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