04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Military Ethics and Private Military Contractors

Most observers of private military and security contractors acknowledge, whether they like it or not, that military dependence on such contractors is so heavy at this point that the military can't go to war without them.

Indeed, at a defense industry conference sponsored by Aviation Week, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter said there is now one contractor for every deployed troop. In Iraq, the ratio will double to 2-to-1 as US forces withdraw.

Yet while military dependence on contractors may be so pervasive as to resemble the scene from the movie Alien where the parasite can't be removed from the face of Nostromus crewmember Kane without killing him, it doesn't mean everyone in the military likes it.

It is worth remembering that it is not just polemicists at the Nation Magazine who question the use of private military contractors. Anyone who has ever bothered to review U.S. professional military literature won't have to look far to find sharp questions being raised about both the effectiveness and the impact of contractors.

A professor at the U.S. Naval Academy wrote that even if there are cost savings, inevitable contractual hazards sharply limit the combat/combat support role of these companies.

An Air Force officer wrote, "The increasing belief since the 1990s that private is better rests on the assumption that free-market capitalism is operating. This assumption, however, is often unfounded; there are several relevant dissimilarities. First, free market capitalism requires a competitive environment, yet over the last 5 years over 40% of DoD contracts have been sole source single bidder contracts. Second, free markets rely on numerous customers, yet the military in particular or the government in general is often the only customer. Finally, free market capitalism rests on the assumption that consumers cannot pass on economic inefficiencies, but the military can pass these losses to the federal government and eventually the taxpayers. In other words, there is not the same market incentive to require utmost efficiency."

But aside from arguments over cost-effectiveness other military professionals have criticized reliance on private contractors for what they see as a deleterious impact on both civil-military relations and military professionalism itself.

The latest example of this is a monograph published earlier this month by the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. The monograph, written by Colonel Matthew Moten, deputy head of the Department of History at West Point, says this with respect to contractors:

Since the post-Cold War drawdown, the Armed Forces have chosen to rely more and more heavily on commercial contractors. In many cases, this reliance has been unavoidable and indeed liberating, such as in the manufacture of complex weapons systems. Properly overseen, this military-industrial partnership can be a boon to national security. In many other cases, however, contractors have assumed responsibilities that heretofore were considered inherently military, such as logistical support, protecting installations and high-ranking officials, and developing professional doctrine. An army that depends on commercial enterprise to deliver its food and fuel is subcontracting its sustenance--an army travels on its stomach. An army that relies on contractors for its doctrine is farming out its thinking--an army fights with its brain as much as its arms. And an army that permits civilians to employ armed force on the battlefield tolerates mercenaries, the antithesis of professionals. Today, the Army is "selling" large tracts of its professional jurisdiction. Moreover, as the Army contracts for these core functions, it not only cedes professional jurisdiction to private enterprise, it loses some of its ability to sustain and renew its expertise, to develop the next generation of professional officers, and to nurture the ability to think creatively about new problems--each of which is intrinsic to a healthy profession. An army that chooses short-term expediency over long-term professional health also chooses slow professional death. (pp. 16-17)