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USAF depends on Foreign Area Officers to strengthen international partnerships and alliances

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas--The Department of Defense and the Air Force have placed renewed emphasis on professionalizing the security cooperation enterprise, as indicated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.

This decision highlights defense leadership’s resolve to more effectively build alliances with international partners.

In his October letter to the Armed Forces, Defense Secretary James Mattis underlined strengthening alliances and attracting new partners as key Defense Department priorities. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated this importance in her July 2017 statement on Air Force priorities. 

These partnerships would not be possible without the unique skillsets of International Airmen, such as Foreign Area Officers (FAOs). Their language skills, cultural experiences, and advanced education are critical enablers for the Air Force, ensuring access and interoperability with capable partners abroad.

Due to the strategic significance of these positions, it is imperative that core air force specialty code development teams vector highly competitive, top-quality Airmen to these programs. Officers in these positions require the ability to effectively communicate and engage global partners as diplomatic representatives of the Air Force, the DoD, and the United States—a skill that is not innate to every Airman.

“This development opportunity is designed to create and sustain a cadre of officers with in-depth regional expertise,” said, Maj. Matthew Stines, International Affairs Specialist Strategy and Policy chief.  “FAOs maintain a profound understanding of culture, language, politics, geography and socio-economic factors in their region of expertise.”

Because the Air Force runs a dual-track FAO career field, with officers alternating between FAO assignments and those in their primary career fields, FAOs maintain currency and competency in their core career fields while developing regional expertise as a FAO.

In terms of promotion and career development, FAO positions are almost always positions of high-visibility, such as defense attachés, security cooperation officers, or staff members at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Headquarters Air Force, combatant commands, or Air Components, which increases their opportunities for recognition by senior leaders.

The FAO program is not new to the Air Force. Formerly known as the Regional Affairs Strategist (RAS) program, the FAO program deliberately develops Airmen with expertise in international affairs by enrolling them in intensive foreign language courses as well as regionally-focused Master’s degree programs. In addition to classroom instruction, the Air Force funds hands-on training abroad, where officers can gain strategic experience in the region where they will be deployed to. These officers may be aligned to any of the regions that correspond to the five geographic combatant commands.

“For example, a Pacific Command FAO may be sent to learn Japanese for a year, earn a Master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School in East Asian security affairs, and spend several months in Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam for cultural immersion and strategic engagement,” said Lt. Col. David Huxsoll, Chief of the International Affairs Specialist office, which manages the FAO program. “As relatively junior officers, FAOs will get the opportunity to serve in very demanding and high-visibility positions. Sometimes they are the single Air Force or DoD representative to a partner nation or on a Joint or Interagency staff, which is a huge responsibility.”

Air Force FAOs are also accessioned from prestigious fellowships such as the Olmsted Scholar Program and the Mansfield Fellowship Program. These top-tier students add value to the already esteemed pool of FAO selectees. Additionally, Airmen with significant experience in security cooperation positions may apply for direct utilization certification. Interested Airmen indicate their desire to become FAOs on their Airmen Development Plan.

 The July 2017 change from ‘RAS’ to ‘FAO’ has made the Air Force program consistent with Joint community terminology and implements some of the lessons learned from the program’s 10 years of existence.

“The RAS designation was conceived when the program started in 2005 to purposely differentiate it from the previous Air Force FAO program that lacked adequate resourcing, program management, or focused development of its officers,” explains Mr. Mike Nolta, Acting Chief of the International Airmen Division, which manages the FAO program through the International Affairs Specialist office.

Despite significant improvements made by the RAS program, the career field’s unique name caused confusion among the Services and within the Air Force. The term “RAS” was often conflated with another program in the IAS office, the PAS program; while these programs have similar names, they have discrete requirements for certification and lead to very distinct career paths. This change makes the Air Force’s FAO program consistent with all other Defense Department counterparts’ career fields.

 FAOs bring with them unique skills, experience and expertise which should be leveraged and utilized by Core AFSCs when these officers return for assignment to their Core. For FAOs in particular, DTs must ensure that quality officers continue to remain viable and competitive for promotion in their primary AFSC and are provided the same assignment and development opportunities afforded to all officers within their career fields.