Commentary

Slippery Slope: Contractors’ Impact on Military Culture

If anything about the private military contracting industry is certain, it is that it will continue to grow in the future. And that raises an interesting question: What impact will the continuing and growing dependence on private contractors have on the U.S. military establishment?

In 1992 U.S. Air Force officer Charles Dunlap published an article, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” in the Army journal Parameters. In it he described a future in which a military coup had taken place and Gen. Thomas E.T. Brutus now occupies the White House as permanent military plenipotentiary.

Sixteen years later USAF Maj. Bryan Watson has taken up where Dunlap left off. His article “A Look Down the Slippery Slope: Domestic Operations, Outsourcing and the Erosion of Military Culture,” published in the spring 2008 issue of Air & Space Power Journal, takes the form of a fictional speech given by a senior Air Force officer. In it he conveys several warnings and personal opinions formed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Like Dunlap, he is critical of the increasing military involvement in domestic operations. Back in the 1980s it was the congressionally mandated military involvement in anti-drug trafficking efforts. Nowadays it is homeland security, as evidenced by the creation of the Northern Command.

He also points out how the use of contractors can confuse the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. During the first combat deployment of the RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, 56 contractors deployed as part of an 82-member military, civil service and contractor “team.” Subsequently, the use of contractors in this type of role grew further, to the point that contractors began “conducting combat-type operations” that included operating the Global Hawk and even piloting it.

He writes that this could create numerous issues — not the least of which was the fact that UAV contractor pilots could be considered unlawful combatants under the Law of Armed Conflict, yet the American military continued to rely upon contractors. A publication generated at Maxwell AFB in Alabama even addressed this issue in 2004, warning that “the citizen must be a citizen not a soldier… War law has a short shrift for the non-combatant who violates its principles by taking up arms.”

And the military has even specifically designed some weapon systems to rely upon contractor support, instead of uniformed personnel, claiming it is more cost effective.

How did this all start? Watson says in the 1950s, when the federal government “required its agencies to procure all commercial goods and services from the private sector, except when ‘not in the public interest.’” Fifty-one years later, Congress required federal agencies to examine the outsourcing of all staff positions that were not “inherently governmental.” Of course, the requirement applied to positions held by military personnel, and the Defense Department complied, mandating that “functions and duties that are inherently governmental are barred from private sector performance.”

In the United States the PMC industry has been fueled by the same zeal for market-based approaches that drove the deregulation of the electricity, airline and telephone-service industries. The military was considered to be particularly well-suited to public-private partnerships, because its need for services fluctuates so radically and abruptly. In light of such sharp spikes in demand, it was thought, it would be more efficient for the military to call on a group of temporary, highly trained experts in times of war — even if that meant paying them a premium — rather than to rely on a permanent standing army that drained its resources (with pension plans, health insurance and so forth) in times of peace.

But here is the problem for Watson. He writes, “The ability to apply military force is an obligation of profound significance for the American people, and we didn’t fully appreciate that idea in the context of contractors. I think of a great quotation that I wish I had heard back when I sat where you do now: Democratic government is responsible government — which means accountable government — and the essential problem in contracting out is that responsibility and accountability are greatly diminished.”

Watson wonders whether military forces have the means to effectively control contractors. He does note the amendments to the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act which have expanded its scope over contractors, but notes that prosecution still remains at the discretion of a district attorney. This contrasts starkly with provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which has worldwide applicability to American military personnel and whose use resides with commanders. While he is aware that a change in the law supposedly made contractors subject to the uniform code in times of a “declared war or a contingency operation,” he still finds that as a matter of practicality, political realities rendered the change exceedingly difficult to implement.

He also finds the debate about some jobs being inherently governmental — and thus, theoretically, off limits to contractors — becoming increasingly meaningless. He notes that because of advancements in technology, even the operation of major weapon systems — such as the F-117A stealth fighter, M1-A tank, Patriot missile and Global Hawk have became “contractor dependent.”

In his view this helps erode military culture. He sees military customs being changed into mere “customer service,” not all that different from calling for assistance regarding your computer and being connected to a help center in India.

Watson’s core argument is that the U.S. government has “long recognized that the military is, by necessity, a specialized society separate from civilian society.” But in the future, if soldiers and civilian contractors are equally important parts of a unified military structure, military law may no longer apply, which would mean commanders will no longer be involved in even the most serious disciplinary issues affecting their troops.

And then George Washington’s famous quote, “Discipline is the soul of an army,” may become just a historical memory.

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 new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq