Con: Quasi-military contractors provide good bang for the buck in war zones

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010

WASHINGTON - Jon Postol was a defense contractor. A one-man shop, he ran something called ARPANET.

In the course of his work, Postol came up with the idea for domain addresses - ones like: dot-com, dot-edu, dot-net, and dot-mil. In his down time, he wrote the code for something called "E-mail." ARPANET became the Internet. If you use the Internet, you owe Postol a word of thanks.

Not all defense contractors toil at computer keyboards. Consider Andrew Bendy, who received a medal for bravery in Iraq.

"During an honest-to-God, extended mortar barrage," his citation says, Bendy "continually exposed himself, leaping across rooftops to maintain Army communications lines." Bendy's courage was exceptional, as was Postol's contribution to modern communications. But neither thought he was doing something magnificent. They were just doing their jobs. And that's what most contractors do. The Hollywood stereotype of contractor-as-villain, driven to do evil by sheer greed or sadism, is so much hoo-hah.

Indeed, most of the "common wisdom" about contracting in Iraq is wrong.

Take, for example, the notion that contracting companies drain the ranks of special forces, offering huge paychecks to woo highly trained warriors into leaving the service.

Wrong! At the height of the war, the entire armed security contractor force in Iraq was only about 10,000. And not all these jobs required special operations qualifications.

The notion that contractors earn way more than soldiers is wrong, too. Critics claim contractors make a $1,000 a day (they don't), while the average soldiers makes only about $40,000 a year.

In fact, armed security professionals, among the most highly paid contractors because of the dangers of their jobs, average $450 to $650 per day.

In 2007, Blackwater security professionals averaged about $57,250 a year. That's more than the average soldier's take home pay, but when you add in benefits - including retirement - soldiers actually make much more. And, unlike contractors, they have a steady job.

Another myth holds that contractors are mercenaries. Wrong again! Mercenaries are defined and banned by an international treaty, which the United States has signed ... hence it is U.S. law. And all defense contracting is in full compliance with the law.

What about the contention that it's more expensive and less efficient to use contractors rather than the military? Well, that depends on the mission. Overall, however, using contractors is clearly less expensive than maintaining a military as big as the one we had during the Cold War when defense spending averaged over 7 percent of GDP. Today, it's less than 4 percent.

Another baseless charge: Using contractors undermines the morale of the military and destroys civil-military relations. If that were true, how could our military still be performing so well nine years into the Long War? Yes, but contractors are unaccountable, right? Not at all! Contractors deployed to a combat zone are subject to military justice, the same as those in uniform.

Forget Hollywood, and look at the facts. The Iraq war has produced only a handful of prosecutions for fraud, waste and abuse. Most of those convicted have been uniformed personnel, not contractors.

In almost every "high profile" case involving contractors, from Custer Battles in Baghdad to Titan and CACI at Abu Ghraib prison to Blackwater during the Baghdad shoot-out, the company itself was exonerated of any wrong doing.

Recently, The New York Times ran a story implying contractor wrong-doing in Afghanistan. We'll see if it amounts to anything. With most such stories, page one ink flows freely when allegations are made, but the reputation-clearing findings merit only a one-inch, page 20 item.

Media hype and political opportunism fuels almost all evil contractor stories. Yes, there have been bad contracts and bad contractors. But in most cases, the Pentagon and taxpayers get very good value for their contractor dollar.

• James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: Information about Heritage's funding may be found at

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