Is There Professionalism in PMC?

09/15/2010 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Generally, the U.S. elite consensus on private military contractors (PMC) is that A) they are a good thing because they enable regular military forces to concentrate on their core mission, i.e., killing people and destroying things without having to worry about the necessary but tedious tasks like logistics, as in the Logistics Civil Augmentation (LOGCAP) program, and B) that the military itself is in love with the idea.

Point B has always been debatable, as anyone who took the time to peruse professional military literature, as in papers from the likes of the Army War College, Army Command and General Staff College, Marine Corps Command Staff College, Naval War College Review, et cetera. Or just search in the Defense Technical Information Service website. But most people rarely take time to do that.

But for the most part people the elites generally subscribe to the notion that despite the occasional infraction or screw-u PMCs are both here to stay and, on the whole, a good thing. While I am not part of the elite I have often agreed with the former part.

That is why it is so surprising to read the current (September/October) issue of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, is the preeminent U.S. journal on, well, foreign affairs. You just don't get any more elite that that.

Yet there is an article that takes issue with the orthodoxy. The piece is "Out of Order: Strengthening the Political-Military Relationship" by U.S. Army Col. Matthew Moten, who is the author of a forthcoming book on U.S. political-military relationships.

Here is the relevant excerpt:

Finally, the U.S. military may be jeopardizing its reputation for professionalism by not being vigilant enough in protecting its professional jurisdiction: the practice of ethical and effective warfare in pursuit of national policy. The overwhelming majority of people in the defense community -- ranging from civilian and military leaders to national security scholars -- believe that ever since the military began to shrink after the Cold War, it was inevitable that the country would come to rely on contractors to meet the heavy demands of fighting active wars. This idea is so advanced within defense circles as to be almost beyond challenge -- yet it is wrong. It is not the nature of warfare that has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union but rather U.S. policy choices. The Defense Department has allocated a growing proportion of resources to private enterprise rather than to the professional military. This has led to decreased legislative and public oversight as well as less rigorous professional control. To be sure, this military-industrial partnership can be a boon to national security when properly overseen. In many cases, however, private contractors have assumed responsibilities that were previously considered inherently military, such as providing logistical support and protecting installations and high-ranking officials.

Relying on Halliburton, DynCorp, CACI, and Blackwater -- to name just a few of the thousands of such corporations -- to perform military functions represents a return to the failed policies of Machiavelli's time. And as The Prince shows, operational complications and fiscal corruption follow closely behind military contractors. Contractors now outnumber soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq; although the majority of these contractors are responsible for noncombat duties, such as providing food or laundry services, an alarming number are authorized to bear arms while guarding high-ranking officials and sensitive facilities. A military that permits civilians to employ armed force on the battlefield tolerates mercenaries, the antithesis of professionals.

The predicament extends beyond the battlefield. As USA Today has reported, over the past several years, the U.S. military has hired 158 retired flag officers as advisers and senior mentors at rates ranging from $200 to $340 an hour. Eighty percent of those had financial ties to defense contractors. Despite such conflicts of interest, there are no regulations regarding these advisory positions. Furthermore, a 2008 Government Accountability Office report found that as of 2006, 52 defense contractors employed 2,435 former generals and admirals in contracting and acquisitions positions senior enough to be subject to lobbying rules. Although the law bars retired military officers for life from representing corporations on matters that were in their active-duty portfolios, it allows them to lobby the Pentagon on other matters for one year after retirement.

Defense contractors do not hire retired flag officers for their business acumen, and their military currency atrophies quickly. Contractors hire retired officers for their access to former colleagues and subordinates. Military leaders should work to change these practices: specifically, they should ask Congress to extend the strictures on lobbying to a minimum of five years, and they should refuse to hire any advisers who have financial connections to defense contractors.

Yet corruption is not the worst of it. The military routinely relies on contractors to produce analytic studies and even to write its war-fighting doctrine. In perhaps the most egregious example of this kind of outsourcing, the army relies on a private contractor, MPRI, to draft the manual that governs the employment of contractors on the battlefield. One of the primary functions of any profession is to define its expertise theoretically and to advance it through continuous scholarship. A military that relies on contractors for its doctrine is farming out its thinking -- the armed forces fight with their brains as much as with their arms.

By contracting out many core functions, the U.S. military is not only ceding its professional jurisdiction to private enterprise but also losing its ability to sustain and renew expertise, to develop the next generation of professional officers, and to nurture creative thinking. A military that chooses short-term expediency over long-term professional health is also choosing slow professional death.