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Opinion

A lesson from Iraq war: How to outsource war to private contractors

During the Iraq war, private defense contractors providing security and support outnumbered troops on the ground at points. Contractors can enhance US military capacity but also entail risks. US experience with private security contractors holds several key lessons.

By Molly Dunigan / March 19, 2013

A helicopter owned by Blackwater USA, a private security contractor, flies over central Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 7, 2007. Op-ed contributor Molly Dunigan says 'the United States must protect its interests and ensure that the contractors it employs are carefully vetted and well trained. It should also continue to work toward a commonly accepted means of holding contractors accountable for their behavior.'

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP/file

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Pittsburgh

Ten years after it began, the Iraq war might best be remembered as America’s most privatized military engagement to date, with contractors hired by the Pentagon actually outnumbering troops on the ground at various points.

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This might come as a surprise to many, since the sheer number of contractors used in Iraq was often overshadowed by events. By 2008, the US Department of Defense employed 155,826 private contractors in Iraq – and 152,275 troops. This degree of privatization is unprecedented in modern warfare.

One of the most important lessons of the Iraq war is that this military privatization is likely to continue in future conflicts. This could be a good thing, as contractors can enhance US military capacity. But any large-scale use of private military contractors also entails risks. Recent US experience with private security contractors, in particular, holds several critical lessons for the future.

Of course, private contractors are not new to war zones. They supported all the major US conflicts of the late 20th century, including in Vietnam, the Balkans, and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. But in these cases, they mainly provided logistical and base support.

Now, the US military has developed a growing dependence on private contractors – and for a wide range of functions traditionally handled by military personnel. The Army spent roughly $815 million ($163 million per year, or about $200 million per year in 2012 dollars) to employ contractors under its Logistics Civil Augmentation Program between 1992 and 1997. But between 2001 and 2010, that expenditure grew to nearly $5 billion per year. Of course, this latter cost coincides with US involvement in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

A more pertinent question – and what truly sets the Iraq war apart – concerns the role of these private civilian contractors. Throughout the war, the majority (61 percent) of contracted jobs continued to be base-support functions. The next-largest group (18 percent) of Department of Defense contractors were security contractors. They provided security services, such as guarding installations, protecting convoys, or acting as bodyguards.

Moreover, this outsourcing trend continued in Afghanistan, where there were 94,413 contractors in 2010, compared with 91,600 US troops.

Military outsourcing in this vein developed as a result of an increased supply of private military services combined with increased demand. The boom in supply was borne out of larger privatization trends in both the US and Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, which spread over into the military arena. The increased demand was due to the strains that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan placed on the US military.

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