IRAQ: Military Outsourcing

IRAQ: Military Outsourcing

February 2, 2005 12:07 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:


Military Operations

This publication is now archived.

What is military outsourcing?

The process of contracting out to private companies tasks that used to be performed by members of the uniformed military. The assignments range from mundane jobs like cooking and cleaning to specialized ones like maintaining and repairing sophisticated weapons systems, translating and transcribing, and interrogating Iraq prisoners.

What has been the impact of military outsourcing on U.S. operations in Iraq?

The United States would be unable to sustain its military operation in Iraq, or anywhere else in the world, without the use of private contractors, says Michael P. Peters, a career Army officer and the executive vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a virtual necessity, given the state and size of the military, to outsource,” he says. The process, however, is “both an enabler and a complicater,” says Peter W. Singer, national security fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.” Thousands of private contractors in Iraq are operating outside the military chain of command, Singer says, making efforts to oversee—or, if necessary, punish—their behavior much more difficult.

Why are private contractors performing military-support tasks?

Military outsourcing dates to the end of the draft in 1973 and the advent of the all-volunteer military, Peters says. There aren’t enough soldiers in today’s smaller services to perform all the jobs required to maintain the armed forces; the number of active-duty military personnel dropped to 1.4 million in 2002 from just over 3 million in 1970, according to the Department of Defense. Moreover, “in order to make service more attractive, the military had to eliminate a lot of the less-glamorous aspects” of soldiering, Peters says, such as cooking and cleaning duties. Another factor: the military prefers to hire civilian specialists to maintain and run the services’ increasingly complex systems and equipment.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been a strong proponent of outsourcing tasks to private companies so soldiers can focus on fighting.

How many private contractors are currently working in Iraq?

No one knows exactly, Singer says. The Pentagon does not release detailed figures, and in some cases private contractors are not required to reveal how many employees they have in the country. Singer estimates that there are some 15,000-20,000 private contractors working for the military in Iraq. Most of these, experts say, are cooks, truck drivers, and technicians; however, some—and these have attracted the most attention—provide security services to the military, act as translators, and, in some case, interrogate Iraqi prisoners. Three contractors are suspected of participation in the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal.

What kinds of tasks do contractors perform?

Civilian military contractors in Iraq provide an array of services for the U.S. military, including:

  • guarding officials, military installations, and supply convoys;
  • training local troops and police forces;
  • providing interrogators, translators, and transcribers;
  • maintaining and repairing vehicles and aircraft, including the guidance and surveillance systems on tanks and helicopters;
  • running logistics operations and supervising supply lines;
  • driving supply trucks that carry fuel and food;
  • providing warehousing and storage facilities;
  • setting up Internet access and maintaining computer systems;
  • preparing meals for the roughly 135,000 U.S. soldiers;
  • cleaning military facilities, including Army bases and offices;
  • washing clothes;
  • and building housing.

Are the private security contractors primarily American?

No. Experts say private security is an international industry. There are at least 30 different nationalities represented in Iraq, including Americans, British, Australians, Nepalese, Serbians, South Africans, and Chileans.

Which companies do the contractors work for?

The U.S. military has released a list of some 60 corporations employing civilian contractors to assist U.S. military operations in Iraq. These include:

  • Blackwater Security Consulting, a division of Blackwater USA. This North Carolina-based company was founded in 1996 to provide firearms and security training for police and the military. The four men killed and mutilated in Falluja March 31 worked for Blackwater.
  • CACI International, an Arlington, Va.-based firm that sets up and maintains computer systems for defense and intelligence purposes. It also collects and analyzes data. It employs interrogators; interrogation represents less than 1 percent of its total business, the company says. CACI was founded in 1962 and has some 9,400 employees worldwide.
  • DynCorp, acquired in March 2003 by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). DynCorp was a Reston, Va.-based firm that for more than 50 years provided maintenance and technical support to the U.S. military in the field. It had nearly 200 employees in Bosnia for more than six years, for example, maintaining and repairing U.S. aircraft and training police. The company worked for more than 37 federal agencies, including a 1997 State Department contract worth $600 million for Latin America, which included aircraft maintenance, reconnaissance, and drug eradication in Colombia.
  • Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a division of Halliburton. Halliburton, founded in 1919, provides products and services to the oil and gas industries. KBR has some 24,000 contractors in Iraq working on a range of civilian and military projects from repairing oil wells to handling mail, building military bases, and providing Internet access. The company operates nearly 60 dining facilities for the U.S. military in Iraq and Kuwait and says it has served more than 50 million meals to soldiers in the last year.
  • Titan Corporation, a San Diego-based firm founded in 1981 that provides equipment and technology services—including computer systems, satellite tracking, and software testing—for the military, NASA, the Federal Aviation Authority, and other U.S. government agencies. It also provides translators to the military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Titan is one of the largest suppliers of translators in Iraq. Those services are included under a five-year contract to offer a range of support to the military worldwide that is currently up for renewal, says Wil Williams, a company spokesperson.

Do contractors engage in combat?

Experts say most contractors who support the military never see combat. Private security contractors are meant to provide only defensive security for people or locations. But as the security situation in Iraq worsens, foreigners have increasingly been targeted, and many security contractors have been drawn into fighting. The four Blackwater contractors killed in Falluja were in a five-vehicle convoy going to pick up kitchen equipment when they were ambushed, according to a Blackwater investigation, The New York Times reported April 9. The same news story said a firefight the previous weekend pitted Blackwater contractors, U.S. Marines, and Salvadoran soldiers against hundreds of Iraqi insurgents attacking a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) building in Najaf.

Who supervises them?

The Pentagon has stated that the contracting firms are responsible for the recruitment, oversight, management, and punishment of their contractors, which experts say essentially lets the industry regulate itself. “Accountability is an open-ended question,” Singer says. “The status, rights, and responsibilities [of private military contractors] are unclear. The Pentagon doesn’t even know how many there are.”

Which country’s laws are they subject to?

It’s a difficult question to answer. As civilians, contractors are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and cannot be court-martialed. They’re not subject to Iraq law; the country lacks a functioning judiciary and the CPA has said that coalition forces and defense contractors are not subject to indigenous laws. They’re not necessarily subject to U.S. law, because their actions take place overseas and many are non-U.S. citizens.

Only one U.S. law, the 2000 Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), allows for the prosecution of civilians who commit felony offenses while working overseas for the military. Attorney General John Ashcroft said May 6 that civilian contractors could be prosecuted for the killings or abuse of Iraqi prisoners under MEJA and/or civil rights and anti-torture laws, The Washington Post reported. However, experts say MEJA is applicable only to U.S. citizens who work for the Defense Department; the status of those hired by the CIA, the State Department, or other government agencies is unresolved. In addition, experts say, MEJA is intended to be applied according to Defense Department guidelines that have yet to be written.

How much do private security contractors get paid?

About two to ten times more than they would make in their home militaries, Singer says. The rate of pay for contactors is roughly as follows, he says:

  • A former U.S. Green Beret or member of the Special Forces working in Iraq earns about $30,000 per month.
  • A former member of the South African military earns about $4,000 per month.
  • A Nepalese ghurka earns about $1,000 per month.
  • A Kurdish pesh merga earns about $250 per month.

The high salaries concern military commanders, experts say, because they could cause an exodus among some of the armed services’ most highly skilled personnel.

How many private contractors have been killed or wounded in Iraq?

There are no official numbers, Singer says. He estimates that, based on hometown news reports, about 50 contractors have been killed and some 300 wounded in the last year.

What role did private contractors allegedly play in the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib?

An internal Army report written by Lieutenant General Antonio M. Taguba investigating abuse at Abu Ghraib prison recommends disciplinary action against two contractors, one an interrogator and one a translator; it names another translator as a suspect. Taguba found that the two contractors he recommends for reprimand gave orders that they knew would lead to physical abuse and torture and lied to investigators. While the soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal have been reprimanded and/or court-martialed, to date no criminal charges have been brought against the contractors.

Does the use of private contractors contribute to human rights abuses?

Some think so. Torin Nelson, who worked as a military intelligence officer at Guantanamo Bay before going to Iraq as a CACI civilian interrogator, said in a May 7 article in The Guardian that the military’s overreliance on private firms pushed those companies to provide inadequately trained personnel, some of whom wound up in positions of responsibility they were not prepared for. And some experts say the presence of private security contractors without a specific chain of command is worrisome. “Having a group of individuals in a traditional combat role opens up the potential for human rights abuses when those people are not beholden to a legal framework,” says Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. “We hope the U.S. will realize that this is something that needs immediate attention.”

How do the security firms respond to the allegations about their employees?

Williams, the Titan spokesman, says the firm provides no interrogators to the military, only “linguist services”—i.e., translators and transcribers. He says Titan interpreters—some of whom were formerly drivers, cooks, or a wide variety of other professions—are tested for fluency and fully qualified to act as translators. CACI released a statement May 9 saying that the company carefully screens and reviews all potential interrogators, and accepts only 3 percent of some 1,600 applicants. “In the unfortunate event that any CACI employee engaged in an illegal act, ... the company will take immediate and appropriate action,” it said.

Will the U.S. military continue outsourcing in the future?

Yes. “There’s no turning back from this, because of the nature of the Army and the nature of the tasks it has to do,” Peters says. However, experts say there is growing concern over the type and extent of the tasks being outsourced. Singer says some members of Congress are looking into banning certain “mission-critical” jobs, like interrogation, from being outsourced to private firms.

More on:


Military Operations


Top Stories on CFR



Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia does not appear as ironclad as it once did. Liana Fix and Maria Snegovaya recommend that the United States prepare for potential leadership change in Moscow and develop response strategies with its allies to mitigate fallout. 


A court in Hong Kong has ordered the liquidation of Chinese property developer Evergrande Group, once the world’s largest real estate company. The failure could pose obstacles to China’s economic recovery.