Six U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device hit their vehicle on Sunday.

The IED is the Taliban’s most dangerous weapon. Combating those deadly devices remains a challenge that requires the best skills U.S. intelligence and military services can muster — and not just buy.

It’s not a job that’s easily outsourced.

But on June 29, the Army awarded a contract for counterinsurgency targeting, intelligence fusion and operations support in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Over three years, that contract could be worth more than $176 million.

The contractor “will support and augment, not replace government military and civilian personnel . . . by integrating contract employees based on their skill sets, into military/civilian intelligence operations,” according to the work statement.

That means that some contracting personnel will work from the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) in Charlottesville or from Central Command in Tampa, or from Iraq or Afghanistan.

The personnel will include “novice,” “senior,” and “senior principal” IED and insurgent-network analysts. Also requested are weapons technical intelligence analysts, a collection-requirements manager, logistics assistants, data-entry analysts and operations-support officers.

Harding Security Associates of McLean won the contract. Retired Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding founded the company. He left the service in 2001 as the Army’s Deputy G2 (Intelligence), and earlier was head of operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Harding sold the company in June 2009 to a new firm, Six3 Systems, which still uses the Harding Security Associates name.

The top two Six3 officers have government roots. President Robert Coleman served in the National Security Council’s Crisis Management Center in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Michael Zembrzuski, executive vice president, is a 20-year Army intelligence veteran who as a lieutenant colonel in 2002 took over the Antiterrorism Operations Intelligence Cell at the Pentagon.

There’s another connection worth noting.

In March 2006, Harding Security signed a three-year mentor-protege agreement with SAIC, a $10 billion defense contractor.

Under this Pentagon program, the mentor firm is reimbursed for expenses used to help develop the smaller protege firm’s capabilities. The mentor firm can also directly award the protege subcontracts.

SAIC has held an Army NGIC contract similar to the one just awarded to Harding. On April 13, the Army announced its intention to “extend the period of [its] performance” for four more months. Then, apparently, Harding will take over.

In January, SAIC won a contract to support the Pentagon’s overall counter-IED agency, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and its Counter-IED Operations/Intelligence Integration Center (COIC). This potentially five-year contract could reach $900 million if all options are exercised, according to SAIC.

This is not SAIC’s only counter-IED contract. It also has one from the Marine Corps that could bring up to $500 million through 2014.

Bet your head is spinning right about now. There are so many deals and dollars flying about.

Congress has taken notice of this counter-IED, counterinsurgency contracting. It tried to rein in some of the spending in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill.

For example, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, focused on JIEDDO’s “duplication of effort with the military services, excessive contractor support costs, and organizational inefficiencies.”

His committee reduced next year’s spending by $200 million, although that still left $1.4 billion for efforts to reduce the IED threat.

Congress should go further.

Why does the Army continue to hire contractors to carry out counterinsurgency intelligence and counter-IED work? Is it related to the reduction in troop levels?

It appears that prime contractors such as SAIC and Harding/Six3 are turning to subcontractors who are former military personnel. As subcontractors, they almost always do the same job they did while in the service, just at higher pay.

On its Web site, Six3 is seeking all-source analysts for its counter-IED targeting program. Applicants must have top secret/
SCI (sensitive compartmented information) clearances, at least five years of military service and “especially” deployment in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Vancro, a Washington-based company, notes on its Web site that it was “originally founded by veterans of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom” in May 2009 and specializes in counter-IED work.

Vancro, too, is advertising for a senior IED and insurgent-network analyst with five years of military service and top secret/SCI clearances who will work in Charlottesville with the possibility of travel and the ability to coordinate with “other NGIC offices.”

There’s something unsettling about so much outsourcing — however necessary some of it may be.

When it comes to IEDs and the lives of our people, we need the best and brightest. Period.