Tyranny of the Easy Button: Finding Balance Between Contract & Organic Logistics

By Jessica McCarthy.

The third in a series of posts relevant for senior logisticians as they consider the future at the Australian and New Zealand Defence Logistics Conference. In this article, US Army logistician Jessica McCarthy examines a challenging, contemporaneous, issue for many Western militaries – how much contractor support is enough? 

This article was originally prepared in collaboration with ‘Over The Horizon: Multi-domain operations and strategies’, a blog which asks the question, ‘what comes after the Joint and inter-agency constructs?’ A great site containing forward-thinking articles examining the character of contemporary and future warfare, it is well worth following. 

Like many armies before it, the US Army has utilized the employment of civilians to enhance its operations throughout its history. Operationally engaged around the globe, the US military finds itself increasingly stretched to meet an intense and broad set of demands. With an increased operations tempo and cuts to budgets and force size, military contractors have shifted from supplemental to operational necessity. Contract support in both garrison and contingency environments is now not only common, but also expected by commanders. With this excess, however, has come increasing dependence on contract support as well as a decrease in utilization of organic military logistics both on and off the battlefield. The result is a growing military logistics experience gap, presenting readiness challenges for future battlefields on which contract support may not be a viable option. At some point, the money that enables contractor support will vanish or the military will be asked to fight in locations where contract companies cannot follow. Proper balance between contract support and organic logistics forces is imperative to ensure the US Army’s ability to meet the future demands of a multi-domain battlespace.

How We Got Here

While utilization of contractors is as old as war itself, the US military’s utilization of contractors grew significantly during the Vietnam War and continued to gather momentum through Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to 1992, the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), largely considered a contingency option of last resort until this time, grew in utilization as operational tempo increased, changing how the military relied on contracting support. Key considerations that led to the increase included:

–        the ability to respond to a major regional conflict,

–        the political sensitivity of activating guard and reserve forces,

–        the lack of Host Nation Support Agreements,

–        and the desire to maintain a relatively low US force presence.

With these in mind, contracting on the battlefield soon became more accessible and more acceptable, leading to contractor mission creep, as well as creep in the rules governing their use.

Soon, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs began asking if the Army may be using contractors without adequate consideration for the impact to military logistics readiness.

Mission Creep

While contractors do not participate directly in executing or planning military operations, they do fulfil needs essential to combat operations, and those needs seem to have grown over time. In particular, during periods of increased restrictions on the presence of military forces, reduced force numbers, and increased operations tempo, the Army turns to use contractors. With manpower limitations and increases in combat demands, Army leaders use contractors to provide logistics support to allow the military to focus on their kinetic missions. Operational commanders would much rather fill their ranks with combat forces instead of force sustainers.

Following the Cold War, reliance on contractors increased when the Department of Defense (DoD) cut logistic and support personnel. It became a slippery slope: the more the DOD relied on contracting, the more it lost in-house capability, leading to even further reliance on contractor support. In 1992, to bridge these growing gaps, the Army awarded the LOGCAP program to Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and began using it to support Army deployments and other contingencies almost immediately.

Since that time, LOGCAP support has expanded in quantity and scope. Under that first 1992 LOGCAP contract, KBR went on to support US Operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Rwanda. In 1997, DynCorp won the LOGCAP II contract, supporting missions in the Philippines, Columbia, Ecuador, Haiti, East Timor and Panama. In 2001, under LOGCAP III, support returned to KBR which supported expanding operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Djibouti, Jordan, Kenya, Uzbekistan and Georgia.

During this time, KBR conducted the largest government services contract in US history with a previously unimaginable scope and scale. For instance, the major types of services provided by the LOGCAP III contract included:

  • Airfield operations
  • Ammunition storage and supply
  • Base camp operations
  • Communications and information technology
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Firefighting services
  • Fuel distribution
  • Morale, welfare, and recreation
  • Transportation

In the initial phases of these operations, military commanders had reduced budgetary constraints for contract support, allowing the steady growth of support requirements. The result was a substantial growth in LOGCAP operations along with the corresponding growth in costs: In operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, contractors have comprised approximately 50% of DOD’s combined contractor and uniformed personnel workforce in country.

Furthermore, with contractor utilization becoming more commonplace on the battlefield, commanders began expecting similar support at home during exercises. During large-scale military exercises, it is typically less labour intensive for the military to outsource things like field feeding, lodging, and transportation of equipment. It saves headaches and late nights for the planners and sustainers, making it an easy choice for them to support. Unfortunately, these challenges are precisely the point of exercise training. This is the time for sustainers to hone their craft so that they become capable and confident in their ability to accomplish their mission.

Midway Image

Rules Creep

In the 1950s, a Federal Government policy stated that Federal departments and/or agencies should not be in competition with the private sector. Since then, there have been numerous revisions and amendments culminating in the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Circular A-76. A-76 outlines the guidelines and procedures to determine whether an activity should be performed with Government personnel or contracted out. Generally speaking, there are three procedural areas under A-76 that have evolved in interpretation over time to enable the growth of contractor support. The first has to do with the reliability of the calculations used to determine the savings generated. The second is the inadequate oversight capacity of the Federal Government over contractors. Lastly, it is difficult to determine the line between what is outsource-able and what is an “inherently governmental function.” As a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted, reliance on contractors to support core missions places the DOD at risk for contractors to perform inherently governmental functions and results in the DOD losing vital capabilities.

Initially intended as a “last resort option,” contractors were to be used only after military and host nation support fell short in their ability to fulfil requirements. Soon, the guidance changed so that “LOGCAP, long considered the ‘source of last resort,’ can, per policy and doctrine, be requested when it is the ‘best value’ support option based on mission specific METT-TC factors.” This verbiage leaves much open for interpretation, especially when discussing the best value of services based on mission-specific factors. The application of LOGCAP is not affected by cost, if the justification is deemed reasonable.

Rebalancing and Rebuilding Organic Logistics

While contractors are an essential component to sustaining the Army, the US military desperately needs to set a new organic-to-outsourced logistics balance if it wants to ensure readiness for future conflict. Future conflicts will be not only be more complicated, but more complex, with land forces fighting in dispersed locations to create effects in multiple domains, while defending against multi-domain attacks. This environment requires a more agile and dynamic organic-to-outsourced logistics balance.

The question is how to determine the right mix of forces and contracted support to complete a mission in the most effective and efficient manner. Often, contracted logistics support may be the easiest choice. However, it is not a perfect fit for every mission nor does it provide the right solution for all skill and manpower shortages it is employed against. Like all things, when the military uses contract support in military operations, leaders need to evaluate the risks and benefits of each decision. Using a contractor does not ensure the desired performance in the same manner as using an organic Army asset. A key consideration in finding balance is recognizing that the Army and the contractor have inherently different interests. Army leaders must not forget its current and future core interests, balancing today’s logistical demands against maintaining a force capable of sustaining itself on austere future battlefields.

In addition, having the ability to use contract logistics support does not release sustainers from being able to perform their mission-essential tasks. For the US Army, the three sustainment warfighting functions are: logistics, personnel services, and health service support. All other warfighting functions (mission command, intelligence, movement and manoeuvre, fires, protection, and engagement) depend on their successful accomplishment in whatever threat context the Army is engaged in. Today’s military sustainers must have a strategic eye for what future battlefields will look like and how to shape and develop their force to meet the demand. They must find a balance between organic and contract-provided support that does not compromise the Army’s future logistics capabilities.

The US Army must revitalize its ability to support and sustain future operations while balancing the fiscal responsibilities of using contractors with the readiness benefits of maintaining organic logistics capabilities. In part, this means decision makers must roll back the mission and guidance creep described above, opting for increased utilization of organic logistics functions. Above all, sustainers must emphasize the importance of re-developing the processes, procedures, techniques, and training at the tactical level. Organic sustainment must be challenged and empowered to experiment, advance, and refine their craft during exercises just as their battlefield counterparts do. Ultimately, units must strive to enhance Operational Reach, Freedom of Action, and Prolonged Endurance across what could be a long, austere, and contested line of communication in a future fight.

One of the primary reasons cited for the DOD’s increasing use of contract support is “the need to compensate for a decrease in the size of the force and a lack of expertise within the military services.” In order for the Army to decrease spending on operational contracts and continue its global coverage, the military would need to increase instead of drawing down and fill the knowledge gaps they have created. Until recently, the Army was working to drawdown its force to 450,000 active-duty troops by the end of 2018. In March 2017, the Army announced it would instead grow from its force size of about 466,000 to 476,000 by 30 September 2017. An overall increase in troop numbers is promising, but it remains to be seen how much of that increase will benefit the sustainment community. Further, even if sustainment troop numbers were bolstered, it will still take considerable time to build the knowledge base Army Logisticians once had.


There is no argument that the US Army requires contract support to enhance its capabilities, especially when actively engaging in numerous roles throughout the globe. However, creep in both contractor mission and guidance on their utilization is eroding the Army’s logistical core competencies and degrading requisite skills and knowledge. Having the ability to use contract support to ease logistic operations does not release sustainers from being able to perform their mission-essential tasks. In future expeditionary operations, especially due to multi-domain considerations, it is unlikely the Army will be able to rely as heavily, if at all, on the abilities of contractors. Sustainers must have confidence in their ability to execute sustainment missions without contracted support. As Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee describes, “this means working on the fundamentals and doing those things that we have gotten away from over the past 15 years.” Sustainment does not just appear on the battlefield, or even in the area of operation. Without exercising the action of sustainment with organic logistic elements, the capability will continue to atrophy until the US military is unable to support itself in the future fight. The contractor logistics easy button may not be available on future battlefields; it is time the Army prepared for the hard work of sustaining the fight in that emerging context.

 Jessica McCarthy is a logistics officer in the United States Army and is a graduate of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program at the USAF Air Command and Staff College.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

One thought on “Tyranny of the Easy Button: Finding Balance Between Contract & Organic Logistics

  1. I once gave a logistics briefing to a new US Ambassador between on-going Northern Watch operations in Iraq. He was a deep thinker (aka scary smart) and well versed in Middle Eastern affairs. Among his questions was one I did not expect: how are we to get blood, food, supplies, etc. into some crappy places now that we don’t have the organic airlift we did during Desert Storm or Provide Comfort? I answered that we’d use MAC (at the time) contracted airlift if we had to – which I labeled as “Fed Ex to the front lines.” (I chose it on the spur of the moment because of the alliteration, not necessarily the company – with whom I have NO contact other than getting occasional deliveries from them.) His response was “you can’t do that because we would be liable for accidents or shoot down.” My response was “Yes, we can; it is the raison d’etre and primary benefit of air supremacy.”

    Bottom line, we can and do use contractors precisely because they are contracted to do so, they are in the short term cheaper than organic, and because if we have air supremacy and control of the land, contractors are as safe as we can make them at home. And in the USAF case, these contractors are the maintenance trainers sometimes by showing, sometimes by doing as well as mostly through field training classes.

    Oh, and how do I get pizza, Tampax and shaving gear to the troops? Civilians under contract called AAFES.

    We are not eating our seed corn by using contract help; we are prioritizing our logistics efforts to fit the personnel numbers Congress gives us (in USAF terms priority is crew chiefs, aircraft specialists, armorers and IYAYAS (ammo). As numbers grow, we need less contract support in the field, as it wanes, like after each “Peace Dividend,” we need more. As we re-weaponize, we need more (like now), as the weapons mature we need organic loggies in the field. But there is a bottom-bottom line on both contractor and organic military – Congress and the administration make that call – but we will never get to a zero-sum in either category. Nor would we ever want to.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s