Outsourcing National Defense: Why and How Contractors are Providing Public Services

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Outsourcing National Defense: Why and How Contractors are Providing Public Services by Thomas C. Bruneau. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2023, 167 pp.

Thomas Bruneau’s Outsourcing National Defense wants to set the record straight on DoD contracting. Bruneau, professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School, oversaw contractors as chairman of its national security affairs department and director of its Center for Civil-Military Relations, eventually becoming a contractor himself. Early in the book he highlights that contracting makes up an enormous part of the DoD budget but is an understudied topic among scholars. Several studies dealing specifically with private military and security contractors exist, but such contractors are just one part of a multibillion-dollar industry. The book is therefore both an initial study of DoD contracting and a call for more academic scrutiny on the topic.

Bruneau modifies an existing civil-military relations framework to understand the degree to which the Defense Department successfully uses contracting to get results. The factors he examines include the coherence of the DoD’s strategy overall, the level of education and training of those who award and monitor the contracts, the implementation of the contracts, the level of oversight by Congress, and the usefulness of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)—the set of regulations and authorities most often used for DoD contracting.

Bruneau broadly applies the framework to two security challenges—or what he calls “strategies”—that the United States has faced in the past 25 years: the Global War on Terror, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan, and great power competition with China. He argues that each demanded different requirements from contractors. While the war on terror drove demand for expeditionary contracting that supported the war effort abroad, great power competition requires contractors to provide cutting-edge technology. As the timelines of these two strategies overlap, the large number of contracts involved are often not always clearly demarcated as falling under one or the other. Yet, Bruneau makes a compelling enough case that these strategies should be treated separately in terms of contracting, and his analysis benefits from isolating two different lines of effort at least in theory, even if in practice such a distinction is less clear.

Bruneau reaches several broad conclusions in his book. The first is that a lack of overall strategy in the war on terror drove an increased dependence on contracting to support the military’s operations abroad. Simultaneously, the Defense Department did not know how to use contractors in the most efficient way. For instance, the DoD staff in charge of monitoring contracts to combat waste, fraud, and abuse were often unable to travel to the area of operations to personally monitor the contracts’ implementation for logistical and administrative reasons, including the overwhelming amount of paperwork involved along with the security risk. Consequently, as contracting abroad expanded, the Department was increasingly unable to oversee it efficiently. While the withdrawal from Afghanistan and reduced presence in Iraq lessened the number of contracts, the issue was never fully addressed. Bruneau cautions that another expeditionary conflict could easily replicate those dynamics of inefficiency.

Bruneau’s other conclusions focus on defense contracting more broadly. He asserts that policymakers should develop strategies that include contracting since it makes up such a large part of the DoD budget and underpins military operations and the delivery of new technologies. For the latter case, he contends that FAR is not ideal for acquiring new technologies compared to another contracting framework, Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs), due to the latter’s flexibility. OTAs have delivered significant results for the Defense Department, such as helping develop the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, very few contracts use OTAs compared to the FAR, so there are lost opportunities for the Department to acquire new technologies and compete successfully in great power competition.

How the Department of Defense treats the staff that manage contracts also matters. Bruneau points out that the Department does not use OTAs as much as it should because the staff who award and oversee contracts are poorly compensated and have limited prospects for career advancement. The existing structure offers few rewards for eschewing the FAR in favor of OTAs and presents potential consequences for one’s career if they take a risk by not using FAR and do not succeed. He therefore argues that DoD personnel need a more effective incentive structure to pursue contracts that deliver new and better technologies.

The necessity for strong oversight, especially by Congress, is a major theme in Bruneau’s book. He argues that the Defense Department often struggles to change without external pressure. In the war on terror, the Department resisted congressional oversight over contracting, even as lawmakers documented waste and recommended meaningful improvements. The most significant improvements to contracting for both the Defense Department and the Intelligence Community (IC) came after intense congressional monitoring and recommendations.

Bruneau’s arguments and policy recommendations are compelling, but he is often limited by his sources and his access to information. This is not the fault of the author: few academic sources deal with the topic of contracting, and information about contracting from the Defense Department and Intelligence Community are frequently classified on the government side and proprietary on the industry side. Objective reports from the government, including the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, are in short supply. Bruneau conducted interviews with government officials and contractors to help fill in the gaps, but because contracting is ultimately such a complex and occasionally opaque subject and available information limited, he must resort to roundabout methods to reach his conclusions. For instance, he indicates that many problems in contracting by the IC were addressed because of a lack of reports and scrutiny after 2014. Yet these shortcomings reflect more on the quality of information currently available to researchers than on that of Bruneau’s analysis itself.

As Outsourcing National Defense offers one of the first academic studies to tackle a topic as broad and complex as DoD contracting, there is much to build on. For instance, discussions on OTAs, contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and congressional oversight of contracting could easily fill books in their own right. Contracting in Intelligence almost certainly deserves its own study, as Bruneau’s main focus is the Department of Defense as a whole rather than the IC, which spans multiple parts of the government. Bruneau and subsequent scholars should also seek to develop frameworks of analysis that are suited to the peculiarities of contracting, as the adapted framework he uses here may not be suitable for future studies.

This book is recommended not only for practitioners and scholars working on most elements of US national security, but also for those interested in contracting. Bruneau makes the point that contracting is so fundamental to how the Defense Department operates that a reasonable understanding of how it works is key to recognizing how the military approaches everything from counterterrorism abroad to technological advancement at home. Because the Department is especially reliant on contracting, scholars and policymakers focused on other parts of the US government or foreign governments may not find that all the conclusions apply to their context.

In all, Outsourcing National Defense is not without its shortcomings due to limited access to information, but it addresses an enormous gap in the scholarly understanding of US national defense and lays a foundation for future work on defense and intelligence contracting.

Marcel Plichta

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."