Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nicholas Bormann: The Case for a private military - Let the market take a shot

  Previously, I've speculated on the possibility of an all-private military. The idea: instead of having the Department of Defense do the work at recruiting, training and then deploying our military personnel, the federal government could just handle the top-level strategy then hire out for troops to implement it. Unconventional? Yes. Effective? Possibly.

  Currently, the U.S. army is staffed on an all-volunteer basis. People have to willingly choose to put their life on the line. That system just isn't working -- the military is facing a serious recruitment shortage. When you look at the numbers, it's obvious why:

  An enlisted private with less than two years experience will receive $17,366 for a year's service (not including benefits, etc.) After becoming a captain and serving for more than six years, pay would be $61,405 -- if you survive that long. Compare that to the median pay for a security guard at $29,854 with a built-in job benefit of not being shot at regularly, and the recruitment shortage starts making a lot more sense.

  There are more reasons for joining the military than to make money. Some people believe strongly in serving their country, have no other way to go to college, or to support a family. Those are noble thoughts, but the upper-crust senators and executive bureaucrats who send our service-men and women into harm are not nearly so noble. Army recruiters are not above lying to get young people to sign their life away for causes they may not even understand. Applicants are told they'll have desk jobs, never see a fight, and can expect to live the high life abroad on Uncle Sam's dollar. It's truly repugnant to send people into battle not knowing the risks they're taking, but it's become common practice in the face of growing troop shortages.

  I'm not trying to single out army recruiters here; they're given an unenviable job, and have to complete it to the best of their ability. The real problem is that the government isn't willing to pay enough to convince most people to put their lives on the line. Right now, the only way to fill that shortage is to lie, coerce, or otherwise fool people into saying yes against their better judgment. There's a reason private military contractors get paid up to ten times more than similarly ranked army officers. That's what people think it's actually worth to go into a war zone.

  When Congress has a large standing army at its disposal, there's always a temptation to use it. They're paying the soldiers one way or another; might as well have them do something. With a private military, the government has to pony up the cash right away and justify it to the public. Having to allocate funds for each military expedition would shine a spotlight on each deployment, bringing greater wisdom and restraint to the decision. An all-private military would help avert the adventurist tendencies that have gripped recent administrations. America's military power would be used more sparingly, and only when the costs were truly justified.

  Paying the market price for soldiers wouldn't be cheap, but no one claims the current method is saving money. In fact, with a private military, the massive DOD bureaucracy could be trimmed down substantially, and spending decisions streamlined. Private military contractors have a profit incentive to find the best balance of high technology vs. cost, a trade-off the DOD has hardly ever considered. Military funds could be better used by private industry, perhaps bolstering our ailing economy, instead of being frittered away by DOD inefficiency. The current DOD budget of $533.8 billion could do much more good in private hands.

  Isn't it dangerous to put our national security in the hands of private corporations? Many people implicitly trust the government, and think the market is subject to corruption or abuse of power. The string of lies leading up to the Iraq war should reveal that these fears have been misplaced. Many politicians have no qualms about deceiving the public if it will serve their personal goals. Privatizing the military would provide another check and balance against misuse of power, because they'd have to justify their actions to another interested group - the soldiers - instead of sending them to fight and die with no influence in the matter.

  If you get a private paycheck, you can quit when the risk seems too high. Do that in the military, and you go to jail. The forced aspect of military service can make sense in a national emergency, but often it's just coercive and unfair. Even if the recruiter lied, and convinced someone to join under false pretenses, it doesn't matter -- you're stuck. A private company would have to increase wages to keep soldiers around, instead of threatening them with prison. America was built on freedom and choice, and we shouldn't abandon those principles if we expect others to follow them.

  Couldn't a private military hold our government hostage, refusing to fight when the nation was in danger? Logic does not support that possibility. If America fell to a foreign power, private contractors would lose their primary employer. The incentive is to not bite the hand that feeds you. Also, there are enough different private military companies - so many that they need their own directory service - that competition for business would get at least some to fight. Finally, the control of our nuclear deterrent and second-strike forces would still be in the executive's hands, which is enough to avert major conflict with foreign powers.

  The most pressing danger to American security is blowback from our overly-aggressive foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks were a response to our overweening military presence in the Middle East, which has continued to spark resistance and insurgencies since then. Our military is not well-equipped to deal with the policing role it has been thrust into. Transitioning to private forces would avoid causing of terrorist attacks by restraining our foreign presence, and also ensure that the right people for the job are on the ground to deal with insurgents who hate us already.

  I'm not saying we should abolish our standing military tomorrow. What's needed is a slow transition, region by region, to see if the idea works. For example, if the federal government were to withdraw all enlisted army troops from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and leave private troops there, it would be a perfect test case to see the idea in practice. As an added benefit, the troops would be freed up to deter other threats around the globe. Pulling some active-duty troops back home would ensure that in the short-term, America is able to use them for what they're actually trained in - fighting an open war - instead of the relatively new task of insurgency control and winning ‘hearts and minds.’ Private contractors with experience in the region could fill in for those jobs easily. It's a win-win situation: if withdrawal of active duty troops was a failure, they could always be reinstated, but if it were a success, that smaller experiment would become a model for our overall troop policy and provide the political spark for a broader transition.

  Most of the current objections to private military contractors - hurting troop morale, expanding executive power, or dodging accountability - would be resolved by switching away from a mixed military presence, and making all our forces private. Pay disparities would disappear, Congress would be able to oversee their actions more easily, and competition in the industry would hold private soldiers to an even higher standard of behavior. Facing serious troop shortages, America is left with only bad options; either slog along with our currently insufficient military forces, or institute a draft to get the troops we need. As Vietnam demonstrates, forced service is likely to spur even harsher resistance to the military, and further undermine our international power and image. Paying the market rate for soldiers would allow America to sustain a balanced global presence and mitigate conflicts, without risking overstretch and total collapse of leadership (which seems to be the current path). It's unlikely to happen soon, but it's time to consider relinquishing the business of war to the market.

  Unfashionably Economic

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