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Ray Kimball Headshot

Command Responsibility

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Napoleon's armies may have famously marched on their stomachs, but these days, the American Armed Forces don't move a muscle without contractors. The numbers are staggering -- by some accounts, contract personnel outnumber US forces in Iraq, and no one disputes that private security contractors constitute the second largest contributor of armed personnel in the country. Overall contracting expenditures have increased sevenfold since the 1990s, while the workforce dedicated to overseeing those contracts has actually shrunk by 10%.

Why the huge increase? Any number of theories have been advanced, ranging from the convenient scapegoat of the "military-industrial complex" to a nefarious desire by elected officials to wage war without notice or accountability. While those may get at elements of the truth, the reality is much simpler: American military leaders like contractors because they're easy. Find a problem, whistle up a contractor, dump a cart of money, and the problem goes away... for now. Far easier to do that than wrestle with Byzantine procurement regulations and troublesome personnel requirements -- let someone else take care of all that silliness. This process works great... as long as the gravy train keeps rolling. But the current explosion of contract spending -- hundreds of billions of dollars, with tens of billions wasted -- has made it clear that this course is no longer sustainable.

Now, a wrongheaded first step towards correcting the problem has hit a snag:

The Office of Management and Budget, President Bush's administrative arm, has shot down a service plan to add five active-duty generals who would oversee purchasing and monitor contractor performance. The boost in brass was a key recommendation from a blue-ribbon panel that last fall criticized the Army for contracting failures that undermined the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, wasted U.S. tax dollars, and sparked dozens of procurement fraud investigations.

Odd as it may seem, I must join my friend and colleague Dina Rasor in agreeing with the OMB on this one. More general officers are not what's needed here. For the costs of these generals (and don't forget all of the staffs that come with them) we can hire many more trained auditors who can start getting a handle on the beast that has become our dependency on contractors. The main argument advanced for this request?

"If a contracting person has to say to a general that they have to follow the rules, it's easier if you have your own general who will back you up," says David Berteau, a panel member and a former Defense Department official.

Ah, yes, the famous "my general can beat up your general" defense. After all, who needs things like laws, rules, and oversight -- let's just flash our epaulets at one another until we're all collectively dazzled by our brilliance! What this conveniently ignores is that this oversight requires trained people right now -- people that the Army just doesn't have. It's not enough to have someone high up backing you -- you have to know what you're doing in the first place.

And yet, this flawed proposal does get at one critical kernel of truth -- without some way to get the flag ranks to play by the rules, any type of contracting reform is dead on arrival. Which is why, rather than creating a new phalanx of generals, I propose we place the onus on our current ones.

The rule is simple: When any general officer leaves his/her position, they must undergo a mandatory audit of every single contract approved under their command. No longer do they get to hide behind the staff officers who cracked the whip and "got the general what he wanted." Now they have to be accountable for every cost plus, every no-bid, every sweetheart deal that got cooked up during their tenure. "I did it for the troops" will no longer be a good enough answer -- that leader will have to stand behind their decisions. Field commanders already have UCMJ authority over their contractors -- all this would do is firmly entwine the principles of fiscal and command responsibility. That shouldn't be too much to ask.