For years, federal, state and local governments have been transferring some of their traditional functions to the private sector — paying companies to do things like collect garbage and distribute benefit checks. But now outsourcing, as it’s known, is increasingly becoming standard business procedure at the Pentagon.
The U.S. Military has a long history of using contractors to accomplish its missions — going back all the way to the American Revolution. But the Bush administration has a policy of filling military jobs with private citizens that is more ambitious than any in recent history.
Companies like Halliburton, MPRI, and Dyncorp now provide the military with services from logistics to training. And that has stirred a debate that increases in urgency as the country creeps closer to war.
“My concern is if the first group of contractors is killed by hostile fire, will the contractor provide additional personnel to replace those who were killed?” said Jayson Spiegel, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association. “And if they don’t, what’s the government remedy? And what’s good for the U.S. military and the United States?”
When the Cold War ended, the Defense Department downsized by about 30 percent — cutting both military and civilian payrolls. Some of that slack was picked up outside contractors.
Since then, the push towards privatization has continued with the goal of cutting costs. Between 1997 and 2005 the Defense Department expects to save more than $11 billion from other commercial contracts.
But is it worth the savings? That depends on who you ask.
“The contractor workforce now outnumbers the civilian workforce by four times,” said Bobby Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “So this is not about saving money. It’s about moving money to the private sector. It’s not about eliminating jobs, it’s about eliminating accountability.”
Harnage isn’t alone in his criticism. After Secretary of the Army Thomas White announced in October that more than 214,000 thousand Defense Dept. jobs would be reviewed for privatization, dozens of Congressmen signed a petition denouncing what some have called the “third wave” of privatization, following two other major Pentagon outsourcing reviews since the 1980s.
But what jobs are contractors doing? They don’t involve soldiers-for-hire; most perform what are called non-core functions. Those include jobs like mowing grass, laundering clothes, or providing food service, according to Don Snider, a political science professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“If there is an installation in the United States, the support for that installation in terms of the people that turn on the lights — those are non-core functions,” he said. “The training of soldiers, the evaluations, the human development of the people that are going to war are core functions.”
But some new weapons now come with private sector support staff that has to be near the battlefield. That could be a problem, says Spiegel.
“Even maintenance personnel in the rear are subject to the same risks that more forward deployed personnel will be subjected to,” he said. “So having contractors anywhere within a theater of operation puts them at risk of being killed or injured. And my question is whether contractors will continue to show up after the first wave may have been killed by a Scud missile or nuclear or biological weapons.”