American Enterprise Online
April 17, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

More than 300 of them have been killed in Iraq’s postwar war. Yet they are not Coalition troops, Shiite pilgrims, Baathist leftovers or al Qaeda terrorists. In fact, even though their numbers reach into the thousands, they aren’t part of any military—at least not officially. Instead, they are private contractors, hired to provide everything from security to hot meals.  

According to Doug Brooks, President of the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), these private sources of military expertise are rising in prominence because of a range of factors. First and foremost, the US military is smaller and has much more on its plate than in decades past. Just as important, using private contractors carries less risk for governments. “If an American contractor is killed overseas wearing jeans and a T-shirt, it makes page 29 of his hometown newspaper,” Brooks observes. “If that same American is killed while serving in the military, it makes the front page of the New York Times.” 

It may come as a surprise to learn that this outsourcing of military functions is not particularly new: Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution notes that the use of private soldiers dates back centuries. Mercenary soldiers from Europe fought in the American Revolutionary War; and China hired American pilots to wage an air war against Japan long before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  

Washington’s use of military subcontractors exploded after the Cold War. In fact, between 1994 and 2002, the DoD entered into some 3,000 contracts with these corporate warriors, according to Singer. The now-infamous Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), for instance, filled the Pentagon’s gaps in Bosnia and Kosovo throughout the 1990s.   

Fifteen years ago, there was just one contractor for every 100 American troops in the Gulf. Today, with somewhere around 20,000 contractors in Iraq, the ratio is closer to 1:7. It’s no wonder, as Brooks has written, that the DoD now recognizes private contractors as part of the Total Force. Indeed, they do important work, such as de-mining operations; protecting other contractors, humanitarian workers and dignitaries; training indigenous personnel; and providing heavy lift and transport. (“To get to Afghanistan,” according to Singer, “European troops relied on a Ukrainian firm that, under a contract worth more than $100 million, ferried them there in former Soviet jets.”) 

In the Balkans, as Government Executive magazine detailed, military contractors have repaired vehicles, built barracks, operated convenience stores, managed 95 percent of the Army’s rail lines and airfields, cooked meals, washed laundry and, in the words of one KBR employee, done “everything that does not require us to carry a gun.”  

Of course, some contractors do carry guns. During his regency in Iraq, Paul Bremer was protected by security contractors. When an Iraqi mob killed, burned and lynched four Blackwater security personnel in 2004, it triggered the first (and second) Battles of Fallujah—battles fought not by private mercenaries but by US Marines and soldiers. 

Singer estimates that 6,000 contractors performed “armed tactical functions” in Iraq in 2005. And he worries that private military firms (PMFs) lack sufficient controls to screen out unsavory people and/or to prevent or punish illegal activity, noting that US Army investigations found 35 percent of the contracted interrogators at Abu Ghraib “lacked formal military training as interrogators.”  

That’s one reason why Brooks and the IPOA support “a public code of conduct that governments, private sector clients and human rights organizations can use as a benchmark of quality and responsibility” for PMFs and others in what Brooks calls the “peace and stability industry.”  

It’s an industry that won’t be going away anytime soon. “We need them, especially in places like the Congo, where there is no other security alternative,” Brooks explains.  “Ninety percent of what military subcontractors do is support and logistics, so any military that is going to be relevant in the future will need to use these private firms.” 

As usual, the US military is leading the way in this regard. Just consider what former Army Secretary Thomas White said in 2002: “We are actively seeking to outsource or privatize all non-core functions.”