Earlier this month I mentioned past congressional testimony by Colonel T. X. Hammes (USMC - Ret.), Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) , National Defense University. He also gave a presentation on private security contractors at the Middle East Institute.
Now the INSS has published a paper he wrote in which he explores the question "Does using contractors in a conflict zone make strategic sense?" I'll simply say that if you are going anything to read anything on private military contractors read this. It will easily be the best 15 pages written on the subject this year. Be warned; because it is so cogent and incisive I am going to quote from it a lot.
The paper is titled Private Contractors in Conflict Zones: The Good, the Bad, and the Strategic Impact. I'm guessing the colonel is a fan of Sergio Leone films. Note to Clint Eastwood: there is a PSC film waiting to be made that has your name in a starring role written all over it.
Give Col. Hammes credit dealing with a topic that is relatively unexplored. Most writing on private military and security contractors deals with operational and normative issues but putting PMC in the context of national military strategy or grand strategy generally gets short thrift.
Also give him credit for getting right to the point. His key points are:
the United States has hired record numbers of contractors to serve in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan but has not seriously examined their strategic impact.
there are clearly advantages to using contractors in conflict zones, but they have three inherent characteristics that have serious negative effects during counterinsurgency operations. We cannot effectively control the quality of the contractors or control their actions, but the population holds us responsible for everything the contractors do, or fail to do.
contractors compete with the host government for a limited pool of qualified personnel and dramatically change local power structures.
contractors reduce the political capital necessary to commit U.S. forces to war, impact the legitimacy of a counterinsurgency effort, and reduce its the perceived morality. These factors attack our nation's critical vulnerability in an irregular war--the political will of the American people.
Hammes notes, as PMC supporters often assert, that use of contractors does have its advantages, such as 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.
Col. Hammes also has some interesting estimates on the level of combat firepower private contractors represented.
While the vast majority of contractor personnel were involved in noncombatant logistics tasks, DOD estimated there were over 20,000 armed contractors in Iraq during 2007. Other organizations have much higher estimates. Even using the Pentagon's lower estimate, contractors provided three times more armed troops than the British. It should also be noted that in Iraq and Afghanistan, many unarmed, logistic support personnel functioned in what the military would define as a combat role. Te drivers were subjected to both improvised explosive devices and direct fire attacks. This combination of drivers willing to run the gauntlet of ambushes and armed contractors replaced at least two full combat divisions. Given the very low support-to-operator ratio that contractors maintain, it is not unreasonable to estimate they actually replaced three divisions.
And, in regard to contractor casualties, a vastly underreported and underappreciated subject, he notes:
The contractors not only provided relief in terms of personnel tempo but also reduced military casualties. Contractors absorbed over 25 percent of the killed in action in Iraq, which reduced the political resources required to maintain support for the conflict. By the end of 2009, contractors reported almost 1,800 dead and 40,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the fighting in Afghanistan gets worse, contractors are now suffering more deaths than U.S. forces: "In the first two quarters of 2010 alone, contractor deaths represented more than half--53 percent--of all fatalities. This point bears emphasis: since January 2010, more contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than U.S. military soldiers." For practical purposes, these casualties were "of the books" in that they had no real impact on the political discussions about the war.
What this means in terms of enabling continued war is obvious.
Replacing these contractors, both armed and unarmed, would have required additional major mobilizations of Reserves or a dramatic increase in Army and Marine Corps end-strength. In effect, the mobilization of civilian contractors allowed the United States to engage in a protracted conflict in Iraq without convincing the U.S. public of the need for additional major mobilizations or major increases in the Active Armed Forces.
An in regard to the never ending argument of contractor cost-effectiveness Hammes writes:
Determining actual costs is extremely difficult due to the large number of variables involved--some of them currently impossible to document. For instance, with over 40,000 U.S. contractors wounded to date, we are unable to estimate potential long-term care costs to the U.S. Government. While contractors may claim their insurance covers those costs, the government, in fact, paid for that insurance through the contract, and if the 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 essentially unknowable.
Now, believe it or no, all the above came from the section on contractor's good points. Now let's see some of his points regarding their bad side.
To start, 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 factor elevates the issue of quality and tactical control to the strategic level.
On the issue of quality control Hammes tells this story:
When suicide bombers began striking Iraqi armed forces recruiting stations, the contractor responsible for recruiting the Iraqi forces subcontracted for a security force. The contractor was promised former Gurkhas. What showed up in Iraq a couple of weeks later were untrained, underequipped Nepalese villagers. Not only did these contractors provide inadequate security, the United States armed them and authorized them to use deadly force in its name.
This is more than a shake your head anecdote however, as it goes to the heart of one of the arguments contractors supporters frequently make, i.e., that most private contractors in war zones are former military and bring the same qualities of discipline and professionalism they presumably had while on active duty. Hammes's response to that is:
Since the government neither recruits nor trains individual armed contractors, it essentially has to trust the contractor to provide quality personnel. In this case, the subcontractor took shortcuts despite the obvious risk to the personnel manning the recruiting stations. Even if the government hires enough contracting officers, how can it determine the combat qualifications of individuals and teams of armed personnel? The U.S. military dedicates large facilities, major exercises, expensive simulations, and combat-experienced staffs to determine if U.S. 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. Te 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.
In Hammes's view the use of PMC also represents a military vulnerability.
In the uprising in Iraq during the spring of 2004, both Sunni and Shia factions conducted major operations against coalition forces. The insurgents effectively cut Allied supply lines from Kuwait. U.S. forces faced significant logistics risks as a result. Despite the crisis, U.S. officials could not morally order unarmed logistics contractors to fight the opposition. The contractors lacked the training, equipment, and legal status to do so. Had the supply line been run by military forces, it would have been both moral and possible to order them to fight through. Despite this demonstrated operational vulnerability, the fact that unarmed contractors are specifically not obligated to fight has not been discussed as a significant risk in employing contractors rather than military logistics organizations. Furthermore, while military logistics units can provide their own security in low threat environments, unarmed contractors cannot. Te government must either assign military forces or hire additional armed contractors to provide that security.
The substitution of unarmed contractors for Soldiers and Marines creates yet another vulnerability: lack of an emergency reserve. In the past, support troops have been repeatedly employed in critical situations to provide reinforcements for overwhelmed combat troops. Contractors are simply unable to fulfill this emergency role. This limitation, as well as the unarmed contractor's inability to fight, is even more significant in conventional conflicts than in irregular war.
Here is the strategic question Hammes puts that we should all ponder.
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 United States can enter a war with less effort to build popular consensus. Most wars will not require full-scale national mobilization, but rather selective mobilization of both military and civilian assets. Both proponents and opponents admit that without contractors, the United States would have required much greater mobilization efforts to generate and support a force of 320,000 in Iraq (the combined troop and contractor count) or a force of over 210,000 in Afghanistan. The use of contractors allowed us to conduct both wars with much less domestic political debate.
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 United States 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.