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Jeffrey McCausland Interviews James Carafano: The Role of Contractors in Combat

April 23, 2009

This is one of a series of four interviews that took place at the 2009 McCain Conference, held at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, U.S. Naval Academy.   

These are the other three:

Joel Rosenthal Interviews Thomas Griffith: When Is Military Outsourcing Appropriate?

Joel Rosenthal Interviews Colonel Thomas X. Hammes: Unexplored Issues Regarding Military Contractors

Jeffrey McCausland Interviews Eric "Rick" Olson: The Role of Military Contractors


JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: My name is Dr. Jeff McCausland. I'm a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council in New York City.

It's a great pleasure to be joined today by Dr. James Carafano. Dr. Carafano is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He is also the author of a recent book, Private Sector/Public Wars.

Jay, it's great to be with you. Let me start off by asking the first question in terms of this whole idea of contractors on the battlefield. Have we moved so far, really, from a military standpoint, in our dependency on contractors that this is now a permanent fixture of U.S. military operations, even beyond Afghanistan and Iraq?

Would we even want to go back and limit the role of contractors, even if we possibly could?

JAMES CARAFANO: I think it is. I think it's actually not really news. I think the answer is, we couldn't go back, even if we wanted to. This is actually a trend which, for the United States military, really started in Vietnam in the 1960s and has actually been accelerating since then. The only reason why it's so noticeable in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it's the first time we have fought a long war over a long period of time, and we have seen this unfold.

Part of it is far beyond just American military strategy. It's fundamentally a change in how the modern world is.

The private sector has exploded over the course of the 20th century. It has gone into overdrive since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. economy has doubled in size since the end of the Cold War. Almost all that growth is in the private sector.

If you look globally, the private sector was never larger, never had more capability. We have companies now that have earnings that are bigger than the GDPs of some nations, that have capacities that exceed some countries.

So the logic of relying on these companies for a range of goods and services—that just makes sense. Military spending as a percentage of our national wealth has gone down and it's continuing to shrink. It was at 8 percent during the Cold War. It went down to less than 3 percent under Clinton, and it has only gone up to barely 4 percent now.

So when you want to expand very quickly—if you don't want to do like you did in World War II, which was to mobilize the entire nation, have a draft—it's the only option, and in many ways, it's a very, very good option.

So it's the United States leveraging the capabilities of the modern world efficiently that is really driving this. I don't think there will be big changes. As a matter of fact, I think other countries will be doing more of this. If you look at demographics worldwide, the world is aging. The military-age population is shrinking. It's shrinking nowhere faster than in the developed world. So there is less of a pool of people to draw from. The private sector is growing. Governments are better at managing things. We have more transparency. We have stronger governance, rule of law. Those kinds of people are best positioned to exploit contractors.

So I think this is really a world historical trend. I think not only the United States will have to continue to do this. I think you will increasingly see other countries—we are going to see Britain enter this in a major way—relying on contract services on the battlefield more and more and more.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Picking up on that, Jay, if this is a trend—not only a national trend in the United States, but actually an international trend—as we look back to the end of the Cold War and the dramatic downsizing of U.S. military forces, has this movement towards dependency on the contractors been an incremental or a serious strategic choice? Have we done strategic analysis?

Certainly one would like it to be the latter. If so, are we now perhaps at a moment where we ought to really reinvigorate the strategic process by using the Quadrennial Defense Review or perhaps increased interest in the use of the contractor and how we go about that more analytically at the State Department or elsewhere?

JAMES CARAFANO: My answer might surprise you. It was a strategic choice. If you actually look at the development of LOGCAP [Logistics Civil Augmentation Program], which is the mother of all contracting—it's the major logistical contract that is used, when the military deploys, to bring goods and services into the field—developing that contracting mechanism was a conscious choice. We didn't use it during the First Gulf War because it wasn't quite ready yet. But going forward, we knew that we were going to do this, and it was a choice that we did this.

Now, it has kind of occurred incrementally, so it's one of these things that people really haven't noticed. I think we would have noticed the significant, dramatic shift in how the military fights wars during the First Gulf War if it lasted more than 100 hours. But it didn't. The only reason why we are noticing it now is because we're actually executing the logistical strategy that we planned.

The question going forward is—I'm not sure what a QDR, Quadrennial Defense Review, would do. If the question is to contract or not to contract, that has been answered. If it's to do it better, the answers to that the military already knows.

If you look at things like the Gansler Commission report [opens PDF], commissioned by the U.S. Army, they have already said that the problem is just that government is not a very good customer. The answers are mostly human-capital solutions. We need better contracting officers. We need more of them. They need to be expeditionary. We need to be able to deploy them. They need better technologies. We need a larger government workforce, so our people are overseeing this or are the brains behind this. We need better ways to evaluate whether something is cost-effective in terms of having a government agency do it or the military do it. We don't need a Quadrennial Defense Review to do that.

The question is, how expansive do you want military capabilities to be, and in how many different arenas? How fast and how flexible and how agile do you want that capability? That's an appropriate question for the Quadrennial Defense Review and for military and strategic reviews. Answer that question and then the answer to what you need from the private sector—that will answer that question for you.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Are there any limits as we move ahead, Jay? If we look back, you and I, across military careers and military occupational specialties, you'll get very little argument, obviously, that using a private contractor to prepare food or to deliver logistics or to perhaps do field sanitation, to be the expert in weaponry on a particularly precise weapon device and to be there to fix it if it goes wrong—you'll get very little argument about those things.

But as one moves up to what you and I would call the more combat MOS [military occupational specialty], as opposed to combat support and service support, are there any real clear limits? If you think about, again, the role of an infantryman or an artilleryman, is there a line where one can say everything on this side is combat support and service support appropriate to a civilian contractor, everything on this side is not and really is the purview of the professional military?

JAMES CARAFANO: I think there are clear limits, and I think they're actually defined by the Constitution. But one thing I think you can't outsource, for example, is oversight and accountability. The government is the employer. It has an obligation to govern. So it has to do its job. It's responsible to the American people and it's responsible for making sure the job is done well.

I think beyond that, the question of what you want to do is really more of a question of strategy—how do you make your ends, ways, and means match up?—than it is a question of what exactly the right answer is.

The Constitution says that the government is responsible for raising and maintaining the armed forces. Providing for the common defense is the government's responsibility. But beyond that, what's the right answer? What's in the best short-, medium-, and long-term interest of the nation? What's the most efficacious way of getting combat power to the battlefield?

I don't think there is necessarily a rulebook for that. If you look through our history, we've contracted all kinds of things over our history. For example, you would say, what about flying a combat airplane? You would never contract that out, right? Well, if we didn't have contractors in the Pacific and China helping out the Flying Tigers, who were contractors, that would have been a disaster. If we didn't have contract employees flying planes, bombers, over to Europe, we wouldn't have had a Seventh Air Force that could fly in Western Europe.

You name to me a form of military operation and I'll give you an example of where a contractor did it, and if we hadn't had them, we would not have been able to save American lives and advance American interests. So I'm not so sure there's a clean line in saying, this job can only be done by a contractor and this job can't.

Look at World War II, for example. Even there, a lot of people in uniform were just the private sector. We just slapped a uniform on them and said, "Okay, go back to work now." Think, for example, of Hollywood. We mobilized Hollywood. We paid them a dollar a day and we slapped a uniform on them. But at the end of the day, they were just doing their private-sector jobs for the government.

So I'm not so sure there is, in terms of a skill set or a job or something else, a clear distinction, other than doing the right thing that's in the best interest of the nation.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Are there any ethical and legal challenges? Certainly, if you put a person into a uniform, by doing it, obviously, in legal terms, they are then subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Obviously, when they are a civilian, they are not. So there are some clear legal distinctions that exist.

But beyond that, are there ethical or legal questions—within the U.S. for a moment—in dealing with the question of contractors, particularly those who are armed?

Some might worry that if the state moves more and more in that direction, you get into a situation now, with advanced technology, where you may be able to apply air power through drone aircraft that are controlled by a private contractor delivering ordnance, and the people on the battlefield are actually private contractors.

Does that then cause the nation-state to say violence is a more acceptable choice because the people executing the violence are contractors? Frankly, the great American public are not as involved. Their sons and daughters are there only under a contract. They can quit when they want to. Their sons and daughters are not there in uniform, really in a more value-based operation.

JAMES CARAFANO: I don't think there's really a rule-of-law issue here that's fundamentally a problem. You hear this all the time. "We can't hold contractors accountable. There's no law for this." And I just think, fundamentally, that's not true. It's an enormously overblown issue.

In the United States, for example, there are lots of contractors that are hired by the government that are authorized to use deadly force. Nobody thinks twice about that. There are a lot of security firms that are hired by the U.S. government that guard U.S. facilities. They have guns, and under certain criteria, they can shoot people. Nobody worries a New York minute about that. And there's plenty of law to cover that. I think that's true overseas.

So I think the legal issue tends to get overplayed. I don't think it's a major problem.

We just had a big issue with some contractors in Iraq—a big thing. But you know what? Where is it being handled? Handled through the rule of law, investigated by the FBI, prosecuted in a U.S. court. What's the problem?

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Let's move beyond the domestic to the international. Are there international legal norms that apply or should there be more international legal norms that apply? Let me give you a couple of examples.

More people now say, because of the concern now about piracy, that we ought to see more private security guards placed on ships at sea. But obviously, at sea, that puts you outside of the territory of the nation-state, and there are then some international legal questions: Can you use violence? Can you detain a suspected pirate? What can you do?

The other question might be also that you need a convention. If a private contractor is captured, what Geneva Convention norms do apply to him or her? Is that something we should review,  expanding our international legal norms to catch up with the trends that you see moving on in the use of contractors?

JAMES CARAFANO: Let me talk about the practical issue first. I think the answer is, it depends. In the piracy case, for example, putting private security on a ship is actually a really bad idea. The last thing you would ever want to do is get into a firefight on a ship. People are going to get killed; the ship's going to get hurt.

The answer is, keep the pirate off the ship. So if you are going to hire private security, you would hire them in a separate craft that would essentially be a picket line for the ship. It would stand off from the ship and it would try to interdict the pirate vessel and not let it get to the ship. There's a whole range of non-lethal technologies—such as sonic guns and things like that—that you can use to do that.

So there is a role for private security, but certainly not on a ship.

In terms of the Geneva Conventions, it's not like contractors on the battlefield are anything somebody invented. There have been contractors on the battlefield forever.

If you went to Gettysburg and you went back to the trains and you saw the guy sitting there holding the wagon, he was a contractor.

When we wrote the Geneva Conventions, we knew that. We knew that there were going to be all kinds of people on the battlefield, other than combatants. The Geneva Conventions accommodate that.

We do have laws, for example, that govern mercenaries. We have a very clear definition of a mercenary. A mercenary is somebody who is on a battlefield, who is conducting military operations, who is not a party to the conflict. It means that they are not working for a legitimate combatant on the battlefield. That's the definition of mercenary. It's a very clear definition. There is no private military company in the world today that I can think of that is violating that definition.

So I think there is actually plenty of international law to address this.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: Jay, we talked about the private security guard. It seems to me there are several issues that we seem to keep stumbling over repeatedly. I listened to a panel discussion on it just the other day, in terms of the actual conduct of operations by both the military and the private security people, on a very, very confused and time-integrated battlefield.

Most of the questions seem to be ones that you have already raised:

  • Accountability.
  • Number two, rules of engagement. How do we make sure that the rules of engagement that the military is using in a particular area match those that the private security is using?
  • Thirdly, oddly enough, how do we make sure that there is close coordination between the private security people who are operating in a particular area and the military?

There may be others you could bring up. Are those some of the issues at the operational level? Why do we seem to be stumbling over these repeatedly?

JAMES CARAFANO: That is a great question. When I worked on the book Private Sector/Public Wars, I talked to a lot of people about this. I was in the military. I spent 25 years in the military. So I had a lot of friends who were in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would ask them. They would come back and I would ask the military guys, "What do you think about this contracting?"

"Oh, I hate those guys."

When you run these things to ground, typically what I found was when you ask people, "Do you like contractors?" they don't like contractors. The guys they don't like are the other guy's contractors. For example, in Iraq, you had really three major contracts being let. You had ones through the military, you had ones through the State Department, and you had separate ones through USAID. Oftentimes, when you talked to a military guy about a contractor he had a problem with, it wasn't the contractor that worked for him; it was the contractor that worked for the State Department guy, because he didn't control that guy and couldn't tell him what to do.

So typically what you find is, when it comes to the contractors that are working for them, they are either happy to have the guy with them or, if there's a problem, they get it fixed.

The answer is, it's an operational problem. In the military we have this term "unity of command" or "unity of effort." The way you keep people from bumping heads with each other is that everybody works for the same guy. I think that was the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn't have a unified contracting model. We didn't have a clear chain of command for contractors. So we had State Department contractors making the State Department very happy, doing what they wanted to, but really teeing off the military guys because the military guys didn't know they were there, didn't know what they were doing, and didn't like what they were doing.

The biggest challenge, I think, that we had, really, in Iraq was that we didn't start out with unity of command. We bifurcated very early on responsibilities between the State Department and the military. We created problems for ourselves, and the problems we saw with contracting were a reflection of that.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: As we move on now, Jay, it seems to me we are going to be expanding our force levels in Afghanistan and redirecting the emphasis, if you will, towards the war in Afghanistan, as we see a winding-down in our deployments in Iraq. At least that seems to be the direction at this particular instant.

Do you think we are going to see any change, as we change theaters and refocus our attention on Afghanistan, in the role of the contractor in Afghanistan? Will it basically parallel, or perhaps be a bit expanded in terms of numbers in Afghanistan? Or, based on the trend lines, based on the unique nature, perhaps, of the war in Afghanistan, will we see a difference, plus or minus, in the role of the contractor?

JAMES CARAFANO: That's also a great question. I think it's a difficult one to answer. It's a different strategy in Afghanistan than Iraq. We are going to be applying force in a different way and we are going to be applying our military in a slightly different way and we are going to be doing nation building in a different way. My guess is that the contracting effort won't look the same. And it shouldn't, because the needs will be different.

So I guess my answer is that they won't be the same, because the theaters are different, the requirements are different. What you are going to see on the ground and in the air—I think there are some interesting options. For example, look at air support.

We do air support in Afghanistan, which is very important because a lot of areas are hard to get to. A lot of guys are out there by themselves, and you can wind up getting attacked in a New York minute. You need resources right now, so you fly airplanes in there. We fly in with something like an F-16 or an F-15. That's a really expensive airplane. The operating arms of that thing are just awesome. They weren't designed to pick out two guys in a Mexican gunfight. So they fly in really fast with laser-guided bombs, hoping to hit the right guy.

What would you really want? You would want, actually, a small, fixed-wing aircraft, with laser bombs and other things, with good stuff. Why do you want them? They're small. They're really quiet. They can fly forever. You could have them on station all the time. You can put lots of capabilities on them. They're really cheap to operate. You could probably run those things for a tenth of the cost for the gas of an F-16.

The Air Force doesn't have any of these things. A private contractor could build one and fly it for you in about five minutes. So you could contract your Air Force out. Are we going to do that? I don't know.

Again, the right answer is the right answer. Winning wars is about matching ends, ways, and means in the best combination. War is a competition. You do something, the enemy does something, you have to do something back. The guy that wins is the guy that gets in the other guy's decision loop, the guy that acts faster than the other guy.

The private sector can bring capabilities. It can bring flexibility. It can bring agility. The faster you can get the right kinds of capabilities there to do the job, the better off you're going to be. If the private sector has an answer to do that, you would be stupid not to leverage it.

So I think we need to move beyond these political debates about contractors, good or bad, which are dangerous and are going to get our soldiers killed. We need to be adults and say that the right thing is the right thing.

Contracting in combat is not really a moral issue. It's not really an ethical issue. It's not really a governance issue, at the end of the day. Like anything else you do, whether it's getting the plumbing in your house fixed or buying a car, you have to do due diligence as a buyer. You have to know what you're getting. You have to make sure that the people that you hire to do that are doing that. You have to be smart about what you're buying.

If government is a good customer, they will get the best value for the dollar and they will do the best for our men and women on the ground, and that's really the important thing.

JEFFREY MCCAUSLAND: We have been here today with Dr. James Carafano, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of the book Private Sector/Public Wars.

Jay, on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York and the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy, it's been a real pleasure. I thank you very much.

JAMES CARAFANO: Thanks for having me.

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