Home Department of Defense Protecting Defense Contractors in Conflict Zones Requires More Training
Protecting Defense Contractors in Conflict Zones Requires More Training

Protecting Defense Contractors in Conflict Zones Requires More Training


By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Department of Defense (DoD) employed approximately 1,000 U.S. and 2,900 foreign contractors. In the first quarter of 2010, contractors supporting the U.S. Army Central Command (CENTCOM) numbered 239,451, including U.S. and foreign personnel. The increase in the number of defense contractors and the variety of work contracted is historically significant. This is due predominately to the drawdown in military forces at the end of the Cold War and the rapid need for manpower after September 11, 2001.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, and subsequent U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the DoD and various other U.S. agencies have hired large numbers of defense contractors for everything from security to logistics. At the height of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the ratio between contractors and U.S. military personnel was approximately one-to-one, according to a report by NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten.

Given this high level of engagement, it’s natural to wonder how the conflict environment affects the performance of individual and contractor teams. Several studies have assessed the effect of wartime conditions on the performance and unit cohesion of military personnel.

To my knowledge, however, there has only been one formal study of how the volatile and dangerous involvement in combat affects contractor personnel, which is a study I produced. That study forms an initial and limited foray into this highly relevant but inadequately researched phenomenon.

Current Warfare Is Now a Different Style of Warfare

The warfare in which the U.S. and its allies are engaged in now is different from traditional nation-state warfare; it is more on the order of combating guerilla warfare or insurgencies. This type of warfare is commonly referred to as asymmetric warfare.

A defining characteristic of asymmetric warfare is the lack of a traditional front line between combatants. Attacks and incidents occur throughout the conflict zone at any time and in any place.

Examples include ambushes, suicide bombings and even deadly attacks on military personnel and defense contractors by the people they trained. These attacks obviously increase the threats contractors face, whether these contractors are securing a high-value target near the front line or in a rear area working on logistics issues.

Contractors today often perform tasks that were previously considered governmental and often military in nature. Common security tasks for defense contractors in war zones include executive protection, contract security for U.S. embassies and convoy security.

The absence of a front line, combined with the large numbers of defense contractors working in conflict zones, increase the chances that contract employees will be involved in crippling or lethal incidents.

Middle East Contractors Experienced High Rate of Injuries and Fatalities

Of the 207,553 contract personnel working for the DoD in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, only 40,800 were U.S. citizens. Between June of 2009 and March of 2011, contractor fatalities surpassed the number of military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

While data on serious injury rates for contractors is difficult to locate and quantify, a study by George Washington University’s Law School for the same period found that 22,000 defense contractors incurred injuries that were considered at least marginally serious. Total contractor injuries were estimated at 58,073.

Eleven defense firms suffered over 50 fatalities, and six firms had 80 or more employee deaths. One well-known defense contractor, L-3 Communications Systems, sustained 373 fatalities between 2001 and 2011.

US and Israel Published Military Studies on Effects of Combat Environment

Military studies on the effects of the combat environment on uniformed combatants have been published in the U.S. and in Israel. They include studies by the following people:

  • American military expert Dr. John E. Johnston in Infantry magazine
  • British Army Col. R.A. Leitch (Ret’d.) and colleagues in Small Wars Journals
  • British researcher Sergio Catignani

These are not studies on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Instead, they cover topics such as reducing military losses in combat, casualty rates and studies on military operations in urban environments, and combat motivation.

Military Stresses Group Cohesiveness but Contractors May Have No Teamwork Experience

In general, military literature stresses the importance of training and group cohesiveness to perform individual and group tasks under great stress. The military experience differs markedly from the contractor experience in two important ways.

First, military personnel have a sense of belonging to the group, based on their time spent training, working and living together as units. Second, many military units have long histories and traditions of service to the nation, which foster a sense of cohesion and the desire to live up to those traditions.

Although many defense contractors have a military background, the companies they work for are profit-driven and may be new to the business. In addition, contract employees are not typically hired as units. They may not even know one another personally before they prepare for a specific contract.

While my study examined contractor performance under difficult environmental threats such as  ambushes, suicide bombings, attacks on executives or convoys, it was oriented on “the big picture” rather than on individual and small group experiences in-country. Much research remains to be done in that area.

However, my findings suggest that the environmental threat in war zones might have unique characteristics beyond those common to traditional business risk-and-threat analysis. The study also suggests that the uncertain social, political and military environment of conflict zones requires defense contractors to function and sustain their performance under extraordinary conditions, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study.

There is an immediate need for enhanced training, planning and strategy development. This work will better prepare defense contracting senior management to more effectively predict and manage war zone uncertainties and employee performance in-country.

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.