Conference review: “Understanding the Privatization of National Security”

Earlier this year, the McCormick Tribune Foundation sponsored the conference “Understanding the Privatization of National Security.” Held in Illinois, May 11-12, 2006, it was a discussion between “forty distinguished legal scholars, first responders, military personnel and other representatives of the private and government sectors.” I’ve been reading through the hard copy of the conference report (soft copy available here) thought I’d post some of my observations and thoughts.

I would have liked to be at the conference as I’m sure the report leaves out what I’d consider useful and interesting discussion points. However, the report still gives some insight into some of the thinking on the business of privatizing security.

The focus of the conference was on domestic privatization, but US use beyond the borders was heavily discussed.

In the first chapter of the report, Factors Driving Privatization, a discussion on the changing nature of war brought out the argument of how PMCs (private military contractors, not companies, in this report) are better suited to an environment “where you see crime and war blurred.” I’m interested in hearing their justification on how PMCs are better as I suspect the basis for this statement stems from convoluted and selective take on reality. I’ll get back to this below.

Perhaps taking up the most ink in the report is the dollar cost of PMCs. There seemed to be some difficulty in assessing an apple-to-apples comparisons, although they weren’t above over-simplification as the elements of national security were effectively compared to price comparisons between FedEx or UPS. One “PMC executive” argued that in terms of airlift, it’s easy to see the private sector can do it cheaper pound for pound. What’s conveniently not factored in is availability of the resource, flexibility of the resource, knowledge acquisition and retention, health care, pensions, etc. Fortunately, there was a realization that “cost alone can’t be the issue”.

The attendees were heavy on making security a commodity. Unlike pork bellies, security is not something to be acquired and deployed as a modular unit. It is in the soft aspects of quality, efficiency, and applicability that breaks plug-in security tools. Hiring security contractors in Iraq was part of the self-application of blinders, a method of hiding from reality. Perceived as simply a thumb in the dyke, it was anything but. The assumption that all things can be equal and can be measured is evident throughout. Efficiency can be measured, effectiveness cannot.

Surge capacity as justifying outsourcing led some of the attendees to drag the draft into the discussion. Any argument that outsourcing is the or a component alternative to the draft is a bullshit argument when we’re five years after invading Afghanistan and three years after Iraq. Sure we’re using supplementals to temporarily upsize the military and paying $500k more to recruit the “same” 10k soldiers than we did five years ago, but these indicate a deeper and more complex problem. Outsourcing allows the leadership to ignore, to the detriment of our national security, root causes of this situation, including the circular logic of the government competing with a private sector whose major client is the government. Further, these aren’t apples and oranges discussions are really about shortages in political capital.

The political costs, referred to (erroneously) as the “CNN Factor”, is better reduced thought of as the Dover Test based on what the law enforcement official described, closer to the truth only rarely admitted at the conference.  

Self-serving political costs plays into the current sizing of the force, as revisions to budget requests and new statements by the Army’s upper echelons makes clear with the departure of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

A recurring theme in the conference seems to be what has happened and not why something has happened. It is the understanding of why that we find some of the rationales given are potentially a house of cards.

On the legal side, it was comforting to see a “legal expert” raise the “separation of powers” issue, as this blog has also raised: “We see…a shift of power without accountability, away from Congress and toward the Executive [branch].” Noteworthy is the length of discussion on private soldiers within the framework of the possibly quaint Laws of War compared to the brevity of the legal impacts of the use domestically.

The section titled “Bright Lines: Should there be limits to outsourcing” had some very intelligent and accurate statements that I found myself agreeing that hit at some of the concerns I raised above. For example, in the discussion of outsourcing ROTC training, a “participant” cautioned about creating the inability to teach our own and outsourcing on the basis of cost alone: “When you lose the capacity to understand your profession, you have destroyed yourself as a profession.” Later, a “military official” emphasized certain points the nation and its national soldiers should teach its own, “things that are fundamentally military”.

Valid ad hoc solutions that private security providers provide being extended into larger applications without understanding the effect. Similarly, arguments for outsourcing the non-security elements generally feel back onto a misleading cost justification that ignores the true and complete cost of outsourcing. (An economist noted in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that defense spending could go up without harm to the economy, further cracking the faulty cost argument.)

Overall, the researcher may find the report interesting while the casually interested person may find it boring. Only thing really useful is what got the ink and who, when it’s indicated, said what.