2019 Staff Pick | SO1 Education

This article highlights a very important and under-utilised area which could be a great strength for both Army and the wider Australian Defence Force if properly developed. Soft skills, such as languages, are a key strength in building and sustaining relationships to support Australia’s regional engagement. This is an extremely good and thought provoking article and is my pick for favourite article of 2019.


After a decade long distraction in the Middle East the Army is beginning to return its focus back home to the Indo-Pacific. There is an increased emphasis on international engagement, which can be mutually interchangeable with defence diplomacy, with our friends and allies in the region. This re-invigoration of our focus towards the Indo-Pacific is an exciting time for the Army. However, there is room to do more if we are to deliver a focused and long term solution for regional engagement and play our part in integrating Australia as an Asian nation through Defence diplomacy.

The current paradigm

The first step is to expand the scope of language proficiency across the Army in South East Asian languages. The Army currently has a healthy amount of Indonesian linguists. Tetum is also well stocked and Chinese, given the current climate, has gained much focus and recent efforts are seeing it grow steadily. However, there is a significant deficiency in speakers of the great Indo-Chinese languages, such as Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese.

The strategic importance of Indo-China, and specifically Thailand, was highlighted in 1999 when Thailand was the first ASEAN nation to lend its support to the Australian Defence Forces mission in Timor Leste, which in turn assisted in bringing the support of other ASEAN nations[i]. A recent discussion paper from the Australian National University’s Centre of Gravity project has highlighted the importance of partner nations having closer engagement with Thailand and being able to convey key messaging in the Thai language[ii]. Vietnamese is also of extreme importance as a key stakeholder in the South China Sea dispute and a growing strategic ally with whom we have increasing defence ties[iii]. Furthermore, the Army should seek to expand the numbers of Khmer linguists as an important step to further bonds developed prior to the Cambodian genocide and reinitiated from 1993.

Our partners in South East Asia have excellent opportunities to gain insight into Australian defence culture and our way of life by frequently attending our Officer Training institutions as well as obtaining degrees from the Australian Defence Force Academy. This gives Officers from Indo-Pacific nations between 18 months and (potentially) four years observing, learning and understanding Australian people and our Defence Forces. Practically, it may not be feasible to reciprocate this arrangement, however, other opportunities exist.

The way ahead

The Army should seek to develop a pathway that fosters a cadre of regional experts. This might involve the deep selection of officers for language training followed by a two year posting for middle level to senior Captains on the staff to the Defence Attaché in embassies across the Indo-Pacific. This would enable significant exposure to that country, its people and their defence counterparts. This approach would facilitate specific relationship building which should be a core focus of Defence Diplomacy. For example, an officer may have attended RMC with an international cadet, then met up with them again on a posting as a Captain before progressing to be class mates at Staff College and then engaging with them on a strategic level as Defence Attaché and so on. This initiative would enable junior officers with genuine interest in Indo-Pacific engagement to have an opportunity to enhance their career. The Army would benefit from enhanced diversity of officer experience while supporting the strategic interests of Australia’s international engagement

While it is acknowledged there is a deficiency in the Captain asset across the Army, the above approach would support the establishment of a Foreign Area Officer pathway similar to that of the United States military. While not necessarily a mirror image of the Foreign Area Officer system used by the US, an Australian Army model could be more focused towards the Indo-Pacific region. An Australian Army Foreign Area Officer pathway could include responsibility for Defence Attachés as well as specialists dedicated to delivery of training, development and advisory services to partner nations in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore Australian Foreign Area Officers could provide regional experts to assist in operational and contingency planning prior to the conduct of operations and exercises in the Indo-Pacific region.

A further benefit would be the increase in overseas instructional positions available outside of the Infantry. The argument is often made that non-Infantry positions are undesirable due to the difference in equipment employed by our allies. However, at the Captain and above level specific equipment is less relevant than doctrinal, logistic and operational experience. The experience members would gain by instructing in a foreign country in a language other than English, as well as gaining an understanding of the organisational culture of an allied country, would pay dividends, whether on operations, training an indigenous force, or in a joint multinational headquarters.

To achieve meaningful international engagement in the Indo-Pacific, language capability development must be focused and targeted. Placement on long language courses aimed at strategic and general language capability should be prioritised to junior officers so as to allow for continued development throughout their career and to support specific relationship building at the strategic level. Shorter courses aimed at specific military communication skills offer greater capability through delivery to soldiers across the combat brigades. Attendance on these courses would equip soldiers with the skills to perform engagement tasks at the tactical level while also allowing for continued development throughout their career and providing options to attend longer language courses at a more senior rank.


  • The Army’s language capability in Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese is increased in order to develop strategic depth in our defence diplomacy posture.
  • An expansion of places to junior officers on strategic and general language courses at the Australian Defence Force School of Language (ADFSL).
  • Support to specific relationship building by increasing overseas posting opportunities to junior officers.
  • Investigate the feasibility of the establishment of a foreign area officer pathway for the Army.


The Army is making an excellent move to increase the language capability across the organisation. This is already demonstrated by the current wave of attendees at the ADFSL, across a range of ranks and hat badges. In increasing this capability we must create greater areas of focus such that ADFSL effects are targeted at long-term strategic engagement. The available language courses need to be targeted by rank and further supported with opportunities to consolidate newly acquired language proficiency by expanding opportunities for in-country postings and follow-on training.