After getting out of the Marine Corps, I immediately enrolled in college and set about on a life path that I thought would offer my family the most stability and financial security my background would allow, which for me, meant working for one the many defense contractors based in the Boston area… And trust me, it’s a significantly less sexy line of work than some would likely believe.
Over the last 17 years, the Global War on Terror has redefined the ways that many of us think of things like warfare, and along with those shifting perceptions comes a shift in the way we think of the world associated with them. Two groups, in particular, that have become far more prominent in terms of America’s national defense strategy, as well as in the minds of many Americans, are the Special Operations community, and contractors. In the minds of many, the former tend to transition into the latter at a certain point in their career – as demonstrated by elite war fighters like Jason Delgado, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, and others. The thing is, in the defense industry, those guys, and their jobs, are far from the norm when it comes to contracting. Here’s a picture of me during my glamorous days working in the private sector in support of the war effort:
That’s right, I was a regional HR manager, tasked with keeping factories running, overseeing hiring initiatives and layoffs, and hardly ever wearing anything bullet proof.
With this experience in mind, I’ve put together a short list of misconceptions the world has about defense contractors, thanks in large part, to the movies and TV shows we watch.
Myth #1: Contractors are all former operators
The thing about being a contractor, is that it is a lot like being an operator in one important way: there’s no real formal definition for either within the defense community. For the sake of argument, the generally accepted definition of “operator” is usually a member of a special operations unit, though it gets a little muddy in places like the Marine Corps, where Recon and Scout Snipers are often dubbed “operators” without ever falling under USSOCOM’s command umbrella. Similarly, contractors are people who are not in the military, but sign a deal with the government to provide a service. Sometimes, those services include being a badass with a special operations background, but more often, it requires other impressive credentials, like being a licensed electrician.
Now, I was never an operator, nor was I contractor. I was a Marine, and then an employee that worked for a company that did most of its business through government contracts – but in both environments, I dealt with a fair number of operators, contractors, and here and there, guys that I would consider to be both.
On military installations and in the field, contractors build facilities, maintain equipment, and offer specialized services beyond the scope of the military’s ability. While in Mozambique, for instance, a contractor from General Dynamics (who was a Marine in a past life) deployed with us to assist in the shakedown of our new COC setup.
As for the contractors tasked with things like security, it isn’t uncommon to meet a former SEAL, Ranger, or PJ in that line of work, but you’re also just as likely to bump into regular infantry guys, because making it through BUDs isn’t a prerequisite to stand a post. Just like in the military, there are a wide variety of jobs allocated to contractors, ranging from the type of stuff you saw in “13 Hours,” all the way down to the guy tasked with cleaning out the grease trap in Parris Island’s chow hall kitchen.
Myth #2: The military industrial complex looks like Stark Industries
When I tell people that I worked for a defense contractor, the first thing they assume is that I was a hired gun (rather than the guy spending his afternoon trying to make pivot tables work in Excel), but when I tell them I worked in aerospace, the next thing they assume is that my factories looked like this:
Now, I’m sure that there are big-budget research and development programs that really do look like something out of a science fiction movie, but for the most part, defense contractors that work on airplanes are not pumping out the latest in top of the line hardware, they’re working overtime to produce increasingly old stuff, using increasingly old systems and methodologies, because our military aircraft are mostly old planes and choppers that we’re cobbling together to keep in the air. I recently toured a GE Aerospace facility, where after a great deal of hemming and hawing, I was allowed to go back and see how they produced the internal turbine fins that propel the Lancer B-1Bs we keep hearing about over the Korean peninsula. The Air Force only has about a hundred of those planes, but GE has to keep producing parts for them in limited runs so we can swap components out as they wear down.
And just like my facilities, GE didn’t look like they were working in a spaceship, it was just a clean factory.
I was responsible for four facilities spread throughout the Northeast; some required a security clearance just to get in the door, others were pretty relaxed environments, but all of them produced components that would eventually go into one of a number of fighter jet platforms (among other things). The employees were mostly middle-aged Asian women, because they possessed the unique combination of patience, good eyesight, and tiny hands required to solder components under a microscope – because we were still making our stuff the same way we did when the planes they went in were first built, 30 years earlier.
Myth #3: The Defense Industry really wants to weaponize animals
This one may not seem as common to you, but let’s talk science fiction for a minute. In Jurassic World, Vincent D’Onofrio spent most of the movie trying to convince Chris Pratt to help him turn their velociraptors into weaponized killing machines that could be used in places like the mountains of Afghanistan – which he argues will have to be the way of the future, as we grow more dependent on electronics (or something). The Alien franchise is also built upon the idea that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation hopes to weaponize the Xenomorphs, prompting them to send dozens of people to their slaughter and eventually even cloning Ripley just to get the baby alien out of her chest. It’s a common movie trope born out of three things: America’s general distrust toward corporations, the need for a bad guy other than the monster in monster movies, and of course, our government’s real attempts at weaponizing animals.
Here’s the thing though, those real attempts were often met with nothing but failure. We’ve tried everything from teaching cats to be spies to strapping explosives to bats, but nearly all of these programs have proven to be impractical at best. In the private sector, we were constantly worried about money. Contracts dry up, employees demand things like regular paychecks, and machines are just more reliable than monsters.
We don’t need weaponized velociraptors for the same reason we don’t currently send lions into the caves of Afghanistan instead of Marines and Soldiers. Animals usually don’t kill things unless they plan to eat them, and it costs a ton of money to develop and maintain an infrastructure around training a dangerous animal and then keeping it alive, only to lose your entire investment every 10 years or so when your genetically engineered alligator becomes too old to kick down doors.
The danger to your support staff tasked with hanging out with a murder-saurus all day would be prohibitively expensive in terms of insurance costs alone. That’s why we build missiles, bombs, drones and robots… they don’t need to be fed, they don’t bite off a trainer’s arm, and they perform with a much higher success rate than you might get out of a tiger, no matter how handsome your Chris Pratt is.
Featured image courtesy of Warner Brothers