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Fostering a Good Relationship With Contractors on the Battlefield

Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 7 years ago, contractors have participated as force multipliers to offset the logistics burden created by continuous U.S. military operations. Throughout the operation, skeptics have argued that contractors do nothing more than waste money from taxpayers and our Government. This misconception and a lack of proper understanding of the role of contractors ultimately slows down and interrupts support to the warfighter. The Army needs the expertise of contractors more than ever during the OIF drawdown. This article provides a snapshot of the relationship between military personnel and contractors and underscores the importance of reconciling the relationship between the two.

A Good Working Relationship

A partnership is formed when contractors accompany U.S. forces during contingencies and humanitarian missions. Field Manual (FM) 3–100.21, Contractors on the Battlefield, states, “While contractors consistently support deployed armed forces, commanders need to fully understand their role in planning for and managing contractors on the battlefield and to ensure that their staff is trained to recognize, plan for, and implement contractor requirements.” This statement is true; however, maintaining a good working relationship with the contractor should be kept in mind, too.

Working with contractors is not rocket science, but understanding their purpose and treating them as if they are part of a military unit is significant. Failing to understand the importance of contractor support can lead to potential problems.

In their 2005 book, Resolving Conflicts at Work: Eight Strategies for Everyone on the Job, Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith outline “unclear roles and responsibilities” as a source of workplace conflict. Cloke and Goldsmith write that the first strategy in resolving conflict is to transform “the culture and context of conflict” in the organization. The Army needs change agents to alter the mindset of Soldiers toward working with civilian contractors. Changing this mindset will require Soldiers and leaders to understand their roles and responsibilities as well as those of contracted logisticians.

Understanding Roles

In order for Soldiers to know the contractors’ current role in a theater of operations, they must understand the difference between augmentation support and operational control (OPCON). Under the augmentation support role, military functional areas are supplemented with civilian contractors who perform functions and services specified by the Government. However, the contractor maintains supervision of all prime and subsidiary contracted employees. In an OPCON environment, the contractor has total operational control in performing functions and services specified by the Government. The contractor is responsible for all technical aspects of the mission
as well as administrative matters for all civilian employees.

What Soldiers often fail to understand is that contractor employees are supervised by contractor managers and not by the military. This administrative control of employees is probably the most significant misunderstanding in military and contractor relationships.

While deployed to Iraq, I found the OPCON role of contractors difficult for Soldiers to handle. They did not approve of having contractors in charge of most sustainment functional areas. Egos have no place in an environment that supports ongoing contingencies and combat operations because they will surely cause a delay in support to the warfighter. Failure to communicate properly with contractors in OPCON roles creates additional work and unwarranted workplace conflicts. These actions can also cause the cancellation of goods and services.

Understanding Responsibilities

During OIF 09–11, I saw multiple changes to a Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) requirement because military leaders refused to accept the advice of contractors in a highly visible functional area. Failing to allow contractors to perform within the performance work statement (PWS) caused resistance, which resulted in unfulfilled requirements for multiple unit rotations. Much time, money, and manpower were wasted when military leaders refused to listen to contractors.

In order to avoid misunderstandings that can cause problems in contract oversight, leaders should spend more time familiarizing themselves and their Soldiers with the contractor’s PWS. FM 3–100.21 states that a PWS “defines the government’s requirements in clear, concise language identifying specific work to be accomplished and incorporated into the contract. The . . . [PWS] is the contractor’s mission statement.” Although a PWS can be vague, units must not read into contractor performance requirements. The customer cannot direct that the contractor perform tasks without authorization from a warranted contracting officer or administrative contracting officer.

The biggest challenge the Army faces is getting units to read and comply with the largest PWS in
theater, LOGCAP Task Order 159. The task order states that the contractor will provide base life support, corps logistics services support, and theater transportation throughout the Multi-National Force-Iraq area of operations. Failure to understand the PWS can lead units to submit unfounded violations that strain their relationships with contractors. This strained relationship is a major area of concern in the theater of operations.

Education is the foundation; the process must begin with commanders and filter down to the responsible personnel. As customers, Soldiers should have a solid understanding of what services the contractor provides. Where Soldiers go wrong is when they decide to tell the contractor how to do the work. The result is conflict between the parties.

Contract Oversight and Evaluation

Soldiers seeking contractors’ support should never tell the contractor how to perform a service or function. However, if the contractor is not performing within the PWS, tools are available to assist organizations in properly evaluating contractor performance.

Improper oversight of contract performance has cost the Government millions of dollars. It is imperative that contracting officer’s representatives (CORs) provide proper oversight for the contracts they are responsible for and that they evaluate contractors based on performance and not personal feelings or biases toward a particular contractor. The Government entrusts CORs to properly assess and document contractor performance. Proper military oversight minimizes conflict and is the only way that the contractor becomes fully integrated in supporting the warfighter.

The key to this success is the COR, who should be a subject-matter expert in the functional area that has contractor support. What I have found is that leaders are placing unqualified personnel as CORs in areas that warrant someone with an understanding of that function. Why place a mechanic in a supply support activity as the COR to oversee the performance of a contractor when his skill set does not match the contracted function? This is a disaster waiting to happen, which usually leads to conflict between the military and that contractor and ultimately slows down or even stops certain operations.

Based on my experiences, I believe the unit fails when it does not appoint the right person at the right time to oversee that particular functional area. That failure worsens when CORs lack basic contracting knowledge or misinterpret the PWS, which leads to evaluations that are not properly constructed. Ultimately, failing to properly evaluate performance places an additional strain on the relationship with contractors. This has proven true when individuals have their own agendas and refuse to understand the importance of proper oversight.


The one resource that can mitigate potential issues in military and contractor relationships is education. In the complex world of contracting, education is imperative to effective contract oversight. Understanding contracts and contracting provides operational commanders with the flexibility to determine when and where contracting is a viable way to satisfy unit needs. Having a fully educated understanding of contracting prevents a leader from creating situations detrimental to the unit’s relationships with contractors. Leaders who fail to educate themselves on the contracting process run the risk of logistics failure. In a contingency environment, proper logistics support can be a deciding factor between the life or death of our Soldiers.

In contracting, unknown roles and responsibilities can damage the working relationship between military units and contractors on the battlefield. Without some form of resolution, organizations may fail to reach their intended goals. The misconception of contractors’ roles and responsibilities has overwhelmed commanders and other leaders for years and has created undue stress on the contractors obligated to support them. Confusion has also caused serious cost-control and oversight issues. However, if military leaders and contractors mitigate potential problems through open communication and education (technical and PWS-specific), a better working relationship will result.

Master Sergeant Arthur Harris, Jr., USA (Ret.), served as the Operational Contracting Support Branch noncommissioned officer-in-charge for the 10th Sustainment Brigade during Operation Iraqi Freedom 09–11. He holds an M.A. degree in procurement and acquisition from Webster University and is a doctor of business administration candidate with Northcentral University and a graduate of the Sergeants Major Academy. He is designated as a Demonstrated Master Logistician by SOLE—The International Society of Logistics and holds certifications in life-cycle logistics, program management, and purchasing and contracting.

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