Speaking French Can Get You Killed

There has been a lot of talk about how French air controllers' poor English skills or refusal to speak the tongue that Shakspere spake endangers people's lives. The following blog post from strategypage.com shows that the French military doesn't do a better job: it doesn't teach its soldiers enough English before sending them to operate in joint international operations. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows France well from the inside: French foreign language learning standards being very low, many French think they speak good English when they don't, while few are conscious that failure to practise will result in loss of fluency. The educated are often the worst as many have the most thwarted notions of what English should be (they revere French grammar rules and refuse to accept that those don't necessarily apply to other tongues).

May 15, 2009: While the French Army has recognized the importance of smart bombs and missiles, they found themselves poorly prepared to make the best use of these weapons when they sent troops to Afghanistan. They had several problems. First, they did not have enough FACs (Forward Air Controllers, teams trained to call in warplanes and smart bombs), and those FACs they had often lacked good enough English to deal with the non-French pilots. NATO pilots, like international commercial aviation pilots, use English as a standard language (for working with ground controllers and each other). Unlike pilots, the French FACs don't practice their English regularly, and have problems communicating with non-French pilots. Another problem was that the French FACs didn't have the Rover terminal (which allows U.S., and most NATO, FACs to see what pilots see via their targeting pods).

Many of these French problems arise from France having left the NATO military organization back in the 1960s. France remained in NATO, but its armed forces did not participate in training and standardization efforts with other NATO troops. There were some problems with this back in 1990, when France sent troops to join the effort to throw Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. But in 1991 the solution was to place the French division out on the western flank, where they did not have to worry about interoperability with other NATO forces. In Afghanistan, everyone shares the same pool of warplanes and helicopters, and many other forms of support as well. Interoperability is essential. Decades of NATO efforts to develop interoperability standards for basic things like communications, air and artillery support, supply and medical evacuation, have paid off. Not perfect, but not a lot of costly confusion either. The French now have to play catch up after decades on their own.

Hat tip: O. Mayer