The fantastic increase in contractor support for wartime operations has been a controversial component of our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frankly, it is something I have only the slightest first hand experience with. The only direct contractor support I remember receiving during Desert Storm was food services provided by local host nation contractors. The US contracted with Saudi companies to provide meals to US troops. The Saudi companies, in turn, hired guest workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and a bunch of other poor Third World nations to actually do the work, and provided the basic foodstuffs. The contractor would prepare the meal, deliver it to the Brigade Support Area, and then the Army’s regular distribution system would ship the meals out to the various companies. They were not the best Army chow I’d ever had….
There were a lot of other contracts let during Desert Storm to provide services that were either cheaper to contract for, or simply couldn’t be provided by the Army in a timely manner. Most long movements of armored vehicles are done on low-boy tractor trailers to reduce wear and tear on the vehicles. The Army didn’t have nearly enough low-boys in theater to move all the armor we had, so they contracted with local companies to provide trucking services. Same with fuel, and potable water, and a lot of other logistical necessities. My own unit, part of the Army’s VII Corps stationed in Europe, needed a lot of support, as we were never intended to deploy outside of Germany, so we just didn’t have a lot of “expeditionary” stuff.
Local contracting also provided tents, cots, billeting and transportation services in theater.
But all that contracting pales in comparison to the level of contractor support that we’ve seen in the last decade. In addition to the service support units contracting for large scale services that cover the entire theater of operations, officers and NCOs clear down to the company and platoon level are finding themselves having to contract for services from everything from laundry to interpreter services. And that’s before you even get into the redevelopment contracting that is the “carrot” we dangle for local populations in a counter-insurgency environment. And as CPT Michael Cummings notes in the NYT, that’s just not something we teach our soldiers:
Our First Sergeant had to build three bases basically out of scratch, a job not taught to any infantry noncommissioned officer. Our Fire Support Officer ran our “solatia payment” program — the money that goes to families who suffer injuries or property damage because of our actions. I can guarantee that class is not taught at Field Artillery Basic Officer Leadership Course. While my unit didn’t have any issues, the problems with contracting are notorious.
Read the whole thing. Most soldiers I’ve known were, if not dedicated to fiscal restraint, at least conscious of their fiduciary duty, and strived to be good stewards of the public fisc. But they are also ill-trained to navigate the rocks and shoals of government contracting (heck, there’s contract lawyers who specialize in it that are ill-trained for it!). Further, they face an imperative that cannot be avoided. As conscientious leaders, they must do all they can to secure the support and resources they for their soldiers to fight and win, and reduce casualties. That’s a pressure that can cause them to make judgments that are easy to disparage from an accountant’s desk.
Like it or not, large scale contractor support for our military is here to stay. We simply cannot afford the manpower and dollar costs to shift many of the roles and missions back to service members. In the comments of an earlier post, Esli gives a good example of just how contractor maintenance support can be mission critical.
Clearly, the Army needs to provide better training in this area. But there is a finite amount of time and money available for training. It is a zero-sum game. If we train for this, what will we be trimming from the training?