The post-9/11 era brought permanent changes for U.S. military strategy.
For defense contractors, it also sparked a major cash windfall as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and conflicts in other hot spots in the Middle East and beyond, funneled trillions of dollars away from the rank-and-file military and toward profit-driven companies.
That new reality has fueled questions about whether the Pentagon has become too reliant on private industry for critical missions, opening up potential holes in national security and possibly even compromising the world’s greatest military, some critics say.
As defense spending exploded in the 2000s, so too did the profits of defense firms. Of the $14 trillion in total Defense Department spending since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, at least one-third has gone to contractors, according to a recent study published by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and the Center for International Policy.
At least $4.4 trillion was spent on weapons purchases and research and development, and the vast majority flowed to well-known defense firms such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other companies that have assumed an irreplaceable role atop the U.S. warfighting machine. Long-term defense deals and decades-long service contracts for weapons, vehicles and other military tools make it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to shrink the role those firms play in the modern-day military.
Analysts and defense insiders say the past two decades accelerated a shift that had been underway since the end of the Cold War 10 years earlier, a period in which defense companies began searching for new services to provide and new avenues to make money as the threat of a U.S.-Soviet Union world war faded away.
“There’s been a fundamental shift. I think that shift goes back to the ‘90s,” said Michael Brenes, a Yale University historian who studies the defense industry.
“The end of the Cold War brought a crisis point. There’s a period of crisis, or concern, for the defense industry and for defense contractors overall,” he said. “There’s no more Cold War, and they’re concerned about profitability in the long run and where they can go to obtain further profits.”
The landscape changed before ultimately arriving at the post-9/11 partnership between the Pentagon and industry. In many ways, companies can now be called on to do virtually everything except actually fight the war itself.
“To me, there is no discernible line beyond the fact that the use of kinetic force is primarily under the purview of officers of the Marine Corps, the Army, the military,” Mr. Brenes said.
But industry leaders say that the rapid expansion of the defense industrial base can largely be attributed to better personnel management by the Defense Department. Military leaders, they argue, zeroed in on the best, most efficient ways to use highly trained soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
“There was a shift … Post 9/11, you got into a new paradigm,” said retired Air Force Col. Wesley Hallman, now the senior vice president of strategy and policy at the National Defense Industrial Association, a leading industry trade group.
In years past, he said, “DoD could just throw people at the problem. People didn’t cost a lot. They were frankly cheap.”
That approach led to scenarios in which airmen and other service members were sometimes called on to paint buildings, do landscaping and other jobs for which highly trained military women and men were essentially overqualified.
“You never see that anymore because of … the skills that we demand out of them in the military, the all-volunteer force,” Mr. Hallman said. “We’ve invested a lot into it, and they’re not cheap. We’ve developed a system that we retain people and their skills. We retain the investments. Because of that, they’re not cheap.”
Money and controversy
Indeed, while the majority of media attention over the past 20 years centered on contractors with firms such as Blackwater that provided armed security in war zones, the vast majority of industry work in-theater was much more routine.
Many logistical duties related to food, housing, infrastructure and other domains fell to defense contractors. In short-term military missions, officials and analysts say, it can make sense for service members to handle some of those relatively mundane tasks. But if the U.S. intends to maintain a large presence for any considerable time, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, outsourcing jobs to private industry makes sense, specialists generally agree, assuming that those civilian contractors can be kept safe and that they do not hinder the military mission.
But critics say that turning the focus to those areas misses the broader point of how the U.S. has created new problems by involving more individuals and companies in its war-zone missions, dramatically increasing the chances for waste and fraud.
“The Pentagon’s increasing reliance on private contractors in the post-9/11 period raises multiple questions of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness,” reads a portion of the Brown University study, authored by William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.
“This is problematic because privatizing key functions can reduce the U.S. military’s control of activities that occur in war zones while increasing risks of waste, fraud and abuse,” the study says. “Additionally, that the waging of war is a source of profits can contradict the goal of having the U.S. lead with diplomacy in seeking to resolve conflicts.”
While large defense firms have played a central role in the U.S. military for more than a century, the sheer dollar figures flowing to those companies today is staggering.
From 2001 to 2020, the five leading Pentagon weapons contractors — Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman — pulled in a whopping $2.1 trillion in defense contracts, according to the Brown University study.
Those companies are often Capitol Hill targets for the outsized role they play in U.S. national security. But they provide weapons and vehicles, not armed personnel on the ground in war zones.
In the years after 9/11, security firms such as Blackwater essentially redefined what the role of a defense contractor could be in the 21st century. Among other services, the company provided security in Afghanistan and Iraq and was viewed by critics as a mercenary American force not bound by the same rules that applied to the military itself.
“This is the greater problem for how the DoD has relied on private contractors, that they’re unaccountable,” Mr. Brenes said.
Industry officials, however, stress that any security contractors are still bound by military rules of engagement and subject to commanders on the ground.
Blackwater gained much of its notoriety after a September 2007 incident in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Four Blackwater employees were convicted of killing more than a dozen Iraqi civilians at the site, though they claimed that they were acting in the defense of a U.S. military convoy.
The four individuals were pardoned by former President Donald Trump in December.
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