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Nation & World 11/4/02
America's secret armies
A swarm of private contractors bedevils the U.S. military


This story was reported in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity, whose International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is currently publishing an 11-part online series called "Making a Killing: The Business of War." It can be viewed at
When the United States went to war with Saddam Hussein the first time, in 1991, Iraq launched one successful Scud missile. It struck a barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 American reservists, 13 of whom were assigned to a water purification unit. If the United States decides to wage war against Iraq again, however, the people doing such jobs are unlikely to be soldiers. More and more, the people who house and feed troops, and repair, maintain, and even operate the high-tech weapons are likely to be civilian contractors. Indeed, the number of such contractors has exploded: In Operation Desert Storm, there was 1 contractor for every 100 military personnel, while in Bosnia, the ratio at times was nearly 1 to 1.

Despite that growth, an inquiry by U.S. News found that the Pentagon has failed to come to grips with a number of profound legal and operational problems posed by putting civilians on the battlefield. How to protect the contractors, who controls them, and how far do their obligations extend? Who has legal jurisdiction over them? In the face of danger, how to force a contractor to stay and do his job? And lurking in the background are longer-term consequences, as the military loses its own in-house ability to maintain and support its armies. "Nobody really has their arms around those issues," says Neil Curtin, the General Accounting Office's director of defense capabilities and management.

Similarly troubling issues are raised by a host of other American firms staffed with former soldiers who are landing jobs training and advising foreign militaries. While those arrangements are approved by the State Department and the Pentagon, they get little oversight from Congress. Contractors are even training the United States military itself.

This widespread outsourcing has been driven by many factors, notably the downsizing of the military and the growth of high-tech weaponry but also the worldwide proliferation of conflict and wariness about sending U.S. troops on hazardous missions. But with a war with Iraq looming, the most immediate challenges are posed by the contractors on the battlefield. U.S. News has learned that, because these and other issues have not been adequately addressed, the Army has ordered an about-face in the use of battlefield contractors. In a memorandum issued on June 11, Claude Bolton, the Army's assistant secretary for logistics, announced that "we must change our planning direction with regard to supporting our battlefield systems." Specifically, he said, the Army must start developing weapons that do not require contractor support on the battlefield.

Factory to foxhole. Still, at this point virtually all of the military's key high-tech systems require contractors for maintenance, if not operational support. Two of them, the Apache helicopter and Palladin artillery, have been in pilot programs wherein the maker provides comprehensive "factory to foxhole" support. Patriot missile defense, M1A1 tanks, Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the JSTARS targeting system, and Spitfire radios are also heavily contractor dependent. A report by TRW on experiences in the Balkans notes that contractors provided 70 percent of the maintenance on the Hunter UAVs. "The soldiers continually rotate in and out, so they cannot become experts. The soldiers basically monitor the maintenance that the contractors perform," the report says. Bolton's memorandum, foreseeing the possibility of war grinding to a halt if it's strictly implemented, says waivers may be sought for systems that must use contractors. But to the extent waivers are granted, the original problem–too many contractors–does not get solved.

Not only the Army is concerned. The Joint Staff ran a series of exercises called Focused Logistics 2001 that showed that contractors make the military more visible to its enemies, require more troops for force protection, and require backup plans should contractors default. It called for a reassessment of contractor dependence. Research papers at the country's military schools are replete with worries and warnings. The GAO, Congress's investigative arm, will be doing its own study of military contractors on the battlefield, to be completed early next year.

There's much to investigate. For starters, the Pentagon does not even know how many contractors it uses. Last spring, Army Secretary Thomas E. White revived an effort to count all contractors under his purview. A preliminary report to Congress in April guessed that the Army contracted out the equivalent of between 124,000 and 605,000 person-work-years in 2001. Nor is there a reliable count of the contractors who provide "emergency essential" services on the battlefront and elsewhere, despite the urging of the Department of Defense (DOD) inspector general a decade ago. In an internal E-mail last fall, one colonel urged that the Army logistics chief review all field systems to see what contractor support they entail. It reads: "At the very least, he could count these little beggars in some fashion before they show up on the battlefield and surprise some poor commander with horrific support, real estate and security requirements."

While the Defense Science Board has recommended that contracting out support services could save $6 billion a year, no one knows whether such savings are being achieved. Since 1994, Pentagon contracts signed with just 12 companies totaled more than $300 billion, according to records examined by the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), but such contracts are notorious for add-ons. Moreover, notes Bolton's directive, "Units that depend on contractor personnel . . . must allocate precious resources to ensure their security and subsistence."

Yet the financial issues pale beside the thicket of command-and-control and force protection problems that contractors pose. Experts agree that there is no legal way to compel the contractor to stay on the battlefield and perform his duties under fire, since the contractor is bound by contract, not by oath. Jayson Spiegel, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, pungently sums up the difference between a contractor and a soldier. "The great thing about a soldier is if he doesn't show up, you can shoot him. You can't shoot contractors. You can sue them, but you can't shoot them."

One suggested solution has been to have contractors sign pledges to stay on the battlefield. A contractor for TRW in the Balkans recounted having willingly signed a memorandum of understanding that "the environment may subject me to death or injury" and that "the contract may obligate me to remain and perform such efforts in the event of the commencement of hostilities." Yet such agreements cannot be enforced, according to legal opinion cited in another Army study, since it would constitute involuntary servitude.

The issue of who protects the contractor, and how, has taken on greater urgency, too. Highly mobile warfare using deep strikes and flanking movements can require use of contractors far forward, and has effectively ended the concept of the safe division rear. Above all, the specter of chemical or biological weapons raises the possibility of mass casualties, including civilians. The Pentagon's Doctrine for Logistic Support of Joint Operations says: "Force protection for DOD contractor employees is a contractor responsibility."

Yet contractors' ability to protect themselves, let alone the force they are deployed with, is severely limited. One Army War College report cited a Gulf War scenario: When an AH-64 Apache helicopter went down in a forward area, a civilian contractor was asked to go help fix it. The contractor said he would go if he could be issued a 9mm sidearm. The matter bogged down in such a legal wrangle that the contractor never went. Pentagon rules say that contractors may not be armed in international conflicts. The problem is that contractors are not combatants, and to engage in warfare would violate their status. Yet, under the Geneva conventions, their status is "civilians accompanying the force," and thus they may be legitimately targeted.

Complications. Equally foggy is who, exactly, is in charge of them. Formally the contractors report to the military's contracting officer, and if the theater commander needs them to do something other than what their contract specifies, he must go to that officer to revise the terms of the contract. In wartime, this vastly complicates the battlefield chain of command. In an internal E-mail, an Army colonel describes his experience in the Balkans: "Who controls systems' contractors? In my opinion, this was the toughest area in accountability. . . . Systems contractors in the MI [military intelligence] and signal area were everywhere. . . . It seemed clear to me that system contractors are important and also somewhat out of control."

How serious is this? The 1991 inspector general's report said that if contractors had defaulted in maintaining one critical data-processing system during Operation Just Cause in 1989 in Panama, that could have caused the delay or cancellation of the entire operation. Now, for many systems, the military has no in-house maintenance capacity. That makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of a contractor, including default and price-gouging. A February GAO report found contractors charging "unaffordable" prices for technical data to support equipment they have sold to the military. For example, when the Army sought to become self-sufficient in repairing its Spitfire radio terminals, "The manufacturer was willing to sell the data for $100 million–almost as much as what the entire program cost ($120 million) from 1996 through 2001," the report says. Despite grappling with all these issues, says one chagrined DOD official, "We are pretty much where we were in 1991."

While contractors are posing new risks on the U.S. military's battlefield, they are increasingly at risk all over the world. These days, independent companies are taking on missions overseas that used to be the sole province of the U.S. military. A database constructed by ICIJ details 24 U.S. private military companies like AirScan, ArmorGroup, Cubic Applications Inc., or MPRI doing work in more than 50 countries in the past 10 years. The work includes flying medevac missions, doing aerial surveillance, protecting embassies, training and equipping foreign militaries, or eradicating drug crops.

The single biggest reason for this is the dramatic downsizing of the armed services since the Cold War ended. Uniformed personnel have been cut by 38 percent since 1989 and DOD civilian employees declined by 44 percent. At the same time, the U.S. Army alone has deployed troops 36 times, compared with just 10 such operations during the entire Cold War. Indeed, the proliferation of conflicts from Africa to the Balkans to South America has created a demand for such services. American companies doing work for other governments must be licensed by the State Department. "The applications are rigorously reviewed," says former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice. "I can't think of any cases where I felt MPRI or other American firms were off in a cowboy fashion that ran counter to U.S. policy."

Those who recall the awful sight of the corpse of Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 also recall the American reaction–the prompt withdrawal of troops. Yet when four retired Special Forces operators were taken hostage and one of them tortured three years later in Liberia, no one knew. Brian Boquist, a former Special Forces officer and founder of International Charter Inc. of Oregon, told U.S. News how he and his small aviation company wound up on the firing line. ICI was hired by the State Department in December 1995 to provide air and logistics support to the regional peacekeeping group of West African states known as ECOMOG. As Liberia spiraled into bloody chaos, about two dozen ICI staffers snatched weapons off dead locals and defended the U.S. Embassy until U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces arrived on April 9, 1996. ICI stayed on to airlift about 40 tons of food for some 40,000 refugees and won the State Department's Contractor of the Year award for their actions.

In danger. ICI staff were taken hostage on several occasions; the third time, in a place called Zwedru, four were seized, beaten, and stripped. Their captors taunted them by firing AK-47 rounds between their legs before releasing them. Since then, Boquist says, ICI personnel have carried small arms for self-defense. Indeed, on their next job in Sierra Leone they also provided an armed security detail for the U.S. ambassador. Of Sierra Leone, Boquist says, the United States did not send soldiers in "because they were scared that if a soldier got killed there would be an outcry from Congress. But we were expendable." J. Stephen Morrison, director of Africa affairs for the State Department's policy planning staff from 1996 to 2000, says: "Absolutely it was a policy decision to use these contractors. After a while it became an unspoken policy decision."

"We are not against contracting out," says Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Texas Democrat and ranking member of the House subcommittee on military readiness. "We are not against saving money. But oversight of these contracts concerns me very, very much." Statutes require that the State Department notify Congress of all private military services provided to foreign governments of more than $50 million. But many such contracts run less than that–Boquist says ICI earned $13 million in Liberia. Says one former Hill staffer, "It's not a new multibillion-dollar project for my district, like an F-22. Until something happens and contractors start coming back home in body bags, nothing is going to happen."

Something big did happen in Saudi Arabia, though, in 1995. There, Vinnell Corp., now a subsidiary of TRW, has been training the Saudi National Guard since 1975. Few people know about it because few reporters visit the kingdom. But in November 1995, Islamic radicals set off a bomb in a parking lot next to the four-story building housing Vinnell's headquarters. Five U.S. soldiers but no Vinnell workers died. A former employee who was there at the time says: "To me, that was directed against the United States, no question about it." Still, following the attack, there were no calls for Vinnell's removal.

That may reflect the value of the arrangement to both the Saudis and Vinnell. U.S. News obtained the Vinnell contracts and modifications since 1994 via a Freedom of Information Act request. The training and construction portions alone amount to $800 million, and the Saudis have spent hundreds of millions more to equip the force. Vinnell has constructed, run, staffed, and written doctrine for five military academies, seven shooting ranges, and a healthcare system, as well as training and equipping four mechanized brigades and five infantry brigades. In sum, it has built the SANG from a hardy but ragtag Bedouin band into a professional force. A former senior Vinnell employee credits the fact that the trainers worked from the ground up, a reflection of the Special Forces philosophy. "Lots of us were SF, and I'd say that's a big reason why the National Guard did so well," he says. In fact, when Iraq overran Khafji early in the Gulf War, the SANG's King Abdul Aziz Brigade recaptured the town.

Vinnell, founded as a construction company in 1931, has worked on five continents. DynCorp of Virginia, with 23,000 employees, may range even more wide. The company does everything from maintaining Air Force planes to flying helicopters in Colombia. As of November, DynCorp will be supplying armedbodyguards for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, paid for by the State Department's office of diplomatic security. Other contract personnel from RONCO Consulting Corp. are at work digging up the tens of thousands of mines that litter Afghanistan. In the Balkans, armed ITT Industries contractors provide security for the U.S. troops still there, and another firm called Airscan conducts aerial surveillance. Two large companies, the 700-employee MPRI and Cubic, with 4,500 workers, are providing military advice and general staff training to help former Soviet bloc countries refashion their militaries so they can qualify to join NATO. Both of them have also built simulation centers for clients including Croatia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria. Colombia is host to a baker's dozen of contracted firms, mostly hired to stem the flow of cocaine and heroin from the war-torn country.

MPRI draws the line at trigger-pulling or targeting work. MPRI spokesman Ed Soyster, a retired U.S. Army general, says: "We are in the force development business," which primarily involves desktop exercises, command staff instruction, and civil-military relations. Its most comprehensive work was in Bosnia, where it essentially built an army from scratch in the mid-1990s–with the U.S. government's blessing. Indeed, it was part of the Dayton Accords peace negotiations. MPRI has considered revising its policy against bearing arms but only because the U.S. government asked if it would help secure American embassies in Somalia and elsewhere. This, Soyster says, would have involved a high likelihood of hostilities. The former was rendered moot when the embassy was instead evacuated, and MPRI decided the work was too hazardous. While insurance and image concerns have kept MPRI away from frontline jobs, others like Armor Group currently have U.S. government contracts to secure embassies in Thailand, Congo, and Uganda.

Consequences. A number of experts, including George Washington University professor Debra Avant, have pointed out another consequence of outsourcing training and advice: The U.S. government loses a foreign-policy tool to outside companies whose central motive is profit. For example, in Senegal MPRI is training the military as part of a U.S. State Department-funded peacekeeping initiative. If one day a colonel from Senegal is in a position to change the destiny of his country or the region, it will be MPRI personnel, and not the U.S. military, who have forged the relationship to influence him.

While U.S. companies' training of foreign armies is an exotic topic, a more prosaic one may have longer-term consequences: It is little known that the U.S. military has begun outsourcing the recruitment and training of its own personnel, as well as doctrine-writing. And that has an impassioned group of retired military officers waving a red flag. A former commander of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Maj. Gen. William Richardson, is so concerned about this trend that he wrote a letter to Army Chief Gen. Eric Shinseki in June 2001. Lamenting budget cuts that hit the "thinkers" of the military harder than the "doers," he wrote: "Indeed some of the schools, and even the Cadet Command, are having to hire retired personnel to do their work. This does not make for a professional Army."

MPRI staffed many positions of the ROTC program that trains officers in 217 universities around the country, until it lost the contract to a lower bidder in March. It has picked up the contract for recruitment stations. MPRI and Cubic are developing curricula, analyzing and writing doctrine at numerous military schools around the country, conducting general officer executive education, and training press officers. Soyster points out that there are always active duty officers in charge. But to West Point Prof. Don M. Snider, the military is already far down a slippery slope. He is particularly upset at a Cubic contract to develop curriculum for a Fort Leavenworth Command and General Staff College course given to Army majors deciding whether to stay for a 20- or 30-year career. "What signals does this send to everyone in the Army? That we can't sit down on our own and decide what to teach our future generals," he fumes.

Snider has just published an anthology, The Future of the Army Profession, in which he argues that outsourcing training and doctrine contradicts the entire notion of a profession that is about carefully selecting people and imbuing them with precise expertise. "We trust doctors because the medical profession is in charge of selecting and training them," he says. This particular form of outsourcing is fatal to the military, he believes, because it is giving up the bedrock jobs of defining who it is and how it makes war.

As a matter of principle, General Richardson believes that "it is wrong to get someone other than who's responsible for the fighting to teach it and write it." But the practical problem is that the loss of knowledge in the schoolhouse will show up on the battlefield. He points out that 31 of the 34 corps commanders who led troops in World War II had taught in the Army schools. "These are the leaders, the ones who have thought about how to fight," he says. The answer? Rather than continue a "transformation" of the Army that continues to substitute hired contractors for military officers, the retired general believes it is time to take a stand. Smaller and cheaper may be the prevailing business mantra, but it just might not work for armies in wartime.

With Douglas Pasternak

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