Help Wanted: War-Zone Contractors

By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 1, 2008

Contracting out traditional military functions continues to be the practice when it comes to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as illustrated last month by new offerings from the State Department and the Army.

On behalf of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department is seeking a contractor to provide "a fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, light-lift helicopters and medium/heavy-lift helicopters" for "secure, safe air transportation in support of Embassy programs." Noting that travel in the country "is extremely hazardous," the Aug. 15 notice requires a contractor that could "provide airlift for government personnel who need to travel to various locations throughout Afghanistan."

U.S. Embassy personnel normally have access to aircraft available to military attach├ęs. But the Kabul embassy expects "35,000 individual personnel movements annually to more than 40 locations, some of which do not have runways/airstrips," according to the notice.

One of the embassy's missions is helping Afghans with their drug-eradication program. In countries such as Colombia, where the United States has a major drug-interdiction program, the State Department has a history of renting fleets of aircraft. But the requirements listed here go far beyond the needs of the drug program.

The fixed-wing aircraft would be twin-engine turboprops with a range of up to 2,000 nautical miles, capable of carrying 15 passengers or more. They must be capable of taking off and landing on unpaved runways and possess "limited passive defensive armor" and an integrated "missile launch warning and counter-measures system."

In Iraq, the Army is looking for a contractor to provide six piloted aircraft equipped to conduct airborne surveillance over "four target areas simultaneously . . . in support of ongoing operations," according to a published solicitation modified Aug. 12. Such surveillance is normally done by Air Force or Army aircraft.

The Army is offering up to $55 million a year, with a two-year option to continue, to the contractor that supplies the aircraft, which would be based primarily at the Kirkuk air base but could be deployed to three other airfields.

The aircraft would provide full-motion video of surveillance targets using electro-optic and infrared sensors. They also must have video downlink transmitters and tactical radios. One aircraft is to be equipped with equipment that sends a laser pulse to the ground and records the time it takes to return, helping to map an area or gather other types of intelligence.

One possible contractor asked whether the military would mount search-and-rescue missions for the civilian crews if the planes went down. The Army agreed to do so. But it also told another questioner that if an aircraft were lost "due to enemy action or combat operations," the United States would be liable only if the damage or destruction was "caused by U.S. government personnel."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

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