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Privatized Army in Harm's Way

An attack on civilians in Kuwait illustrates the dangers faced by those hired by the Pentagon. Critics question the costs of contracting out.

January 24, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

UDAIRI RANGE, Kuwait — They work quietly and unseen six miles from Iraq, maintaining a vast desert battlefield for thousands of U.S. combat troops, coaching the Army's forces through training exercises within chemical-weapons range of Iraq's southern bases.

They live in bomb-hardened warehouses in a remote Qatari desert camp within Scud-missile range of Baghdad, fine-tuning some of the world's most sophisticated satellite and computer systems in America's most forward command-and-control center, as they process the most sensitive U.S. intelligence data.

And on the tip of the Horn of Africa, they manage a Special Operations base, overseeing everything from the mess hall, laundry service and construction crews to the latrines for America's most secretive soldiers -- Navy SEALs and other Special Forces troops who are hunting in a risky region brimming with Al Qaeda terrorist operatives.

The war on terrorism and a looming invasion of Iraq have raised the profile of America's growing private army, giving it unprecedented prominence and importance.

Thousands of unarmed American engineers, technicians, electricians, weapons specialists and retired military officers working for U.S. corporations under Defense Department contracts are deployed closer to present and imminent war zones than ever before. And as Tuesday's ambush slaying of a San Diego software engineer in Kuwait starkly showed, they are in harm's way as never before.

The attack was a reminder of the potential deadliness of their work for many of those contractors, for the specialized corporations that employ them, and for the Pentagon, which relies heavily on them for logistics, training and equipment. It was the third attack on U.S. personnel in Kuwait since October, but the first on American civilians, and it has refocused such unresolved issues as who is responsible for the contractors' safety in what has become a global war zone.

But this week's attack by suspected terrorists also fed into a broader debate about whether the Pentagon has gone too far and too fast in privatizing the U.S. military in the past decade, which has seen the size of the U.S. armed forces reduced by one-third and the number of contractors grow exponentially.

Behind the transformation is an industry that is generating $100 billion to $200 billion a year for fewer than 1,000 companies, according to Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution fellow whose book, "Corporate Warriors," is due out this spring. So rapidly has the corporate military sector grown, Singer concludes, that there will be one contractor for every 10 soldiers in a new war against Iraq. By contrast, by most estimates there were as few as one for every 50 troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Deborah Avant, an associate professor at George Washington University whose study of the industry, "The Market of Force," also will be published soon, said America no longer can fight a war without contractors -- especially the specialized post-Sept. 11 missions its armed forces are conducting overseas.

"We don't have the people," she said. "We don't have a draft. We've downsized the forces by one-third, and the number of missions in which they are involved has increased."

A senior official of Virginia-based MPRI Inc., which has been mentoring and maintaining the U.S. Army exercises in northern Kuwait for the past three years, framed the phenomenon in basic terms.

No KP for Soldiers

"In the new, downsized Army, soldiers, for example, don't do KP anymore," he said. "We don't need to spend all that money and effort training a fine combat soldier and have him peeling potatoes."

The Pentagon and private sector have moved so quickly to fill that void, though, that Avant, Singer and others say the contracts may have eclipsed the Defense Department's ability to supervise, audit and police the civilian firms. And because most contracts are classified, legislative or public oversight is more difficult than if the military performed those tasks.

"You also don't have a uniform policy for protecting military contractors partly because there's no transparency in their contracts," said David Isenberg, senior analyst for the British American Security Information Council, a think tank.

But one basic premise of the shift toward private contractors -- that it is cheaper -- has yet to be documented, as the Pentagon acknowledges. And if the military starts committing its own forces to protect contractors, it could defeat the goal of freeing up the troops for combat.

Industry sources and several military officers in the field insisted that defense officials do keep a tight rein on the contractors, closely auditing their financial accounts and the way they execute their contracts.

But a closer look at those privatized tasks shows just how sensitive, sweeping and potentially dangerous they have become.

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