By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
Many people are not aware that military officers work in embassies around the world as military attachés. They act as a liaison between their branch of military service and the host nation’s corresponding service. Of course, military attachés do much more than merely act as a liaison between two countries.
United States military attachés work in the U.S. Embassy’s Defense Attaché Office (DAO). The DAO has a small staff to assist the attachés. The staff often includes senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs), local civilians, and Army warrant officers.
The Larger the Host Nation’s Military, the More Military Attachés It Has
Countries with large military forces usually have more attachés than smaller nations. For example, the United States has an Army Attaché (ARMA), a Naval Attaché (ALUSNA), an Air Attaché (AIRA) and a Marine Attaché (MARA) in countries where that type of staff size is appropriate, such as Russia. If a country does not have an air force, for instance, then an AIRA is not needed.
Although most militaries are hierarchical by nature, the officer in charge is not necessarily the ranking officer at the embassy, but the one designated by the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. This officer holds the coveted position of Defense Attaché (DATT), along with acting as his or her Service’s attaché. In some cases, the DATT may have an assistant attaché.
Army and Navy Military Attachés More Common around the World
Because the Army and Navy have been around since the formation of the United States in 1776, they hold most DATT positions around the world. Where DATT positions exist, they tend to reflect the dominant military service in the host country.
For example, the DATT position in Britain and Japan is a naval officer. Conversely, the DATT position in Germany and South Korea is an army officer.
The rank of the attachés is also a function of the host nation’s military size or its significance to U.S. security interests. In most European nations, the attachés are colonels or lieutenant colonels. In most African countries, the attachés are usually majors.
There are only two countries, China and Russia, where the U.S. military assigns a flag officer who is a brigadier general or rear admiral. The Army, Navy and Air Force rotate these two positions.
Military Attaché Positions Are Highly Coveted and Require Training
Becoming a military attaché is a competitive process, especially with regard to some countries. Clearly, European nations, Australia and Canada are highly coveted posts. To qualify to become a military attache, you must be at least a major or lieutenant commander, and higher for the most coveted locations.
After officers inform their Service personnel center that they are interested in an attaché assignment, they then take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) test. Test results indicate the officer’s language aptitude. The better the aptitude, the more difficult the language the officer qualifies to learn.
Usually, whenever officers are promoted to colonel or captain in the Navy, the Department of Defense (DoD) asks them to take the DLAB to determine if they qualify to become an attaché. This practice helps the DoD to better fill attaché positions because there are not enough volunteers for posting to less desirable countries.
The qualification process begins with a record review by senior leadership of the respective Service. After culling candidates to about three, those officers and their spouses are interviewed. Finally, the Service committee makes its selection, which must be approved by the Service chief of staff.
Afterward, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) interviews the candidates before recommending them to the Director of DIA, who gives final approval. A training schedule is then established, which includes the attaché’s spouse.
The vast majority of officers who become attachés are from operational career fields. Host nations are not often receptive to accepting intelligence officers as attachés, at least not knowingly.
Attaché duty in a foreign country normally lasts for two years. State-side training can take up to two years as well, including language training. The common practice in DoD is to assign military attachés four years in advance or more.
Half of Attachés’ Time Is Spent as US Representative in the Host Country
Almost half the job of attachés is to represent the United States and their Service in the host nation. Attachés must attend numerous social events and celebrate the national holidays of the host country and those of the other nations’ attachés.
Usually, host countries have 20 to 50 foreign military attachés. The U.S., China, and Russia have over 100 military attaches assigned to them. Attachés can spend more than half their time attending national holiday receptions.
Much of the attaché’s remaining time is spent seeing to American visitors to the host country. Whenever a flag officer visits, the corresponding attaché manages the entire visit. When the Secretary of Defense visits, the DATT will assign an attaché to arrange the entire visit, while the DATT attends the meetings and receptions.
Of course, when the President or Vice President visits, the entire embassy staff is involved. The AIRA is usually in charge of the airport portion of the visit, including aircraft security, refueling and a red carpet reception.
That leaves little time for the attachés’ primary purpose – liaising with the host nation’s military service. This involves:
- Coordinating military exercises between the U.S. and the host nation
- Coordinating host nation service leadership visits to the U.S.
- Coordinating U.S. naval ships or aircraft visits to the host nation
- Facilitating any needs of the host nation service that the United States can provide, such as foreign military assistance
It is easy to get to know the other military attachés because they are all part of the foreign military attaché association, known by different names around the world. The host nation is obligated to take the foreign military attachés on periodic military base visits around the country. In some countries, such as South Korea, these visits are infrequent, due to the ongoing conflict with North Korea.
Being a Military Attaché Comes with Costs
Obviously, representing your country overseas is a great honor. However, living in the host nation means you are constantly watched. Essentially, you live in a fishbowl; many people know who you are, but you don’t know them.
Also, most nations do not have the high health standards of the U.S. If you are a military attaché and get sick in a third-world nation, you could be at the mercy of local medical personnel who are not up to the standards of American doctors.
Working abroad can be actively dangerous as well. I was the AIRA in democratic South Korea in the mid-1990s and in the monarchy of Jordan during the 9/11 terrorist attack in the U.S.
There have been military attaches around the world since the 1850s, and they will continue to function as long as there are countries with armed forces. They serve a very unique and essential role in the security of nations, such as the United States.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as the Air Attaché to South Korea from 1995-1997 and to Jordan from 2000-2002.