In my experience (48 years in and out of Latin America) the way to keep language up and advance it is to use it. That means being assigned to places where the opportunity exists to live and work "on the economy." Additional training may be nice but it really doesn't beat using the language every day. Generally, the FAO who uses the language does so by choice. It is easy enough to fall back on working in English and socializing with English speaking nationals. And no amount of additional training is going to overcome that propensity.

Fourth, the ability to empathize with another culture is something that cannot be taught. Some have it, some don't. Education and training can enhance the ability or conversely, give those who don't a degree of sensitivity to the issue. But this is a talent... and like all talents can't be taught.

Fifth, just because an officer is a FAO does not mean that the talents and skills are transferable in every case from region to region. While I have seen any number of FAOs who could and did operate well cross-culturally in multiple regions, I have also seen some who never could make the transition.

Sixth, it is essential to remember that as a FAO one is an American military officer who must be professionally current and competent to do his branch and FAO jobs. Indeed, the FAO must be generally current and competent in military matters because the FAO job will almost certainly cross branch (and even service) lines. Which brings us back to Old Eagle's comments on the bad old days. Dual tracking, IMO, generally was good for the FAO, the Army, DOD, and the nation. In fixing the inequities, we lost something that has yet to be regained.



Tom Odom
10-01-2010, 01:08 PM
I will offer a couple of more points.

a. Dual tracking versus single tracking--depends on the individual, that person's professional ethic, and branch. I knew dual trackers who were incompetent in both their tracks. I knew generals who claimed FAO qualifications but never served in a 48 assignment. I knew FAO single trackers who completely lost touch with the Army. In my case I was a defact single track MI FAO for 15+ years on active duty and a rather unique year last year as a civilian FAO. MI used me as a FAO strategic analyst in MI assignments so while I was essentuially single tracked I was slotted in MI jobs on occasion, one of which was current intell for the Army staff in Desert Shield and Storm. Indeed the DCSINT in the Army in the late 80s used to say he was glad that DCSOPS had the FAO program because Army Intell got its strategic analysts for free. My bottom line is that it depends on the individual's goals and the Army's ability to use what it has in hand. FAOs--good FAOs that is--do not follow cookie cutters and as soon as some personnel professional starts down that road, the Army starts losing.

b. On crossing regions, I was also somehwt unique in that I qualfied and held two regional ASIs for the Middle East/North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa and I did tours on the ground and in CONUS that worked both areas. Old Eagle got at one aspect of that when he talked about crossing regions; that is that interagency interactive skills worked across regional lines.

c. On "operational" versus FAO tours, let me say that I did 2 wars as a FAO on the ground and Big Green was nowhere around for most of it. I left US tactical units in 1979 but I served in and around international tactical forces on two continents. As for competence in US doctrine and operations, I taught at CGSC, did Desert Shield/Storm, Provide Comfort, and Restore Hope as current intelligence officer for the ARSTAFF. I ground guided Operation Support Hope and established relations with a new government including military-military relationships. I wrote the central Africa campaign plan for USEUCOM and State. My bottom line in this is that at least for Middle East and African FAOs operational can be very tactical with live ammo.

d. The Army wants FAOS but nice neat personnel development plans won't give the Army the FAOs it needs. Regardless of tracking systems, we need a senior level mentor and monitor to make sure HRC does not again screw it up.


John T. Fishel
10-01-2010, 04:46 PM
As someone once told me, the best career manager is you, yourself. And a senior level mentor is very desirable.

Reorganizing can only create the opportunity to fix a problem - it really can't fix it and often has unintended consequences. While teaching at CGSC, a few years after you had gone on to bigger things, I felt it incumbent on me to advise my FAO students that they could do everything right and still retire as Majors. Nevertheless, they would still have the assignments they wanted. OPMS XXI meant that most FAOs could expect to retire as LTCs and many would have a chance at COL. That was a good thing but it also made it somewhat more difficult to re-blue.

I'd like to see the system take a half step backwards so that FAOs could still dual track and have a chance at some of the command slots and even reach for the stars. Neverless, I second Tom in noting that there are incompetent FAOs in both the single and dual track systems ... who are/were also incompetent in their basic branch.



10-01-2010, 05:01 PM
A friend of mine became an FAO with the specialty of Greece after he commanded a Field Artillery Detachment there in around 1980. He was not aware that the U.S. Army had provided assistance to the Greek government fighting against the Reds during 1947-1950 until I told him so. One would think that would be an important thing for an FAO on Greece to know -- it's certainly no secret to the Greeks.

John T. Fishel
10-01-2010, 07:10 PM
we have known FAOs who were not particularly good in heir specialties (not to disparage your friend) - either FAO or basic branch. That said, I believe FAO training to be worthwhile in itself.



10-01-2010, 07:46 PM
My friend said the biggest incident during his command of the detachment in Greece was when some of his soldiers got into a bar room brawl with some members of the Greek Communist Party. The main Greek Communist newspaper had an overheated story on how U.S. Army soldiers had made an unprovoked attack on law-abiding Greek citizens.

10-01-2010, 10:29 PM
On a gun forum (jouster.com) I read that Greece is returning M1903-series and M1917 U.S. rifles to the U.S. Government, which are being sold to the public through the Civilian Marksmanship Program. I have not read of M1 rifles and carbines from Greece being offered for sale by CMP but without doubt some of them were sent there after WWII.

10-02-2010, 07:49 AM
There is no magic cookie cutter... I think we failed by not recognizing (and taking advantage of) the individual FAO talents.

Having had eight FAOs as SAO/DAO bosses from 1985 to 1997 (two of which are here), I guess my opinion counts for something like “qualified to speak on the subject”.

Much like John opined, sustaining language abilities is up to the soldier and the Army’s pro-pay was intended as little more than an incentive to stay proficient.

Tom made me speak to him in French and Old Eagle would brush up on his German in Estonia. Then there were the other five or six FAOs that could have gave a sierra in spite of being in a peaceful country under ideal conditions to learn and maintain their language and cultural aptitude.

As far as dual tracking goes, you couldn’t ask for a better combination in an officer when the chips are down. Tom would out-think the DC think tank during a full-blown refugee crisis before they had their morning coffee :cool:. He was also like having a verbal version of Africa Wikipedia around 24/7. And, even though Old Eagle didn’t speak 10 words in Estonian he always outguessed them while planning Security Assistance and ship visits from 50 miles across the pond. What really got me was his “B’s Brain” (a capitulation) that one could track his every move, past and present, in his absence or untimely demise :eek:

Regards, Stan

Old Eagle
10-02-2010, 10:32 PM
DMoot -- There is always room for improvement, don't get me wrong. If you want to work at a more detailed level, I'm more than willing to assist. There is probably an opportunity to redefine requirements based on the evolving challenges. It may be time to echelon the defn of FAO. Maybe 48 and 39 need to redefine their relationship. There are many possibilities.

Pete -- Your FAO friend offers a sample size of one. Very dangerous to extrapolate from that kind of data.

Stan -- It was more than 10. Let's see, yes, no, please, thank you...
Actually, my Finnish helped me understand more of what was going on than I would have otherwise. And my brain book did save both of us time and effort.

10-08-2010, 02:06 PM
I've lived and worked with members of the USAF, Army, and Marine versions of these programs and across the board I think the problem with these programs is much more fundamental.

The various FAO, and FAO like programs, exist largely as an acknowledgement that the DoD requires some kind of a strategic scout.
This is commonly put forward as an individual that knows a region, its language, and its people who can advise senior DoD officials on planning, policy, and strategy.

The primary problem is that the FAO programs lack an operational mission assigned to them. The result is that while their personnel frequently get involved in HUMINT, targeted killing and comparable high profile activities the FAO program does not own these functions for their various services. The inclusion of a mission set like these into the FAO program would go a long way towards defusing the “effete diplomat and per diem whore” stink that accompanies people assigned to these billets. It would also garner respect for a community that is often viewed as a well trained pet monkey by their home service. Barring an operational mission they are little more than language qualified, hopefully, analysts in the eyes of many.

Additionally, the implementation of the program is another big problem.

First, FAO personnel should be force protection exempt when operating in their region. If you can’t get out and about to see what is going on and meet the right people, you have no purpose in this job. Bringing the goon squad with you on a meet and greet is a great way to completely kill any chance of getting anything done. True, lacking this you are going to lose people, but this is the DoD and not the State Department. We may not need the State Department we currently have, but we certainly don’t need a second State Department under the DoD.

Second, FAO personnel should be offered command opportunities and joint staff placement in positions that make sense. For example, why J-5s on geographic commands aren’t FAOs is beyond me. It may make sense to group certain enlisted career fields, like linguists, under a FAO as part of a command track in the community. I think all of this needs exploration.

10-09-2010, 01:58 PM
Interesting paper which does a good job of defining things from a 30,000 ft vantage point and from a slightly idealistic and isolated viewpoint. On the ground things appear differently. The core competencies of cultural, linguistic, analytical, and military abilities are shared by a number of USG, Host Nation, and opposition actors who actually shape the battlefield. Numbers (troops to task), abilities, and resourcing play key roles in what actually occurs. On the USG side substantive actors may include DoS FSO's and GS types, DoD active and reserve FAO and CA types, and other USG entities as well as contractors of many stripes. The host nation and opposition have similar set-ups. It is my observation that an organization structured with short term generalists filling roles better suited to long term specialists is not as likely to be as effective as it could be In it's desired role. In short, the paper makes me wonder about military core competencies and mission creep.

03-03-2011, 03:11 PM
Has there been any serious talk about the dual track system being implemented again?