Pentagon Outsourcing its Brain?

Sharon Weinberger points to two recent articles highlighting the “concern that the Pentagon has lost its technical expertise” and is over-reliant on so-called “Beltway Bandit” defense contracting firms.

A subscription-only article in the WSJ highlights Mitre and Booz Allen Hamilton, which Weinberger correctly points out have exemplary records, and the March Vanity Fair takes an exhaustive look at SAIC, whose track record is more complicated.

My views on such matters are colored by long-ago experience as an Army officer and more recent stint as a defense contractor. Further, my dad retired from the Army and then again as a Department of the Army civilian. Anecdotally, I’d say that the lion’s share of the uniformed soldiers give an honest day’s work for their pay, most contractors do the same but are generally overpaid, and civilian civil servants range from motivated professionals to tenured dead weight.

I’d much prefer that the technical expertise reside in the uniformed military. Not only would that give the taxpayer more bang for the buck, it would eliminate the bizarre incentive structure we’ve created where having a government issued security clearance becomes the equivalent of a union card in a closed shop, ensuring that talented people are locked out of the system. Indeed, a lot of people who now leave government service for a more lucrative and flexible career as private contractors would instead stay if that option were less readily available.

The problem, however, is that the military personnel system does not reward expertise and stability. Soldiers are rotated from assignment to assignment and duty station to duty station at a rate that virtually precludes developing the systemic and technical knowledge needed for the more complicated joint headquarters level assignments. In such an environment, civilians are the best option. And given the unreliability of the civil service workforce, outsourcing to contractors–who can be fired at any time for any reason–simply makes more sense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. You would also have to come up with a ‘technical track’ in the military. The guy you want writing your web code is not necessarily the guy you want leading a patrol in Baghdad. Exceptions in both directions will apply.

    The other problem with using people in uniform is we can only get so many. Now if you had a ‘technical track’, then you might get a few more volunteers who sign up for that but don’t want to carry a gun.

    If you really want to have fun, imagine congress passing a law allowing the military to draft specific individuals for their expertise. Certainly would solve the beltway bandit problem though it might have a few unintended consequences.

  2. As a former “Beltway Bandit” I think you’d be more correct in blaming Congress rather than the Pentagon if you don’t like the current system. I’d also note that the cost of labor is largely a reflection of the risk taken on by the contractors relative to the reward, whether you are talking about fixed price, incentive, or cost plus contracts.

    As for being overpaid, I certainly never felt overpaid for the uncompensated long hours, frequent travel, dealing with the occasionally remarkably difficult segments of the customer base who viewed us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, not to mention the requirement to put in even more unpaid hours every couple years to win the opportunity for even more uncompensated long hours, frequent travel, etc.

    One of my favorite “competition” moments came on a proposal that was due about Decemeber 15, if I remember correctly. Without any apparent understanding of how things worked on our side of the proposal wall, the government told us about a week before the proposal was due that they were pushing the due date to January 3 so that we could enjoy the holidays. Actually, I believe they knew exactly what they were doing.

    No doubt there are abuses and waste, but far less than is generally insinuated by grandstanding populists who really need to familiarize themselves with the FAR before popping off.

  3. SFC SKI says:

    As a translator/intel analyst, I think that the pay is only one of the incentives that causes a lot of highly skilled but often junior service members to leave military serve for a contracting job. While the pay is certainly attractive, and I’d say that pay is based on what the market will bear versus need in my field, it’s also the fact that contractors are generally employed to use the skills they were trained in on a daily or at least regular basis, whereas a Soldier often is placed to fulfill tasks that are not related to the skills they military trained them in, possibly they are not even mission related. Self-licking-ice cream-cone staff jobs, ash and trash details, and the rest; the military is great at underusing and misusing a lot of its uniformed assets, especially on the enlisted side of the house.

    If the mission changes and the need for a great quantity specially skilled workers disappear es, contracts are canceled, whereas federal employees and military service members remain whether the need is there or not.

  4. I’d also add that the option for most people isn’t between being a Beltway Bandit or working for the government (in or out of uniform), but being a Beltway Bandit or working in occupations that are not governed by the FAR in any way whatsoever.

  5. albee says:

    I was an E-7 assigned to the Pentagon as a programmer analyst. Our methods were not limited to the tried and true; read a record, write a record and do it again and again.

    I reported in and was assigned to a basement office. The first project was to write a program to input any tape, match against any second input tape and produce an output tape consisting of data from both input tapes. This was based upon free form input by the user on a 16k computer. This was only one of five different programs written to accomplish an integrated user oriented sub system. The team consisted of one GS-14, 2 Army E-7 and Marine E-6.

    As the computers grew more sophisticated, the same type of logic was moved to a 128 K computer and then as IBM grew more confident larger and larger machines.

    Military expertise can be supplied . I went to Vietnam and was assigned to a rewrite of a Navy system to Army specs. I pulled my shots as Sergeant of the guard on the perimeter defense and any other military duty pulled by all senior ranks.

    I retired in 1971 and within two years tripled my army pay. Yet, I would not have given up my military career. I paid my dues as a noncom and again was amply rewarded by the troops under my wing. Great troops, never asking other than to be honestly kept informed.