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The Problems With the Current Support Structure

A significant amount of the logistics support in today’s combat zone is provided by contractors. The support that is not contracted is provided by modular tactical logistics support forces. Although this contemporary logistics support structure is beneficial, it is riddled with issues that beg attention.

Problems With Contractor-Based Support

Contractor-based support, as I observed it in Iraq, has serious issues that undermine responsive support to the warfighter. First, task orders—which execute performance work statements (PWSs)—tend to be very vague. They appear to have been written by lawyers for lawyers, which most Soldiers are not. The problem is not what a task order contains, but what is left out. If a contractor is asked to complete a task that he feels is not part of the PWS, he will demand a letter of technical direction (LOTD), which can be detrimental to responsive support.

Another problem is that the contracting officer’s representatives (CORs), whose job is to ensure contractors are in compliance with their PWSs, often are not adequately prepared and trained for the task. Other issues include the impact of the high turnover rate of contract employees and diminished professional development opportunities for the Soldiers whose jobs are contracted out. These problems significantly affect logistics support in the combat zone.

Contractor Command and Control

A task order says that the contractor receives guidance from the tasking authority. In my particular case in Iraq, the tasking authority was a modular logistics support unit, a combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB), under which I served. My CSSB was the tasking authority over a contractor providing corps logistics support services (CLSS) and executing theater transportation missions (TTM), but the command and control relationship with the contractor was nebulous, to say the least.

The contractor’s support was similar to what typical quartermaster, maintenance, and transportation companies subordinate to a CSSB would provide. In that regard, whether it is manned by Soldiers or by contractors, the expectation is that the support will be equally responsive at all times. But, in my experience, there were differences. If the required support was contractor provided and the task was not clearly specified in the PWS, the contractor often demanded an LOTD. An LOTD is an administrative contracting officer’s order to the contractor to perform a new task that is within the scope of the PWS at no additional cost. To start the LOTD process, the CSSB would submit a letter of justification (LOJ) outlining the work and the potential effects of inaction; the brigade would then forward the LOJ packet to the expeditionary sustainment command administrative contracting officer to secure the LOTD.

The approval times for many of the LOTDs ran into weeks, if not months. The contractor’s response time following the LOTD was usually slow, which further delayed the delivery of required support. Why can’t the LOTD process be shortened and completed within a few days, just like military fragmentary orders on similar new taskings? The answer lies in changing the legal basis for the vague tasking authority to a practical command and control relationship.

When a new requirement will have an added cost, the contractor asks the Government to request an administrative change letter (ACL). The process to obtain an ACL is more complicated than that of an LOTD. Technical evaluation, legal review, and funding hurdles are included in the ACL process. LOTDs and ACLs both tend to halt the execution of support plans for days or months. Since their processes move slowly, the urgency of the support takes a backseat to bureaucracy.

Inefficiency of Contracts

Battlefield requirements are not always standard and obvious. The following situations demonstrate some of the problems with contractor-based support.

To accommodate operational changes, a unit needed to extend its distribution node’s operational hours. When the contractor heard of the change, he declared that an ACL would be required. By the time the ACL was approved and implemented, 6 months had passed and the conditions had changed. Since no change in operational volume was expected, the work schedule could have been realigned without changing the number of hours the contractor personnel worked, but the CSSB’s tasking authority did not allow it to redirect the contractor’s effort in order to quickly respond to fluid battlefield requirements.

Sometimes support requirements are the same for all three major types of contracted logistics support: base life support (BLS), TTM, and CLSS. During a busy time of unit rotations, many units on post needed materials-handling equipment. The TTM contractor’s personnel were using their materials-handling equipment nonstop, while the materials-handling equipment belonging to the BLS contractor stood idle. A request for the TTM contractor to use the BLS materials- handling equipment for backup got the usual response of “the requirement is not part of the PWS.”

In many situations, the requirement for an LOTD or ACL hinders support. Establishing a standard timeline for processing LOTDs and ACLs may help. I suggest a new type of command and control relationship for a unit’s control over its supporting contractors. It can be called “contractor control” and defined as a relationship in which the CSSB, with due command diligence, can optimally employ the contractor’s services based on the contractor’s capabilities and PWS.

Contracting officers can curb slow response by adding a clause in the contract that allows the tasking authority relationship to be replaced with contractor control. The CSSB can then optimize its use of contractors without losing time in bureaucracy. The Government may have to pay some fees to the contractor to exercise the contractor-control relationship, but the LOTD will become a thing of the past. Responsive support to the Soldiers in a fluid battlefield environment is worth the fees.

PWSs are generally too vague. What the customer is expecting and what the contractor can actually do are completely different because the PWS describes the contractor’s responsibilities in general terms, which allows room for misinterpretation. It should be known that task orders are not strictly based on Army regulations or field manuals. If the TTM drivers are not to work more than 16 hours in a workday, it should be spelled out in the PWS for all to see.

The PWS should require the publication of external standing operating procedures so that supported units understand the contractor’s support posture. Supported units are bewildered when a contractor refuses to complete an essential task because the task was not specifically noted on the PWS. A detailed task list and external standing operating procedures for whatever services the contractor provides must be a part of the task order. Properly delineating contractor responsibilities will help manage expectations and keep Soldiers from playing lawyer to interpret vague task orders.

Contractor Employee Problems

I have found that the turnover rate for contractor employees in Iraq is fairly high. Many of the employees jump ship for the highest bidder for their services, and others quit because they feel like it. Their high turnover rate and the difficulty of training new personnel make it difficult for contractors to sustain Soldiers. Shortfalls in critical personnel (such as foremen and supervisors) affect a contractor’s capability because some vacancies last for weeks or months. As far as I know, no formal procedure exists for reporting these shortfalls and their effect on Soldiers.

Imagine a transportation or maintenance company missing its platoon sergeants and squad leaders for a long time. That company’s personnel readiness would likely affect the overall unit status report. I recommend having the contractor complete a self-assessment each month and provide the report to the Government.

The Opportunity Cost of Contracting

Contracting out sustainment services can sometimes cost Soldiers their opportunities for job experience and professional development. The collective battlefield experience of maintenance and quartermaster Soldiers is diminishing because contractors are doing their jobs for them now. How does a warehouse supply specialist maintain proficiency to perform when a contractor conducts his tasks for him? How does a maintainer gain operational experience and rise in rank if he is being compared to another Soldier whose job was not contracted out?

It is time to re-evaluate the “opportunity cost” of contractor-based support. The contractor and military support structure should be balanced to give young Soldiers the opportunity to gain the operational experience needed to succeed as tomorrow’s leaders while maintaining a partnership with contractors.

COR Training

The CSSB appoints CORs with the approval of the administrative contracting officer. CORs serve as the eyes and ears of the Government and provide quality surveillance and assessments of a contractor’s performance in a given functional area. My experience was that CORs were not properly resourced or formally trained. Since contractor-based support is likely here to stay, I believe it will serve the Army well to have officers and senior noncommissioned officers trained and awarded an additional skill identifier (before assuming the COR position), just like the recognition given to noncommissioned officers’ battle staff training. A COR should be a person with good writing skills, great analytical ability, and technical expertise in his area of responsibility.

As important as the COR’s duties are, the position should not be an afterthought. Training on general COR responsibilities can be completed online at the Defense Acquisition University continuous learning website, https://learn.dau.mil. CORs are given orientation training during deployment integration; but frankly, these training opportunities are not enough to master the technical aspects of a contractor’s operations. A COR should be educated on the exact task order for which he will be responsible. Unfortunately, a COR overseeing construction projects may not have any engineering knowledge at all.

CORs, like liaison officers, are not resourced. Even if the CSSB headquarters were completely filled according to the modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE), the number of personnel would still be inadequate to staff the required number of CORs and effectively perform the traditional battalion staff functions. I recommend that deploying CSSB headquarters companies be assigned an adequate number of CORs to meet the operational requirements.

Each month, the CORs write a program evaluation brief (PEB)—their most important document—about the contractor’s delivered services. The PEB must reference the PWS for any noted deficiencies, but the task order’s generic nature makes it very difficult to find specific paragraphs to cite for all nonsupport situations. Adding a detailed task list as a component of the PWS would help mitigate this challenge. Including a rating standards table using grades (A, B, C, D, and F) to evaluate the performance of the task list would also be beneficial.

In an effort to manage contractor challenges, my CSSB conducted a weekly meeting with contractor employees to discuss past PEB comments, current and future mission support, critical equipment, and personnel shortfalls.

Modular Support Structure Problems

In addition to contractor support, the other element in the contemporary logistics support structure is modular tactical logistics support. This type of support uses a plug-and-play method that unwittingly unravels the soul of a unit. Since 2004, the concept of a modular support force has been hailed as the wave of the future. In the modular force, the headquarters company of a CSSB is organic, but its subordinate units are interchangeable. It seems like a great concept, but unfortunately, the modular logistics support force detaches individual Soldiers from the unit they represent. Soldiers do not feel like they are really a part of a unit they are attached to only temporarily.

My CSSB had no transportation units at home station, but it did in the combat zone. The CSSB’s headquarters company deployed forward, leaving behind all of the subordinate units that were assigned to it at home station. While in theater, the CSSB absorbed new units coming from different brigades and different home stations. Synchronizing the CSSB headquarters company with higher and lower units was an ongoing challenge because the units were always transitioning—if not the brigade, then the companies; if not the platoons, then the teams.

In the modular structure, the relationship between the CSSB headquarters and subordinate units is difficult because the units are not used to working together; the headquarters’ relationship with a subordinate unit’s rear detachment is even worse. Total unit cohesion right off the bat is out of the question. If you strike up a conversation with someone who is wearing a higher headquarters’ combat patch about that unit’s illustrious history or traditions, you will probably get a blank look. That is a disturbing trend. When pride in the unit is not well-rooted, it evaporates under pressure.

Not too long ago, knowing your wartrace units was very important because units trained as they would fight; they went to war with their parent units and were led by the parent units that nurtured them and had a vested interest in them. But given the way modular support forces are currently deployed, wartrace units have become less important.

I saw a platoon and its parent company deploy separately. I saw a CSSB headquarters train various companies at home station and arrive in theater to lead different companies, platoons, and teams. I saw companies fall under unfamiliar CSSBs and CSSBs fall under unfamiliar sustainment brigades. None of these units trained or validated their training together before deployment. When in theater, platoons tried to adjust to new companies, companies tried to adjust to new battalions, and battalions tried to adjust to new brigades. The units had to learn on the fly how to tactically orient themselves to the mission.

Even during redeployment, the effects of the disjointedness continue because the home-station subordinate elements of the CSSB are often deployed with another CSSB. Many CSSBs, including mine, cannot say they have really trained together with all of the units assigned to their home station because the units deployed and redeployed at different times.

Losing the Soul of the Unit

General William Tecumseh Sherman eloquently said, “There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the souls of his men as well as their bodies and legs.” The modular support force structure, as it is, threatens the soul of the unit; it does not consider cultural differences among units or the preservation of unit integrity. It creates a new facet of Army culture: stepchild syndrome.

Since they are always receiving subordinate units or giving them away, CSSBs do not get to command the units they knew, trained, mentored, and nurtured. It is time to reclaim the units’ souls, or we risk watching our mighty Army deteriorate. Genuine efforts to keep CSSB headquarters and home-station subordinate units together should be the norm.

I believe the modular logistics support force deployment structure would work well only if it were sustainment brigade centered. A sustainment brigade— with all of its subordinate units attached—can deploy with a division, and that sustainment brigade may be augmented by another, as required. Using that approach, it would be simple to identify which sustainment brigades are training, ready, or deploying. The current practice of home-station elements of the sustainment brigade constantly rotating in and out of the combat zone with or without the parent headquarters is a cycle that never stops. The units, the Soldiers, and the families feel the quake. Imagine the enormity of its ripple effects.

The Army’s current support structure, using contractor-based support and the modular tactical logistics support formation, has layers of problems. Contractors’ PWSs are often vague, and the role of the CSSB as the tasking authority over the contractor is restrictive to a fault. PWSs are often misinterpreted. The COR position is treated like an additional duty and is not being properly resourced.

Recent experiences of modular tactical logistics units show the problems with combining units from different brigades and posts to work together for the first time in the combat zone. This practice is causing a loss of unit integrity, unit pride, and unit soul. Modularity would work better for sustainment units if it were brigade-centric to minimize the constant transitional friction seen when platoons, companies, and battalions deploy independently of habitual higher headquarters units. These problems in the contemporary support structure are ours to fix, so let’s fix them.

Lieutenant Colonel Vincent C. Nwafor is assigned to the U.S. African Command. He wrote this article while serving as the support operations officer of the 391st Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. He holds a B.S. degree in accounting from Southern University and an M.B.A. degree from Southeastern Louisiana University. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and the Logistics Executive Development Course.

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