Clear and effective communication is vital to our military efforts in Iraq. But with representatives from more than 20 countries on the ground during Operation Iraqi Freedom, serious language barriers complicated the joint efforts. Add the fact that foreign language training is not a prerequisite in most cases for service in coalition operations, and not surprisingly delays and miscommunications were occurring too often. For some, these miscommunications would seem to be an inevitable downside of multi-national operations. But for Naval engineer Christopher Hillenbrand, it was simply a nuisance to be overcome by a little creativity and the miracles of modern technology.
In August 2002, Hillenbrand was serving as the fleet science advisor to the commander of Naval Forces Europe. In this position, he had to respond to the request of a Polish deputy commander to adapt a “chat room format” to multilingual communications that could be used in conjunction with coalition operations. Both operations, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, were very active at this time, but several coalition commanders saw that an evident gap existed in their ability to effectively communicate in different languages.
Mr. Hillenbrand embraced the challenge of providing a way for soldiers and generals alike to communicate both instantaneously and in their native language, and personally oversaw the development and deployment of the Coalition Chat Line (CCL).
CCL provides text-to-text translation technology that provides real-time, multilingual translations in a chat room format. Designed to be compatible with laptop computers running on a Windows operating system, CCL appears as a split screen, with both what the sender entered (in their native language) appearing on the left, as well as the translation in the receiver’s choice language appearing on the right. CCL translates between 13 languages including English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Thai and Ukrainian.
Sixty-five short days after the request reached his desk, Hillenbrand and his team were in Iraq integrating software for CCL on select computers. Despite the fact that the original intent was to put CCL on certain systems, operations managers in Iraq realized the great asset CCL provided and requested that the team integrate CCL into their basic system for all coalition networks.
Numerous operational uses of CCL quickly became apparent. These included gathering, analyzing and disseminating intelligence information on Improvised Explosive Devices and providing more accurate and efficient logistical support. In particular, CCL has proven to have positive medical applications. In southern Iraq where coalition brigades consisted of Spanish, Polish and Ukrainian troops, optimal health care was not always available. CCL has enabled precise, rapid reporting and consultation on illness and injury, as well as information on the location and availability of medical resources instantaneously.
Multilateral missions bring with them new challenges in the form of multilingual communications. Thanks to Hillenbrand’s leadership, and the remarkable innovation and knowledge of his team, these challenges are being overcome and quick and error-free communication between coalition forces who speak different languages is becoming routine.