Dr. T.X. Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, addresses this dilemma in a recent report released by National Defense University entitled Private Contractors in Conflict Zones: The Good, the Bad, and the Strategic Impact. Contractors, both armed and unarmed, have represented 50 percent of the DOD workforce in Iraq and 59 percent in Afghanistan. Hammes notes that this is a dramatic increase from Vietnam, a conflict which had a ratio of 1 contractor to 55 military personnel. Today, the ratio is 1:1 in Iraq and 1.43:1 in Afghanistan.

At the height of the surge in Iraq, there were 163,900 contractors supporting 160,000 troops on the ground. These men and women accounted for over 25 percent of those killed in action. As of this year in Afghanistan, contractors have suffered 53 percent of all fatalities. These figures are largely off the books and are not reported by the Pentagon.

Why the sudden increase in contractor deployments? Hammes suggests, among other things, that force structure reductions hampered the military’s ability to support long-term operations–a result of moving most Army logistic support elements to the Reserve and Guard after Vietnam and the subsequent reduction of the Army from 18 to 10 divisions following the Cold War. In addition, troop levels were severely underestimated for the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The need for immediate logistical and operational support required the military to seek out private contractors who could deploy rapidly to fill necessary voids.

These men and women can be a valuable asset to the mission. Hammes lists the following contractor advantages: speed of deployment (can hire, process, and deploy individuals faster than the military); continuity (often stay longer than the 6 to 12 month military personnel rotations); reduction of troop requirements (less political pressure/easier to deploy contractors than additional troops); reduction of military casualties (casualties absorbed by contractors often go unreported by the media); economic inputs to local economies (can contract locals for work); and, in some cases, executing tasks the military and civilian workforce simply cannot (provide large numbers of interpreters).

However, employing numerous contractors in a conflict zone can also pose difficulties. Three inherent characteristics are listed as follows:

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. In addition to these inherent characteristics, there are numerous other negative outcomes that flow from using contractors. Contractors compete directly with the host nation for a limited pool of educated, trained personnel. Their presence and actions can dramatically change local power structures. They fragment the chain of command. And when they fail to perform, contractors can be difficult to fire.

In addition, contractors do not undergo the same training as U.S. military personnel, which can hinder their operations within a combat zone. There is also the perception that contractors are “above the law” in Iraq, as there is no clear legal precedent for prosecuting these individuals for crimes. As a result, no contractor has been convicted of a crime against an Iraqi citizen by a U.S. court to date. There are also indirect consequences that arise from the use of contractors. For example, these companies are motivated by maximizing profit and making operations run smoothly. Although this may sound ideal, it can prove to be problematic when contractors hire South Asians rather than Iraqis to do work. Although it may save money and time, it frustrates many within the local population who are largely unemployed. This is in contrast to contracts allocated by Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) military commanders who are tasked with influencing the political situation of a given area. As Hammes notes, “commanders see the contracts themselves as a campaign tool.”

Despite these problems, contractors remain a valuable resource and will continue to have an important role in U.S. operations overseas. There are currently studies being conducted by DOD and DOS on how to increase the efficiency of these operations. However, none of these studies address the strategic impact of using contractors in combat. Hammes suggests that the U.S. needs to confront the following key strategic questions:

(1) What is the impact of contractors on the initial decision to go to war as well as the will to sustain the conflict?
(2) Will the use of contractors undermine the legitimacy of both U.S. and host nation counterinsurgency efforts?
(3) What are the moral implications of authorizing contractors, qualified or not, to use deadly force in the name of the United States? What about hiring poor Third World citizens to sustain casualties in support of U.S. policy? What is the U.S. responsibility for wounded and killed contractors—particularly those from the Third World?

Hammes stresses the need for clear guidelines for when and how the U.S. Government should employ contractors, a debate which should be a central part of our post-Afghanistan force structure discussions. For those interested in reading Dr. Hammes’ full report, complete with recommendations for moving forward, you can do so by following this link.