The Endemic Problem of Overreliance on Private Military Contracting

My PolicyMic colleague Yasmeen Husain wrote a great piece last week about the need for contractors in the U.S. military. She argues persuasively that private military companies (PMCs) play an integral role in U.S. peace and stability operations such as humanitarian aid and embassy security. She also admits some of the shortcomings of PMCs, specifically in relation to operational standards and accountability, issues that have plagued contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But there is an important element of the PMC debate that Yasmeen overlooks. Yes, ethics and accountability are important, but they are only part of larger issues that are more fundamental and institutional. Two things trouble me about the current state of military contracting: the acceleration of private contracting over the last decade and the assumption that contracting is a more efficient mechanism for providing military services.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have stretched the military thin, and the Department of Defense has increasingly sought assistance from private firms. As of June 2010, there were more DoD contractors (54%) than uniformed soldiers (46%) fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are unprecedented levels. Furthermore, over two-thirds of private contractors are foreign citizens, not Americans.

Contractors are hired for everything from security to transportation to covert operations. The Department of Defense does not provide public data on the value of private contracts, but estimates run in the tens of billions of dollars. The costs are so high that Congress created the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a special task for to investigate military contracting in more depth. The commission released a report in 2009 detailing a variety of endemic problems of “waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” not to mention cost.

The findings of this report call into question the effectiveness of privatization efforts in the armed forces. So much of the contracting performs basic military operations that the military needs to ask fundamental questions about why it can’t meet more of its operational requirements internally. As the Commission report states, “The Department of Defense cannot provide a complete accounting of all the contracted support it relies upon.” The military simply cannot effectively measure its input of contracted work, which should be a fundamental consideration in the decision to outsource operations. Several commentators in a recent New York Times debate on government contracting made similar arguments.

Contracting works best with well-defined goals and measurable results. Sending a shipment of supplies to Afghanistan, for example, is prime opportunity for outsourcing to the private sector. The outcome is verifiable, and the military can keep track of such variables as shipment time and cost. Poor performance can result in awarding the contract to another company. Furthermore, the contracting frees up soldiers that the military can reassign to the battlefield. For this reason, I am not arguing that contracting should be completely eliminated; after all, contracting plays a vital role not just in the military, but across state and federal governments. I myself am a government contractor. But I think the U.S. military errs in the degree to which it outsources key responsibilities of military operations.

Without clearly-defined and limited scopes of operation, private contractors are neither the most efficient nor most effective use of limited resources. The U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense would be smart to reevaluate the overall use of contractors by taking into consideration the indirect consequences that go far beyond boots on the ground and conservative ideals of privatization.

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