Civilian advisers, contracted helicopters, on the Pentagon's shopping list to help in Iraq

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense only has about 250 civilian contractors in Iraq supporting the 2,700 US troops deployed there; but a handful of new solicitations and potential contracts may soon add to that number, according to items posted to a federal contracting Web site.

For the past two decades, the resource-heavy American way of war has dictated that where US troops go, civilian contractors follow. It's a way of doing business that has become ingrained in the Pentagon's culture as end strength has slowly been whittled away while global commitments show no sign of slackening.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have doubled down on the practice, with the number of contractors more than doubling the number of uniformed personnel on the ground at various points over the past decade.

And it's a trend that continues in Afghanistan, where the 10,000 US troops there are dwarfed by the 39,600 contractors supporting their training and advising mission, 14,200 of which are American citizens.

In Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said in an email, DoD contractors are tightly focused in their activities, "primarily performing translator/interpreter, communications, logistics, and maintenance functions."

Overall, there are about 5,000 mainly State Department contractors in Iraq which represents a relatively modest footprint as compared to previous years, where there were over 160,000 during the height of the fighting. There are also 54,000 civilian contractors working across the Middle East for US Central Command.

But more could be on their way to Iraq.

On March 3, the US Army issued a solicitation for Security Assistance Mentors & Advisors to support the Iraqi Ministry of Defense "with designing, implementing, and sustaining systems that increase its institutional capabilities."

Asked about the document, the Pentagon's Mark Wright explained that while the contract does not specify any particular number of advisers, "it is not anticipated to be greater than a half dozen ministry advisors. These persons are not required to be armed and are not intended to directly support combat operations, but to provide administrative assistance."

And its not only civilian personnel that are being tapped to support the uniformed personnel in Iraq. On Feb. 27, the US Transportation Command issued a Request for Information looking for a contractor to provide eight "heavy Rotary Wing aircraft."

While not an official solicitation just yet, the US government said that it is looking to identify contractors who can provide birds that can each ferry a minimum of 12 passengers and move a load of at least 5,000 pounds. The aircraft and their civilian crews would be positioned at the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center, and "missions may involve destinations throughout Iraq" transporting troops, food and water, fuel, and ammunition.

The Diplomatic Support Center is a 350-acre facility run by the State Department next to the Baghdad International Airport, which is also thought to house the US Army Apache helicopters sent to Baghdad last year.

While their numbers are still relatively small in Iraq, the use of contractors in American military deployments in recent years has stirred plenty of controversy—particularly the use of security contractors. Critics have charged that the use of civilians to perform so many non-combat functions has served to downplay the true size of the American commitment.

There have also been plenty of issues revolving around poor contract oversight, human rights issues revolving around contractors from third-world countries, and plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse. In fact, the Commission on Wartime Contracting has reported that as much as $60 billion was lost to waste or fraud in Iraq, as contractors often subcontracted out to other contractors and the trail of money went wobbly.

Email: pmcleary@defensenews.com

Twitter: @paulmcleary

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