Ensuring Language Capability in the Intelligence Community

What Factors Affect the Best Mix of Military, Civilians, and Contractors?

by Beth J. Asch, John D. Winkler


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Research Questions

  1. What advantage and disadvantages do military personnel, government civilians, and contractors each provide in terms of performing government functions?
  2. What are the legal restrictions on using each of these three types of personnel to perform government functions?
  3. What factors should policymakers consider in assessing the optimal mix — in terms of cost and effectiveness — from a government-wide perspective of these three categories of personnel to provide language capability in the intelligence community?

Language capability is provided in the intelligence community by military personnel, government civilians, and contractors. A key question is what is the best mix of these three types of personnel in terms of cost and effectiveness. This research draws on U.S. Department of Defense guidance and the economics and defense manpower literatures to provide a framework for broadly assessing the costs and benefits of different sources of personnel to provide a given capability, including language capabilities. The authors interviewed personnel at the National Security Agency/Central Security Service and conducted an exploratory quantitative analysis to identify the factors that may affect the best mix of language capability in the intelligence community. A key finding is that each category of personnel provides unique advantages and belongs in the IC language workforce but that a number of factors lead to civilians being a more cost-effective source of language capability than military personnel, even after accounting for the flow to the civil service of trained veterans with language capability. Policies that reduce language-training costs for military personnel and increase the flow of veterans to the civil service might help reduce this disparity.

Key Findings

Department of Defense (DoD) Guidance and Policy

  • In general, government employees (civilian or military) are preferred over contractors, and civilians are preferred over military employees, unless the latter are required for readiness or workforce needs or a cost analysis indicates that civilians are relatively more costly.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Type of Personnel for Providing Language Capability in the Intelligence Community

  • Contractors are used relatively infrequently by the National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) to provide language capability, but they are useful for providing a surge capability or meeting meet short-run requirements or requirements for highly specialized skills.
  • Civilians are the "backbone" of the language function in the intelligence community and, compared with enlisted personnel, they are more experienced, better educated, have greater language proficiency and deeper target knowledge, provide continuity, and bring other requisite capabilities.
  • Military personnel bring unique knowledge to the intelligence function in the intelligence community, especially to missions requiring understanding of military tactics and the operational environment, and they can be deployed in dangerous situations.
  • Many civilian personnel have previous military experience.

Factors Affecting the Cost-Effectiveness of Military Personnel Versus Nonveteran Civilians

  • Higher language proficiency at entry and a relatively low flow of trained military personnel to the civil service lead to civilians being more cost-effective than enlisted personnel in supplying language capability.
  • The cost disadvantage of military personnel relative to civilians is reduced, but does not disappear, if military personnel are better trained in language when they enter service, though higher recruitment costs of better-trained personnel offset this effect.
  • The cost disadvantage of military personnel relative to civilians is reduced, but does not disappear, as the flow of military personnel to the civil service increases, because more of the costs associated with recruitment and training of military personnel are spread over the work years contributed by veteran civilians.


  • Build intelligence community language capability around permanent civilian positions.
  • Continue to develop and train military personnel.
  • Continue to use contractors to augment and extend the military and civilian workforce.
  • Explore policies that reduce language-training costs, especially for military personnel, such as recruiting military personnel who are already proficient or nearly proficient in a foreign language.
  • Explore policies that increase the flow of veterans to the civil service.
  • Consider a career path for military language professionals that deviates from the typical enlisted career.
  • Reexamine current constraints on the hiring of civilians.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    DoD Guidance for Determining Workforce Mix

  • Chapter Three

    Literature Review on the Costs and Benefits of Different Categories of Personnel

  • Chapter Four

    Insights from Interviews

  • Chapter Five

    Exploratory Analysis of the Relative Cost-Effectiveness of Military Versus Civilian Language-Proficient Workforces

  • Chapter Six

    Summary and Concluding Thoughts

  • Appendix A

    Details on DoD Guidance of Workforce Mix

  • Appendix B

    Qualitative Analysis Approach

  • Appendix C

    Quantitative Research Approach

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The research was conducted within the RAND RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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