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Outsourcing the System Administrator Force

July 24, 2007


My colleague Tom Barnett has for years talked about the need for two forces — a Leviathan force that can win the war through kinetic action (i.e., bullets and bombs) and a System Administrator force that can win the peace through non-kinetic activity (i.e., capacity building). The latter force would have a military component that could help smooth the transition from military to non-military activity. Although the SysAdmin force (as Tom likes to call it) would have a security component, it would primarily consist of non-military personnel conducting non-military activities. I raise this subject because there has been a lot of debate about the number and cost of contractors being used in Iraq. Most Americans don’t fully understand what those contractors are doing. There are really two kinds of activities in which they are involved. The first is direct support to U.S. forces. The second is direct support to the Iraqi government as well as assistance in rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure. The former group is associated with what Tom would term the Leviathan force, while the latter group basically forms a de facto SysAdmin force.

John M. Broder, writing in the Washington Post about these contract personnel, fails to make the distinction between combat service support personnel and de facto SysAdmin personnel [“Filling Gaps in Iraq, Then Finding a Void at Home,” 17 July 2007]. The focus of Broder’s article is not on what they do but the fact that many are either injured or killed serving in Iraq. He centers his article on Shaheen Khan, who signed up with contracting giant KBR (formerly part of Halliburton) to do laundry for the troops. She was in an automobile accident five weeks after arriving in Iraq and paralyzed from the chest down. Broder continues:

“This is the face of battle in a new war and a new century — a 46-year-old Pakistani-American woman, part of a rented army of 130,000 civilians supporting 160,000 United States soldiers and marines. Taking the place of enlisted troops in every American army before this one, these contract employees cook meals, wash clothes, deliver fuel and guard bases. And they die and suffer alongside their brothers and sisters in uniform. About 1,000 contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began; nearly 13,000 have been injured. The consequences of the war will be lasting for many of them and their families, ordeals that are largely invisible to most Americans. And they will be costly. The most grievously injured, like Mrs. Khan, are initially treated at military hospitals in Iraq and Europe, then sent home and left to the mercies of their employer’s insurance carrier. The less critically hurt, and those with psychic wounds, must fend for themselves to get care.”

Broder notes that the U.S. military can no longer go to war without this contract help. As the services have tried to become lean and mean (what they call a better tooth-to-tail ratio), much of tail (combat support services) have been outsourced. Generally, this was thought to be a good thing. A contract employee working overseas generally makes better money than they could in the U.S. (that was Ms. Khan’s motivation — a base salary of $48,000 a year and the chance to make as much as $80,000 with overtime, much of it tax-free), yet they are cheaper than an active duty individual performing the same task. If locals are hired to do those jobs, the costs go way down. Broder points out the downside of this scheme.

“Some Americans shrug about the casualties among contractors, saying they made their money and they took their chances. Others, though, think the nation owes them something more. ‘We should honor their sacrifices and those of their families,’ said Frank Camm, a Rand Corporation economist who has studied contracting and is the son of a retired Army lieutenant general. ‘They’re not in uniform, and there is something special about being in uniform. But they deserve a hell of a lot more than we’re giving them.’ Shaheen Khan does not dwell on such questions, or if she does, she does not talk about it. She regrets her decision to go to Iraq, the product, she now believes, of desperation and self-delusion.”

One answer, of course, to the contractor combat service support conundrum is to once again use troops to fill these jobs. The problem is that most military personnel do not enlist to become combat service support personnel. [This video will give you some idea about how they feel about such jobs —Download airforce.asf ] Broder never addresses the SysAdmin contractors that are trying to rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq. They are as important (if not more so) than the people providing combat service support and often face the same risks. Broder’s larger point is that the U.S. cannot continue to rely on these individuals to provide essential services and at the same time leave them without some kind of safety net for those times when the risks they face exceed the rewards. Tom likes to point out that winning the war without having a plan in place for securing the peace is a strategy for failure. If the U.S. is going to rely on contractors for both front and back half activities, then a permanent solution to long-term healthcare for those injured and just compensation to the families of those killed should be put in place. Addressing this issue is made all the more difficult due to all the bad publicity that the contracts under which these people are hired have received since the Iraq war began, including a recent USA Today article about KBR’s contract [“Largest Iraq contract rife with errors,” by Matt Kelley, 17 July 2007]. Some of the errors were pretty outrageous:

“Government auditors discovered something odd last year when they reviewed KBR Inc.’s annual cost estimate to provide support services for U.S. troops in Iraq. The contractor proposed charging $110 million for housing, food, water, laundry and other services on bases that had been shut down.”

Corporate corruption should be prosecuted, but contract workers should not be tarred with the same brush nor should executive criminal behavior deter lawmakers from addressing the challenges identified by Broder. If the U.S. is going to continue to rely on contractors for both combat service support and SysAdmin functions, then it needs to strengthen audits and oversight and ensure those placed at risk have some assurance that they and their families will be taken care of if the worst happens and they are disabled or killed.

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