Outsourcing the Dirty Work
The military and its reliance
on hired guns
By Joshua Kurlantzick
The American Prospect, May
The war in Iraq could not have taken place
without a network of for profit contractors upon which the U.S.
military has come to depend. Some 20,000 employees of private
military companies (PMCs) and of more traditional military contractors
accompanied the U.S. forces in the buildup to war in the Middle
East. They maintained computers and communications systems in
Kuwait, Qatar and other locations, handled many aspects of logistics
as the military's supply lines moved through Iraq and helped the
Pentagon identify key targets in Iraq. As hostilities began, many
of these PMC employees were integral to the American effort, keeping
communications secure, assisting with the reopening of Iraq's
southern oil fields and performing many other crucial tasks, often
right behind the front lines.
Brookings Institution fellow Peter W.
Singer, author of the forthcoming Corporate Warriors: The Rise
of the Privatized Military Industry, believes that the number
of contract employees used by the military in this Iraq War is
significantly higher than in the Gulf War. In fact, Singer estimates,
the Pentagon may be using nearly 1o times as many contract employees
as it did in 1991. Indeed, whereas there were fewer than 1o PMCs
in the United States two decades ago, today there are more than
30. Many are based in northern Virginia, giving them close access
to Pentagon officials. Reston, Va.-based DynCorp, one of the larger
companies, saw its revenues increase by more than 15 percent in
2002. According to Ed Soyster, former head of the Pentagon's Defense
Intelligence Agency and now a spokesman for Alexandria, Va.-based
Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), his PMC has grown
from eight employees in 1988 to more than goo today. Meanwhile,
shares of publicly traded PMCs, such as DynCorp, have skyrocketed
even as the broader American stock markets have tanked.
This dependence on PMCs is a relatively
new phenomenon. During most of the 20th century, such organizations
established reputations for brutal behavior. Hard-drinking European
guns-for-hire such as "Mad" Mike Hoare took part in
bloody coups in Africa. One infamous mercenary, Bob Denard, even
made himself dictator of Africa's Comoros Islands. The end of
the Cold War helped fuel the rise of PMCs by reducing the need
to maintain an enormous standing military capable of fighting
another superpower. The Pentagon reduced the armed forces from
~ million in 199l to 1.4 million today. "Because conflicts
now are more localized, smaller numbers of soldiers can win a
battle, and there was more fear in the Pentagon about sending
soldiers on dangerous missions, so they began turning to contractors,"
says PMC expert Deborah D. Avant, an associate professor at George
Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
Meanwhile, American businesses' 1990s
infatuation with privatization filtered into the military milieu.
"There was a feeling that the private sector could do things
more efficiently," says Singer. Later, under Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon opposed the Clinton-era
usage of troops in nation-building exercises and other noncombat
By downsizing, the Pentagon created a
large pool of ex-soldiers, many of whom wanted to stay in the
military industry. "We have a database of more than 10,000
former soldiers who want to have military-related jobs,"
boasts Soyster. "We have more generals than the Pentagon."
Large companies such as Northrop Grumman
had designed and built weapons systems for decades. But now the
Pentagon has turned to contractors and units of those firms to
provide services only uniformed soldiers used to perform. In Colombia,
the Pentagon has contracted with DynCorp, Northrop Grumman and
Florida-based Airscan to
provide intelligence, train Colombian
troops and spray coca crops in an attempt to reduce the supply
of cocaine. The Department of State has hired DynCorp to provide
security for Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and the Pentagon has
signed up Airscan to do surveillance work in the Balkans. In some
of these cases, PMC employees carry weapons, serve on the front
lines and even engage in combat. In others, it's a matter of taking
over logistics. As Fortune magazine has reported, a unit of the
Halliburton corporation has handled nearly all logistical supplies
for U.S. troops in the Balkans since the mid-l990s. Another part
of the company, formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney,
has received a contract to put out oil-well fires in Iraq. Singer
estimates that in the coming year, the Pentagon will spend upward
of $~5 billion on private military contractors, more than double
what it spent a decade ago.
"American soldiers are expensive,
and uniformed military don't want to be cooking food or doing
lots of other tasks, 50 PMCs are more efficient," says Christopher
Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information,
a military research organization. And some evidence supports this
argument. "In the [early 1990s] UN operation in Cambodia
[in which the United Nations handled most of the logistics], peacekeepers
would run out of fuel and water," notes Singer. In contrast,
he says, the United Nations' recent rebuilding effort in East
Timor, which has relied heavily on PMCs, has run much more smoothly
and efficiently. Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace
Operations Association, a trade group of PMCs, has even claimed
that these private companies could resolve all of Africa's conflicts
for just $750 million.
But other military analysts worry that
the Pentagon is rapidly giving too much responsibility to contractors,
without any rules or regulations about how best to deploy or protect
them. This is hardly an idle question. During the Gulf War in
1991, Iraqi soldiers launched a Scud missile into a barracks of
U.S. reservists handling water purification, precisely the sort
of task now relegated to contractors. Without adequate protection
and oversight, PMC staff discipline could break down in tough
situations. Indeed, Singer says, during the Gulf War, a few PMC
employees in Saudi Arabia fled because they feared a chemical
Yet PMCs increasingly face dangerous situations.
In the past decade, eight DynCorp employees have been killed in
Colombia, and others have been taken hostage by the narco-guerrilla
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As U.S. News ~
World Report has revealed, employees of ICI, a PMC based in Oregon,
have been taken hostage while protecting U.S. diplomats in Africa.
In the buildup to the current Iraq War, an employee of Tapestry
Solutions, a San Diego-based PMC, was ambushed and killed in Kuwait.
Some analysts fear that the increasing
use of PMCs lowers the psychological and social costs of resorting
to force, a change that could result in more wars worldwide. "lf
you don't have to sacrifice your own uniformed military, it can
be easier for generals to make the decision to use force,"
says Avant. Singer agrees, noting that in many recent African
conflicts-such as the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in which
tens of thousands were killed-the fact that states could hire
PMCs relatively cheaply to prosecute their battles made them less
willing to come to the bargaining table and more willing to continue
What's more, using PMCs allows the Pentagon
to avoid scrutiny of its actions. PMCs that obtain Pentagon contracts
worth less than $50 million do not have to notify Congress, and
the Pentagon has admitted it has no idea how many PMC workers
it actually employs. "Congress has little oversight of what
PMCs are doing in Colombia," says Sanho Tree, an expert on
South America at the Institute for Policy Studies. "This
is how the Pentagon wants it, because they can put more troops
in Colombia than they are allowed." As a result, Tree says,
America encourages the Colombian military, one of the least transparent
and most abusive in the world, to be even more opaque.
What information does come out about PMCs
can be damning. In May 2001, it came to light that several people
hired by DynCorp for monitoring duties in Bosnia had recently
been fired for alleged sexual misconduct, including statutory
rape and child prostitution. Airscan, hired to provide aerial
intelligence in the Balkans, tried to save money by using commercial
television technology, a decision that allowed anyone in Europe
with satellite TV to watch American intelligence videos. Nor do
PMCs always provide promised cost savings. They might be cheaper
if the Pentagon really allowed them to compete with one another,
but the military just picks one PMC without a competitive process,
so the prices, Avant says, aren't usually any lower than the military
doing the job itself.
Others say that PMCs achieve cost savings
by doing a slapdash job. MPR was hired to analyze Colombia's war
against narco-guerrillas, but it produce a report that, according
to several anaIysts, provided few new ideas for combating the
FARC and other groups. Parts of the report, produced without the
benefit of any Spanish-speaking consultants, allegedly spelled
"Colombia" incorrectly. Meanwhile, Singer has implied
that the high number of military plane crashes in recent years
might be due to unqualified PMC staff working on airplane maintenance.
Some military analysts suggest that the
Pentagon should put off future privatization until it develops
a comprehensive and complete set of guidelines about PMCs. Others
argue that, even if it develops such guidelines, the Pentagon
should not employ private companies in situations that could involve
firefights. And, as the Center for Public Integrity has noted,
the Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued a paper calling for reassessing
the Pentagon's dependence on contractors.
But any slowdown in the pace of privatization
is unlikely. Secretary of the Army Thomas White, who formerly
worked for Enron, has come out strongly in support of using PMCs.
And in March, the White House announced that, in contrast to its
strategy after the war in Afghanistan and other recent conflicts,
it would direct many of the contracts for the postwar reconstruction
of Iraq to U.S. companies, not to international humanitarian agencies.
Included in the preliminary list of firms were many PMCs, and
the purported head of Iraq reconstruction, Jay Garner, formerly
worked for L-3 Communications, a PMC.
Somewhere "Mad" Mike Hoare is
JOSHUA KURLANTZICK is the foreign editor
of The New Republic.
New World Order