Commentary

Contractors Past, Present and Future

A recent article in Parameters, the quarterly academic journal of the U.S. Army War College, confirms the military’s critical dependence on private contractors.

What much of the debate over the use of contractors overlooks is that their presence on American battlefields is not the result of the greed of a bunch of opportunistic entrepreneurs and shady corporations. Instead, it is the result of deliberate decisions made decades ago.

The article, by retired Marine Corps Col. Mark Cancian, finds that most jobs performed by contractors on the battlefield are unobjectionable and should not be done by military personnel. He states what most informed observers of the industry have long known: following the Cold War, the services, especially the active-duty Army, were structured with an emphasis on combat units at the expense of support units. “As a result,” he writes, “there is a large and enduring shortage of support units. The use of contractors on the battlefield is no longer an optional or marginal activity.”

Cancian is correct, but it is worth remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War the U.S. military shifted to an all-volunteer force. Military leaders set up a series of organization “trip wires” to preserve the tie between the nation’s foreign policy decisions and American communities. Led by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, they wanted to ensure that the military would not go to war without the sufficient backing and involvement of the nation. But this “Abrams Doctrine” has since been outsourced.

What happened? During the Cold War the Army planned to use all of its combat forces in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact. Force planners also were required to provide a full complement of support units for these combat units.

In the post-Cold War era, instead of a global war against another superpower and its allies, strategic planning called for the U.S. military to prepare for two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts, such as Korea and Iraq. Such planning envisioned the same kind of high-intensity conventional conflict that typified the Cold War, albeit short, violent and limited, and fought with smaller forces. Thus, the Army radically changed its force structure to adapt to this new strategic environment.

As the Army shrank its force structure it changed the way it employed combat forces. Planners foresaw employing only eight to 10 divisions. That strategy justified the active-duty divisions but left National Guard combat units searching for a mission. The compressed timelines envisioned for these conflicts made employment of reserve combat units unlikely. It was simply not possible to mobilize, train up and deploy on the envisioned timeline.

Planning for support forces reflected this strategy. All active divisions needed a full set of support, from active or reserve support units. The enhanced Guard brigades required some support but not a full set because they were to be deployed in secondary roles. Guard divisions required no support.

This meant that support forces could be substantially reduced. In reality, even this lower goal was not met and the Army accepted “risk” in its support force. Internal Army analyses showed a shortfall of more than 60,000 soldiers.

Furthermore, the Iraq insurgency turned out to require the continuous employment of large combat forces. At first active-duty combat forces were able to handle the initial combat phase and even the first rotation of troops out and into theater. But then active-duty combat forces needed a rest. Reserve combat forces were then placed into the rotation. As the conflict wore on, essentially every National Guard combat unit was deployed to some theater — Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia or Kosovo. A major problem then arose: Planners had not provided sufficient support forces to sustain all the combat organizations. The National Guard combat units had not been expected to need this level of support.

The solution was contractors. They would fill the huge gap between the support force that was needed and the military support forces that were available.

According to Cancian, things will not change in the future. The Army is currently expanding from 482,400 to 547,400 soldiers. This expansion could have reduced dependence on contractors if the additional personnel were channeled into support units. But it has not. Although some of the additional manpower is being integrated into support units, the majority is going to combat units.

The purpose is clear: reduce stress on personnel by increasing the number of units in the rotation base. Army leaders have repeatedly cited the need to lengthen the time units spend in the continental United States. In all their testimony related to expanding the force, Army leaders have never expressed a desire to reduce dependence on contractors.

In fact, if Cancian is right, all future U.S. military operations are explicitly based on the utilization of contractors.

“The Army is developing a strategy based on a future of ‘persistent conflict’ where every combat unit, active and reserve, deploys on a regular basis,” he writes. “Indeed, the Army’s planned force structure does not make strategic sense without the implicit expectation of continuous deployments. As a result, the Army will continue to depend on contractors in support of deployed forces.”

Yet for all the military’s dependence on contractors, their role continues to be minimized and discounted. Another article in Parameters by George Washington University Law Professor Steven Schooner notes that the true U.S. death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan recently reached the 6,000 threshold. But that is not what the media are reporting, and as a result the public remains generally unaware.

“On the modern, outsourced battlefield, contractors are sustaining injuries and fatalities in increasing numbers,” writes Schooner. “Specifically, the losses chronicled in The Washington Post’s ongoing ‘Faces of the Fallen’ series fail to recognize the little-known fact that, as of 30 June 2008, more than 1,350 civilian contractor personnel had died in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of U.S. military and political operations. Another 29,000 contractors have been injured; more than 8,300 seriously. Yet contractor fatalities (and injuries) remain generally outside the public’s consciousness.”

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