In April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared his intention to reform how the defense department uses contractors. In order to improve the way the Pentagon manages major acquisition programs, he declared an intent to replace 11,000 contractors with 9,000 government acquisition professionals. In addition, the Secretary said he planned to reduce the number of support service contractors by hiring up to 30,000 new civil servants over the next five years. Many observers saw this as part of a larger plan by the Department of Defense (DoD) to return to a bygone era when soldiers performed “kitchen patrol” (KP) and government employees were responsible for the supply chain.
In reality, the Secretary’s proposals are little more than a fig leaf of reform. They are focused almost exclusively on headquarters activities. The role of private contractors on the battlefield, in the repair and maintenance of systems, and in the supply chain is secure. In fact, DoD knows that if it tried to reduce significantly its reliance on private contractors the result would be massive cost increases, reduced availability and less support to the warfighter. The military in general, but the Army in particular, will require extensive reset after we leave Iraq. Without the support of private contractors, this will be all but impossible.
Those who criticize the military’s reliance on private contractors in war zones need a reality check. Without contractors, the United States would need to increase the size of the armed forces by hundreds of thousands. Moreover, the private sector’s responsiveness to the military’s needs could not be matched by a ponderous federal bureaucracy. Companies such as KBR, DRS, Dyncorp, CSC and others created a logistics and support system in Iraq and Afghanistan almost overnight and have kept it running for eight years. Defense giants such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman deployed thousands of their employees, private citizens, into the war zones to provide critical maintenance and repair services. In addition, they have saved DoD billions of dollars by improving the speed and efficiency of the sustainment system.
The U.S. defense budget is going to decline even as our overseas commitments continue. The only way our appetite for national security can be matched to the available resources is by making greater, not less, use of private contractors.
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