Sunday, January 18, 2009

The downside of efficiency

Efficiency and cost saving in the Army means one modern and generally disliked concept-contractors. While everyone knows about Blackwater and Triple Canopy because of their well publicized 'incidents' in Iraq, contractors in the Army are everywhere. For example, during pre-mobilization for Iraq in lovely Camp Shelby, MS-

-All of the meals were served by a contract dining facility. Civilians, mostly paid minimum wage, cook all the meals.
-MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) gear, which is the Army version of laser tag, is maintained and checked out from a civilian contractor.
-Gate security at nearly all small military bases and even some larger ones is done by rent a cops.
-Building maintenance is done by civilian contractors
-High tech simulators (virtual convoys and virtual marksmanship trainers) are run by civilians that travel from base to base as needed
-Fast food restaurants are given contracts to operate on military bases, giving the military access to Subway, Burger King, and Popeye's Chicken

So it's not surprising to see the article in the StarTrib today about poor contractor conditions at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

Food service was so poor at one of the nation's largest military training bases in 2005 and 2006 that meals were not available, bugs were mealtime companions and workers didn't follow basic safety rules, according to testimony recently made public
I came through Fort McCoy for demobilization in summer and fall of 2007, and found this assessment to be pretty accurate. Food service contractors on military bases are generally paid little, work in military kitchens that were built for WWII, and have to work ridiculous hours (if chow has to start at 0530, the cooking probably starts at 0400). So its not surprising that the quality and cleanliness of contract dining is less than awesome.

The Army blames the state of Wisconsin for mismanaging the multimillion-dollar food service contract at Fort McCoy under a program for blind vendors. A state official who oversaw the contract acknowledged problems but testified that shoddy Army facilities were largely at fault.
Then there is the fact that the Army has to run its contracts through regulations set up by well a well meaning Congress. Regulations like-

EEO-1. An annual report required of all government contractors with at least 50 employees. The form is used to provide the EEOC and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) with a breakdown of a company's workforce by race, ethnic background and gender. Associated costs include staff time to compile information, analyze the data and complete the report.

VETS 100. This is necessary for all federal contractors who have affirmative action requirements for Vietnam-era and special disabled veterans. The same EEO-1 job categories are used. Similar staff-related costs will be incurred.

It is the responsibility of Federal contractors who utilize subcontractors to communicate all Federal requirements to all subcontractors who are awarded subcontracts of $25,000 or more. Federal contractors are also responsible for notifying their subcontractors of their EEO responsibilities with regards to veterans, affirmative action requirements including job-listing requirements and the VETS 100 reporting requirements.

Laws set aside all or part of many contracts for women-owned businesses, small businesses, minority-owned businesses, and other firms the government wants to support.


The theory behind contracting out services for the military is the disposability of such contracts. You have the choice of paying a contractor to provide meals at a small National Guard base like Camp Ripley, or you can train a dozen military cooks to do the same work. But Army cooks take four months of full time duty to train, and they are unlikely to stay at one base for their entire career.

Additionally, if the Army decided to close Camp Ripley, or scale back operations dramatically, then they can simply cancel a food service contract. A soldier trained as a cook has the option of staying in the Army for 20 years. Cancel his job at Camp Ripley, and you need to find a new job for him. The Army is the ultimate in job finding service! On the other end of that spectrum is when you need to ramp up operations quickly-

More than 100,000 reserve and active military personnel from all branches receive training at Fort McCoy every year. The western Wisconsin base has also served as the point of mobilization and demobilization for tens of thousands of troops who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fort McCoy used to be a small Guard and Reserve training post comparable to Camp Ripley. It had maybe 400 full time personnel. After 9/11, it became a major mobilization and demobilization center for reserve units. The number of troops on the base in a year increased by a factor of 5. Contractors help take up the gap between need and ability.

So the Army can save money by using contractors, and in the 90's with the downsizing of the military it was all about finding ways to save money. But there is another reason. The number of troops the Army can have at one time is mandated by Congress. By reducing the number of cooks the Army has on its rolls, they can increase the number of infantry or military police. The old rule has always been that it takes 10 support soldiers to feed, pay, and provide supplies for 1 trigger puller. Now, the ratio is probably closer to 6 support soldiers and 4 contractors to every 1 trigger puller.

But the biggest problem with contractors is that it creates an extra level of bureaucracy, and the Army already has enough. In the Army, when a dishwasher breaks down, or the fridge stops working, there is no haggling over price. The Army simply takes care of business and fixes or replaces it. But with a contractor there is now the problem of a contract of what the Army is responsible for and what the contractor is responsible for-

At that time, only two out of 16 buildings where food was served had air conditioning (Fournier said a majority of them now do). In the summers, workers were forced to open the doors because of the extreme heat in kitchens with ovens but that attracted flies and other bugs. "As a result, insects, rodents, all kinds of creatures come in through the garrison buildings," D'Costa testified. "And the soldiers started complaining, that this is not a good experience for them to have meals.

He also said some delays were caused by a dishwasher carousel that repeatedly broke down. That problem led to longer lines and the use of disposable plates and silverware, he said. "The dishwasher broke down so frequently ... that our soldiers were being fed without adequate plates, without adequate plastic silverware," he said. "(The Army) put that equipment in knowing that equipment was deficient."


Having a contractor puts junior Army officers and NCO's in the position of having to know when to fix a problem (on the Army's dime) and when to get the contractor to fix it (on the contractor's dime).

All in all, contractors are good in the military because they free up jobs for combat and combat support units, which we desperately need more of. But contractors come with a steep price, not only in actual cost but in morale.

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