DoD works to institutionalize contracting lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan

Thursday - 9/13/2012, 6:06am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Pentagon doesn't deny it made major, costly mistakes when it came to service contracting in the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Defense leaders say they also learned valuable lessons they want to bake into the military's training and doctrine that will guide contingency operations from now on.

The department was grossly unprepared for the extent to which it would need to rely on service contractors to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders now acknowledge. In part, they blame the fact that the wars lasted much longer than they were supposed to.

But DoD also says it's clear that the military won't ever go into a contingency operation again without a big contingent of contractors, so it needs to institutionalize contracting expertise into the way it plans operations and trains its people.

Alan Estevez, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness

The Commission on Wartime Contracting reached a similar conclusion last year when it concluded DoD had wasted at least $31 billion to contracting waste and fraud because of inadequate oversight and management of contracts.

Alan Estevez, DoD's assistant secretary for logistics and materiel readiness, said there's no disputing things were bad.

"Five years ago, we had a gaping wound, self-inflicted as it may be," he told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. "We staunched the bleeding, we sutured it up, the scar tissue is healing. But what we haven't succeeded in yet is embedding it into the DNA or the muscle memory. That's what we're striving to do and that's what we must succeed in doing."

DoD wants to manage and train for contingency contracting under a framework dubbed Operational Contract Support so that contracting is treated as a critical warfighting capability in the future, not merely as an afterthought once troops get where they're going.

Importance of contingency contracting

After a years-long series of discussions and memoranda coming from the level of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aimed at creating a new focus on the importance of contingency contracting to warfighting, the department is beginning to see evidence of a culture change, Estevez said.

"As an example, the first day after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Pacific Command established the Air Force as the lead service for contracting. That meant that all forces deploying to Japan had a clear understanding of the contracting authority and would not be competing against each other for scarce resources. That's a critical lesson we learned from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "And the first operations order issued by Pacific Command in response to that disaster was the order establishing that contracting relationship."

DoD acquisition officials say they're working to instill the idea throughout the department that contracting is a military commander's responsibility. Now, Estavez said, contracting guidance for Afghanistan comes straight from Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force.

"That's because it's part of his effort to win that fight in Afghanistan," he said. "That needs to go into our military education process and our civilian education process. When our junior officers go through their paces, that has to become part of their process. They need to think, 'When I deploy, contractors are going to be part of the process. They can help me win the fight or they can impede me. I need to manage them to help me win.' We've been saying this at leadership levels, but we're all transitory. We need to have that idea inculcated into the workforce for the future."

Brig. Gen. Craig Crenshaw, vice director for the Joint Staff's logistics branch

Brig. Gen. Craig Crenshaw, vice director for the Joint Staff's logistics branch (J4), said DoD is also at the beginning of a nascent effort to incorporate contracting into specific operational training events.

"We've instituted training on this as we conduct our operational plans," he said. "It's an opportunity to take it from a strategic level and implement it through an exercise. We create scenarios where our planners can really zero in on what it takes to include contractors in a particular operational plan. We're not there yet, but the idea that we've been able to have a discussion and put this on paper really puts us in a positive direction."

Withdrawal from Iraq offers lessons for Afghanistan

Outside observers like the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office say DoD is definitely on the right track, but it's too early to tell if the Iraq and Afghanistan lessons will bear fruit in future operations.

Moshe Schwartz, a specialist in defense acquisition at CRS, said one enduring problem is the relatively short rotations that contract managers and overseers spend overseas before they're replaced with a fresh face.

"It's a learning curve," he said. "Someone gets to theater in a counterinsurgency operation and eventually says, 'Oh,I get it now.' But by then they're three months from going home and someone else comes in. It has a big impact on continuity. Even if the next person is someone who's worked for years and years on contracting to build roads, they may be focused on cost, schedule and performance. But they haven't had to worry before about people stealing the goods in a situation where you take them to court. They also have to think about the impact on the local village, and by the time they get up to speed, it's time to send them back home."

Tom DiNapoli, the director for acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, said the lessons learned aren't just valuable for future conflicts. He said one near-term opportunity is for DoD to take the contracting lessons DoD gleaned from the actual withdrawal of troops from Iraq and apply them to the similar pullout that will happen over the next two years in Afghanistan, both as DoD uses contracts to manage its exit from the country and closes out contracts it will no longer need.

"When you look at this 27-month period before withdrawal, we were really unprepared at about this time for our withdrawal from Iraq to think about what our requirements were. We tasked our contracting people in Iraq to come up with our requirements, and that was the wrong thing to do," he said. "We should have asked our warfighters, our base commanders, to tell us what services we need in order to draw down. That's what we need to do as we draw down from Afghanistan."

Crenshaw said that's just what DoD's trying to do. He said U.S. Forces Afghanistan has already established a special cell to manage the drawdown of contractors from the country.

"We're looking very hard at the lessons learned from the Iraq drawdown. Hopefully, it's going to let us avoid some of the issues we've had before," he said.

Still, Estevez said, that thought-out approach to contingency contracting still isn't embedded into the military's planning, training and doctrine for the future. That, he said, is the next step.

This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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