The war in Iraq could not have taken place without a network of for-profit contractors upon which the U.S. military has come to depend. Some 20,000 employees of private military companies (PMCs) and of more traditional military contractors accompanied the U.S. forces in the buildup to war in the Middle East. They maintained computers and communications systems in Kuwait, Qatar and other locations, handled many aspects of logistics as the military's supply lines moved through Iraq and helped the Pentagon identify key targets in Iraq. As hostilities began, many of these PMC employees were integral to the American effort, keeping communications secure, assisting with the reopening of Iraq's southern oil fields and performing many other crucial tasks, often right behind the front lines.
Brookings Institution fellow Peter W. Singer, author of the forthcoming Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, believes that the number of contract employees used by the military in this Iraq War is significantly higher than in the Gulf War. In fact, Singer estimates, the Pentagon may be using nearly 10 times as many contract employees as it did in 1991. Indeed, whereas there were fewer than 10 PMCs in the United States two decades ago, today there are more than 30. Many are based in northern Virginia, giving them close access to Pentagon officials. Reston, Va.-based DynCorp, one of the larger companies, saw its revenues increase by more than 15 percent in 2002. According to Ed Soyster, former head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and now a spokesman for Alexandria, Va.-based Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), his PMC has grown from eight employees in 1988 to more than 900 today. Meanwhile, shares of publicly traded PMCs, such as DynCorp, have skyrocketed even as the broader American stock markets have tanked.
This dependence on PMCs is a relatively new phenomenon. During most of the 20th century, such organizations established reputations for brutal behavior. Hard-drinking European guns-for-hire such as "Mad" Mike Hoare took part in bloody coups in Africa. One infamous mercenary, Bob Denard, even made himself dictator of Africa's Comoros Islands. The end of the Cold War helped fuel the rise of PMCs by reducing the need to maintain an enormous standing military capable of fighting another superpower. The Pentagon reduced the armed forces from 2 million in 1991 to 1.4 million today. "Because conflicts now are more localized, smaller numbers of soldiers can win a battle, and there was more fear in the Pentagon about sending soldiers on dangerous missions, so they began turning to contractors," says PMC expert Deborah D. Avant, an associate professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
Meanwhile, American businesses' 1990s infatuation with privatization filtered into the military milieu. "There was a feeling that the private sector could do things more efficiently," says Singer. Later, under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon opposed the Clinton-era usage of troops in nation-building exercises and other noncombat endeavors.
By downsizing, the Pentagon created a large pool of ex-soldiers, many of whom wanted to stay in the military industry. "We have a database of more than 10,000 former soldiers who want to have military-related jobs," boasts Soyster. "We have more generals than the Pentagon."
Large companies such as Northrop Grumman had designed and built weapons systems for decades. But now the Pentagon has turned to contractors and units of those firms to provide services only uniformed soldiers used to perform. In Colombia, the Pentagon has contracted with DynCorp, Northrop Grumman and Florida-based Airscan to provide intelligence, train Colombian troops and spray coca crops in an attempt to reduce the supply of cocaine. The Department of State has hired DynCorp to provide security for Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and the Pentagon has signed up Airscan to do surveillance work in the Balkans. In some of these cases, PMC employees carry weapons, serve on the front lines and even engage in combat. In others, it's a matter of taking over logistics. As Fortune magazine has reported, a unit of the Halliburton corporation has handled nearly all logistical supplies for U.S. troops in the Balkans since the mid-1990s. Another part of the company, formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, has received a contract to put out oil-well fires in Iraq. Singer estimates that in the coming year, the Pentagon will spend upward of $25 billion on private military contractors, more than double what it spent a decade ago.
"American soldiers are expensive, and uniformed military don't want to be cooking food or doing lots of other tasks, so PMCs are more efficient," says Christopher Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a military research organization. And some evidence supports this argument. "In the [early 1990s] UN operation in Cambodia [in which the United Nations handled most of the logistics], peacekeepers would run out of fuel and water," notes Singer. In contrast, he says, the United Nations' recent rebuilding effort in East Timor, which has relied heavily on PMCs, has run much more smoothly and efficiently. Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group of PMCs, has even claimed that these private companies could resolve all of Africa's conflicts for just $750 million.
But other military analysts worry that the Pentagon is rapidly giving too much responsibility to contractors, without any rules or regulations about how best to deploy or protect them. This is hardly an idle question. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi soldiers launched a Scud missile into a barracks of U.S. reservists handling water purification, precisely the sort of task now relegated to contractors. Without adequate protection and oversight, PMC staff discipline could break down in tough situations. Indeed, Singer says, during the Gulf War, a few PMC employees in Saudi Arabia fled because they feared a chemical weapons attack.
Yet PMCs increasingly face dangerous situations. In the past decade, eight DynCorp employees have been killed in Colombia, and others have been taken hostage by the narco-guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As U.S. News & World Report has revealed, employees of ICI, a PMC based in Oregon, have been taken hostage while protecting U.S. diplomats in Africa. In the buildup to the current Iraq War, an employee of Tapestry Solutions, a San Diego-based PMC, was ambushed and killed in Kuwait.
Some analysts fear that the increasing use of PMCs lowers the psychological and social costs of resorting to force, a change that could result in more wars worldwide. "If you don't have to sacrifice your own uniformed military, it can be easier for generals to make the decision to use force," says Avant. Singer agrees, noting that in many recent African conflicts -- such as the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in which tens of thousands were killed -- the fact that states could hire PMCs relatively cheaply to prosecute their battles made them less willing to come to the bargaining table and more willing to continue fighting.
What's more, using PMCs allows the Pentagon to avoid scrutiny of its actions. PMCs that obtain Pentagon contracts worth less than $50 million do not have to notify Congress, and the Pentagon has admitted it has no idea how many PMC workers it actually employs. "Congress has little oversight of what PMCs are doing in Colombia," says Sanho Tree, an expert on South America at the Institute for Policy Studies. "This is how the Pentagon wants it, because they can put more troops in Colombia than they are allowed." As a result, Tree says, America encourages the Colombian military, one of the least transparent and most abusive in the world, to be even more opaque.
What information does come out about PMCs can be damning. In May 2001, it came to light that several people hired by DynCorp for monitoring duties in Bosnia had recently been fired for alleged sexual misconduct, including statutory rape and child prostitution. Airscan, hired to provide aerial intelligence in the Balkans, tried to save money by using commercial television technology, a decision that allowed anyone in Europe with satellite TV to watch American intelligence videos. Nor do PMCs always provide promised cost savings. They might be cheaper if the Pentagon really allowed them to compete with one another, but the military just picks one PMC without a competitive process, so the prices, Avant says, aren't usually any lower than the military doing the job itself.
Others say that PMCs achieve cost savings by doing a slapdash job. MPRI was hired to analyze Colombia's war against narco-guerillas, but it produced a report that, according to several analysts, provided few new ideas for combating the FARC and other groups. Parts of the report, produced without the benefit of any Spanish-speaking consultants, allegedly spelled "Colombia" incorrectly. Meanwhile, Singer has implied that the high number of military-plane crashes in recent years might be due to unqualified PMC staff working on airplane maintenance.
Some military analysts suggest that the Pentagon should put off future privatization until it develops a comprehensive and complete set of guidelines about PMCs. Others argue that, even if it develops such guidelines, the Pentagon should not employ private companies in situations that could involve firefights. And, as the Center for Public Integrity has noted, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued a paper calling for reassessing the Pentagon's dependence on contractors.
But any slowdown in the pace of privatization is unlikely. Secretary of the Army Thomas White, who formerly worked for Enron, has come out strongly in support of using PMCs. And in March, the White House announced that, in contrast to its strategy after the war in Afghanistan and other recent conflicts, it would direct many of the contracts for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq to U.S. companies, not to international humanitarian agencies. Included in the preliminary list of firms were many PMCs, and the purported head of Iraq reconstruction, Jay Garner, formerly worked for L-3 Communications, a PMC.
Somewhere "Mad" Mike Hoare is smiling.