A Foreign Area Officer (FAO) is a commissioned officer within the United States armed forces that is a regionally focused expert in political-military operations possessing a unique combination of strategic focus, regional expertise, with political, cultural, sociological, economic, and geographic awareness, and foreign language proficiency in at least one of the dominant languages in their specified region. A FAO will typically serve overseas tours as a defense attaché, a security assistance officer, or as a political-military planner 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, liaison officers, and Personal Exchange Program officers to host nations or coalition allies. Roles and responsibilities of FAOs are extensive and vary by service branch. They advise senior leaders on political-military operations and relations with other nations, provide cultural expertise to forward-deployed commands conducting military operations, build and maintain long-term relationships with foreign leaders, develop and coordinate security cooperation, execute security assistance programs with host nations, and develop reports on diplomatic, information, military, and economic activities. Each branch has its own process for developing Foreign Area Officers (or in some cases, international affairs officers) to address their specific needs.
The Navy FAO program is similar to the Army, in that members transition from their original primary career field to a full-time FAO career track. Navy FAOs must be prepared to conduct operations in a variety of geographic, economic, cultural and political circumstances, and across the entire range of military operations. Of particular importance to the naval service, whose forces are forward deployed to shape events unfolding overseas, is detailed regional knowledge of these operating environments, including the ability to communicate effectively with both friends and foes in the area.
The goal of the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Program is to produce a cadre of officers with the skills required to manage and analyze politico-military activities overseas. FAOs will serve as regional specialists on fleet staffs, Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché, Naval Attaché, Security Assistance Officer, Joint, Fleet and Interagency Staffs, as well as Liaison Officers to foreign militaries. The leadership, regional expertise, local contact, and unity of effort provided by Navy FAOs extends from the low end of conflict (day-to-day competition) to the high end (war).
Officers are accessed into the community via the Active Duty Lateral Transfer and Redesignation Board. The FAO Community seeks officers with a minimum of 5 years of commissioned service (YCS). Officers should be within 18 months of PRD to be accepted as a FAO and must be available for overseas PCS at next PRD. Qualified Restricted Line and Staff Corps officers may also apply. Qualified applicants must be due course and have demonstrated sustained superior performance within their parent warfighting community as well as strong international experience and linguistic aptitude.
To learn more about the requirements and deadlines to apply to be a Navy FAO, check here.
To learn more about the Navy FAO community, please click here.
The Marine Corps is the only service branch that continues to use a "dual-track" program for its FAOs, meaning that officers must balance their primary MOS requirements with their FAO assignments. The USMC FAO program is one portfolio of international affairs programs managed by the Marine Corps International Affairs Programs (IAP). IAP is advocating with the Marine Corp's Intelligence Information Division (IID) to create a single-track International Affairs MOS for FAOs, but in the interim, the dual-track model still applies for FAOs.
IAP identifies, develops and manages a professionalized cadre of subject matter experts in regionally focused political-military affairs who will possess advanced education in regional security studies, regional experience, and advanced linguistic skills. In order to serve as leaders, principle staff, planners, and advisers on capabilities for assignments on tactical, operational, and strategic-level staffs, joint and combined assignments, and for duty with interagency organizations in order to improve Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) plans, operations, security cooperation, and intelligence efforts. IAP Marines, including FAOs, will be primary nominees from the USMC to serve as Marine and defense attachés, security assistance officers, and regional plans/policies staff officers. IAP is responsible for selection, designation and assignment of Marines to the following programs:
(1) Foreign Area Officer (FAO)
(2) Regional Affairs Officer (RAO)
(3) Foreign Area Staff Noncommissioned Officer (FAS)
(4) Personnel Exchange Program (PEP)
The Air Force has historically had an informal International Affairs sub-specialty for which they provided advanced education and language training. In the mid-1990s, based upon DoD guidance, the Air Force initiated a formal designated Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program, albeit without the supporting career infrastructure and management of the Army model. By 2005, it became clear that a transformation was needed. Under the old FAO program, officers were not developed sufficiently nor managed effectively to become foreign area experts and most faced significant career progression hurdles for serving outside of their primary AFSC. Air Force created the International Affairs Specialist (IAS) program to replace the FAO program and deliberately developed (select, train, assign) officers with international affairs expertise while keeping them viable and competitive in their primary AFSC development track. The program consisted of Regional Affairs Strategists (RAS) and Political Affairs Strategists (PAS). In 2015, the Air Force renamed the program the Air Force FAO program to re-align the naming convention of the Air Force IAS (RAS/PAS) system with that used by DoD and the other services.