05/15/2011 06:33 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2011

Indispensable or Inappropriate?

It is commonly argued that private military and security contractors (PMSC) are indispensable to regular U.S. military forces. Indeed, I've said as much for many years, arguing that private military and security contractors are the military's equivalent of the American Express card, i.e., that it cannot go to war without them. Of course, as anyone who has ever used one knows, every credit card is a problem if you use it too much

The arguments made for PMSC utility include, but are not limited to, technical skills, professionalism, experience, private sector flexibility and efficiency, and cost effectiveness.

To which I say, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, some of that is true all of the time, much of it is true some of the time, and some of it is true none of the time.

This should not be surprising. After all, what endeavor done by humans works all the time? Still, there are those who argue that criticism of any PMSC is just the gripes of some disaffected lefty in pursuit of a "spicy merc" story.

Well, hey, don't take my word for it. To see what I mean let's look at some analysis done by the military itself.

First is a paper published last fall in Defence Studies journal. It is "Civilian Combatants, Military Professionals? American Officer Judgments," written by Gary Schaub, Jr. of the US Air War College.

Remember that contractor advocates often argue that PMSC personnel, many of them, especially on the security side, having been former military themselves, act in accordance with the same ethic of military professionalism they had on active duty. For the sake of argument I will exclude the many workers on the logistics side, many, if not most of which, have never been in the military.

Traditionally, membership in the military profession has been considered to be limited to the uniformed personnel employed by the state who use organized violence in order to achieve state ends. This is what Samuel Huntington argued in his classic 1957 work The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations.

Schaub asks, "But what of highly trained and educated civilian employees of firms that engage in military activities on behalf of states? Is this link to the state enough to gain them entry into the military profession?"

Schaub lays out, in detail too long to repeat here, the specific factors upon which a military's professional legitimacy rests. He acknowledges some reasons -- expert knowledge to manage organized violence, apply it within the military's jurisdiction, are primarily agents of the state although not directly employed by it, and gain legitimacy through provision of effective solutions to their client's problems -- why PMSC seem to share in that. But he writes:

On the other hand, there is a prima facie case to be made that the employees of this industry do not share a corporate culture and likely cannot given the diversity of firms, clients, and the eligible labor pool. It is estimated that some 50 private security contractors employing more than 30,000 employees are working in Iraq for an array of clients, including governments, private industry, and international organizations such as the United Nations.' There are a multitude of private military firms. Many are characterized by a cadre structure with a relatively low number of full time employees and a reservoir of expertise that can be called upon on a contract basis. This structure would undermine any attempt to indoctrinate these employees or to foster a professional, corporate identity.

In other words, "they are not uniformed agents of the state, are motivated by remuneration rather than social obligation, have divided loyalties, and a questionable corporate identity."

But he argue the key test of whether a PMSC can be viewed as a 'military professional' is whether they are viewed as such by key audiences, in particular those who are clearly military professionals. To that end he surveyed US Air Force, Amy, navy and Marine Corps officers attending intermediate, advanced, and senior PME in residence at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), and the Air War College (AWC).

The responses reveal that military officers feel quite strongly there are tasks which only the military should be doing.

We used an open-ended question to elicit the specific functions that officers believed should not be performed by civilian contractors: 130 officers availed themselves of the opportunity to elaborate on their views. Their responses involved primarily use of force issues, such as 'trigger pullers' and 'combat': 105 officers specifically mentioned these. As one put it, 'Killing people. Contractors in the killing business are not accountable for their mistakes and do not serve the greater interest of the nation.' Another wrote: 'Any job that requires them to be armed or they may be exposed to enemy fire.' A third offered: 'ALL MILITARY FUNCTIONS. THERE SHOULD NOT BE PRIVATE CONTRACTORS ON THE BATTLEFIELD.' Thus 80 percent suggested that combat, the core competency of the military profession, is no place for civilians. Other functions mentioned included command of military forces, intelligence, and acquisitions, programs, and contract management. Finally, two other officers indicated that civilian contractors should have no role in US military operations. One wrote that 'My experience [sic] with contractors has been decidedly negative. They have been an overall burned [sic] on our operations in OIF/OEF [Operations 'Iraqi Freedom' and 'Enduring Freedom']. Thus, officers are quite clear about the exclusive functional purview of the military profession when asked directly.

Even more astonishing, the officers were asked their degree of agreement with the following statement: 'Civilian contractors performing in combat roles and employed by Western governments in a combat zone should be regarded as unlawful combatants.'

Schaub found that, "24.2 percent agreed or agreed strongly that civilian contractors employed by Western governments should be considered unlawful combatants. 51.5 percent disagreed or disagreed strongly and 23.8 percent expressed a neutral opinion. This suggests that many American military officers have a rather jaundiced view of Western contractors deployed in a combat role."

Note that 51.5 percent is hardly a rousing affirmation of PMSC. Put another way, the fact that a quarter of these officers regarded Western contractors employed in combat roles as unlawful combatants is "not an affirmation of their inclusion in the profession of arms, one of whose key characteristics is their unique designation as the agents of the state empowered to legitimately utilize violence against others."

Schaub's conclusion suggests PMSC do possess many of the qualities of military professionals. On the other hand, "they fall short on many traits of the military profession. Many civilian contractors possess expertise in support functions that, although performed by military personnel in the past, have not been considered key areas of professional expertise. They lack the legitimacy that derives from serving only the state and its interests as defined by civil authority. Finally, they lack a general sense of corporateness, either with one another or with their kin in the uniformed services."

A final point, which should be especially heeded by those working as security contractors, is:

Finally, clear majorities of these officers judged the pay differential with civilian contractors and their employment on the battlefield to be corrosive of military morale and ethos. Overall, we can conclude that a majority of these officers do not view the civilian contractors as military professionals, are uncomfortable with their intrusion into the profession of arms, and are cognizant of their negative effects but that the boundaries of the profession of arms are being permeated by civilian contractors acting in combat roles.

Another paper is "Maintaining The Professionalism of the U.S. Army Officer Corps" by U.S. Army Col. C. Thomas Climer and published last December by the U.S. Army War College.

In a section dealing with manpower issue he looks at the issue of outsourcing training. This has long been the bread and butter of Military Professional Resources International, now just MPRI and a division of L-3 Communications. Back in 1997, the Army began a two year test program where MPRI staffed and operated by many retired officers, filled some of the ROTC instructor billets.

Subsequently the Army also began to outsource other areas involved in the development and teaching of its core expert knowledge. Some instructors and curriculum developers at the Army's ILE [Intermediate Level Education] course are now being filled by contracted staff. Doctrine writers and analysts within Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) are increasingly being filled through privatization.

Climer writes, "The U.S. Army's decision to outsource the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and other levels of military education, and development of expert knowledge undermines and erodes the Army's asserted status as a professional institution."

He believes that due to the pressure to meet personnel requirements, the Army did not devote sufficient thought to the professional implications of the decision to contract out core tasks.

The Army profession does not bring in senior leaders laterally from outside of the organization; they must be developed from its own junior leaders. 75 percent of Army officers are commissioned through ROTC programs. Teaching future officers the basic fundamentals of the profession in ROTC is the first opportunity the Army has to expose them to the military as a profession and not just a job.

Instructors are the role models and mentors for the developing professionals in the ROTC programs. There is concern that retired officers no longer have the right to practice their profession. They surrendered their "license" to practice when they retired and gave up their commission. Without their commission, one might question a retiree's commitment to the ideals of selfless service and the willingness to accept the unlimited liability it represents. In no other field are the professionals expected to willingly lay down their lives if necessary. The retiree is no longer subject to the ultimate sacrifice. To the aspiring officer, these mentors and instructors may represent the ideals of a market based service that is seeking to make a profit while simply performing a job and producing a product.

Furthermore, the instructors that outside contractor provide might not have the right skills. Climer notes that the rapid pace of technological and doctrinal change in our modern military can undermine the development of expert knowledge in the ROTC cadets. Retired officers teaching may be retired only two years, but these are usually officers more senior in grade. Missing is the vital relevant instruction from the tactical level Captains, recent graduates of commissioning programs themselves. These Captains would be able to maintain a focus on developing the necessary entry level professional skills and knowledge required of the new generation of leaders as they study their chosen profession for the first time. The older retired officers are products of an era when the Army was arguably more bureaucratic and less professional.

Even if you give the program the benefit of a doubt in terms of properly carrying out its training mission there is no reason to be confident in the future. The contract has already been transferred from MPRI to COMTek which has been described as being notably less professional. Even worse is that the contract to outsource instructors has given the hiring discretion to the contractor. Costs and profit margins are the driving forces for contractors. Who can deny that the potential to hire less qualified instructors for less money is not possible?

Nobody familiar with the sad saga of DoD oversight of its contractors can be confident it will do any better with its ROTC program.

And using outside contractors can actually contribute to the stress on the active force, according to Climer.

Currently, the Army is experiencing an increased level of separation among it officers in the grade of Captain. According to Army officials, the top reason young officers leave the Army are long and frequent combat tours. In an era of persistent conflict, lengthy and frequent deployments will likely continue to be the norm. The loss of the ROTC billets for our younger officers can only contribute to the pattern of frequent combat rotations. These assignments were opportunities for officers to "take a knee" and do some reflection on the nature of their profession while also passing on their expert knowledge to the next generation. Today, many Captains simply resign their commissions when faced with no choice but to deploy again and endure additional family and personal hardship.