How Defense Monopolies Helped Destroy the Afghan Army

The cost of bad military contracting isn't just waste. It is catastrophe.

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Yesterday, Afghan General Sami Sadat published a piece in the New York Times describing why his army fell apart so quickly. He went through several key important political reasons, but there was an interesting subtext about the operational capacity of a military that is so dependent on contractors for sustainment and repairs. In particular, these lines stuck out.

Contractors maintained our bombers and our attack and transport aircraft throughout the war. By July, most of the 17,000 support contractors had left. A technical issue now meant that aircraft — a Black Hawk helicopter, a C-130 transport, a surveillance drone — would be grounded.

The contractors also took proprietary software and weapons systems with them. They physically removed our helicopter missile-defense system. Access to the software that we relied on to track our vehicles, weapons and personnel also disappeared.

One would think, of course, that these kinds of problems are isolated to the Afghan army, not our own. But that is in fact not the case. Last month, I noted that American soldiers are constantly complaining that contractors prevent them from fixing and using their own equipment, just as Apple stops consumers from repairing or tinkering with their iPhones. And in 2019, Marine Elle Ekman noted that these problems are pervasive in the U.S. military.

Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months.

With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent…

While a broken generator or tactical vehicle may seem like small issues, the implications are much larger when a combat ship or a fighter jet needs to be fixed. What happens when those systems break somewhere with limited communications or transportation? Will the Department of Defense get stuck in the mud because of a warranty?

And now we see an example of what happens when a military is too dependent on contractors, and that support system is removed. It turns out that the cost of not being able to repair your own equipment is losing wars.