07/05/2011 06:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

GIGO: The Perennial PMSC Unanswered Questions

Much of the time when I come across arguments about the pros and cons of using private military and security contractors two clichés immediate spring to mind. They are GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) and, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard." By that, I mean an "industry" that is diverse enough to encompass everything from water purification, logistics services of all kinds, armed guards, translators et cetera is desperately in need of some sort of authoritative guide providing dispassionate, objective, accurate source of information on it; at the very least, give us a Dummies Guide to PMSC.

Sadly, we don't have one. Perhaps that is one reason that debates on the subject are often so contentious; they operate in a fact free zone, a sort of combination of Fox News and The Nation magazine.

Contractors get obscenely high salaries for working in Afghanistan and Iraq? Really, according to whom? Try telling that to the people from Bangladesh or Nepal working fulltime for $600 a month.

Security contractors are just good, American patriots wanting to help bring peace and stability to Iraq? Try telling that to the relatives of those killed at Nisoor Square.

To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous 2003 memo on the war on terror, today we lack metrics to fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of using PMSC.

I've particularly been thinking about this recently after reading a couple of papers. First is a paper published in April by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. The paper is "Privatisation of Security in Failing States: A Quantitative Assessment" by Źelkjo Branović, who is a Research Fellow at the Collaborative Research Center Berlin.

In the course of presenting statistical findings on the use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) in failing states he writes,

Beyond these accounts, one main problem in analysing the privatisation of security is the absence of systematic empirical information on the use of private security services, especially in countries with weak or failing state institutions.

Bingo! Eureka! Give the man a gold-plated cigar! Of course, like any good academic who spots a gap in the knowledge base he attempts to fill it. Thus, he runs his own Private Security Database which collects data on the use of PMSC by public actors and asks in general: who consumed private security in Areas of Limited Statehood (where, how long) and what kind of security was consumed.

Now his methodology might be sound or it might not. Others, better versed than I in quantitative analysis, can decide. The important point is that he is trying. That raises the interesting question why others, with a bigger stake in the debate, aren't doing the same.

I mean the PMSC industry isn't even attempting to collect and codify all the lessons learned from its work in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere that could be saved in a place where everyone could access it. If nothing else, it would be in its own self-interest to do so, so it would not have to reinvent the wheel with each new contract. As George Santayana put it in his famous aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This should be self-evident but I'll say it anyway. Looking at it from an industry wide perspective, the very last thing the PMSC sector needs is a repeat of its experiences in Iraq.

It can't be that the requisite research isn't being done because there isn't enough data. Anyone who has ever worked a contract out in the field is familiar with the numerous reports that have to be sent back to corporate contractors and on to the client, i.e., the U.S. government. And that is not even counting the wealth of material from oversight agencies -- DCAA, DCMA, Inspector Generals, GAO, CBO, numerous NGOs, the media, and academia et cetera.

You don't see a trade association like ISOA or BAPSC doing this. Perhaps they think that it is futile for them to attempt it; that the very fact that a pro-contractor trade association or lobbying group is sponsoring research will make it suspect, no matter how rigorous the methodology is.

I suspect there is some truth to that, but not the whole truth. Even a trade association like Aerospace Industries Association, one of the groups representing weapons manufacturers, whose negative reputation far exceeds that of PMSC, has a research center which produces well received data, statistics and analyses

If it can do it so can the PMSC sector. But perhaps it is reluctant to do so because the resulting research might undercut some of its claims, like the perennial one about it being more cost-effective than the public sector. That might be so, but it is hardly a reason not to do it.

I've written about this at length elsewhere so I'm not going to get into cost-effectiveness arguments here. But suffice it to say that when even a power player like Erik Prince has said in congressional testimony that he didn't know the answer to that question but thought it something that should be studied, that you have a compelling reason for more research.

I mean really, how hard would it be to set up an organization? Provide some funding and guarantee that the staff is not under your editorial or policy control so the accuracy and integrity of resulting research can't be questioned and Badda Bing, Badda Boom you have done more to make the case for PMSC utility than all the public relations work of groups like ISOA, BAPSC, or the Professional Services Council combined.

For that amount of paltry funding, which is like one percent of a typical LOGCAP task order, I'll grab a few members of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, who will undoubtedly be looking for work once its final report is issued this summer, and do it myself.

Just as one example of what could be done if the industry devoted the same diligence it shows in the field to supporting credible research, consider a recent report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Among its findings:

On April 6, 2009 Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced a plan to reduce DoD's reliance on contractors and expand its use of federal civilians to provide services. Between 2010 and 2015, this insourcing initiative would replace more than 30,000 contractors with DoD civilians. According to Gate's announcement, this would "restore balance" to the workforce by returning the ratio of contractors to DoD civilians to its 2001 level. The plan was also based on an assumption that federal civilians would be significantly less costly than the contractors they replaced. As a result, DoD planned to achieve budgetary savings equal to 40 percent of the cost of the contractors being replaced. As a result, DoD planned to achieve budgetary savings equal to 40 percent of the cost of contractors being replaced: more recent DoD statement claimed savings of 25 percent. Though neither figure appears justifiable--research has shown that about 65 percent of any savings achieved through public-private competitions derive from the competition itself, not from any intrinsic advantage on either the public or private side.