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How Private Military Contractors Assist the U.S. Military in the Post-9/11 World

How Private Military Contractors Assist the U.S. Military in the Post-9/11 World


By Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler

Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

The United States military has utilized defense contractors in varying degrees since its inception, even during the American Revolution. What makes post-9/11 defense contracting different is the number of contractors employed and the diversity of roles they fulfill.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Department of Defense (DoD) utilized approximately 1,000 U.S. and 2,900 foreign contractors. In the first quarter of 2010, contractors supporting the U.S. Army Central Command (CENTCOM) alone numbered 239,451 people, including both U.S. and foreign personnel.

Private Military Contractors Function in High-Risk Zones

Private military contractors (PMCs) are private-sector firms who perform military functions and utilize military means (procedures and technologies) in high-threat environments, such as war zones or contingency operations. PMCs perform a variety of tasks from executive protection to logistics and support roles.

These contractors are not contracted to perform combat roles for the DoD and other government agencies, although their personnel have been inadvertently placed in harm’s way on various occasions. In contrast, the South African firm Executive Outcomes has been contracted specifically for combat, demonstrating that PMCs are capable of being used successfully in that role.

PMC Primary Roles Include Executive Protection and Training

Two of PMCs’ primary roles are the executive protection of dignitaries and the training of foreign personnel for both military and police functions. Well-known firms engaged in executive protection include Blackwater USA (now known as Academi) and Triple Canopy, Inc.

Similarly, DynCorp International trains foreign personnel. They have been contracted to train the Afghan National Police (ANP) for several years and the Afghan National Army (ANA) as well.

Contractor Work Highly Dangerous in Some Foreign Environments

From June 2009 to March 2011, contractor fatalities surpassed the number of military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. While data on serious injury rates for contractors is difficult to locate and quantify, 22,000 defense contractor injuries were deemed at least marginally serious for the same period.

According to a 2012 George Washington University study, total contractor injuries were estimated at 58,073 people. Eleven defense firms have suffered over 50 fatalities, and six have suffered employee death rates of 80 or more people.

One well-known defense contractor is L-3 Communications Holdings, Inc. Unfortunately, this company sustained 373 personnel fatalities from 2001 to 2011.

Why Use Contractors and Not Military Personnel?

After the Cold War ended in 1991, Western nations, including the U.S., began downsizing their military forces. The tragic events of 9/11 caught the U.S. unprepared for attacks orchestrated by hostile leaders utilizing the tactics, techniques, and procedures of asymmetric warfare. The need for contractors to fill empty slots in a variety of military roles was accelerated as conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq taxed a severely downsized military force structure.

On the plus side, employing contractors has its advantages. Contractors can be employed on short notice, often do not fall under the control of the military justice system and do not require the federal government to offer them retirement or health benefits.

On the negative side, the lack of control over contractors in Iraq created hostility among the local population. In Afghanistan, the discipline and professionalism of some contractors was called into question by the scandal the Armor Group of North America caused when it protected the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The Challenges of Third Country or Host Nation Subcontracting

One of the challenges of PMC management in a conflict zone is that often large numbers of third-country or host-nation subcontractors must be hired to fill first-line positions. This was especially problematic in Afghanistan because of the “Afghan First” policy.  This policy, was developed by the NATO Economic Committee in conjunction with the NATO Senior Resource Board. The goal of the policy was, to encourage local procurement of goods and services when possible depending on the security environment. It was felt that strengthening the Afghan economy would encourage a more favorable view of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operating in-country.

In hazardous places, proper vetting of personnel is difficult. In the case of the Host Nation Trucking (HNT) contract, corruption and questionable personnel hired by warlords resulted in a congressional report appropriately titled “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan.”

A secondary challenge with host-nation and third-country national subcontractors is a lack of adequate oversight and accountability. While U.S. prime contractors must meet certain federal regulatory standards, these requirements do not apply to foreign subcontractors the federal government employs within a country.