June 1, 2011  

Contract terms

It’s time to reassess the use of contractors in combat zones

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of contractors reached a level unprecedented in U.S. military operations. The presence of contractors on the battlefield is not a new phenomenon, but has increased from the ratio of 1 contractor to 55 military personnel in Vietnam to 1:1 in Iraq and 1:1.42 in Afghanistan. This increase is rooted in a series of decisions going back decades, but the immediate, unanticipated need for large numbers of logistics and security personnel to deal with disorder in Iraq and the shortage of such troops on active duty drove the Pentagon to dramatically increase its dependence on contractors.

However, the subsequent failure to conduct a careful analysis of the wisdom of using contractors is less understandable. Both the executive and legislative branches have conducted numerous investigations into fraud, waste and corruption in the contracting process. Yet, to date, the government has not systematically explored the essential question: Does using contractors in a conflict zone make strategic sense?

This article will take a first cut at that question. It will examine the positive and negative aspects of our use of contractors and then consider the strategic impact of using contractors in conflict zones. It concludes with policy recommendations for the future employment of contractors and outlines additional actions needed to understand and cope with the rapidly expanding use of armed contractors worldwide.


Contractors provide a number of advantages over military personnel or civil servants: speed of deployment, continuity, reduction of troop requirements, reduction of military casualties, economic inputs to local economies, and, in some cases, executing tasks the military and civilian workforce simply cannot.

Speed of deployment — the ability to quickly mobilize and deploy large numbers of personnel — is particularly important when a plan fails to anticipate problems. Recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have highlighted both the frequency and magnitude of those surprises. By tapping into databases, running job fairs in the U.S., and contracting for labor from Third World companies, contractors were able to quickly recruit, process and ship personnel to run logistics and security operations across Iraq. We can expect to continue to be surprised when we commit to military action.

Tied to speed of deployment is the low political profile of contractors. Private companies managed to find people, hire them and move them into country — all without the political problems inherent in mobilizing additional U.S. military forces to execute the same tasks.

Continuity is another major advantage of contractors. While the U.S. military has a policy that ensures the vast majority of personnel rotate every six to 12 months, contractors are often willing to stay for longer periods. For key billets, companies can offer significant bonuses to personnel who stay. The companies know that they will reap commensurate savings because of the personnel continuity, and employees see an opportunity for significantly increased pay.

The most highly prized attribute of private contractors is that they reduce troop requirements by replacing military personnel. The Obama administration is struggling to maintain support for 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If it had to substitute soldiers for contractors, the number would be more than 200,000.

The contractors not only provide relief in terms of personnel tempo but also reduce military casualties. During the first six months of 2010, contractor casualties exceeded those of uniformed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. For political purposes, these casualties were “off the books” in that they had no real impact on the political discussions about the war. In fact, contractor casualties are likely much higher since only those contractors who filed insurance claims through the Labor Department are counted. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how many additional casualties were suffered by Third World contractors in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Another advantage frequently cited by proponents of the use of contractors is cost. According to their calculations, contractors are much cheaper to use than government employees. In fact, the actual costs remain a point of contention. The Congressional Research Service reported that the “relative cost advantage of the contractors can vary, and may diminish or disappear altogether, depending on the circumstances and contract.” Determining actual costs is extremely difficult because of the large number of variables involved — some of them impossible to document. For instance, with more than 40,000 U.S. contractors wounded to date, we are unable to estimate potential long-term care costs to the government. If the contractor’s medical coverage proves insufficient, the government may well end up paying for the continued care through various governmental medical programs. In short, long-term costs associated with employing contractors in a conflict environment are unknowable.

Theoretically, one cost benefit of contractors is indisputable. Proponents state that as soon as the need goes away, they can be fired immediately.

A final, critical advantage is that contractors can execute tasks military and civilian forces simply cannot. Some tasks, such as providing large numbers of interpreters, are obvious and widely applicable. Others are situation-specific. For instance, in Afghanistan, we lack the forces to secure our primary supply lines to Pakistan because they run through areas either controlled or heavily contested by the Taliban or other organizations that charge for use of the road. Furthermore, if history is any guide, even a heavy presence of U.S. troops would not guarantee the delivery of supplies. Fortunately, Afghan contractors display the mix of force, personal connections and negotiation skills to maintain our supply lines.


When serving within conflict zones, particularly during a counterinsurgency, contractors create a number of significant problems from tactical to strategic levels. Three inherent characteristics of contractors create problems for the government. First, the government does not control the quality of the personnel that the contractor hires. Second, unless it provides a government officer or noncommissioned officer for each construction project, convoy, personal security detail or facilities-protection unit, the government does not control, or even know about, their daily interactions with the local population. Finally, the population holds the government responsible for everything that the contractors do or fail to do. Since insurgency is essentially a competition for legitimacy between the government and insurgents, this third factor elevates the issue of quality and tactical control to the strategic level. In addition to these inherent characteristics, there are numerous other negative outcomes that flow from using contractors. Contractors compete directly with the host nation for a limited pool of educated, trained personnel. Their presence and actions can dramatically change local power structures. They fragment the chain of command. And in practice, when they fail to perform, contractors can be difficult to fire.

Quality control is a well-publicized issue. Repeated reports of substandard construction, fraud and theft highlight the problems associated with unarmed contractors. As noted above, these incidents are being investigated. In addition, the government is working hard to refine contracting and oversight procedures to reduce these types of problems. However, short of establishing a tactical training and testing facility for contractors, the government cannot determine the combat qualifications of individuals and teams of armed personnel. The Defense Department dedicates large facilities, major exercises, expensive simulations and combat-experienced staffs to ensuring military units are properly trained. Contractors do not. We need to acknowledge that contracting officers have no truly effective control over the quality of the personnel the contractors hire. Further, the quality control problems are greatly exacerbated when the contractor uses subcontractors to provide services. These personnel are at least one layer removed from the contracting officer and thus subject to even less scrutiny.

Compounding the problems, the government does not control the contractor’s daily contact with the population. Despite continued efforts to increase government oversight of contractor operations, nothing short of having sufficient numbers of qualified government personnel accompanying and commanding contractors will provide control. This lack of control usually means we may get poorly wired buildings, malfunctioning computer systems and unfinished projects. However, too often, it includes incidents of bullying, abuse, intimidation, and even killing of local civilians such as the DynCorp employee who ran a child sex ring in the Balkans or the September 2007 Blackwater shootings in Nisour Square, Baghdad.

This lack of quality and tactical control greatly increases the impact of the third major problem: The U.S. is held responsible for everything the contractors do or fail to do. Legitimate governments are also responsible for the actions of their agents — particularly those actions taken against their own populations. Despite the fact the U.S. has no effective quality or operational control over the contractors, the local population rightly holds it responsible for all contractor failures. A key measure of the legitimacy of a government is a monopoly on the use of force within its boundaries. The very act of hiring armed contractors dilutes that monopoly. Despite efforts to increase the accountability of contractors, the Congressional Research Service noted the widespread perception that contractors who commit crimes against host-nation people are outside the legal reach of both the host country and the U.S.

In addition to undercutting government legitimacy, the use of contractors may actually undercut local government power. In Afghanistan, security and reconstruction contracts have resulted in significant shifts in relative power among competing Afghan qawms as well as allegations of corruption. Dexter Filkins, writing in The New York Times, noted that the power structure in Oruzgan province, Afghanistan, has changed completely due to the U.S. government’s selecting Matiullah Khan to provide security for convoys from Kandahar to Tirin Kot: “With his NATO millions, and the American backing, Mr. Matiullah has grown into the strongest political and economic force in the region. He estimates that his salaries support 15,000 people in this impoverished province.”

Thus, an unacknowledged but serious strategic impact of using contractors is to directly undercut both the legitimacy and the authority of the host-nation government. In this case, the shortage of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) members and the sheer difficulty of maintaining security along this route means that there is currently no feasible alternative. That makes it more important than ever that the U.S. government take specific actions to minimize the negative strategic impacts of this operational necessity.

Contracting also has a direct and measurable impact on the local economy. When the government passes its authority to a prime contractor, that contractor then controls a major source of new wealth and power in the community. However, the contractor is motivated by two factors: maximizing profit and making operations run smoothly. This means that even if he devotes resources to understanding the impact of his operations on society, his decisions on how to allocate those resources will differ from those of someone trying to govern the area. For instance, various contractors’ policies of hiring South Asians rather than Iraqis angered Iraqis during the critical early phases of the insurgency. Desperate for jobs, the Iraqis saw third-country nationals getting jobs that Iraqis were both qualified for and eager to do. While there were clear business and security reasons for doing so, the decision was a slap in the face of Iraqis at a time of record unemployment.

In contrast, the government in the form of a provincial reconstruction team commander or a unit commander writes contracts specifically to influence the political and security situation in the area. Commanders see the contracts themselves as a campaign tool. While its effect is limited by the cultural understanding of the commander and is often less efficient for the specific project, this system can be much more effective in the overall counterinsurgency campaign.

Contracting also takes key elements of the counterinsurgency effort out of the hands of the commander. In the spring of 2010, ISAF determined that DynCorp had failed in its contract to train and mentor the Afghan police. ISAF then put the contract out for competition. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of ISAF, stated that the police were one the most critical elements of his campaign plan, so the contracting process was accelerated. Not surprisingly, DynCorp did not win the new contract. Since time is critical in Afghanistan, plans were made to rapidly transition the contract to a new provider to ensure that the Afghan police could play their part in the counterinsurgency campaign. However, DynCorp successfully protested the contract award. It then competed for and won the new round of competition for the contract. In short, the commander lost control of one of the critical elements of his counterinsurgency campaign at a critical time. Despite DynCorp’s documented failures, there was nothing the theater commander could do.


Despite the numerous problems, contractors will have an important and continuing role in U.S. operations — domestic and overseas. There are important functions that the government is incapable of performing without contractor support. This is not a new phenomenon. The Pentagon — and particularly the Air Force and Navy — has long relied on contractors to fill niche requirements such as maintaining and, sometimes, even operating the newest high-technology equipment. More recently, contractors have been hired to execute many of the routine housekeeping tasks at permanent military facilities.

However, despite conducting nine years of combat operations supported by contractors, the U.S. still has not conducted a substantial examination of the strategic impact the use of contractors has in counterinsurgency. This does not mean contracts and contractors are not being studied. Congress formed the Commission on Wartime Contracting specifically “to assess a number of factors related to wartime contracting, including the extent of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of wartime contracts.” Focused on improving the efficiency of wartime contracting, the commission did not discuss the strategic impact of using contractors in its 2009 interim report. This author hopes that the commission will include the strategic impact in its final report in 2011.

Within the executive branch, the Defense and State departments are conducting studies on how to reduce fraud and increase the efficiency of contractors. The Joint Staff is running a major study to determine the level of dependency on contractor support in contingency operations. Various Justice Department investigations are going over past contracts for evidence of everything from fraud to abuse of prisoners to inappropriate use of deadly force. Yet none of these studies is looking at the fundamental questions concerning the strategic impact of contractors in combat.

Contractors clearly can have a strategic impact on the success of counterinsurgency operations in a variety of ways. The most important include reducing the political capital necessary to commit U.S. forces to war, potentially reducing the legitimacy of a counterinsurgency effort and damaging the perceived morality of the war effort. Rather than automatically defaulting to hiring contractors as a relatively quick, easy and politically benign solution to an immediate problem, the U.S. should first answer several key strategic questions.

First, what is the impact of contractors on the initial decision to go to war, as well as the will to sustain the conflict? Contractors provide the ability to initiate and sustain long-term conflicts without the political effort necessary to convince the American people a war is worth fighting. Thus, the U.S. can enter a war with less effort to build popular consensus.

But is this good? Should we seek methods that make it easier to take the nation to war? That appears to be a bad idea when entering a protracted conflict. Insurgents understand that political will is the critical vulnerability of the U.S. in irregular warfare. They have discussed this factor openly in their online strategic forums for almost a decade. Ensuring that the American public understands the difficulty of the impending conflict and is firmly behind the effort should be an essential element in committing forces to the 10 or more years that modern counterinsurgencies require for success. Thus, while the use of contractors lessens the extent of political mobilization needed, it may well hurt the effort in the long term.

Second, contractors can undermine the legitimacy of both U.S. and host-nation counterinsurgency efforts in a variety of ways. Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, states that the conflict is a competition for legitimacy between the counterinsurgent and the insurgent. Widespread use of contractors can directly undercut a central theme of counterinsurgency doctrine. Under certain conditions, we may choose to use contractors in spite of the negative impact on legitimacy, but we should not do so in ignorance of that impact. Any decision to use contractors in a conflict zone should be carefully considered for its impact on the strategy that we have chosen and the campaign plan we are using to execute that strategy.

A third area that needs strategic consideration is the morality of using contractors. What are the moral implications of authorizing contractors, qualified or not, to use deadly force in the name of the U.S.? What about hiring poor, Third World citizens to sustain casualties in support of U.S. policy? What is the U.S. responsibility for wounded and killed contractors — particularly those from the Third World? While these sound like theoretical questions, they are in fact practical ones. Maintaining long-term domestic popular support for a conflict requires that U.S. actions be both legitimate and moral.


Currently, the Commission on Wartime Contracting (www.wartimecontracting .gov) is examining a broad range of issues concerning wartime contracting and is expected to present its final report in July. Of particular interest will be the report’s findings on “inherently governmental” functions that should not be done by contractors. Even as the commission continues its work, the manpower requirements of the current conflicts mean that, for the near term, the U.S. will continue to employ a large number of contractors in war zones. In fact, as our forces draw down in Iraq, the State Department has stated its requirement for security contractors will increase significantly.

The tension between near-term operational imperatives and the negative strategic impacts highlights the need for clear guidelines about when and how the government should employ contractors. This question should be a central part of our post-Afghanistan force structure discussions. The size and type of force that we build depends on a clear concept of how the U.S. plans to use contractors in future conflicts. This discussion cannot wait until the commission’s report is finalized and approved. The debate about future force structure is well underway.


A number of factors are putting major pressure on force structure planners. The primary pressure will be the falling budgets that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has clearly warned the services to expect. In addition, as U.S. forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, force planners will have to decide how to allocate limited resources to position the armed forces to deal with future conflicts. There is an intense, ongoing debate about which types of conflicts should take priority and then how the forces should be structured, equipped and trained to deal with those contingencies. A tempting way to avoid tough decisions will be to assume contractors will provide major services across the spectrum of conflict, thus dramatically reducing the force requirements for logistics and security. In the past, we have often sacrificed force structure to save weapons systems. Planning to use contractors in future conflict zones would reinforce this tendency.

Any force planning documents should clearly state what assumptions have been made concerning the functions of the contractors who will support the force. Further, the following guidelines should be employed in considering when and how to use contractors in the future.

The unique stresses on the contractors, combined with the severe limitations on the government’s ability to oversee their performance, have resulted in repeated actions that reduced operational effectiveness and undercut the U.S. strategic position. The cost savings of using contractors are uncertain at best. In contrast, the strategic and operational problems that arise from using them in a counterinsurgency are clear and documented.

Therefore, the default position should be to hire contractors only for those functions that take place within a secure facility: food service, laundry, cleaning and so forth. Further, the U.S. should use host-nation organizations first and host-nation contractors next with U.S. or foreign contractors being a choice of last resort even for inside-the-wire work. The one consistent exception to this rule will be interpreters since the government simply cannot maintain sufficient linguistic capability for the wide range of possible future commitments.

However, even with a default position of not hiring contractors in conflict zones, some elements of the government would most likely hire contractors, including armed contractors, in future conflicts. Some agencies could determine that they cannot achieve an assigned task without security and be unable to get U.S. military protection or find a local source. To minimize the negative impact of contractors in irregular war, policy should give strong preference to the host nation providing the services — even if they have to be funded and supported by the U.S. This is particularly important with security personnel of all kinds — to include security for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A major focus of the initial effort must be to replace contract security with government-provided security.

Even as host-nation government capacity grows, there may be some jobs that require local security contractors. In Afghanistan, escorting logistics convoys from Pakistan to Afghanistan falls into this category. The historical record indicates ISAF or the Afghan government would require massive forces to accomplish the mission. The Afghan “security companies” have succeeded at this task, but operate outside ISAF rules of engagement, upset local power structures, and can create additional enemies. Future use of local security companies for such missions must be carefully balanced against their negative side effects and employed only when there is no other solution.

If contractors are required, they must be under the direct supervision of a U.S. government employee. While the government is making strenuous efforts to increase the number of contracting officers and to become more specific in writing contracts, the fact remains that the government cannot control contractor actions without direct supervision. Unless it has direct supervision, the government will remain unaware of contractors whose actions alienate the local population or fail to meet U.S. standards.

Outside the conflict zone, the default position should be to hire contractors or government civilian employees. By hiring contractors to fill jobs overseas but outside the conflict zone, the U.S. can reduce the personnel tempo of the uniformed forces. Our current use of contractors in Kuwait is a good example of this approach. While deployments to Kuwait to support the effort in Iraq are not dangerous, they do increase the personnel tempo of the uniformed services. Thus, DoD has filled most of these billets with contractors, who have compiled a very good record running the training, maintenance and transit facilities in Kuwait. This type of well-defined, repetitive administrative task is ideal for contractors, particularly in a forward-deployed, nonconflict location. Furthermore, the contractors, like all expatriates working in the country, are subject to Kuwait’s legal system and, thus, the local population sees them as accountable to Kuwait authority.

Aggressive efforts should also be made to use either DoD civilian employees or contractors to fill nondeploying military billets. As stated, personnel tempo is a major problem for the services. Yet the Defense Business Board noted that, despite nine years of conflict, fully 40 percent of active-duty personnel have not deployed to a conflict zone, and an additional 30 percent have deployed only once. While a significant number of these nondeployers are first-term personnel who have not yet received sufficient training to deploy, the number of career force personnel who have not deployed is still high. These personnel are filling nondeploying billets. Rather than hiring contractors to fill billets inside the conflict zone, we need to examine which of these nondeploying billets can be filled by contractors, freeing uniformed personnel to deploy.

Finally, contractors should be hired for the same sort of routine, measurable tasks at bases in the U.S. This should go without saying, but the author witnessed U.S. soldiers cutting grass on base during the period they were supposed to be working up to go overseas. The soldiers had been told that budget cuts meant civilians were not available for base maintenance so soldiers had to do the work. Thus we had the interesting case of paying a premium to hire civilians to pass out towels at gyms in Iraq while soldiers cut the grass instead of training for deployment.


This article has focused on the current U.S. use of contractors in conflict zones, but the use of armed contractors is on the rise around the world. Led by the U.S., many nations have reintroduced armed contractors to conflict zones. In addition, the lack of security in undergoverned areas has led NGOs, international organizations, private companies and even nation-states to hire armed contractors to provide security and unarmed contractors to deliver services. In some cases, it is difficult to tell whether contractors are part of a private firm or are hired by a government that does not wish to send official government personnel. The most serious potential problems arise from the fact that large numbers of armed contractors are being injected into an international security arena that lacks recent experience in regulating them. In effect, they represent a new element in international relations.

The U.S. must develop policies and procedures to deal with the presence of armed contractors in conflict zones. Because these armed entities are generally outside the experience and mandate of current international organizations and mechanisms, they will continue to have unforeseen impacts. Thus, the U.S. must work with other states, NGOs and international organizations to develop policies, procedures and institutions to deal with the presence of armed contractors in conflict zones. The Montreux Document — recommendations on the use of military contractors agreed to by 17 nations, including the U.S. — is an example of such an effort and deserves the support of the U.S. However, it is only the first step in learning to manage these new players in the international arena.

T.X. HAMMES is a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the university or government.