Privatized Army in Harm's Way

And on the tip of the Horn of Africa, they manage a Special Operations base, overseeing everything from the mess hall, laundry service and construction crews to the latrines for America's most secretive soldiers Navy SEALs and other Special Forces troops who are hunting in a risky region brimming with Al Qaeda terrorist operatives.

The war on terrorism and a looming invasion of Iraq have raised the profile of America's growing private army, giving it unprecedented prominence and importance.

Thousands of unarmed American engineers, technicians, electricians, weapons specialists and retired military officers working for U.S. corporations under Defense Department contracts are deployed closer to present and imminent war zones than ever before. And as Tuesday's ambush slaying of a San Diego software engineer in Kuwait starkly showed, they are in harm's way as never before.

The attack was a reminder of the potential deadliness of their work for many of those contractors, for the specialized corporations that employ them, and for the Pentagon, which relies heavily on them for logistics, training and equipment. It was the third attack on U.S. personnel in Kuwait since October, but the first on American civilians, and it has refocused such unresolved issues as who is responsible for the contractors' safety in what has become a global war zone.

But this week's attack by suspected terrorists also fed into a broader debate about whether the Pentagon has gone too far and too fast in privatizing the U.S. military in the past decade, which has seen the size of the U.S. armed forces reduced by one-third and the number of contractors grow exponentially.

Behind the transformation is an industry that is generating $100 billion to $200 billion a year for fewer than 1,000 companies, according to Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution fellow whose book, "Corporate Warriors," is due out this spring. So rapidly has the corporate military sector grown, Singer concludes, that there will be one contractor for every 10 soldiers in a new war against Iraq. By contrast, by most estimates there were as few as one for every 50 troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Deborah Avant, an associate professor at George Washington University whose study of the industry, "The Market of Force," also will be published soon, said America no longer can fight a war without contractors especially the specialized post-Sept. 11 missions its armed forces are conducting overseas.

"We don't have the people," she said. "We don't have a draft. We've downsized the forces by one-third, and the number of missions in which they are involved has increased."

A senior official of Virginia-based MPRI Inc., which has been mentoring and maintaining the U.S. Army exercises in northern Kuwait for the past three years, framed the phenomenon in basic terms.

No KP for Soldiers

"In the new, downsized Army, soldiers, for example, don't do KP anymore," he said. "We don't need to spend all that money and effort training a fine combat soldier and have him peeling potatoes."

The Pentagon and private sector have moved so quickly to fill that void, though, that Avant, Singer and others say the contracts may have eclipsed the Defense Department's ability to supervise, audit and police the civilian firms. And because most contracts are classified, legislative or public oversight is more difficult than if the military performed those tasks.

"You also don't have a uniform policy for protecting military contractors partly because there's no transparency in their contracts," said David Isenberg, senior analyst for the British American Security Information Council, a think tank.

But one basic premise of the shift toward private contractors that it is cheaper has yet to be documented, as the Pentagon acknowledges. And if the military starts committing its own forces to protect contractors, it could defeat the goal of freeing up the troops for combat.

Industry sources and several military officers in the field insisted that defense officials do keep a tight rein on the contractors, closely auditing their financial accounts and the way they execute their contracts.

But a closer look at those privatized tasks shows just how sensitive, sweeping and potentially dangerous they have become.

DynCorp, a Virginia-based government contractor that recently announced it was being bought by Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, provides maintenance, storage and security for the U.S. Army and Air Force in the Persian Gulf region. The company is also upgrading some of the FBI's internal computer systems. And it is providing bodyguards for Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, under a contract with the State Department.

One of the largest and most ubiquitous contractors is Texas-based Halliburton Co.'s Kellogg Brown & Root, a division better known as Brown & Root. The company and its small army of logistics experts are improving, managing or expanding U.S. military bases from the Camp Lemonier special forces outpost in Djibouti to detention facilities for Al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under two broad Defense Department contracts that are potentially worth $1.2 billion during the coming decade.

Brown & Root's open-ended logistics contracts from the Army and Navy indeed much of the military privatization campaign are grounded in a 1992 study the company did for the Defense Department that several analysts said formed the template for privatization of logistics for a downsized U.S. military. Soon after the company delivered the classified study, which reportedly concluded that the Pentagon could save hundreds of billions of dollars by outsourcing, Brown & Root won its first competitively bid logistics contract.

Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary when the first Brown & Root study was done, and he became chief executive of its parent company, Halliburton, when he retired, providing fodder for privatization's critics and conspiracy theorists. Through the 1990s, Brown & Root's military business grew exponentially, but a company spokesperson, saying that had nothing to do with the Cheney connection, noted that Brown & Root has been doing extensive government work since the 1940s.

Officials at Brown & Root, MPRI and other contracting firms said safety of personnel is their top priority. But they said that ensuring it is no simple task.

"No one in MPRI has ever carried a gun as a civilian, and basically it's because we've never had a reason to," the official said. The company has about 90 employees in Kuwait, most of whom are retired military personnel.

Protection an Issue

"Protection of contractors on the battlefield is an issue," he said. "The issue is: Who's going to protect them?"

A Pentagon spokesman said that in forward deployments such as Kuwait, the U.S. forces are ultimately responsible for the contractors' safety. Most contracts also give the civilians access to the same military hospitals and facilities available to military personnel, although insurance, hazard pay and other war-zone contingencies are the companies' responsibility. The spokesman added that the Pentagon has no official estimate of the number of private contractors in the gulf.

But there are other layers of security that demonstrate just how deeply the modern battle theater has been privatized.

When contractors like MPRI's "observer controllers" in Kuwait move from one U.S. facility to another, for example, they travel with armed security escorts provided not by the U.S. military, but by another private contractor an American company that the Defense Department separately has hired to augment security at entrance gates and perimeters for its bases in Kuwait.

And MPRI wrote the book on military contractors in war zones. The company helped the Army write "Contractors on the Battlefield," a manual that serves as a primer for the military in dealing with contractors in places such as Kuwait. It was written under government contract.

Even after the Tuesday shooting, though, MPRI officials insisted that most contractors in the region remain undeterred.

Industry sources said contractors are attracted by the high pay and good benefits. But many are also retired military officers who miss the soldier's life, said retired 1st Sgt. Bob Meyle, who recruits MPRI personnel.

"The founding concept of the company was there is a national resource called retired military personnel, and if you take them and put them into a company, they can do anything," the senior MPRI official said.

Other contractors in the field, though, are among a newer generation of high-tech engineers and specialists who reflect not merely the rapid privatization but also the dramatic modernization of America's armed forces.

Weapons, intelligence and surveillance systems all of them private-sector products have become so sophisticated so quickly that the manufacturers often must send technicians into the battlefield along with the technology to manage and maintain it. Michael Pouliot, the San Diego man killed Tuesday, co-founder of the software firm Tapestry Solutions, was in Kuwait installing software to facilitate split-second battlefield decisions from a remote computer.

Whatever their backgrounds, the contractors are facing new risks. And the Pentagon is facing a new dilemma.

"You're outsourcing because you want to relieve the burden on your own forces," said Brookings' Singer. "You also have limits on what these companies can do to not be perceived as mercenaries; for example, the U.S. government says they cannot be armed.

"Well, now they're actually operating in a combat zone that's dangerous even well behind the lines.... So if you deploy your forces to protect them, you lose that savings."

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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