News | July 1, 2007

Privatizing While Transforming

By Marion E. “Spike” Bowman Defense Horizons 57


Privatizing While TransformingOverview

The Armed Forces of the United States are designed to be supported by capabilities provided by civilians. The Army, for example, depends not only on Reserve and National Guard components for warfighting elements, but also on private contractors for numerous roles no longer performed by military personnel. Originally working in small contingents focused on logistical functions, private contractors now rival military personnel in number in the battlespace. In addition to providing direct logistical support to the military, contractors perform equipment maintenance and reconstruction work, train military and police, and work as civil affairs staff, interpreters, and even interrogators. They also provide private armed security services. The issues arising from new roles are exacerbated by the growth of the contractor population in conflict zones at a pace that defies effective recordkeeping. 

This rapid increase in the number of contractors has outstripped procedures meant more for acquisition of tangible objects than services. It has also placed private contractors in harm’s way in a manner not envisaged in previous conflicts. Legal and regulatory schemes have been challenged and perhaps stretched beyond limits. The laws of war divide the world neatly into combatants and civilians, but on today’s battlefields, the distinctions blur. Moreover, there are neither recognized nor logical rules of engagement for private individuals. The laws of armed conflict not only fail to accommodate armed private citizens, but also, in some instances, may treat them as unlawful combatants. Put simply, the requirements of the contemporary battlespace do not mesh well with procedures, regulations, and laws devised for a different era.