On several occasions lately we have talked about military interest in an expeditionary civilian force, one that would support US interests worldwide. LTG Chiarelli and SECDEF Gates have written and spoken about the need for such a force, and the US Center for Global Engagement conducted a survey that showed a vast majority of military officers commissioned since 9/11 want such a force to serve as a partner to the military. We recently saw two retired admirals discussing the question.
According to rough historical data, the ratio of about one contractor employee for every member of the U.S. armed forces in the Iraq theater is at least 2.5 times higher than that ratio during any other major U.S. conflict, although it is roughly comparable with the ratio during operations in the Balkans in the 1990s.
But also, on costs:
"A better comparison [than a simple salary comparison, of whether it costs more to hire contractors or use military servicemembers] would also reflect all types of personnel as well as nonlabor costs (such as vehicles and other equipment) that a security contractor includes in its bid.
"CBO performed such an analysis, comparing the costs of a private security contractor with those of a military alternative. That analysis indicates that the costs of the private contractor did not differ greatly from the costs of having a comparable military unit performing similar functions. During peacetime, however, the military unit would remain in the force structure and continue to accrue costs at a peacetime rate, whereas the private security contract would not have to be renewed (see Box 2)."
A certain US Senator and candidate for President has suggested that such a Civilian Expeditonary Force would need to be as large and well-funded as the military. By that practical measure, we're almost there: there is already a 1:1 ratio of military to civilians contributing to the mission to stabilize Iraq. These civilians are drawn from around the world, and have every possible specialty, including many that are not available to the US military through its normal channels. They interoperate with the military on a daily basis. Because the military writes the contracts in most cases, the civilians integrate with military needs better than do the civilians employed by competing bureaucracies like the Department of State.
(See also Greyhawk's excellent piece, especially the second page where he discusses the vast range of services that contracted civilians provide in support of military operations. Good luck getting State personnel to drive your armored trucks down IED-laden highways!)
Meanwhile, they do all this without having to be "as well funded as the military," but at substantial cost savings over the long term.
So, mission accomplished? Let's look at some issues with the contracting model, good and bad; some thoughts on why we may not yet be quite where we want to be; and think about whether it would be better to use the market, or the government, to finally reach our goals.
I. Advantages to the Model:
I would say there are three key advantages to the contracting model, two already touched on:
1) Because it isn't a competing bureaucracy, the contracting field tends to rush to meet military needs rather than resisting them. The cooperation between the US military and its contracted civilians is simply better across the board than even the best interagency cooperation: contracted civilians integrate straight into military operations, and provide the needed capacity.
2) There are no long-term costs. There are no pension costs; no need to provide VA benefits; and even in case of injury, no military liability unless it is in the contract. My last contract, when I was a civilian advisor to the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq earlier this year and last year, stated that the military would provide only lifesaving care if I were wounded. So, if during one of the rocket or mortar attacks I were severely injured, they would stop the bleeding and perform other lifesaving care; but anything beyond that, including any rehabilitation, prosethetics, or other care, was not provided.
By the same token, I recently fielded an inquiry from Soldiers' Angels, over an issue for a contractor in the ICU in Germany who was taking a turn from the worse. His son had paid for his own flight overseas to be with him in the last moments. Could he get reimbursed? Sadly, the answer is -- almost certainly not, though you'd have to check the specifics of the contract.
This is an advantage for the US government and taxpayer; it is certainly not an advantage for the contractor. If we are discussing future models, though, it is something to keep in mind. It is a key advantage that you don't owe anyone past the end of provided services: in terms of the US government's long term liabilities, which may already be vastly overextended, this model does recommend itself.
3) The contracting model, because it is a market-based model, responds to the need for change far faster than any government bureaucracy does or could. This is true even when the government bureaucracy agrees that change is needed and is doing its level best to make it happen. Markets move faster.
In the Iraq war in particular, we've seen a need to develop a counterinsurgency (COIN) capacity that the regular military simply didn't have. It took several years to make it happen, though some individual units (like the 3 ACR in Tal Afar) did very well. Even today, the change is far from complete: we recently spoke with Navy CAPT Robert McKenna about the Navy's new Maritime Civil Affairs Group. I knew a Navy Captain in Iraq, Donald McMahon, who commanded the 3rd Civil Affairs Battalion. This is not part of the new MCAG, CAPT McKenna said, but an ad-hoc way of trying to solve the problem in the meantime. The quest for solutions continues, and adaptation has not stopped. The Navy deserves praise for both its continuing efforts, and its readiness to adopt ad hoc solutions along the way to partially solve problems.
By comparison to the market, though, they're running late. If you wanted a school built in Iraq two years ago, you didn't send the MCAG. The MCAG didn't exist. If you wanted that school built, you hired KBR and sent the Army to protect them while they worked.
It is doubtless the case that future conflicts will require quick adaptation. Contracting, as it is a market-based solution, offers a key advantage there. Although it may not be the ultimate solution, for that reason it should remain part of the solution.
II. Disadvantages to the Model
There are also some key disadvantages to the market-based model for a Civilian Expeditionary Force.
1) Pay differentials produce tension. In spite of overall savings, or long-term savings, deployed military are keenly sensitive to any disparity in pay, quality of quarters, access to recreation or other amenities, etc. The stories in the media focus attention on the high-grade pay being pulled down by Blackwater employees, and not so much on the Filipino working the laundry, both of whom are civilian contractors. As a result, there is a tension, often but not always unspoken, that separates contractors from military servicemembers; and some of it is justified.
The key to resolving this issue is the application of GS-equivalent pay grades to all contractors operating with US Federal missions. My contract, for example, clearly specified my pay grade (GS-12 equivalent, if you're interested); soldiers could see what I was doing, compare it to the grade at which I was being paid, and accept that the work and the pay were not out of line with what a soldier would draw. The dollar amount will still be higher v. a regular employee, because there is no housing allowance, pension buy-in, insurance, or any of the other amenities -- but that is the only reason why.
If that practice is adopted across the board, with pay grades specified on IDs, it will eliminate much of the tension that military personnel experience when working with contractors. Such tension has not gotten in the way of effective interoperation: but eliminating it is still a worthy goal for long-term operations.
2) Lack of constituted authority. A military officer, or a foreign service officer, has a commission from the President of the United States. His authority is clearly spelled out, and derived from the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
A contractor has no constituted authority. They are not part of the government of the United States. This is a problem for integrated operations, because it means that interaction needs constant negotiation. It is clear to a soldier that he has to obey his superior; there is absolutely no reason he should obey a civilian. Yet if the civilian was hired because of expertise in an area, and the superior officer would like him to direct the work of enlisted soldiers who lack such experties, it can be done only through advice and recommendations -- never by command.
This model always suited me fine. "By, through and with" is the model that our Special Forces use when conducting Foreign Internal Defense (FID) missions, of which COIN is a subset. It's a good mentality to have; and ultimately, if a soldier doesn't want to do something you recommend, it's never your place to try to make him.
Nevertheless, it's a difficulty that the contracting model has for any future plans. Contractors can be advisors, or they can be placed at the service of the military. If you want civilians to lead soldiers, however, the contracting model is not appropriate. They can never be more than advisors.
3) The need to pay market rates.
This is a problem that may clash with the solution proposed in section (1) at times. The advantage to having a careerist, whether military or civilian, is that they are there when you want them. If you didn't think to hire and train them, however, you have to pay enough to attract them.
That is, you have to pay enough to convince them to:
A) Leave the comfort of home (not so hard if their home is rural India; far more expensive if you want them to leave the extraordinary comfort of life in the United States), and,
B) Leave their families behind, and,
C) Put whatever career they have already on hold for however long they will be with you, and,
D) Accept the risks of life in a warzone, without the same guarantees of health care that you provide soldiers, and,
E) Stay, when they really don't have to do so.
A government bureaucracy can issue orders; a market based solution has to negotiate a deal. That can be expensive in the short run, even if it's cost-effective in the long run.
Ideally you should be able to pay a GS equivalent rate for the work being done, and for contractors from the third world particularly, you'll find it more than adequate to your needs. Some particular patriots will be willing to sign on for the GS rate appropriate for their job simply because they wouldn't want more than what a soldier would be paid for the same service. That can't be relied upon always in every case, however.
Especially in terms of the specialists the military most wants to see deployed to support them -- Arabists, cultural experts, people with advanced academic degrees, veterinarians, and people with technical expertise -- you may have to pay fairly high rates to get them for short-term projects. Asking such a person to take a year off to support you, unless they are strongly motivated by patriotism, may prove expensive.
III. Are We There Yet?
Plainly, in spite of the 1:1 ratio between civilians and military in Iraq, we aren't where we want to be. The loud calls for additional civilian help from the military's officer corps suggests that we really need something like a 3:2 or greater ratio to bring the necessary civilian talent to win wars with a heavy FID component. Low-intensity conflicts simply may require a larger percentage of civilian power than other kinds of wars, which are won chiefly through military power.
The advantages to using formal government agencies are that they will have constituted authority, and thus can be placed in the lead when appropriate; that they will be available when needed, without having to pay market rates; and that they will produce no pay-related tension. The disadvantages are that they will produce interagency tensions, as the bureaucracies clash over power and interests; that they will cost more in the long run; and that they will adapt to necessary changes only slowly.
That suggests a long-term solution that is based around two tracks: both a continued use of contractors in cases where the military will be in the lead, or when a "by, through and with" advisory role will work; but government agencies in cases when the civilians should be placed in the lead due to expertise or for other reasons.
We should take steps to reduce the pay-related tension caused by contractors whenever possible: GS rates, clearly stamped on their IDs, would go a long way to ensuring that soldiers and civilians can work side by side without unspoken suspicion of unfairness. However, we must also accept that there may be some cases where highly-trained or experienced civilians will need to be paid market rates. We can recognize that the long term savings of using them overcomes the short term strain of those rates.
In some ways, the heavy use of contractors is an ad hoc mechanism similar to the Navy's dispatch of officers to serve in Army Civil Affairs battalions, while they constructed the Maritime Civil Affairs Group. In other ways, however, the use of a market-based approach has actual advantages over any possible government agency. We should not despise a tool that offers both faster adaptability and better interoperation, and at a lower cost.
Nevertheless, expanded civilian government participation in our expeditionary operations remains a priority.