18 March 2009

The Ethics of Contracting, Made Simple

For those of you who have been hiding under a rock, you may be surprised that many of the jobs originally done by specially-trained Soldiers, such as laundry, refrigerator repair and other miscellaneous nonsensical jobs have since been outsourced to contractors. Unfortunately, this has extended to aircraft maintenance, communications repair, postal service, and a whole host of other activities previously taken upon by Soldiers, which raises a number of issues (Great article from Military Review on Contractor Culture).

Seven years into America’s War on Terrorism, private contractors now outnumber American troops serving in harm’s way. Pentagon officials recently informed Congress that as of September 2007, there were 196,000 contractors, along with approximately 160,000 American service members, supporting U.S. military operations in southwest Asia.1 In fiscal year 2006, the Pentagon spent more than $300 billion on contracted goods and services, making it “the largest purchasing agent in the world.”2

There are many good reasons to privatize military functions. According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report, most contracts supporting American operations in Iraq involve local companies and employees.3 Their employment creates jobs and supports economic development, a key tenet in counterinsurgency doctrine.4 Furthermore, many of the contracted services require unskilled labor. Without contractors, commanders would have to divert Soldiers from other, more important tasks. At the same time, modern military operations now depend heavily on high-tech weapons systems that may be too sophisticated for junior Soldiers to maintain and repair. Contractors provide expert technical support for these systems. Finally, the private sector has proven more flexible and responsive than the government’s civilian workforce in providing skilled workers willing to serve in dangerous locations. The U.S. Army is particularly dependent on contractors for a vast array of services from civil engineering, foreign military training, and computer network support to laundry, showers, and mail. The vast majority of this support has been extremely effective...

This article addresses a separate but equally important challenge: military professionalism. The Army’s heavy reliance on contracting erodes its professional jurisdiction over land warfare, drains its professional expertise, and undermines its institutional legitimacy within our democracy.

Many in the Small Wars community have debated the ethics of military contracting: are contractors legitimate military targets, what are the ethics of hiring a company, what jobs should be outsourced, how much do we pay contractors, etc. Indeed, many of these questions have been answered before. Not by the strategists in the Small Wars community, but by two clerks in the Kwik Stop somewhere in New Jersey...

Bonus: Did you know that George Lucas made sure that, in Attack of the Clones, that the evil corporate entities such as the Trade Federation, the Corporate Alliance, the Banking Clan, etc., were responsible for the design of the plans of the Death Star in an homage to this scene? Did you also realize that the same George Lucas that speaks out on how evil corporations are is also the same man that made millions of dollars selling C-3POs the Cereal?


Anonymous said...

Earlier I read this Washington Post article on the "Civilian Surge" (read: outsourcing) in Afghanistan on the SWJ blog.

I think civilian contractors are fine in mundane, obvious non-combat related things like refrigeration repair, etc but in handling security details (like Blackwater) they need serious oversight by military authorities (again, as painfully learned by Blackwater). Speaking of them, I know they got a bad rap as they generally handled themselves professionally (Nisour Square incident not withstanding).

I don't think the military's legitimacy has yet to be threatened by civilian contractors, however, we all need to remember that the first battle in the so-called War on Terror was one by civilians acting in self-defense - Flight 93. Quite a difference from paid mercenaries.

Greg in Mexico

J. said...

The point ought not be the work but the resources paid to contractors. Question is never asked, are we saving money by outsourcing or increasing the cost of war, which results in less funds for modernization and personnel? No, it's a political necessity that, as the military endstrengths are capped and the mission requirements grow, the work has to get done, damn the costs.

Instead of intelligently developing more units that are combat support, we outsource it so that we can buy more combat arms materials. Brilliant!