Commentary

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If, as most people expect, private military and security contractors are increasingly part of America’s military establishment and future battlefields, they will need to improve the coordination of their operations with regular military forces.

In the past, there has been undeniable friction between soldiers and contractors on numerous occasions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

There have been many cases of “blue on white” incidents, in which soldiers have been in conflict with contractors. In one famous case, a 19-man security convoy from Zapata Engineering — a company hired to destroy enemy ammunition, such as shells and bombs — was taken into custody for three days on suspicion of shooting at a tower at a Marine base in Iraq. The contractors felt they were unfairly arrested and, once in the military prisons, said they were treated with physical abuse and disrespect.

Another major PMC in Iraq, Triple Canopy, also had several friendly-fire incidents in Iraq in which military personnel shot at them.

It is enough of an issue that the International Peace Operations Association, a trade association for private security and military contractors, wrote in the September-October 2007 issue of its magazine, “Actors that are supposed to be working for the betterment of insecure and unstable communities are instead contributing to incidents of institutional bias, mistrust, duplication of effort, fratricide (including instances of friendly fire between international forces and private security details), unprofessional and irresponsible behavior, waste and so on.”

IPOA noted specific problems, such as companies experiencing a lack of recognition of their identification cards, particularly non-Defense Department cards, including Multi-National Force-Iraq cards, which can result in being detained for hours at checkpoints where personnel had not been briefed on the presence of armed contractors in the area of operation.

And U.S. tactical-operations centers may not be notified of the presence of private security companies in their area of operations because private security companies are unable to contact the centers and make them aware of their daily schedule.

What IPOA did not mention is that some companies, at least in the past, chose not to participate in the Reconstruction Operations Center established during the Coalition Provisional Authority era and run by the British company Aegis Defense to coordinate and track all the security teams operating in Iraq.

A July 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office found the ROC had improved coordination between the military and the security contractors but that problems remained. There were still incidents when security personnel approached military convoys or checkpoints, and upon deployment to Iraq, many military personnel were not aware of security personnel operating within the country.

IPOA also noted that private security companies often find themselves being denied access to military bases for security personnel injured by improvised explosive devices or small-arms fire.

Not surprisingly, these problems can be traced back to the shortfalls in the military’s formal plans for the execution of Phase IV post-combat operations. As the role of armed contractors operating on the battlefield was not written into doctrine, it is unsurprising that troops were and are unclear on the standard operating procedures for dealing with contractors.

This is rather ironic, though, considering that contractors even help write the military’s doctrinal publications nowadays.

Although incidents are down, coordination is still reportedly a problem. A paper presented at the 2007 International Studies Association convention found that “the most likely friendly-fire victim is a private security company employee. This victim is most likely fired upon by coalition forces (as opposed to Iraqi Security Forces) during late morning (10 to 11 a.m.). This victim is most likely approaching a checkpoint or is overtaking (or being overtaken by) a convoy.”

The GAO did another report in 2007, documenting that problems still existed. In writing both reports, it conducted 24 separate individual and small-group interviews. In those interviews, structural issues were the most commonly cited causes of military field coordination problems.

Two-thirds of the PSC interviewees and three-fifths of the military interviewees cited communication difficulties as the main cause of coordination problems, specifying that communications between PSCs and the military occur on an ad hoc basis. This is mainly due to the lack of interoperable radio and communications systems between the military and PSCs.

The second-most common response from PSC interviewees regarding the causes of PSC-military coordination problems was the lack of standard military rules, instructions or doctrine regarding how PSCs and the military should deal with each other in the field. These responses included statements regarding PSCs’ ambiguous position in the military chain of command, the ambiguity in the military’s responsibility to provide assistance to PSC personnel and ambiguity in the rules of engagement applying to PSC personnel.

One-third of PSC interviewees also noted the lack of pre-deployment training for the military on who PSCs are and what their roles are in the field. Curiously, none of the PSC interviewees mentioned that PSC employees should receive pre-deployment training on how to interact with the military.

One-quarter of PSC personnel interviewed noted the lack of standard procedures for approaching military checkpoints and passing convoys as a major problem hindering PSC-military coordination, while one-sixth of PSC interviewees stated or implied that problems identifying PSCs as friendly forces contributed to poor PSC-military coordination.

The structural problems the military cited differed slightly from PSC interviewees, although 60 percent of military interviewees similarly noted the lack of pre-deployment training as a structural weakness hindering effective military-PSC coordination. Yet military interviewees thought that both groups should receive such training. Furthermore, 60 percent complained of a lack of knowledge regarding PSCs’ location within their area of responsibility, which in some cases led to unnecessary danger for the troops in that AOR when having to provide assistance or a quick-reaction force to PSCs. And 60 percent noted the lack of a formal command-and-control relationship between the military and PSCs as a cause of coordination problems. Forty percent said that they had no knowledge of any formal military rules or doctrine regarding how to interact with PSCs.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.