One of the oddities of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review is its treatment of the private sector. The document has an entire chapter devoted to changing the way the Department of Defense (DoD) does business. This chapter contains some important initiatives particularly with respect to the idea of a whole-of-government approach to providing security assistance and the need to improve the weapons acquisition process. These are good steps. But they are incomplete, particularly in light of the QDR’s assertion that the future security environment will be marked by the need to respond to a broad range of contingencies including more Iraqs/Afghanistans, major humanitarian crises, failing states and natural disasters.
The QDR is silent regarding one of the most significant innovations of the last decade. This is the growing role of private contractors on the battlefield. There are more contractors in Iraq than there are U.S. soldiers. Given the enormous logistical challenges confronting the coalition in Afghanistan the same will soon be true there as the surge begins. While the focus of public attention has been on private security contractors, the overwhelming number of these individuals are providing other support services to the military.
The reality is that without the support of large numbers of private contractors the U.S. military could not have conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. KBR built and sustained most of the network of bases in Iraq; it housed, fed, washed and sustained our forces. The same work is being performed in Afghanistan by Fluor and DynCorp. The latter company, and before it L-3, provided thousands of translators to support U.S. forces in southeast Asia. Much of the logistics system that gets food and other supplies to our forces in those countries is in the hands of private companies such as Agility and Maersk Line, Limited. Finally, many private companies, including the largest defense contractors such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman but also smaller ones such as DRS and ManTech are providing critical maintenance and repair services for equipment on the theaters of war.
The United States no longer can project power of any significance over any protracted period of time without reliance on the private sector. Civilians are now the equivalent of a new service. The same will be true in the event of a major terrorist incident or natural disaster in the homeland. Since the QDR predicts lots of overseas contingencies of various types and sizes, it is safe to conclude that there will be more work for private contractors in supporting U.S. forces overseas.
Thus, it is surprising that the QDR says nothing about the role of private contractors on the battlefield. The experiences of the past decade have provided some important lessons in areas such as the need for improved contracting and oversight, reforming liability law and managing security. There are initiatives underway to deal with these issues. But the QDR says nothing about planning for future conflicts with private contractors in mind. Where is the call for a strategic plan for private contractors? What about bringing contractors into future exercises? Perhaps there should be a senior private contractor assigned to each of the relevant COCOMs or theater headquarters. Private contractors could take much of the burden off of the uniformed military in the areas of security assistance and building partnership capacity. If there is a major flaw in the QDR it is the failure to think seriously and creatively about the role of private contractors in future contingencies and how the department, indeed the whole government, could exploit their unique capabilities.
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