Well-Behaved Defense Contractors Seldom Make History


Although stability operations and contingency contracting may not be the biggest industry in the world, “You’d have a hard time finding another industry that has a greater impact in places that matter.” This observation, offered by a former commander of U.S. Africa Command at a 2015 security sector industry conference, marks the realization that the success of U.S. foreign policy in complex and high-threat environments over the last two decades has, in many instances, been dependent upon private contractors for a number of critical and highly specialized services.

The events of 9/11 resulted in the rapid reorientation of American foreign engagement in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. The move to lean on contingency contractors in these theaters allowed the government to source responsive logistical supplies and services to support overseas efforts for both combat missions and stability operations, but also opened the door to flawed recruitment practices that ranged from remote labor sourcing to human trafficking. These scandals made headlines, but the responsive good faith efforts by private industry and government to fix the problems that caused them rarely did.

After two grueling wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that show no signs of coming to satisfying ends — even after massive investments in post-combat stability operations — the U.S. government has started to turn to earlier and more targeted intervention in nascent, low-intensity environments. These “phase zero” operations demand a softer touch and a lighter footprint, but even though these efforts are smaller than prolonged, large-footprint stabilization operations, they also require robust private sector support. The issuance of contracts to support these operations have encouraged private companies to diversify their offerings away from the large security offerings in favor of more specialized services to support the unique needs of such lighter footprint operations.

As the scale of Western interventions overseas have waxed and waned, so have the private industry’s offerings. At an industry conference I attended in late 2015, a high ranking U.S. defense official presupposed that in future complex operations, “Fifty percent of the U.S. force structure in a deployed environment are expected to be contracted support and not military personnel.”

While such a figure might sound extreme, this estimate is an educated one. As of late 2015, the same official, speaking at the industry conference, referred to the United States having 9,800 military personnel in Afghanistan, augmented by just over 30,000 contractors. Even as U.S. direct military engagement has aspired to draw down, capacity-building stability operations will continue into the foreseeable future both in Afghanistan and other areas of geopolitical interest. The same defense official assessed that in the foreseeable future for such stability operations, “We will probably see a 2:1 [contractor-to-military] ratio because missions have to be accomplished, and things have to be done.”

It’s not surprising that the surge of contingency contracting in complex environments over the last decade and a half was followed by numerous initiatives that aspired to establish accountability within the industry, especially following public outcry against a few outlying (but high-profile) incidents in which private companies were seen to be wasteful, fraudulent, or abusive. One of the major areas of concern centered around contracting firm employment of host-country nationals and third-country nationals to support U.S. government contract performance.

Given the multilateral international profile of many of these stability operations contracts, bringing outside nationals to provide basic logistical and security services was both the cost-effective and the time-effective choice. However, alongside the contracting firms’ use of foreign workers in high-risk and complex environments, the necessity for oversight of such practices emerged. As the Government Accountability Office wrote in November of 2014:

Since the 1990s, there have been allegations of abuse of foreign workers on U.S. government contracts overseas, including allegations of TIP [Trafficking in Persons]. In 2002, the United States adopted a zero tolerance TIP policy regarding U.S. government employees and contractors abroad and began requiring the inclusion of this policy in all contracts in 2007. Such policy is important because the government relies on contractors that employ foreign workers in countries where, according to [the State Department], they may be vulnerable to abuse.

While federal procurement policies and regulations focus on meeting the mission needs of the “customer,” it was only more recently that the U.S. government seemed to finally recognize that its buying power could be used to promote, if not ensure, the responsible and ethical provision of goods and services within their contingency contracting activities.

Beyond regulations imposed by the U.S. government, the industry itself has also imposed self-regulatory measures to protect its workers, some of which have been recognized by entities such as the United Nations. Some efforts, such as the International Code of Conduct Association, are multilateral, whereas others are company-specific. Private sector contracting firms themselves must retain situational awareness of self-regulation industry initiatives and understand how those practices relate to, support, or inform current government-mandated guidance for ethical practices in stability operations support service procurement. A lack of such awareness would result in non-compliance with mandated behavioral minimums, thus essentially excluding them from competitive participation in the industry. It is not easy to stay up to date with all of the regulations that have developed over recent years, but it is critical that companies do so.

Although the U.S. government has attempted to streamline its contracting and procurement practices in recent times, one industry executive voiced the thoughts of many in the private sector when he cautioned, “The government doesn’t know the business of the business that they’re in.” While cost often remains a key factor in determining provider selection, the various initiatives discussed have made it possible for accountability and quality to be added as essential metrics.

As the market continuously evolves and companies respond to changing procurement practices, there is little doubt about the long-term necessity and viability of private contingency contracting firm services. The industry has proven itself to be unceasingly responsive to the increasing demand and changing customer requirements. As one industry executive observed, “The industry will change because the client asked them to change.”

While the private sector has proven to be more forward-looking than their primary customer — the U.S. government — the potential failure of such accountability initiatives to evolve and remain ahead of the curve would be detrimental to contracting companies, governments, and taxpayers. In this rapidly evolving market, it is important that the industry is understood by the consumers of these unique services, and that the procurement practices and manpower behind these companies be sourced responsibly and ethically in order to uphold the principled aspirations of the U.S. government and other accountable consumers.

A failure to comply with accountability initiatives would prove to be detrimental to the contingency contracting industry, the credibility of governments procuring their services, and stability operations initiatives worldwide.


Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting, educational programming, and international development on five continents. She is a PhD candidate at King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department. The views represented above are her own, and she would like to give a special thanks to Sophia Socarras for her assistance in the writing of this piece.

This article was adapted from the author’s monograph for the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) at the U.S. Army War College, entitled “The Evolving Contingency Contracting Market: Private Sector Self-Regulation and USG Monitoring of Procurement of Stability Operations Services.


Photo credit: Sgt. Marshall Thompson, U.S. Army