American soldiers pose with a Ugandan security contractor
Even with all of the communications, sensors and intelligence-gathering technologies at the disposal of the modern U.S. military, the battlefield continues to be a crowded, fast-moving, and confusing place. The notion of the “fog of war” may be a cliché, but it’s one that persists despite centuries of effort to clear it up -- and when you add civilian security contractors to the mix, it becomes even more complex.
It is essentially taken as a given that in future military operations, civilian contractors will—as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia and Kosovo—work alongside American and allied forces providing everything from labor to support to security missions. The New York Times has done a good job combing through the Wikileaks files for material that captures the contractors’ role in Iraq, but there’s more.
The Times found that during the six years covered by the Wikileaks reports, “at least 175 private security contractors were killed. The peak appeared to come in 2006, when 53 died. Insurgents and other malefactors kidnapped at least 70 security contractors, many of whom were later killed.” Steve Fainaru did a great job capturing the disorganization surrounding some of the smaller, sketchier security outfits in his book, Big Boy Rules, but even when it comes to the large security companies, mistakes happened. Mistakes like shooting at, or being shot at, by the U.S. and coalition forces.
In one “White-on-Blue” incident document by Wikileaks, trucks from security contractor Armor Group were fired on by an American convoy when it tried to pass the military trucks on the highway. The contractor “had previously understood signals … to mean that he was cleared to pass.” No one was hurt. In another incident, an American convoy “inadvertently engaged a civilian contractor security element” after two Ford trucks approached the convoy. The trucks were hit three times before U.S. forces realized that they were friendly. Again, no one was hurt.
One huge hindrance in performing operations as part of an international coalition is the inability to speak to your allies, since different countries use different communications technologies. In Iraq, this led to some hairy moments early in the war between coalition military forces.
In April 2004, Polish troops in Karbala fired warning shots at “a fast approaching vehicle packet,” which returned fire before turning around. When the convoy turned, the Polish troops recognized the trucks as American Humvees belonging to the Military Police. An investigation found that one coalition troop was lightly injured and the incident occurred because of a “lack of radio communications” between the MP patrol and the traffic control point. In July 2004 it was the Americans turn to fire on the Poles in Karbala when “unknown vehicles” approached their position one evening. Unaware that any Polish convoy was in the area, and unable to make verbal contact with the vehicles, the Poles withdrew, and no one was hurt.
In February of that year, an American military convoy fired on a British convoy, again because of a lack of comms between allies The British Tiger Team “approached the back of the US convoy. They were immediately threatened with a .___ Cal MG ___ straight at them. The ___ convoy attempted to get close to and pass the US convoy a total of ___ times, and was threatened in the same way each time.” A more serious incident occurred in February 2004 when an American foot patrol in Basra came across a group of masked gunmen “firing in all directions outside the bank.” Thinking they were being attacked, the patrol engaged, killing one and wounding two. Turns out that the masked men were “Iraqi Police on an undercover operation against drugs and alcohol sellers in the area.”
From this we can draw two conclusions. One, in future operations, communications between coalition partners need to improve. Work has been done to sync up comms on the battlefield, but the system is far from perfect. Second, as we said up top, security contractors on the battlefield are a reality. They’re not going anywhere, and they will share space with U.S. and allied troops wherever they operate in the future. Communications between the civilian and military elements is difficult when the military is unsure who is working security in the area, but this is something that will need to find a solution at some point to ensure the safety of everyone involved.