With the war on terror already a year old and the possibility of
war against Iraq growing by the day, a modern version of an ancient
practice — one as old as warfare itself — is reasserting itself
at the Pentagon. Mercenaries, as they were once known, are thriving
— only this time they are called private military contractors, and
some are even subsidiaries of Fortune 500 companies.
The Pentagon cannot go to war without them.
Often run by retired military officers, including three- and four-star
generals, private military contractors are the new business face
of war. Blurring the line between military and civilian, they provide
stand-ins for active soldiers in everything from logistical support
to battlefield training and military advice at home and abroad.
Some are helping to conduct training exercises using live ammunition
for American troops in Kuwait, under the code name Desert Spring.
One has just been hired to guard President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan,
the target of a recent assassination attempt. Another is helping
to write the book on airport security. Others have employees who
don their old uniforms to work under contract as military recruiters
and instructors in R.O.T.C. classes, selecting and training the
next generation of soldiers.
taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the world's
most powerful military. Why should they have to pay a second
time in order to privatize our operations? Are we outsourcing
in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy or embarrassment?
Is it to hide body bags from the media and thus shield them
from public opinion?
Rep Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat
In the darker recesses of the world, private contractors go where
the Pentagon would prefer not to be seen, carrying out military
exercises for the American government, far from Washington's view.
In the last few years, they have sent their employees to Bosnia,
Nigeria, Macedonia, Colombia and other global hot spots.
Motivated as much by profits as politics, these companies — about
35 all told in the United States — need the government's permission
to be in business. A few are somewhat familiar names, like Kellogg
Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Company that operates
for the government in Cuba and Central Asia. Others have more cryptic
names, like DynCorp; Vinnell, a subsidiary of TRW; SAIC; ICI of
Oregon; and Logicon, a unit of Northrop Grumman. One of the best
known, MPRI, boasts of having "more generals per square foot than
in the Pentagon."
During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, one of every 50 people on
the battlefield was an American civilian under contract; by the
time of the peacekeeping effort in Bosnia in 1996, the figure was
one in 10. No one knows for sure how big this secretive industry
is, but some military experts estimate the global market at $100
billion. As for the public companies that own private military contractors,
they say little if anything about them to shareholders.
"Contractors are indispensible," said John J. Hamre, deputy secretary
of defense in the Clinton administration. "Will there be more in
the future? Yes, and they are not just running the soup kitchens."
That means even more business, and profits, for contractors who
perform tasks as mundane as maintaining barracks for overseas troops,
as sophisticated as operating weapon systems or as secretive as
intelligence-gathering in Africa. Many function near, or even at,
the front lines, causing concern among military strategists about
their safety and commitment if bullets start to fly.
The use of military contractors raises other troubling questions
as well. In peace, they can act as a secret army outside of public
view. In war, while providing functions crucial to the combat effort,
they are not soldiers. Private contractors are not obligated to
take orders or to follow military codes of conduct. Their legal
obligation is solely to an employment contract, not to their country.
Private military contractors are flushing out drug traffickers
in Colombia and turning the rag-tag militias of African nations
into fighting machines. When a United Nations arms embargo restricted
the American military in the Balkans, private military contractors
were sent instead to train the local forces.
At times, the results have been disastrous.
In Bosnia, employees of DynCorp were found to be operating a sex-slave
ring of young women who were held for prostitution after their passports
were confiscated. In Croatia, local forces, trained by MPRI, used
what they learned to conduct one of the worst episodes of "ethnic
cleansing," an event that left more than 100,000 homeless and hundreds
dead and resulted in war-crimes indictments. No employee of either
firm has ever been charged in these incidents.
In Peru last year, a plane carrying an American missionary and
her infant was accidentally shot down when a private military contractor
misidentified it as on a drug smuggling flight.
MPRI, formerly known as Military Professionals Resources Inc.,
may provide the best example of how skilled retired soldiers cash
in on their military training. Its roster includes Gen. Carl E.
Vuono, the former Army chief of staff who led the gulf war and the
Panama invasion; Gen. Crosbie E. Saint, the former commander of
the United States Army in Europe; and Gen. Ron Griffith, the former
Army vice chief of staff. There are also dozens of retired top-ranked
generals, an admiral and more than 10,000 former military personnel,
including elite special forces, on call and ready for assignment.
"We can have 20 qualified people on the Serbian border within
24 hours," said Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster, the company's spokesman
and a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. "The Army
can't do that. But contractors can."
For that, MPRI is paid well. Its revenue exceeds $100 million
a year, mainly from Pentagon and State Department contracts. Retired
military personnel working for MPRI receive two to three times their
Pentagon salaries, in addition to their retirement benefits and
corporate benefits like stock options and 401(k) plans. MPRI's founders
became millionaires in July 2000, when they and about 35 equity
holders sold the company for $40 million in cash to L-3 Communications,
a military contractor traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Within the military, the use of contractors is Defense Department
policy for filling the gaps as the number of troops falls. At the
time of the gulf war, there were 780,000 Army troops; today there
are 480,000. Over the same period, overall military forces have
fallen by 500,000.
Pentagon officials did not respond to many telephone calls and
e-mail messages requesting interviews, but they have maintained
that contractors are a cost-effective way of extending the military's
reach when Congress and the American public are reluctant to pay
for more soldiers.
"The main reason for using a contractor is that it saves you from
having to use troops, so troops can focus on war fighting," said
Col. Thomas W. Sweeney, a professor of strategic logistics at the
Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "It's cheaper because you only
pay for contractors when you use them."
But one person's cost-saving device can be another's "guns for
hire," as David Hackworth, a former Army colonel and frequent critic
of the military, called them.
"These new mercenaries work for the Defense and State Department
and Congress looks the other way," Colonel Hackworth, a highly decorated
Vietnam veteran, said. "It's a very dangerous situation. It allows
us to get into fights where we would be reluctant to send the Defense
Department or the C.I.A. The American taxpayer is paying for our
own mercenary army, which violates what our founding fathers said."
They are not mercenaries in the classic sense. Most, but not all,
private military contractors are unarmed, even when they oversee
others with guns. They have even formed a trade group, the International
Peace Operations Association, to promote industry standards.
"We don't want to risk getting contracts by being called mercenaries,"
said Doug Brooks, president of the association. "But we can do things
on short notice and keep our mouths shut."
That, some critics say, is part of the problem. By using for-profit
soldiers, the government, especially the executive branch, can evade
Congressional limits on troop strength. For instance, in Bosnia,
where a cap of 20,000 troops was imposed by Congress, the addition
of 2,000 contractors helped skirt that restriction.
Contractors also allow the administration to carry out foreign
policy goals in low-level skirmishes around the globe — often fueled
by ethnic hatreds and a surplus of cold war weapons — without having
to fear the media attention that comes if American soldiers are
sent home in body bags.
At least five DynCorp employees have been killed in Latin America,
with no public outcry. Denial is easier for the government when
those working overseas do not wear uniforms — they often wear fatigues
or military-looking clothes but not official uniforms.
"If you sent in troops, someone will know; if contractors, they
may not," said Deborah Avant, an associate professor of political
science at George Washington University and author of many studies
on the subject.
Only a few members of Congress have expressed concern about the
"There are inherent difficulties with the increasing use of contactors
to carry out U.S. foreign policy," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy,
Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee.
"This is especially true when it involves `private' soldiers who
are not as accountable as U.S. military personnel. Accountability
is a serious issue when it comes to carrying guns or flying helicopters
in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy goals."
In the House, Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat,
led the battle against a Bush administration effort to remove the
cap that limits the number of American troops in Colombia to 500
and private contractors to 300.
"American taxpayers already pay $300 billion a year to fund the
world's most powerful military," Ms. Schakowsky said. "Why should
they have to pay a second time in order to privatize our operations?
Are we outsourcing in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy
or embarrassment? Is it to hide body bags from the media and thus
shield them from public opinion?"
SUCH concerns are hardly slowing the pace across the Potomac, at
MPRI in Alexandria, Va. The company may look like hundreds of other
white-collar concerns that fill small office buildings in northern
Virginia, but there are telltale signs to the contrary: the sword
that serves as the corporate logo and conference rooms named the
Infantry Room, the Cavalry Room and the Artillery Room. Its art
consists of paintings of celebrated battles, largely from the Civil
It's hard to tell where the United States military ends and MPRI
begins. For the last four years, MPRI has run R.O.T.C. training
programs at more than 200 universities, under a contract that has
allowed retired military to put their uniforms back on. It recently
lost the contract to a lower bidder, but MPRI offset the loss with
one to provide former soldiers to run recruitment offices.
The company, which has 900 full-time employees, helps run the
United States Army Force Management School at Fort Belvoir. It also
provides instructors for advanced training classes at Fort Leavenworth,
teaches the Civil Air Patrol and designs courses at Fort Sill, Fort
Knox, Fort Lee and other military centers.
The Pentagon has even hired MPRI to help it write military doctrine
— including the field manual called "Contractors Support on the
Battlefield" that sets rules for how the Army should interact with
private contractors, like itself.
Overseas, MPRI is, if anything, more active. Under a program it
calls "democracy transition," the company has offered countries
like Nigeria, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Ukraine, Croatia and
Macedonia training in American-style warfare, including war games,
military instruction and weapons training.
In Croatia, MPRI was brought in to provide border monitors in
the early 1990's. Then, in 1994, as the United States grew concerned
about the poor quality of the Croatian forces and their ability
to maintain regional stability, it turned to MPRI. A United Nations
arms embargo in 1991, approved by the United States, prohibited
the sale of weapons or the providing of training to any warring
party in the Balkans. But the Pentagon referred MPRI to Croatia's
defense minister, who hired the company to train its forces.
In 1995, MPRI started doing so, teaching the fledgling army military
tactics that MPRI executives had developed while on active duty
commanding the gulf war invasion. Several months later, armed with
this new training, the Croatian army began Operation Storm, one
of the bloodiest episodes of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans,
an event that also reshaped the military balance in the region.
The operation drove more than 100,000 Serbs from their homes in
a four-day assault. Investigators for the international war crimes
tribunal in the Hague found that the Croatian army carried out summary
executions and indiscriminately shelled civilians. "In a widespread
and systematic matter, Croatian troops committed murder and other
inhumane acts," investigators said in their report. Several Croatian
generals in charge of the operation have been indicted for war crimes
and are being sought for trial.
"No MPRI employee played a role in planning, monitoring or assisting
in Operation Storm," said Lieutenant General Soyster, the MPRI spokesman.
He did say that a few Croatian graduates of MPRI's training course
participated in the operation.
Yet what happened in Croatia gave MPRI international brand recognition
and more business in that region. When Bosnian Muslims balked in
1995 at signing the Dayton peace accords out of fear that their
army was ill-equipped to provide sufficient protection, MPRI was
"The Bosnians said they would not sign unless they had help building
their army," said Peter Singer, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings
Institution who is writing a book on contractors. "And they said
they wanted the same guys who helped the Croatians."
That is who they got. Under a plan worked out by American negotiators,
the Bosnian Muslims hired MPRI using money that was provided by
a group of Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Brunei,
the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. These nations deposited money
in the United States Treasury, which MPRI drew against.
"It was a brilliant move in that the U.S. government got someone
else to pay for what we wanted from a policy standpoint," Mr. Singer
At the moment, MPRI is advertising for special forces for antiterrorist
operations, is bulking up to train American forces in Kuwait and
is looking for people with special skills like basic-training instruction
and counterintelligence. Recently, however, it lost a $4.3 million
contract to provide training to the army in Colombia when officials
there complained about what they called the poor quality of MPRI's
In Africa, MPRI has conducted training programs on security issues
for about 120 African leaders and more than 5,500 African troops.
Most recently, it went toe to toe with the State Department, and
won, gaining permission to do business in Equatorial Guinea, a country
with a deplorable human rights record where the United States does
not have an embassy.
After two years of lobbying at the State Department, and after
being turned down twice on human rights grounds, MPRI was finally
given approval last year to work with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema,
whom the State Department describes as holding power through torture,
fraud and a 98 percent election mandate. MPRI advised President
Obiang on building a coast guard to protect the oil-rich waters
being explored Exxon
Mobil off the coast.
More recently, when MPRI and President Obiang proposed that MPRI
also help the country build its police and military forces, the
State Department objected and the project is now dormant.
"We thought helping the coast guard would be pretty innocuous
in terms of human rights," Lieutenant General Soyster of MPRI said.
But Ms. Avant of George Washington University disagreed, saying
any alliance with United States military contractors would strengthen
President Obiang's power.
MPRI is not the only company to have run into problems overseas.
DynCorp, a privately held company in Reston, Va., with nearly $2
billion in annual sales, has been tapped to provide protection for
Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan. DynCorp also provides worldwide protective
services for State Department employees.
In late September, DynCorp settled charges — for an undisclosed
sum — brought by a whistle-blower the company had fired after he
complained of a sex ring run by DynCorp employees in Bosnia. In
August, a British court, meanwhile, ruled in favor of another former
DynCorp employee in a separate whistle-blower case. DynCorp is appealing.
The two employees made similar accusations: that while working
in Bosnia, where DynCorp was providing military equipment maintenance
services, DynCorp employees kept underaged women as sex slaves,
even videotaping a rape. Among the charges was that while the DynCorp
employees trafficked in women — including buying one for $1,000
— the company turned a blind eye. Since the DynCorp employees involved
were not soldiers, their actions were not subject to military discipline.
Nor did they face local justice; they were simply fired and sent
In both cases, after complaining, the two employees who blew the
whistle were fired. Ben Johnston, one of them, said last April in
Congressional testimony: "DynCorp employees were living off post
and owning these children and these women and girls as slaves. Well,
that makes all Americans look bad. I believe DynCorp is the worst
diplomat our country could ever want overseas."
A DynCorp spokesman, Chuck Taylor, said the company "felt horrible"
and held its own internal investigation before firing the employees
who operated the ring.
DynCorp also handles aerial anti-narcotics efforts for the United
States government in the skies over Colombia and nearby countries
— where several employees have been killed. Because of Congressional
caps on the use of private military contractors, DynCorp has hired
local citizens; two were recently killed.
Still, in its recruiting material, the company plays up the excitement
of this type of work: "Being the best is never easy and when your
office is the cockpit of a twin-engine plane swooping low over the
Colombian jungle, the challenges can often be enormous."
Incidents like these — sex rings, deals with dictators, misused
military training and tragic accidents — raise questions about the
use of contractors. To whom are they accountable: the United States
government or their contract? When such incidents occur, who bears
Moreover, while the general mantra about military privatization
is that it saves money, there are few studies to prove the case
— and in fact, reports exist to the contrary.
For instance, Kellogg Brown & Root, which was paid $2.2 billion
to provide logistics support to American troops in the Balkans,
was the subject of a General Accounting Office report entitled,
"Army Should Do More to Control Contract Costs in the Balkans."
The office found that the Army was not exercising enough oversight
on Kellogg Brown & Root as contract costs rose, to the benefit of
the company. Still, the company continues to pick up new business.
Questions about security and control are even more basic. In the
battlefield, a commander cannot give orders to a contractor as he
can a soldier. Contractors are not compelled by an oath of office,
as soldiers are, but instead by an employment contract that provides
little flexibility. Nor are contractors subject to the Uniform Code
of Military Justice.
Contractors cannot arm themselves — they risk losing their status
as noncombatants if they do and, in the extreme, could be declared
mercenaries and subject to execution if captured. Yet in the gulf
war, contractors were in the thick of battle, providing maintenance
to tanks and biological and chemical vehicles as well as flying
Should there be a war in Iraq, the line could be even blurrier.
"There are no rear areas anymore," Colonel Sweeney of the Army
War College said. With chemical and biological weapons, "no place
is safe," he said.
"You can't draw a map and say `no contractors forward of this
line,' " he added. "The American concept of combat is to take the
battle to the rear areas and be as disruptive as possible. The other
guy is thinking the same thing."
One tenet of warfare is that soldiers handling support functions
can grab a gun and hit the front lines if needed. While this is
often dismissed as a quaint World War II concept, it happened in
Somalia in 1993 when Army rangers were in trouble and military supply
clerks came to their rescue. When the support staff is filled with
contractors, would they do the same? Or would commanders in the
field become responsible for the safety of the growing number of
contractor employees at the expense of advancing the battle?
The issue is just beginning to generate some attention in military
"We sort of blur the lines," Col. Steven J. Zamparelli of the
Air Force said in an interview. In an article in 1999 for the Air
Force Journal of Logistics, Colonel Zamaparelli said: "The Department
of Defense is gambling future military victory on contractors' performing
operational functions in the battlefield."
Others in the military are more blunt about the effect on soldiers.
"Are we ultimately trading their blood to save a relatively insignificant
amount in the national budget?" said Lt. Col. Lourdes A. Castillo
of the Air Force, a logistics expert, in a 2000 article in Aerospace
Power Journal. "If this grand experiment undertaken by our national
leadership fails during wartime, the results will be unthinkable."
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