Category Archives: Private Contractors

What Defense Acquisition can learn from Apple

MilSpace on the iPhone

Why do people love apple?  Why do they line up around the block days in advance to buy an iPhone? Why is there a dating site set up exclusively for apple users to date other apple users?  Is there something I’m missing?  Since when does a personal computer preference say to someone of the opposite sex, “hey, I’m the one for you”? Even the military is falling in love with the company.  The Army is in talks with Apple to employ a number of its products for warfighting applications and recently launched a contest to encouraging development of military apps. Efforts by the military to better adopt mobile technologies, including Apple technologies, have been covered on this blog and elsewhere. By embracing commercial technologies, is the DoD taking advantage of a innovative opportunity or admitting that in some domains, Defense Acquisition just can’t get the job done as well?

Granted, Apple makes cool consumer electronics in contrast with the complex warplanes and ground systems of the Defense industry.  But the next frontier in technology will be driven by software, networks, and mobile devices, and the Defense industry would be foolish to not leverage existing consumer capabilities for military applications.  If Defense Acquisition is going to learn how to make these future products successfully, it might as well emulate the best in the business. Here are a few quick thoughts on why Apple has been successful in its latest endeavors and the lessons Defense Acquisition can take from those successes.

(1) User Interface is Paramount

The iPad was not the first tablet pc.  It wasn’t even Apple’s first attempt to build a tablet.  Yet, sales of the iPad reached 1 million sold in just 28 days and increased to 3 million after 80 days.  The iPad succeeded where previous tablets had failed due to its focus on user interface.  The concept for the iPad had been around for nearly a decade before Steve Jobs decided it was ready from a user interface point of view.  He knew that a truly revolutionary tablet couldn’t just have a functional keyboard; it had to have a keyboard that could be good enough to replace a traditional keyboard.  It couldn’t simply be light and flat; it had to be so light that users wouldn’t mind holding it for extended periods of time.

User interface also applies to system of systems that compose Apple’s products.  The individual devices are great on their own, but what really keeps and holds customers is an understanding that different Apple products are expected to simply work well with each other.  It doesn’t matter if the user is a teenager trying to make absolutely sure she can get to her latest Miley tracks no matter whether she’s at home, in the minivan, or at school (tsk.) or if the user is a professional photographer using Apple products to manage complex, data-sensitive workflows.  It just has to work.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Support early human factors engineering and human systems integration (see chapter 6), disciplines meant to ensure the people of a system are considered when the systems is being developed.

– Focus less on technical requirements and more on detailed use cases that take into account actual human characteristics and limitations.  Require test and evaluation to use actual humans in prototype systems; avoid simulations where feasible.

– Invest in better web/software interface design.  Has anyone tried updating their TSP enrollment on MyPay?  It’s lots of fun.

(2) It’s About the Software

As a quick glance at the latest technology marketing quickly shows, the competition between mobile devices is not just about hardware – it’s about the apps. Even before iPhone and iPad, Apple distinguished itself from other computer companies by consistently producing great interfaces in its operating systems and by offering simple but powerful programs guaranteed to work with their base platforms.

Apple has made some difficult decisions in the past, most notably with regard to their exclusion of multitasking in earlier iPhone models and more recently barring flash from the iPad.  If sales are any measure, then these decisions were wise.  Apple understood that it was better to offer customers a product guaranteed to function to the high standards of their other products than to try to cram in too many capabilities.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Restrict requirements creep.  If a platform was badly planned from the beginning, kill it and forge a new path rather than band-aid hopeless technology.

– Develop more in-house software competency.  The Army’s Apps 4 Army Challenge is a great idea, but why isn’t there a permanent pool of software geniuses ready to build great software for the military?  DoD is finally getting the message that it needs to recruit crack coders to combat cybersecurity threats, but those same capabilities are needed to build more benign software for weapons and information systems.

(3) Connect Management and Leadership

Managers keeps the cogs of an organization turning; they make sure people get paid, disputes are resolved, and discipline is levied.  Leaders, on the other hand, inspire change through vision.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs gets leadership.  He is as comfortable speaking in broad, glowing terms about a new product as he is answering personal emails about technical details at 2AM in the morning. His vision permeates his company and his products (or as Simon Sinek explains, Apple employees all start off by answering “why?” before they get to the “what?” and “how?” of products).  Of course, Steve Jobs the man is not Apple; he is only the current incarnation of what the company represents.  But from that company, consumers can continually expect consistent products, delivered on time and up to the standards it sets for itself.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?

– Establish a program manager earlier during development.  Program managers are given overall responsibility for programs’ cost, schedule, and budget.  They are supposed to make critical design decisions, but they don’t take over programs until after most important requirements are set.  This structure disconnects program managers from the “why” of their programs and incentivizes them to manage only, not to lead.  Program managers should at the very least be given a seat at the table during pre-acquisition phases of development.

What Else?

Defense Secretary Gates has been repeatedly applauded for his efforts to reform Defense Acquisition.  But then again, didn’t Secretaries RumsfeldCohen, and Perry all try their hands at “reform”?  Change defines leadership, so maybe continuous attempts at reform reflect constant improvement.  But in the technology sector, Apple seems to consistently represent as close to a sure thing as has been seen in consumer electronics.  Are the two industries too different to compare, or might there be principles that apply to both?

What else can Defense Acquisition learn from others’ successes?  Leave your ideas in the comments.

Posted on 6 Jul 2010


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Vigilantism By Non-Governmental Actors: Addressing the Challenge of Private Contractors

A few years ago it seemed like stories about private contractors getting in trouble in Iraq were a dime a dozen.  Of course, one word tied most of those stories together – Blackwater.  By now everyone is familiar with Blackwater’s exploits in Iraq.  Despite reports that the number of contractors in Afghanistan could balloon to 160,000, the public’s concern over the actions of private contractors has taken a backseat as the war in Iraq winds down.  Although reports of contractor wrongdoing are becoming less prolific, or at least the press is paying less attention, a recent New York Times article revealed a new major contractor scandal.

This new scandal involves a Department of Defense official named Michael Furlong, and two private contracting companies.  The facts are as follows:

In 2008, the military tasked Furlong with gathering information about the culture in Afghanistan.  As part of this effort Furlong hired a small contracting company run by Eason Jordan, a former CNN executive, and author Robert Young Pelton to create a website which would essentially digest information about the cultural aspects of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Young and Pelton claim that they only received a small fraction of the money that they were promised.  Where did the rest of the money go?  Government officials now believe they know.

Instead of paying Young and Pelton to run their website, they believe that Furlong was diverting the lion’s share of the money to two other private contractors, American International Security Corporation and International Media Ventures.  These two companies employ, and are managed by, former military special operations forces such as Green Berets and Delta Force operators.  It is believed that Furlong was diverting the money to these contractors and paying them to conduct his own covert, unsanctioned intelligence gathering, and possible lethal action, against militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This story strikes me as a warning that contractor oversight and regulation (see previous article by Kevin Liu) is still an important issue that has gone relatively unaddressed.  Private contractors cannot be allowed to become so deeply involved that sensitive government activities become acts of private vigilantism by a non-governmental actor.  That seems to be exactly what happened here.  Furlong was able to divert millions of dollars of government money to conduct his own personal spy ring, and possibly used private contractors to kill militants.

Increased regulation is needed especially when the contractors being used employ former highly trained members of the military, such as special operations forces.  That is not to say that they cannot be trusted, or that it is only former members of the special operations community that pose a risk as private contractors.  However, a private contracting company that uses former special operators should probably merit more attention, and their activities should be closely monitored.  Special operators are trained to be experts in things that are often not legal when done outside the scope of government employment.  It appears that Furlong, a government official, was able to carry on his own personal little war using former members of the special operations community and paid for it using government money.  That is a clear sign that more oversight of private contractors is needed.

While oversight is important, it cannot stop there.  What happens when a contractor abuse is discovered?  How do we hold the wrongdoers responsible?  The New York Times article says that Furlong will most likely face criminal charges, such as fraud, here in the U.S., however, the question of how to hold Furlong accountable is much easier than the question of accountability as to the contractors who carried out the work. When private contractors perform their duties overseas it can be very difficult to punish them for crimes they may commit.

Take Blackwater for example.  In 2007, a group of Blackwater employees shot up Al Nisoor Square in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians.  The evidence against these guards was substantial, and lead to federal prosecutions against them.  However, late last year a federal judge threw out all charges against the employees because actions taken by the government during the investigation of the shooting violated the contractors’ constitutional rights.

There is a sufficient legal basis for which to try contractors for their crimes in federal court.  The statute is called Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and it exposes most civilian contractors to federal criminal charges for crimes they commit while carrying out their duties.  While that statute exists it has proven to be very ineffective.  A very small number of people have been tried under the statute and it failed to produce a conviction in the aforementioned Blackwater case.  It shows that there needs to be a focus on making it easier to carry out prosecutions against contractors for their crimes overseas so that they are not allowed to operate with relative impunity.  That focus could come in the form of making it easier to carry out prosecutions using the MEJA, or in some cases, it may be effective to subject private contractors to the military justice system for crimes committed in a war zone.

Should a Revolving Door Ban Apply to Defense Contractors?

The Lobbying Ban

One of the first things President Obama did upon taking office in January of 2009 was to sign an executive order restricting the ability of lobbyists to become government officials and vice versa.  Yet, as some some pretty decent-seeming lobby groups were quick to point out, the rules were far from perfect.  Many lobbyists simply rebranded themselves to avoid the rules.  More importantly, the rules never touched the large number of federal employees who continue to walk through a revolving door between government, civilian, and contractor roles.

It’s Not Just About Blackwater

Recent controversy has developed surrounding the use of private contractors such as Blackwater (which has since changed its name to Xe Services) for security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The deaths of 17 Iraqis in 2007 raised questions about chains of command, rules of engagement, and whether the use of contractors was truly cost effective, seeing as how so many Blackwater employees were ex-military, pulled into the private sector by lures of better pay and equipment.

Blake Hall has previously discussed many of these issues here on this blog. These questions, although poignantly spotlighted in combat operations, are just as relevant in peacetime.  Roughly 40 percent of the DoD workforce is currently comprised of contractors.  If that number seems high, keep in mind that it is actually higher; the figure doesn’t account for the support, administration, and internal R&D staff that work at contracting companies, all of whom are paid for using government money.

Why We Have Contractors

There are of course many benefits to using private contractors.

(1) Contractors compete.  The efficiency produced by this competition translates into lower cost for the government.

(2) Every dollar spent on a military contract helps to spur innovation in other sectors.  Technology developed for military applications can be used in the private sector to get ahead of foreign competitors.

(3) Military billets rotate every few years; contracted positions provide continuity.

(4) Private companies are free to hire expertise developed in other sectors. In the military, rank and pay are based largely on time in service.

(5) Most importantly, using contractors frees up uniformed servicemembers to train for and fight wars.

But at What Cost?

The traditional view of civil-military relations is that an intentional tension exists between government civilians and the military.  The government needs a military force that can secure the nation’s interests around the world.  It works to ensure that the military is funded and incentivized to constantly improve itself.  The military services compete for resources; this competition drives innovations in technology and doctrine.  Contractors, on the other hand, are motivated by profit and keeping jobs stable.  Contractors want their customers (the government) to buy as many units of the latest weapons system as possible and they to make sure they keep buying units for years to come.  Contractors don’t like big changes because changes mean employees lose jobs.

If the story ended here, the competing interests of civilian government, the military, and private contractors should create a situation where checks and balances would ensure the government could buy the technology it needs at a fair price.  The problem is that government decision makers with contacts from a long career at a private company will naturally be more likely to make a phone call there first.  On top of that, contractors are free to hire former members of any military service or government agency.  How does building such a wide network of contacts affect the natural competition between these organizations?

Trying to put a ban on revolving door practices similar to what Obama did with lobbyists would be impractical for a number of reason, not least of which would be the simple fact that too many people would be affected by such a rule – the shock to the system would be unbearable.  But what will happen if current practices are allowed to continue?  Historically, civil-military relations shift slowly; it can take a generation or more for new paradigms to emerge.  The growth of contractors both in number of positions and in influence is unprecedented.  The civilian-military relationship is not ready to deal with large private companies whose reach extends across traditional borders.  If legislators don’t wake up to this reality, then by an internal battle of interests may weaken our ability to prepare for war, regardless of who wins.

What should be done to prevent the revolving door effect in DoD contracting?  Or are sufficient protections already in place?  Voice your thoughts in the comments.

Thoughts From a Former Army Captain on the Nisoor Square Shootings

Contractor is such a convenient word. The ubiquitous word for outsourced government services has such a broad scope that it is more likely to convey images of electricians and construction workers than it is to say, conjure up the spectre of armed civilians taking life while operating in a foreign, sovereign country. These American mercenaries are a supposedly efficient solution for a two-front war that has stretched a ten division Army to the limit. But, more importantly, they are not a fair or a moral solution. The current strategic and structural deficiencies that created a context in which private companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy thrived should be remedied as soon as possible before the United States find its’ prestige and honor further tarnished by more incidents like the Nisoor Square shootings.

The Nisoor Square shootings are a perfect example of the consequences of structural deficiencies that created an accountability vacuum around these guards who, from anecdotal experience and according to a recently released Senate report, are “reckless.” The changes that took effect in the wake of the Nisoor Square incident have not been substantive enough to align the mercenary culture with American morality.

I have driven through Nisoor Square many times, and, at a time when violence was peaking in Iraq: the spring and summer of 2007. The square is in fact a traffic circle just outside the Green Zone and it is almost always packed with cars. I am not surprised that a car drove towards the Blackwater convoy. In fact, I would be more surprised if a car didn’t drive towards their convoy. They are, after all, in the middle of an enormous city.

I am surprised by the amount of devastation wrought. Even ceding the dubious premise of a threatening car, I fail to comprehend how seventeen people were killed. Many of these men are former special operators; they are highly trained in hostage rescue and precision, discriminatory fires. At least one guard tried unsuccessfully to get the others to stop shooting . Combining this apparent fact with the scale of the shooting, the age of the victims and that some victims were shot in the back, does not suggest these men reacted in self-defense.

As the Senate Report and the aftermath of the Nisoor Square shootings illustrates, these mercenaries are such an alien entity to the military they operate with little supervision which translates into little accountability. And the people they protect, State Department diplomats, who complained of post traumatic stress disorder from the occasional mortar attack on the Green Zone , do not strike me as the type of people to report on misconduct by these guards. The culture in that organization, which nearly revolted at the concept of mandatory duty in Iraq at a time when the Army desperately needed help, does not lend itself to ratting on the men who cut corners to protect them.

The accountability issue is two-sided: civilians who are not trained for war are unlikely to question former SEALs and Green Berets protecting them and ad hoc solutions that attempt to integrate a civilian company into judicial processes designed for soldiers are unlikely to correct systemic deficiencies in the morality and culture of these private organizations who have sworn no oath to the constitution and who bear only as much loyalty to the strategic goals of the United States as one can expect from a man or woman who has agreed to potentially give his life for money.

As a soldier, I find the differences in pay immoral in the sense that they are unfair to our men and women who stay in uniform. At the end of the day, the United States government is writing the checks to military personnel and to mercenary companies like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Triple Canopy. An Army captain responsible for the lives of up to 200 men in a company is paid around 60k. An Army captain who hangs up his uniform and joins Blackwater or Triple Canopy can typically command a paycheck of 250-300k. I do not think this is the message that we want to send to our servicemen and women. Does the United States government really value the services of a private mercenary at four to five times the going rate it values those who are willing to die defending the American way of life?

Truly, the only solution for this problem is to create a flexible pay structure and a separate command administered by the military that can take advantage of the need for highly qualified combat veterans. A more flexible career path and incentive system would allow the military to retain more of these men and women that possess critical specialties. This system would allow accountability at the top while taking advantage of clear, well-established judicial processes for those trigger pullers who operate at the bottom. Relying on mercenaries and private CEOs who operate in an environment that is rife with the potential for another crisis creates a moral imperative for action.

General Douglas MacArthur, advocating a stiff punishment for Japanese General Tomayuki Yamashita for failing to prevent war crimes in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation, wrote these timeless words:

The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being. When he violates this sacred trust, he not only profanes his entire cult but threatens the very fabric of international society. The traditions of fighting men are long and honorable. They are based upon the noblest of human traits – sacrifice.

One of the victims in Nisoor Square was a nine year old girl. The Blackwater guards who killed her are acquitted and free not by the weight of the evidence but because of an inept investigation. What is our excuse if this happens again?

Challenges Along the Digital Frontier with National Security Ramifications

Let’s face it: we love technology. The instant delivery of information to our fingertips is a powerful addiction that has become the fuel for rapid expansion in both the private and public sectors. But as the Internet continues to surge exponentially both in size and in its integration with our daily affairs, it raises a host of novel and confounding issues relating to privacy and security.

Three areas in particular deserve closer attention:

1. Public/private sector information sharing – Should there be a revolving door between Internet technology companies and law enforcement officials?

An unofficial report recently exposed the clandestine partnership between Google and NSA, ostensibly a collaborative effort to develop better strategies for cybersecurity in the wake of Chinese attacks on Google’s network. Additionally, Google has publicly admitted that it readily cooperates with law enforcement officials in criminal investigations pertaining to end users. Constitutional issues aside (and there are enough to fill an entire blog in itself), it is inevitable that this sort of public-private cooperation will grow in importance as a key source of national security intelligence. The increasing prominence of a shrinking number of large, consolidated corporate entities in the Internet field will mean that governments will find it cheaper and more efficient to rely on preexisting (and constantly innovating) private infrastructure instead of relying on an uniquely government-run channels. Just as the military has found it useful to outsource counter-terrorist and nation-building operations to private firms like Blackwater (now Xe), it is not unfathomable to imagine Google designing and implementing the algorithms that track terrorist and criminal activity online.

2. Globalization and “Digital Sovereignty” – how should the United States government act with regard to information that exists in the Internet domain?

Although the Internet is widely perceived as a boundary-less resource, serious legal and logistical issues arise when it comes to tracking and sourcing sensitive online data. Servers that store content can be physically located on the opposite side of the planet from the end user, with data likely flowing on a trajectory through any number of intermediary nations along the way. How does the government justify intrusion into a nation’s “digital domain” for the purposes of collecting intelligence or tracking subjects? The answers are far from clear, and these are some of the major issues being hammered out in the nebulous arena of international law, where sovereignty interests compete strongly against security interests. (This should be a hint to law students looking for unique career options.)

3. Cyberwarfare – Within the next decade, it is likely that we will face some sort of large scale terrorist attack that at least temporarily disables a key element of our technological infrastructure. The “weaponry”, so to speak, on this battlefront is cheap, accessible, and constantly increasing in sophistication. Just as medicines and vaccines must continually be tweaked and refashioned to combat the latest infections and diseases, so too must firewalls, encryption, and anti-virus systems against the ever-growing threats. Given that our military is becoming increasingly reliant on computer technology for combat operations, it is imperative that we prioritize cyberdefense. And as we have seen with the recent Google-China controversy, the actors in digital confrontations are not limited to hostile states.

These broad categories only scratch the surface of the complex security issues that lie at the frontier of the Internet domain. But increased awareness of their importance is our first step to developing coherent and sensible policy in a 21st century framework.