How the United States military can improve its use of contingency contractors

Whitney Grespin

International Affairs
International Affairs Blog
4 min readAug 12, 2021


US private contractors provide security coverage for American and Iraqi diplomats in Tikrit, Iraq, 14 February 2005. Photo: Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2017, in the course of PhD field research I travelled to Afghanistan — a country I had worked in back in 2010–11 as part of a NATO Combined Security Transition Command (CSTSC-A) military capacity-building programme. At the time of my research travel there were 8,448 American military personnel on the ground, alongside approximately 24,000 private contractors and roughly 600 United States government civilians. General John Nicholson — commander of the NATO-led forces — observed during a discussion about the force composition and prevalence of contractors: ‘Is that really light footprint? I’d argue it’s not.’ Contractors were providing robust security assistance support in a high-risk environment, ranging from weapon system maintenance to embedded ministerial advising, resulting in the presence of more contracted personnel than US government (USG) or military representatives in the country.

Contingency contractors — private sector actors engaged by government agencies to support government efforts in complex environments — provide many benefits to the USG, particularly in terms of continuity, cost, expediency and risk aversion. Ranging from surge capacity for specialized skill sets to continuity of relationships to the ability to avoid troop cap limitations and highly publicized casualty reporting, contingency contractor usage allows the USG to avoid some of the less palatable aspects of security assistance programming. Despite fears to the contrary, it is critical to note that none of the companies involved in delivering this assistance meet the United Nation’s definition of a ‘mercenary’ outfit. There are well-established self-regulatory frameworks for legitimate companies that have been established through both private sector and multilateral efforts. However, the legitimacy of these actors does not guarantee that their goals strictly parallel to those of their sponsors.

The costs of contingency contracting

Private entities often have different interests and incentives compared with government organizations. The more that the USG relies on contracting firms to execute its policies, the more vulnerable the USG becomes to having firms pursuing their own interests when they diverge from those of the USG. This misalignment of interests between the contracting firm surrogate and the USG sponsor is critical, given that contractor actions can (and have) incurred major agency loss and reputational damage that have limited their contributions to the achievement of US security objectives.

In addition to this interest misalignment, the USG also incurs financial costs and mission inefficiencies by not consistently capturing the institutional knowledge of US contingency contractors (many of whom fulfill contracts with significantly longer durations than uniformed deployment lengths) to better design and execute security assistance missions. While only a small proportion of the hazards of security assistance in general can be mitigated, there is a window of opportunity for contracting efficacy to be improved through the incorporation of private sector subject matter expertise in context-specific intervention design and execution and by taking advantage of the institutional and individual knowledge of non-USG employees who have intimate environmental familiarity and technical expertise.

What can be done?

To improve this situation, the USG should further explore how companies can be incentivized to work themselves out of a project, or whether engaging specialized non-profit organizations might be more appropriate than the retention of for-profit firms, given their general organization and operation for a collective, public, or social benefit. This reorientation of agents working to put themselves out of business via the handover of capability primacy to host nation personnel might counter the criticism of contractors seeking mission expansion and improve program outcomes. Procurement officials might also seek to better understand the extent to which their dependence on imperfect information is problematic for contract design, and how to better mitigate information asymmetries. Although there is a tolerance for inefficiency in security assistance pursuits through mechanisms like exclusivity agreements, improved program design and deliverable requirements would benefit all stakeholders.

The USG is letting low-hanging fruit rot on the tree by not better managing its contracted providers of security assistance — specifically those assigned to embed alongside and mentor partner nations’ security forces. Contingency contractors play an outsized role in helping the USG achieve its foreign policy goals while minimizing the appearance of direct US involvement. This practice has become widespread across the globe in recent years, testifying to its value. While military ‘boots on the ground’ may withdraw, that does not mean that the invisible hand of US-sponsored contracts will disappear as well.

To ensure the best outcomes from engaging with such contracts, USG authorities must invest in cultivating a cadre of specialized contracting personnel who understand both the particularities of the environments their programs are operating in, as well as the business side of the services that they’re soliciting. If the USG continues to train its partners using short-term solutions, then it will never achieve long-term success in its goal of building recipient capabilities. One step towards doing this is understanding the misaligned interests between the USG and the security assistance contractors it employs.

Whitney Grespin holds a PhD from King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department at the UK Joint Services Command & Staff College. She has worked in contingency contracting, educational programming, and stabilization efforts on five continents.

This blogpost is part of a collaboration between International Affairs and the Future Strategy Forum (FSF). FSF is an organization and annual conference series that seeks to elevate women’s expertise in national security, build mentorship, and connect graduate students to policymakers.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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