Boots Off the Ground: The Use of Contractors to Train Foreign Militaries by the U.S. Government

Miss Whitney Grespin

As the U.S. and allied forces attempted to draw down from the major conventional ground engagements of the past decade throughout the Obama Administration, the nature of U.S. foreign military engagement and related contracting requirements adjusted accordingly.  Improving, expanding, and strengthening international security assistance partnerships, with a particular focus on building partner capacity, was a U.S. national security priority over the last decade and a half.  Although the Trump Administration has yet to present a coherent strategy for its foreign policy engagement, it remains that by building partner capacity, the U.S. government replaces the need for U.S. forces to conduct missions in foreign territory by empowering partners to contribute to current and future contingency operations, thus mitigating risk to the U.S. government.

The last decade of my professional and academic lives has been dedicated to supporting and understanding U.S.-driven capacity building efforts for our partner and allied militaries.  This delivery of military training by civilian personnel is a noteworthy phenomenon as it alters the character of civilian-military (civ-mil) relations for the recipients of the training, and had been likely to increase in frequency given the projected shift away from physical intervention towards a preference for mitigative training that was seen during the Obama Administration.  Although the scope of my research is limited to the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations, it is not unlikely that the Trump Administration could choose to continue the use of contractors on a similar scale based on both the expedience of deploying (and cancelling the services of) contractors, but also to take advantage of their force projection capabilities without counting against congressionally mandated troop counts. For example, during field research in Kabul this February it was discovered that the U.S. government hosted 8,448 troops in Afghanistan, alongside 600 civilians and 24,000 contractors.  This ratio is remarkable given that it was sustained during the ‘downward glide’ to a goal of a US troop presence of only 5,000.

The practice of Building Partner Capacity (BPC) is well-established in international relations, has had clear impacts on statecraft, and shows little likelihood of declining in the years ahead.   Many U.S. partners are also conducting BPC programs in concert with security sector reform (SSR) efforts through both government programs and private contracts.  However, my research focuses on U.S. practices in order to understand how these programs affect the U.S. domestic political environment in terms of public opinion and support, which can then be taken into consideration when engineering partnerships and collaborative programming. Specifically, I look at the repercussions of privately delivered U.S. government-directed stabilization, Foreign Internal Defense (FID), and partner nation military training programs in complex environments, commonly known as contingency contracting.  Although private contingency contracting firms contribute to building partner military capacity and may be a useful foreign policy tool, the impact that these non-state actors have must be taken into consideration to avoid weakening the sponsoring government’s legitimacy.

The obvious question is, simply, why does it matter that the U.S. uses private citizen contractors for foreign military training?  The answer lies within the scope of how much capacity building the U.S. engage in, and the extent to which these contractors represent the U.S. government and perform functions previously considered to be “inherently governmental”[1].  U.S. government support for security assistance to partners and allies is broad, and includes 100 different legislative authorities that amounted to approximately $20 billion in 2015.  Furthermore, the number of U.S. foreign military trainees increased substantially in fiscal year (FY) 2015, growing from 56,346 in FY 2014 to 79,865 in FY 2015.  The increase in U.S. foreign military trainees was driven by a major increase in U.S. military training aimed at improving African militaries’ effectiveness in peace operations and enhancing foreign security forces from around the world to better tackle the illicit drug trade and transnational organized crime groups. In moving away from the high visibility interventions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries with the highest number of US military trainees in FY 2015 were Burundi, Rwanda, Colombia, Lebanon, and Uganda. Support for these RAF (regionally aligned forces) focuses on training programs, joint exercises, and counterterrorism efforts.[2] In the 2017 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense (DoD) alone will administer over 60 different programs to build partner capacities, with budgets totaling around half of the authority amount at roughly $10 billion.

Although not all (or even the majority) of these programs are delivered by contractors, these trends provide insight into the types of U.S. military training the Trump Administration may cut as part of its effort to reduce foreign aid, which includes BPC, FID, and SSR programming. In March, the White House released an outline of its proposed budget for FY 2018, showing a major drop in U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Trump Administration officials have also called for cuts to U.S. peacekeeping, counternarcotics, and nation-building programs, as well as demonstrating an unwillingness to curb security assistance to countries and regimes facing allegations of serious human rights abuses.  Months later, in July and August of this year, the White House entertained the possibility of contracting out the entirety of the ongoing war effort in Afghanistan to the private sector (in a bid led by Blackwater founder Erik Prince) with much public pushback until the idea was ultimately routed by White House advisors.

As with many other stances, the Trump Administration appears to lack clarity on their position towards contractorization.  However, the fact remains that tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are serving overseas in complex environments as contractors training partner and ally militaries on behalf of the U.S. government.  Contracts outlast administrations – yet another reason why the U.S. government should be thoughtful of how it engages private sector services to maintain its relationships overseas.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Joseph Carpio, Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, via United States Africa Command.

[1] Two primary definitions of inherently governmental function currently exist in U.S. federal law and policy. One is a statutory definition, enacted as part of the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act of 1998, stating that an inherently governmental function is “a function so intimately related to the public interest as to require performance by Federal Government employees.”  The FAIR Act describes that its definition encompasses functions that “require either the exercise of discretion in applying Federal Government authority or the making of value judgments in making decisions for the Federal Government,” then goes on to provide a non-exclusive list of the types of “functions included”, such as the following of primary interest to my research, “determining, protecting, and advancing U.S. economic, political, territorial, property, or other interests by military or diplomatic action, civil or criminal judicial proceedings, contract management, or otherwise.”  The other is a policy-oriented definition contained in Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-76, stating that an inherently governmental activity is “an activity that is so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government personnel.” These two definitions arguably do not differ significantly in and of themselves, but are tied to differing descriptions of “functions included” within the definitions.  With these definitions of inherently governmental in mind, I analyze the use of private contracting firms to deliver foreign military training on behalf of the U.S. government.

[2] These figures don’t include programs that fall under Department of State sponsorship.  This also does not include other U.S. government entities with an interest in building partner capacity to enhance national security.  An example of this would be the Drug Enforcement Agency (which itself falls under the U.S. Department of Justice), but has done a lot of work over the last decade in places like Afghanistan and central America to interdict and mitigate drug production and trafficking.  While noting the breadth of stakeholders that are involved in Building Partner Capacity programs is important, my research only looks at DoD efforts.

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