Private contractors now constitute a “fifth” service along side the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Like the uniformed military, some fight and even die supporting the nation’s missions in those two countries. The latest survey from CENTCOM reports some 250,000 private contractors operating in that command’s area of responsibility. At the height of the U.S. deployment to Iraq, in 2007, there were more than 180,000 civilians employed by over 600 foreign companies in that country. As U.S. forces are withdrawn from Iraq, the number of supporting contractors is declining. However, with the troop surge in Afghanistan, the number of contractors in that country is rising sharply with the total expected to exceed the number of U.S. forces in that country.
Private contractors provide a range of critical services. Most are involved in base support operations, transportation and security. However, a significant number are engaged in critical maintenance and repair work. Particularly when new systems have been deployed, such as the Stryker brigade combat teams and the MRAPs, the military has turned to private contractors to perform critical support functions. One company, Insitu, has been providing UAV-based surveillance support to the Marine Corps in Iraq and now Afghanistan for years.
Private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised a lot of concern. Nevertheless, there are over 20 companies with more than 10,000 armed employees that are continuing to operate in the theater. Contractors providing support services to the military are often required to hire private security companies to protect their people and facilities because the U.S. military refuses to take on that responsibility. Now the State Department is creating its own army to protect its personnel that will remain in Iraq after the U.S. withdraws all its combat forces. The State Department has requested the Pentagon to provide 24 Black Hawks, 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, heavy cargo trucks, fuel trailers, and high-tech surveillance systems. This equipment will be operated by private security contractors and maintained by other private companies, some of whom are doing the same job in Iraq today.
One company that has gotten a bad rap is KBR. There have been some problems with its performance, such as billing issues and instances of substandard performance. However, what this company was asked to do in Iraq was unprecedented. KBR essentially built and sustained the array of bases, camps and outposts which allowed the U.S. military to operate in Iraq. It provided basic services for hundreds of thousands of uniformed personnel, government civilians and contractor personnel in Iraq. The ultimate evidence of KBR’s critical role in supporting the warfighters is that the Army is continuing to employ it in Iraq under its old contract even after a new contract was issued.
The reality is that the United States will never go to war again without its “Fifth Service.” There are certainly problems with relying on private contractors in a war zone. But the advantages of using private contractors far outweigh the disadvantages.
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