Small Wars Journal

Joint Regional Experts: We Can Do Better

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Joint Regional Experts: We Can Do Better

Justin M. Cobb, Damon B. Loveless and Angela M. Lewis


If success was measured by how often a subject is mentioned or written about the U.S. military would surely be a smart culture-savvy force to be reckoned with.  Despite developing individuals as regional experts and publishing droves of manuals, doctrine, and easy listening audio and online material, the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to provide no standardization or meaningful guidance to the Services on their subsequent use in the Joint environment.  Is it more important that every corporal understand the proper tribal morning greeting or that the flag officer understands the deeper sociocultural and historical underpinnings of an adversary militaries paradigm?  In terms of the development of regional experts, each Service personnel management process presents a uniquely uncoordinated and non-standard process that provides an almost textbook example of opportunities lost.  Focused on providing personnel to support specific missions and unit manning requirements, Services lack a process to ensure these regional experts are assigned or available to support subsequent, broader, or emerging missions, or leveraged to provide experience and expertise in any predictable way.  To stop the hemorrhaging of experience and expertise, the DoD needs to develop a uniform system that educates, trains, tracks, and continually utilizes a cadre of regional experts from all Services in order to greatly enhance overall mission effectiveness and increase the potential for success.  A standardized Joint Regional Expertise career path is required to capture and maintain the skill, knowledge, and experience necessary to support operations globally.

Framing the Problem

The Services are certainly not lacking in mention of sociocultural factors and their importance in warfare.  One of the ever-growing publications and resources dealing with culture is Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 2-0, which provides a lengthy discussion on culture and how it influences people’s range of actions and ideas, defines how they make judgments, and provides a framework for culture-specific rational thoughts and decisions noting that, “what one culture considers rational may not be rational to another culture.” (Army 2012) It goes on to state that the importance of understanding culture is not limited to stability or counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, and advises, “different tactics may be used against a threat who considers surrender a dishonor worse than death, as compared to those threats for whom surrender remains an honorable option.” (Army 2012) Tactical-level COIN operations are but one small subset of where sociocultural operations should be applied and the quote from ADRP 2-0 provides some insight to that effect.   The “tactics” being utilized against an enemy are not the only culture-relevant concern, the entire strategy itself risks being based on a highly prejudicial and culturally biased understanding of how an enemy may react, and it is precisely here, at the operational and strategic levels of warfare that the U.S. military continues to flounder.  Elements of deep sociocultural understanding and expertise should be required and applied throughout the planning process from theater campaign plans to operation orders, in strategic and tactical information operations (IO), prioritized target selection and within joint and multi-national staffs.  For years the DoD has been placing an ever increasing emphasis on the tactical-level of culture, focusing on the cross-cultural competence of the “Strategic Corporal.” (Barcott 2010) The Strategic Corporal concept, however, incorporates a certain amount of blame shift and really just identifies a symptom of what is really a DoD-wide disease.  What about the Strategic Colonial who approved the embarrassingly inadequate and even harmful IO messages?  Or the Strategic Staff Officers who collectively devised the Concept Plan where success relies on an ahistorical and culturally ignorant enemy response?  Where are the cadre of regional experts and culturally experienced officers who should be staffed into these operations?

Currently, each Service approaches developing and utilizing these regional experts in their own unique way.  The Army and Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) programs constitute dedicated career pipelines while the Air Force’s Regional Affairs Strategists (RAS) and Marine Corps’ Regional Affairs Officers (RAO) have transitioned to a more rotational scheme designed to keep officers competitive in traditional career tracks by bringing them back to traditional units between other more RAS/RAO focused jobs.  While each of these career paths or programs is designed to produce regionally focused experts to fulfill their Service’s needs, none of the Services’ personnel programs consistently support or encourage a career-long regional specialty, essentially allowing service members to move from region to region and waste experience gained during previous tours.

The types of billets the FAO and RAS/O communities fill often include overseas tours as defense attachés, political-military planners in a Service's headquarters, Joint Staff, major commands, unified combatant commands, or in agencies of the Department of Defense. They also serve as arms-control specialists, country desk officers, and liaison officers.  Given the above job titles it seems hard to believe that there could be a deficiency at all.  A quick survey across the combatant commands, however, will find more pilots and infantry officers acting as country desk officers and regularly developing plans without any FAO or RAS/O coordination, and often filling billets that should be filled by a FAO or RAS/O.  An emphasis on the political-military (POL-MIL) aspect of regional specialists dominates the actual utilization of a FAO or RAS/O as opposed to the tactical, operational, and strategic benefits they could provide the forces.  Recognizing the real need for cultural and regional experts at these levels of war is the first step to better manning billets that need this expertise.

Culture in Action

The true benefit of culturally-aware strategies, plans, and operations can be readily seen.  As is often the case, the absence of such awareness paints examples with more vivid colors. Many of the psychological operations (PSYOP) campaigns in Afghanistan present model case studies.  The personnel developing these messages almost never possessed any deep sociocultural understanding of the targeted populations and were trained to develop such campaigns without being able to fully account for their own implicit biases.  Local native colleagues in Afghanistan often expressed distress over television or print media campaigns they could immediately identify as non-Afghan developed and not only ineffective, but counter-productive, producing a negative reaction among the populace. Even vetting such campaigns by native Afghans proved problematic, as they were confronted with cultural impediments to providing the honest and blunt feedback needed.

Winning the information war, now more than ever, is almost inseparable from military victory.  The U.S. military’s current lack of emphasis on the power of messaging and navigating sociocultural matters through all levels of war is slowing operational progress.  From dropping bombs to providing humanitarian assistance, we continue to cede the domain.   Strategist and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen stated “in the information war, America and its allies are barely competing. America’s information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway).” (Packer 2006) Yet it remains clear that without a regularly resourced, mature, and involved cadre of regional experts, the U.S. will never be able to effectively compete in this domain abroad.  Here again we are forced to recognize that for all the POL-MIL value of officers staffing embassies, regional expertise is also necessary throughout the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare, and the appropriate staffs where they would be more valuable. 

Cultural anthropologist, national security analyst, and founder of the Army’s cut-short Human Terrain System program, Montgomery McFate has stated “the changing nature of warfare requires a deeper understanding of adversary culture. The more unconventional the adversary (and the further away from Western cultural norms), the more we need to understand their society and underlying cultural dynamics.” (McFate 2005)  McFate believes that many of the mistakes made by the U.S. in Iraq were due to a fundamental lack of understanding concerning the nature of Iraqi society.  “Once the Sunni Ba’thists lost their prestigious jobs, were humiliated in the conflict, and got frozen out through de-Ba’thification, the tribal network became the backbone of the insurgency. The tribal insurgency is a direct result of our misunderstanding the Iraqi culture.” (McFate 2005)  McFate has been championing the requirement for sociocultural-based operations at all levels of war for over a decade.  One of the first critics to point out the inadequacy of the current culture-based programs and the resources available to military leaders, she has greatly detailed the self-inflicted struggles throughout the Long War.

Use of regional expertise was demonstrated with great effect during “Operation Christmas” targeted at the Colombian FARC rebels. (Brown 2016) In 2010, Colombian government and military forces worked with a commercial advertising company to deter further civil war by a new, non-lethal, non-traditional method.  Targeting emotional and social dynamics of the rebels, Christmas lights were placed deep in the jungle, on trees along paths and trails known to be used by rebel forces. At night, these trees would light up and display a message that stated “if Christmas can come to the jungle, you too can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.” (Brown 2016) This tactic was developed from an analysis of years of operational experiences, as well as a coordinated interagency and NGO efforts that combined unique regional expertise founded in cultural ideas to address a long-standing problem in a new way. The results were impressive, with an increase in FARC rebel demobilization around Christmas in 2010, the operation arguably contributed to a turning point in the popular opinion of the rebel cause and to the Colombian government’s referendum ending the 50-year conflict in 2016.  Regional ethnic and cultural expertise was necessary to create the concept of Operation Christmas and, while this was a Colombian effort, it still serves as an example of the benefits achievable through using cultural expertise.

Moving Forward

The need for culture-smart advisors in the military seems self-evident and the demand has wide backing throughout DoD leadership.  The challenge is producing and sustaining such regional expertise under a DoD supported career path that will outlast this or the next conflict.  Programs such as Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands (AFPAK Hands) have laid a foundation for the type of training and billets that build and use regional and cultural expertise, and the Hands program has produced tangible results.  Former Hands member Lieutenant Colonel Steven Heffington detailed in a 2014 article that the “language skills, cultural understanding, historical perspective, and increased access enable us to stand with a foot in both worlds.  That vantage affords an opportunity to spot gaps, from small things like event timing, planning procedures, or protocol issues, to large items such as actual organizational structure and operation and underlying/unstated objectives and plans.” (Heffington 2014)  Military leaders at the highest level, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey championed the development of the Asian-Pacific Hands (APAC Hands) program to try and replicate many of the former’s successes.

The next step, in order to fully realize the benefits of sociocultural experts, is to mature and institutionalize the Services’ individual programs under a single and competitive DoD supported joint Regional Expert “RE” career path, taking advantage of graduates of programs like AFPAK Hands, and also better utilizing FAOs or RAS/Os after they gain valuable expertise in their traditional billets.  A simple, single DoD-managed personnel system that places these experts into appropriate strategic and operationally valuable staffs, balanced with current embassy and other static requirements would be an immediate and enduring force multiplier for the U.S. military in its approach to fighting foreign wars both in planning and execution. The Hands model uses a four-year commitment, which will simply never produce the desired enduring results, especially when volunteering for such irregular career path programs could end or negatively impact a military career under traditional promotion standards.  In a recent article on U.S. failures in Afghanistan, it was pointed out that despite much effort being publicly given to promoting the military’s shift to culturally-aware smart power, it still suffered from “an institutional culture and personnel management system that places a low priority on the advisory mission.” (Ricks 2016) It was further detailed that a “leaked briefing from the Army G-1, the service’s head personnel officer, to the Chief of Staff of the Army in 2014 confirmed that the AfPak Hands program had become a dead end for military careers. Officers who had participated in the program were being promoted at a fraction of the rate of those who had not.” (Ricks 2016) Self-evident to those building their professional careers within the current system, this revelation provides tangible proof that a four-year stand-alone program has no staying power and will struggle to attract the best and brightest each Service has to offer.

Beyond the institutional failure to keep, develop, and fully utilize these personnel, it also must be noted that in these programs, they were still being mostly limited to tactical-level actions and not routinely and purposely being called upon to provide guidance to other levels of warfighting and strategy development.  For these reasons, while the creation of APAC Hands seems like a sign leadership is taking this problem seriously, it is also an unimaginative half-measure destined to suffer from the same maladies as the AFPAK Hands program.

To confront these challenges, DoD needs to take a Department-wide view and address the management of the people and programs currently running in stove-pipe Service or COCOM fashion.  The most logical fit would be to radically grow and modify the current FAO/RAS/RAO programs the Services utilize, emphasizing that they are to be dedicated career paths with DoD programmatic oversight, and expand their effect by creating requirements that also include more strategic and operational billets.  New and directed emphasis must be placed on providing fully funded and continuously resourced billets ranging from joint planning staffs to the watch floor at a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC).  These billets should be deliberate and long-term and, in order to standardize across the Services, DoD must lead the effort, especially since the initial stages will require Services to come ‘out of hide’ to create the career path.  Dividing careers into operational tours providing real-time advice to the development of IO campaigns and priority targeting lists, or conducting boots-on-the-ground tours within an AOR could be balanced with Embassy tours and staff planning jobs that keep these experts regionally focused and engaged while also providing value throughout the military.  Additionally, it should consistently be the goal to ensure these cultural, language, and operational experts are present during strategy and plans development to provide invaluable insight that is more often than not completely absent.


The details and energy involved to properly address this issue are enormous, but the payout to the military would be more than worth the effort.  The creation of a more standardized joint Regional Expertise career path could capture and maintain the experience necessary to support and enhance global military operations and permit the U.S. to provide the nuanced smart power it so desperately needs to be successful in today’s operating environment.  When weighed against the resources already spent to haphazardly create cultural awareness and to train, develop, and then under-utilize many of the expert-level regional personnel, the costs are reasonable.  In addition, it must be recognized that to navigate the complex information-intensive battlespace of both the present and future, the U.S. must have such expertise at its disposal.  Whether helping to define the narrative on the battlefield or providing strategic-level guidance on how military actions would be widely perceived by a local culture/population, the demand for operational experts with real-world experiences will continue to increase and must be addressed now.


Army, Department of the. 2012. Army Doctrine Reference Publication, No. 2-0 (ADRP 2-0) 2-5. Intelligence, 31 August 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Army.

Barcott, Rye. 2010. The Strategic Corporal. October 21. Accessed March 4, 2017.

Brown, Helen. 2016. Bristolatino. December 20. Accessed March 4, 2017.

Heffington, Steven. 2014. War on the Rocks: AFPAK to APAC Hands: Lessons Learned. January 7. Accessed February 15, 2017.

McFate, Montgomery. 2005. "The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture." Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 38 (Third Quarter, July 2005) 42-48. Accessed February 15, 2017.

Packer, George. 2006. The New Yorker; "Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”?". December 18. Accessed February 15, 2017.

Ricks, Thomas. 2016. Foreign Policy: Our generals failed in Afghanistan. October 18. Accessed February 15, 2017.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander Justin M. Cobb, USN. LCDR Cobb is currently en route to work in Joint Operations at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. He was commissioned through ROTC at Auburn University in 2003. LCDR Cobb earned a BA in Political Science from Auburn University in 2003 and an MS in Economics from Auburn University in 2004. Prior to his current assignment, LCDR Cobb served numerous tours as an H-60 pilot and Weapons and Tactics Instructor.

Lieutenant Commander Damon B. Loveless, USN.  LCDR Loveless is currently in training to serve as Executive Officer of Strike Fighter Squadron Three One, the “Tomcatters”, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  He was commissioned through the U.S Naval Academy in 2001 where he earned a BS in Aerospace Engineering.  LCDR Loveless received an MS in Global Leadership from the University of San Diego in 2009.  Prior to his current assignment, LCDR Loveless served as an Action Officer on the Joint Staff, J6 in the Pentagon.

Lt Col Angela M. Lewis, USAF. Lt Col Lewis is currently assigned to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field, FL.  She was commissioned through Officer Training School in 2001. Lt Col Lewis earned a BS in Technology and Management at University of Maryland University College in 1996, an MA in Teaching Foreign Language at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2001, and an MA in Security Studies in South Asia at Naval Postgraduate School in 2012. Lt Col Lewis is a South Asia Regional Affairs Strategist and former Af-Pak Hand.


J Harlan

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 9:07am

If someone told you they were an "expert" on the US what would you expect? Fluent English obviously. A deep knowledge of US society well beyond the average American. Undoubtedly years of residence- on the economy. Widely traveled in the US.

Perhaps the active military isn't the place to look for "experts". Certainly it's not the place to "build" them from scratch. The place to find them is in the reserves where expats living abroad or immigrants to the US could be permanently assigned the task of keeping up with the goings on in a particular country.


Fri, 04/07/2017 - 2:07pm

The least intrusive solution is to just have all the services use the variation of the Army's model for managing officers like FAO's. There could be some utility, however, in selecting our most senior Regional Specialists (O-6 and above) from the wider joint service pool as opposed to having each service select their own. Why should we select a less qualified Air Force Officer and pass over a more qualified Marine?