by Mark Ash
In the waning days of the Cold War it was decided that there was going to be the dawning of a bright new age where the US Military would be much small, deploy less and depend on the Private Sector and not privates to maintain the Armed Services. In this new Pax Americana there would be unprecedented personal and financial freedoms, stability and commercial opportunities. This was the world in which the US Military privatized or closed most of its depot level maintenance in the early-90s. Unfortunately that fantasy world never materialized.
Even with the Armed services undergoing major cutbacks, the rate of deployment raised by 50% throughout the '90s. This was well before the current War on Terror and commitment in Iraq. There was the mistaken belief that if war came it would be won in blitzkrieg fashion, with heavy aerial bombardment and a lightning ground campaign or lightning incursion with light infantry units and special operation forces that would quickly defeat the enemy, accomplish the mission and then be quickly pulled out. Non-commitment was to the order of the day, every day in this new era. After all these were lessons supposedly learned in Grenada, Panama and Operation Desert Storm. It was on this model of non-sustainment and non-commentment that the US Military is currently based.
Instead the world has proven to be an unstable place, not only because of the power vacuum after the fall of Communism, but because of lingering problems after the collapse of Colonialism. To the 5th and 4th century BC Greek City-states, freedom from Persian oppression meant freedom to fight among each other and to export violence abroad. Likewise, freedom from foreign "oppression" in many parts of the world today means freedom to butcher their neighbors and export their own particular ideology. This is the bleak new reality that stands in such shape contrast with that "bright new age" of global stability and economic freedom.
So what does this have to do with contractors? With US Military units have to undergo more intensive and demanding training and a higher deployment tempo to meet the challenges of the 21st Century equipment cannot be placed in storage for a decade to save money on maintenance. Instead of the US Military needing a short "surge" in maintenance personnel from time to time, it needs a robust and continuous (and often redundant) maintenance capability to sustain it through war and the not quite peaceful peace found in many parts of the world today. Instead of paying top dollar for private contractors in the short term, the US Military needs to professional develop soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to fulfill much of its deployable, sustained on-the-spot maintenance needs. This means keep a higher number of competent and efficient people in uniform by providing more career paths and opportunities, while allowing even the most junior military personnel to live off base and as they choose. This also means treating military personnel like professionals and utilizing their time more wisely. No more man-hours wasted on "base beautification" or on other time consuming busy-work that are the traps of a 19th Century conscript force. As they will be on a salary, working overtime isn't an incentive. Free time is the only incentive. As soon their tasks are done for the day/week, as soon as the equipment they are charged with maintaining is in a good state of repair and they have no training obligations, they are let loose. These principals stand in sharp relief from those of our current force, who stick rigidly to garrison routine passed down from prior generations who dealt with the reality of keeping a large draft army busy while waiting for outbreak of World War III with the now defunct Soviet Union.
It is in the personal and financial interest of contractors to muddle and blur the issue. If give a choice, many good, competent, skilled professionals would choose lower paying, more reliable employment over the one-day-you-are-need-the-next-you-aren't employment of private military contractors during "surges". The reality is most employees will only put up with being laid-off from the same job so many times. And under these conditions is when contractors are supposed to be at their most "efficient". In reality private contractors have replaced military maintenance personnel on close to a one-to-one basis, while greatly increasing the financial burden on the Armed Services while decreasing the deployability of those same Armed Services. Sure, contractors will go overseas to maintain forwardly deployed equipment, for a price. For an even greater prices then they would in CONUS, which more then counter-balances the "efficiency" of their use under the most favorable conditions over the use military personnel. Not to mention the fact that it isn't in a contractors favor to promote easy to maintain mechanical and electronic military equipment. In fact it is in their personal and financial interest to promote high-cost, high-maintenance systems, as the have successfully done over the last 15 years.
Last but not least you should ask yourself, if the desire for "surge capacity" at the cost of stability and sustainability is so important, then why have the private contractors at Anniston Army Depot been consuming so much financial resources during the current "surge" due to the war in Iraq that many bases around the US are closing mess halls and falling behind on their basic utility bills? If it is so easy to get professionals back from layoffs, why has the first Virginia-class SSN's cost ballooned from $2.2 Billion to $3.7 billion, more then the cost of a Sea Wolf-class SSN if production had continued and the average cost of the first five ships of the class will be around $3.2 billion to $3.4 billions dollars. Still above and beyond what we would be paying for if the Sea Wolf-class production continued, even though we are paying for smaller and less capable boats now. If it is this difficult for defense contractors to properly judge and meet the predictable needs of arms production and depot level maintenance, the needs they are best at fulfilling, how can we believe they will be capable of meeting the dynamic needs for day-to-day maintenance on the 21st Century battlefield?
About the Author:
Mark Ash is a former United States Marine who served from 1996 to 2002, who specializing in communications and electronic maintenance of Amphibious Assault Vehicles and other land based, combat-orientated communications equipment. Mr. Ash now resides in Northern California.