Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Revisits Rules for Battlefield Contractors

Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Revisits Rules for Battlefield Contractors

Article excerpt

Contractor Security

The role of contractors in Iraq has driven them into the spotlight, but experts disagree over the level of regulation and oversight that are appropriate to these operations.

The Defense Department is rewriting regulations under which such firms will operate. However, insiders cannot predict if guidelines created for the current conflict will help or hamper future efforts.

The Defense Department's relationship with contractors is changing as it becomes more reliant on them. The heavy use of contractors on the battlefield is not a new phenomenon, but as the military downsized during the past decade, it increasingly has outsourced more functions.

"If you are going to try to expand the capability of your military within the limited end-strength you are going to have to figure out which functions you can afford to contract out," said Robert St. Onge, vice president of operations and business development of MPRI, a military contractor that has seen its workload grow as a result of the increased outsourcing of battlefield jobs.

But the Defense Department has been criticized that it has not provided enough oversight and accountability in its dealings with firms in Iraq.

Doing business in Iraq is "an interesting juggling act," said Deidre Lee, director of defense procurement and acquisition policy. "In Iraq, business arrangements were made in austere and hostile environments."

Contractors work in dangerous, fluid settings, but that does not » mean the business relationships are less accountable, she said in a keynote speech at a conference entitled, "Contractors in the Battlefield: Learning from the Experience in Iraq", that was organized by George Washington University.

Lee predicted that the U.S. military will continue to deploy shoulder-to-shoulder with its contractors. "The acquisition community and the business community have to understand the environment, be flexible and figure out how to work it."

The Defense Department is currently working on documents to clarify its contractual relationships with private firms, she said.

One of these documents, called "Contractors Supporting the Force," now is going through the defense acquisition regulation review process, Lee said. The Pentagon also is working on a contingency contracting handbook, which helps contractors prepare for a battlefield environment.

Although there is widespread disagreement on this issue, some contractors welcome more regulation to guide future business with the Defense Department.

"This may be the only industry in the world that craves regulation," Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, a non-profit group that is seeking to increase privatization in peacekeeping operations. "We would like to see more guidelines. Tell us what we can do and what we can't do."

Companies also are looking for a default legal template so that everyone going into a country without a legal system can follow certain rules.

The problem, however, is that most current regulations have focused mainly on Iraq, said Brooks. "They haven't addressed the things that need to be addressed," he told National Defense. "A lot of regulations seem to focus on perceived dangers versus realities."

These rule changes come on the heels of intense criticism from the Government Accountability Office, politicians and the media that the Defense Department has mishandled its dealings with contractors in Iraq. …

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