Private Contractors Aren’t the Answer to the Army’s Problems

In protracted wars, the balance is tipped by an army’s ability to learn, followed closely by its willingness to change. The United States is dominating the tactical battle for Iraq because its small units are doing both. The 1st Recon Battalion is one of the many infantry battalions that roared up the learning curve and now continuously adjusts its operations to keep the enemy off balance. Where enemy mortar and rockets once sailed into Camp Fallujah with pernicious regularity, today recon Marines are hunting them. Where roadside ambushes once dominated the main supply routes, today soldiers and Marines are patrolling aggressively in search of an enemy who will stick around to fight. But though the Marines are winning all the small fights, victory in Iraq will not come without a change in strategy.

Strategic adjustments are tougher. When political investment is high, decisions warp, and the soldiers doing the fighting quickly become pawns. This is not political commentary, so I offer just two observations. First, you cannot have strategic change without tactical success, so at the very least the performance of the American soldier has brought flexibility to those who run this effort. Second, if young men and women are placed in peril, those controlling the bet had better make damn sure the reward justifies the risk. The First Marine Expeditionary Force was ordered into Fallujah after four private security contractors were murdered. They designed a good plan and were executing it at steep cost when they were told to cease fire and ultimately to withdraw. Sometimes political capital is worth lives—soldiers understand this. But don’t toss in the ante if you plan to fold.

Even when political will is as solid as oak and strategic change is possible, the alterations need to be evaluated for both the short and long term. The military is slow to change. Adjustments made for Iraq will likely have some permanence.

The new face on the battlefield here is the private contractor. Companies like KBR are blending in nearly seamlessly with the military machine, flowing into the war plan with logistical precision. This is neither an endorsement nor an indictment of these companies. If you take a step back, it’s clear that the military is undergoing an enormous revolution with regard to contractors.

Most of the handover is good. The bottom line is that the United States has too few troops to achieve its foreign policy goals. The evidence to support this is legion: recall of the inactive ready reserve; extension of brutal, 12-month combat tours; Stop-Loss, which bars soldiers from leaving the service; deployment of the National Guard into combat zones in percentages that rival active forces; dipping into the delayed-entry program, those recruits who wanted between a month and a year before arriving at boot camp. By replacing soldiers in support roles—logistics, food services, maintenance—with privateers, we can begin to lower the support-to-combatant ratio that has ballooned. Paying civilians to perform as civilians makes sense.

Paying civilians to play soldier makes no sense. Today the United States employs between 7,000 and 17,000 civilians in infantry roles. The pay is extraordinary, hovering between $500 per day and $1,000 per day for everything from site security (for government compounds throughout Iraq) to convoy/company security to personal security (for dignitaries). This money comes tax-free in a combat zone. There are four problems here: morale deflation, gross monetary waste, tactical confusion, and direct competition for a tiny talent pool.

Soldiers look at security contractors and think: Why the hell is he making eight times my salary for performing the same job? Is the military that pock-marked with overage and inefficiency? Using bottom-up cost-accounting, the military is essentially buying out its most experienced soldiers and luring them out of the active ranks (if Stop-Loss is ever lifted, that is) with rich contracts, even as it desperately seeks new recruits. Worse, it’s paying introduction fees to private security companies like Dynacorps and Blackwater for the people it recruited in the first place. How in the world did this happen?

The answer may lie in the marginal recruit. Congress just passed legislation to increase the number of soldiers by 30,000. But the Army is just barely meeting its current recruiting goals. To attract these new hires, the Army will have to come up with a pay structure that lures the 30,000th recruit. The problem is, the military pay structure is so antiquated that if you pay one soldier more money, you pay all soldiers more money. So it’s not a question of paying 30,000 recruits. It’s a question of paying those 30,000, then upping the pay of the other 1.4 million active members and the other 1.1 million reservists. It’s an expensive prospect, this reverse Dutch auction. Perhaps it’s cheaper to shift 10,000 infantry jobs over to the privateers, jack up the pay of private contractors, and pay the brokerage fee to the company.

This conclusion still omits the inherent problems created when armed civilians operate in a battlefield controlled by the military. The Blackwater security crew that was ambushed in Fallujah was operating in the Marine Corps zone without their knowledge and specific consent. As a result, Marine plans to systematically build up goodwill in the Sunni Triangle were scrapped. In Abu Ghraib, contractors held sway over soldiers, yet took no responsibility in the aftermath. In sum, contractors operating outside the chain of command clashes with common sense.

This is not to denigrate contractors themselves—they are experienced soldiers who have been there and done that. Which is precisely why we need to keep them in the Army. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population chooses to become an infantryman. It is a profession—a public expression of commitment—rather than a job. This is a tiny talent pool. We need everyone who heeds the call to carry a rifle working toward a common goal, and the best way to do that is to keep these folks in the government.

How, then, should these elite infantrymen be compensated so that we can attract and retain the best? By revamping the military pay structure. Today the 9-to-5 corporal disbursing pay on some base in Florida earns the same salary as the corporal working 20 hours a day who is on his third deployment in three months. As for elite infantrymen, who we need for special security in war zones, offer them the same pay structure we give today’s contractors and then take a look at re-enlistment rates. They’ll skyrocket. What’s more, the military will pay no brokerage fees and will retain the flexibility to reassign these men as the battlefield shifts. The military needs an escalating, bonus-based pay system that coincides with performance and hardship, not rank and time-in-grade.