The State Department is quietly forming a small army to protect diplomatic personnel in Iraq after U.S. military forces leave the country at the end of 2011, taking its firepower with them.
Department officials are asking the Pentagon to provide heavy military gear, including Black Hawk helicopters, and say they also will need substantial support from private contractors.
The shopping list demonstrates the department's reluctance to count on Iraq's army and police forces for security, despite the billions of dollars the U.S. invested to equip and train them. And it shows that President Obama is having a hard time keeping his pledge to reduce U.S. reliance on contractors, a practice that flourished under the Bush administration.
In an early April request to the Pentagon, Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's undersecretary for management, is seeking 24 Black Hawks, 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, heavy cargo trucks, fuel trailers, and high-tech surveillance systems. Mr. Kennedy asks that the equipment, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, be transferred at "no cost" from military stocks.
Contractors will be needed to maintain the gear and provide other support to diplomatic staff, according to the State Department, a potential financial boon for companies such as the Houston-based KBR Inc. that still have a sizable presence in Iraq.
It's no understatment to say that the US Army's aviation units are stretched thin. In fact, some aviation battalions, particularly Apache units, return home station without their aircraft, leaving their helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan for their replacement battalion. Some return home to empty hangars, waiting for another unit to give up their aircraft for training, essentially playing "musical Apaches".
The Army has tried to rectify the situation by forming another combat aviation brigade. However, it will take time to create it, and personnel, aircraft and equipment don't appear out of nowhere. It will take time to "grow" another brigade, possibly by short-filling other brigades.
And the State Department is asking for almost an entire battalion's worth of Black Hawk helicopters? Absolutely not.
If State is going to rely on contractors to fly, they ought to get the contractor (most likely Blackwater/Xe) to cough up the requisite aircraft. After all, Blackwater/Xe already operates a fleet of rotary wing aircraft. Certainly, someone can track down Erik Prince to see if he can work something.