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P.W. Singer
P.W. Singer

Brookings Web site
"Confronting Iraq": Full Coverage
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Back to School
Military & The Private Sector
With Peter Singer
Brookings Institution

Friday, Feb. 7, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

How has increased privatization of the US military affected operations in the Middle East? How is the current military buildup in Iraq impacting the private sector? Is the shift to use outside contractors a positive step?

Peter Singer, coordinator of the Brookings Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World, was online to discuss private enterprise and military engagement in Iraq

This discussion is the first of an ongoing Brookings and washingtonpost.com series on the situation in Iraq with an analysis of how increased privatization of the US military may effect military operations in the region.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Peter Singer: I hope all are well and warm this snowy morning in DC.

This issue of the scope of private company support for the U.S. military is an interesting and increasingly important one. I cover it in my upcoming book "Corporate Warriors," due out in June from Connell Press. Indeed, the privatized military industry generates as much as $100 billion in annual revenue and supports everything from sophisticated weapons systems like the B-2 Bomber to building basecamps and feeding and housing our troops in the field.

It recently came to the fore with the terrorist attack in Kuwait that killed Michael Pouliot of the company Tapestry Solutions. Mr. Pouliot was not a soldier, but the activities that his company carried out were essential one's to the success of the U.S. military's potential operations in warfare. So, it raises all sorts of dilemmas and concerns. I look forward to your questions.

Mexico: How many private sector employees are currently fighting the war on terrorism? How many are part of the Iraq buildup?

Peter Singer: We don't know the exact number Neither the Pentagon or the companies like to talk about it, both for political reasons, and for the fact that often the Pentagon doesn't always know because of lack of oversight (which raises other concerns). But it is very extensive.

Indeed, if any operation should have been a purely military one, it would have been the response of the United States to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The military enjoyed broad support among the American public and any previous concerns about casualties were set aside. However, private employees still played a variety of roles in war in Afghanistan. They deployed with US forces on the ground maintained combat equipment, provided logistical support, and routinely flew on joint surveillance and targeting aircraft. Even the noted Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes were operated by private employees.

In the follow-on anti-terrorism operations around the globe, they played similar roles. For example, in early 2002, the US deployed a military training contingent to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, to help root out radical Muslim terrorists who had taken over the Pankisi Gorge. While led by a US Army officer, the rest of the training team was actually staffed by PMF employees. In fact, for those Taliban and al Qaida members unlucky enough to be caught, they can plan on spending their next years housed in a military prison at Guantanamo Bay, built not by US soldiers, but by Brown & Root.

They are also all over the place in the Gulf know. They maintain and build the system of airbases in the UAE and Oman Kuwait and Qatar, help support the communication systems, and even ran the ships where all our tanks and ammo were prepositioned.

Cumberland, Md.: Isn't part of the problem due to the Clinton administrations reductions in all areas of the military in the belief that with the cold war over a large military was no longer necessary? Aren't we paying now for Clinton's poor judgment in this area?

Peter Singer: No, I wouldn't lay the blame directly on the Clinton admin. The growth of this sector is because of cutbacks in the military, particularly in the logistics areas (such as 60% of Amry Material Command being downsized), But many of these cutbacks started as early as 1990, during the previous Bush admin and have continued apace for the last decade.

There has also been a big push to privatize military programs throughout the Clinton and G. W. Bush administration, stemming from an underlying belief in the power of outsourcing as a good business practice. Another point that critics of the industry often raise is that some of the present admin (such as Cheney while at Haliburton) greatly benefited from the outsourcing while in private industry during this period.

Arlington, Va.: Thank you for answering questions on this snowy morning.

Do other countries around the world rely on private enterprise to stock their military as much as we do? Do you see it as a bad thing?

Peter Singer: A number of other countries do indeed use such contractors. the British may be one of the most active.

Already, private firms run a number of essential services for British forces, often in areas where one would not expect a company to be in charge, ranging form their recruiting stations to running bases. A typical example is that a private firm has begun training the Royal Navy in operating and maintaining its newest nuclear-powered submarines. They also recently privatized their version of DARPA -the defense research agency.

Canada also recently privatized their logistics train, interestingly enough to a company that also runs the supply lines for Walmart and the Gap (causing some to jokingly call the plan "Warmart").

I am mixed on the move towards private actors. IN some cases, the government can get a better quality service at a better price. But the worry is that often the oversight is very poor and there is not enough competition for the contracts. PLus all the issues of relying on private employees, who are bound by military law, haven't been worked out, or put to the test in war.

Mobile, Ala.: When the U.S. occupies Iraq, how will civilian military contractors be protected from possible attack by separatists/terrorists/occupation resistors? Will the U.S. armed forces be obligated to protect them?

Peter Singer: This is one of those things that hasn't been fully worked out. Generally, US contractors won't be allowed to carry weapons, to avoid being implicated in mercenary laws. This means then that the force commander will have to dedicate more of his own forces to protect them (perhaps weakening the original savings). Otherwise, he will be reliant on contractor provided services that will be vulnerable. they may run innocuous things like water purification or fueling up tanks, but these are critically important for the mission's success, so its got to be a worry.

Another worry is the possible use of WMD. Previous studies have found that while US forces are decently prepared for the use of chem bio weapons (likely in Iraq), contractors are not always. This could be a major concern. There is also the risk of a contractor walkout if such higher levels of war result. Again, they are not bound by military law and could decide that $90 K a year sounded far better before they had to endure such conditions.

Virginia: I do not see the problem. It seems fitting that a democratic nation would use its citizens and private companies to help. Doesn't this also provide a measure of transparency? What am I missing?

Peter Singer: Its not entirely a problem, its just that the industry is so new and the scope of their activities are so wide that all the kinks have not been thought out yet. Transparency is a great example. As private companies, their activities are not reported to Congress or the US public. Similarly, if the Pentagon doesn't even track them well enough to know just how many there are, then oversight of them isn't as good as it can be. This leads to all sorts of concerns about them cheating the government, overstaffing, or overcharging, or leaving their posts when the government needs it the most. there are also concerns about crimes committed by the employees not being properly punished because the legal issues are not all that worked out yet. For example, Dyncorp employees in the Balkns were implicated in some terrible sex crimes, including raping and "owning" young girls, but never criminally prosecuted.

Cumberland, Md.: In view of the fact that most of the military recruitment quotas are not met, and Clinton reduced the size of the military, I am not sure that there are any alternative to outside contractors, do you?

Peter Singer: There may not be good alternatives if we keep the present force structure and the present pace of high activity (which looks to increase with a pending war and occupation of Iraq). However, that's all the more reason to do a better job of thinking through the issues of relying on these contractors and ensuring better contracting processes and oversight. A big issue is ensuring that there is good enough competition, to ensure that the government, we the taxpayers, get the best deal. If a few companies corner the markets, then having a private company do it leads to no savings.

Alexandria, Va.: What sort of security checks do these private contractors have to go through -- especially the ones so close to the action? I can only imagine that they are privy to some sensitive information.

Peter Singer: Many of them go through the same sort of security vetting that US government employees do, particularly those that work on critical combat systems like the B-2. But some are hired locals, such as construction engineers that help build the bases, and do not. This is one issue.

Another issue is that their computing systems are not always held to the same security procedures as the US military systems. So, this could be a vulnerability that could be exploited in cyberattacks, particularly worrisome if our forces are dependent on their services to fight and win.

Peter Singer: That's all the time I have for now. Many thanks for your great questions! And stay warm!

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