In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced its intention to drastically increase the daily number of combat air patrols (CAPs) employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from approximately 65 to 90 by the year 2019. Such an increase reflects the intense worldwide demand for so-called “drones” across many different mission sets from humanitarian assistance to targeted killings. Although the DoD stated these new missions would largely be manned by individuals drawn from the Army, Air Force, and Special Operations community, a shortage of trained military personnel will require the extensive use of civilian contractors in order to fill the gap.
The proposed use of civilians to execute CAPs was met with intense scrutiny by academics and the press. In response, DoD officials repeatedly emphasized that contractors would only be engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions; not in combat. For instance, then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters that “we don’t envision a time when [contractor-operated UAVs] will be armed or need to be armed.” Several days later, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh further explained,
We have used contractors in the intelligence business and in the ISR business for a long time . . . . What we’re talking about doing is expanding right now the use of contractors to actually operate government-owned systems for the near term until we can get our training pipeline mature enough that it can sustain the load over time . . . . We don’t anticipate at all that [contracted UAV operators] would be involved in kinetic activity or direct targeting of forces on the ground. They would be doing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Finally, in November 2015, Air Force General Herbert Carlisle assured skeptics that contractors would not be allowed to designate targets with lasers or fire missiles. According to Carlisle, these contractors “are not combatants.”
In making these statements, Carter, Welsh, and Carlisle did little more than reiterate current DoD policy concerning the use of civilian contractors during military operations. This policy bars contractors from performing certain inherently governmental activities such as combat, or what Welsh termed “kinetic activity.” At the same time, contractors are permitted to engage in other non-combat activities such as the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence.
Despite this seemingly straightforward partition, there is no agreed upon point at which the collection of intelligence stops and participation in combat begins. Such ambiguity is especially troublesome during operations that utilize manned or unmanned aerial platforms with remote sensing capabilities. These technologies permit individuals many thousands of miles away to control aircraft and to provide near real time analysis of ongoing operations, including the identification of potential targets on the ground. The advent of remote warfare has raised a number of questions concerning the boundaries of combat and intelligence. For example, is it dispositive that a contractor-piloted aircraft is or is not armed? Does combat encompass only the launching of a missile or direction of a laser beam? Is a contractor who provides real time analysis of a video feed depicting kinetic operations taking part in combat, or merely disseminating intelligence? Uncertainty concerning the precise meaning of DoD policy in regard to these issues has led to significant confusion over long-term manning requirements within the military services and has resulted in a variety of disparate practices during operations. Perhaps more importantly, the use of civilians in any role during tactical ISR operations has significant ramifications under international humanitarian law, which may in fact render these individuals “combatants,” and unlawful ones at that.
This article argues that current guidance from the DoD concerning the use of civilian contractors to perform aerial ISR activities is insufficient to ensure that contractors will retain their protections under international law and act in compliance with domestic law and policy. Contractor involvement in aerial ISR involves two primary legal risks: (1) A contractor may become an unprivileged belligerent who is subject to criminal liability for his or her actions, and (2) A contractor may perform an inherently governmental function, such as combat. This article considers both risks in detail. The analysis shows that during an international armed conflict, contractors may become unprivileged belligerents if they perform tactical ISR missions against enemy forces. In contrast, during a non-international armed conflict, contractors may legitimately engage in belligerent conduct if they are authorized to do so by domestic law. But, however a conflict is characterized, this article demonstrates that contractors who collect, analyze, and disseminate tactical intelligence may impermissibly engage in the inherently governmental function of combat if their activities have a direct impact on the execution of a deliberate destructive or disruptive action against an enemy force; and if their activities take place in close temporal proximity to such a destructive action. Next, the article synthesizes the limitations placed on contractors who perform aerial ISR activities and applies them to potential real-world operations. Finally, this article proposes solutions for both tactical and strategic leaders to ensure that contractors are properly utilized throughout the aerial ISR enterprise.
II. Civilian Contractors in the Aerial ISR Enterprise
Aerial ISR is a broad set of interrelated activities that can fulfill both strategic and tactical intelligence requirements. It encompasses the initial collection of information by means of sensors mounted on manned or unmanned aircraft as well as the creation and distribution of finished intelligence products during the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) phase. Concurrently, aerial ISR has important operational applications. Many aerial ISR platforms such as the MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAV or the better-known MQ-1 Predator are capable of employing weapons or designating a target with a laser as part of their tactical mission set. Even unarmed ISR platforms such as the Army’s fixed-wing Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) aircraft may engage in target acquisition functions. Such activities are defined by the DoD as the “detection, identification, and location of a target in sufficient detail to permit the effective employment of weapons.”
This article focuses on the use of contractors to perform aerial ISR activities on a tactical level, particularly in a target acquisition role. In so doing, it considers three key personnel who collectively accomplish aerial ISR missions: the pilot of the aircraft, the sensor operator, and the intelligence analyst or “screener” who executes PED for a particular mission. The pilot and sensor operator are charged with controlling an aircraft and collecting relevant information, while the intelligence analyst reviews the information and provides his or her analysis to the supported command for action. Often, all of these activities take place simultaneously. Consider an ISR aircraft equipped with a full motion video (FMV) sensor. While the pilot and sensor operator keep the FMV focused on the appropriate point in space, the analyst reviews the live video stream and provides continuous feedback to both the operators and the supported command in order to identify targets on the ground. If the ISR platform is armed, the operators may then employ a weapon against the target after they receive permission from a target engagement authority (TEA). Otherwise, the information collected by these personnel may be passed on to another aircraft for immediate kinetic action, or it may be used to develop a pattern-of-life for the target. Depending on the ISR platform used, some or all of these activities may be performed remotely, perhaps thousands of miles away from where an aircraft is actually located. But, regardless of where they are executed, each of these activities is necessary for creating a final intelligence product or employing a weapon against a target on the ground.
Since the September 11 attacks, contractors have had an important and often controversial role in aerial ISR missions as both operators and analysts. For instance, in one 2010 incident, an armed Predator UAV was used to provide over-watch for a special operations team that was on the ground in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan. The primary imagery analyst for the mission was a civilian contractor. Based on information received from the analyst, the ground force commander determined that a nearby convoy of vehicles was hostile and ordered a missile strike from two orbiting helicopters. However, the analysis was incorrect, and the strike ultimately killed at least 15 Afghan civilians. Six years later during operations against ISIS, a manned ISR aircraft with a civilian tail number and paint scheme crashed in northern Iraq. Three of the four crewmembers of the aircraft were civilian contractors, including the pilot, co-pilot, and the FMV specialist. The only member of the Armed Forces on the aircraft operated the signals intelligence (SIGINT) sensor.
With the DoD’s announcement in 2015, this reliance on contractors for aerial ISR is sure to last many years to come. To name just a few examples, in January 2018, the Naval Air Systems Command announced that it intends to award a contract to General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems, Inc. for up to one year of ISR support to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) utilizing MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. The award stipulates that General Atomics will provide the aircraft, pilots, and sensor operators as well as a launch and recovery crew for the aircraft in order to “augment the existing ISR capabilities with requirements to provide Group 5 UAS ISR services for [Task Force Southwest] and USMC ground forces.” Three weeks later, the DoD announced that it had awarded AAI Corp. a $15 million contract for “unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) services, to include supporting force protection efforts,” at two major airfields in Afghanistan. Civilian contractors also maintain an essential role as remote PED analysts in numerous locations throughout the United States.
Within the DoD a broad range of opinions exist concerning how civilian contractors may be utilized during tactical ISR missions. Based on current DoD policy, some organizations have concluded that contractors cannot be used during missions that include the employment of a weapon even in an analytical role. Others have determined that this poses no legal or policy problems insofar as contractors do not make the ultimate determination to employ a weapon. These differing attitudes have led to significant variation in the way that contractors are used across the DoD’s aerial ISR enterprise. Such disparity across the DoD is troublesome in and of itself, yet it also creates significant legal risk for civilian contractors who perform ISR tasks under both domestic and international law.
III. The Status of Civilian Contractors Under the Law of Armed Conflict
The Law of Armed Conflict generally divides people into two major categories; civilians and combatants. These classifications derive from the principle of distinction, which requires all parties to a conflict to affirmatively distinguish between those individuals who take an active part in belligerent activities and those who do not. Distinction is the central pillar of modern treaties concerning armed conflict and has come to be accepted as a customary rule of international law. As a result, each of these categories gives rise to certain rights, duties, and protections relating to the application of violence during an armed conflict. The most pertinent are: (1) The right to directly participate in hostilities; and (2) The ability to be the direct object of an attack.
In a broad sense, any individual who directly participates in hostilities might be considered a “de facto combatant.” However, the law generally uses the term combatant to refer only to those individuals who have been granted a legal right to directly participate in hostilities. For the sake of precision, combatants who have a right to directly participate in hostilities are referred to in this article as lawful combatants, while those who do not are referred to as unprivileged belligerents.
It is essential to determine where contractors fit within this structure of civilians and combatants in order to establish what functions they may lawfully perform during military operations, what risks they may incur, and what penalties they may face for acting outside of accepted boundaries. The law has created relatively clear divisions between civilians and combatants during international armed conflicts, but these divisions are less well defined during non-international armed conflicts. Since direct participation in hostilities serves as a basic test for belligerent conduct in both circumstances, it is first necessary to define the term in relation to aerial ISR activities. The status of contractors employed in these activities during international and non-international conflicts will then be examined in turn.
A. Aerial ISR Functions and Direct Participation in Hostilities
The precise boundaries of direct participation in hostilities remain unsettled and extraordinarily contentious under international law. Indeed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United States have each created separate tests, which each deems authoritative for determining if a particular activity amounts to direct participation. Despite the differences between these tests, both lead to the conclusion that many functions associated with aerial ISR constitute direct participation in hostilities even outside the application of kinetic force. At a minimum, these include control of a manned or unmanned aircraft engaged in tactical ISR activities in preparation for an attack, control of intelligence collection equipment on board such an aircraft, and remote PED of any intelligence that is collected.
The ICRC’s test for direct participation is based on an analysis of three elements: (1) threshold of harm; (2) direct causation; and (3) belligerent nexus. For the present analysis, the first and second elements are the most important.
The threshold of harm prong stipulates that in order for a particular action to amount to direct participation in hostilities, it must cause actual injury to a belligerent party. This does not necessarily require death or physical destruction, but incorporates all acts that are reasonably likely to cause “any consequence adversely affecting the military operations or military capacity of a party to the conflict.” Examples of non-kinetic activities that amount to direct participation under this definition include “wiretapping the adversary’s high Command,” or “transmitting tactical targeting information for an attack.”
The direct causation prong further requires “a sufficiently close” causal link between a hostile act and the harm suffered by a belligerent party. According to the ICRC, this means that the harm must be brought about “in one causal step.” However, geographical proximity to the ultimate harm is not necessary. Such proximity is “merely indicative” of causal proximity. Moreover, the ICRC has also concluded that individual acts that do not cause direct harm by themselves may still amount to direct participation if “the act constitutes an integral part of a concrete and coordinated tactical operation that directly causes such harm.” In this context, the ICRC specifically examined attacks carried out by means of a UAV and concluded that all persons involved in such an attack are directly participating in hostilities regardless of their individual functions. These persons include “computer specialists operating the vehicle through remote control, individuals illuminating the target, aircraft crews collecting data, specialists controlling the firing of missiles, radio operators transmitting orders, and an overall commander.”
The United States has not embraced the ICRC’s approach toward direct participation in hostilities. Unlike the three-part test favored by the ICRC, the DoD Law of War Manual has adopted a more flexible factor-based analysis. Although the U.S. approach would generally yield a broader range of activities that may be considered direct participation in hostilities, the fundamental principles upon which it is based are essentially identical to those proposed by the ICRC.
The Law of War Manual affirms that “[a]t a minimum, taking a direct part in hostilities includes actions that are, by their nature and purpose, intended to cause actual harm to the enemy.” Such harm is not limited to the direct application of violence, but extends to “certain acts that are an integral part of combat operations or that effectively and substantially contribute to an adversary’s ability to conduct or sustain combat operations.” Nevertheless, mere support for a belligerent party or general contributions to the war effort are excluded from the definition. The Manual goes on to list several pertinent examples of direct participation that are non-kinetic in nature. These include “providing or relaying information of immediate use in combat operations, such as acting as an artillery spotter or member of a ground observer corps or otherwise relaying information to be used to direct an airstrike, mortar attack, or ambush; and acting as a guide or lookout for combatants conducting military operations.”
Regardless of which approach is used, it is clear that individuals who collect, analyze, and disseminate tactical intelligence in preparation for an attack are directly participating in hostilities. This is true whether or not a particular ISR aircraft is armed or is capable of designating a target through mechanical means. The accumulation of this kind of information is by itself a direct and concrete harm against an adversary’s ability to conduct combat operations. Whether a commander ultimately uses this information to execute an airstrike or to maneuver forces out of harm’s way, the enemy has been materially disadvantaged thereby. In fact, both the ICRC’s Interpretative Guidance and the DoD Law of War Manual specifically list this kind of activity as an example of direct participation. Regardless of geographical location, the resultant harm may be imputed either individually or collectively to all of those persons involved in the collection and processing of the intelligence, including those who control the aircraft, those who operate the sensors, and those who analyze and transmit the intelligence for use. To the extent that civilian contractors perform any of these functions during an armed conflict, they are directly participating in hostilities.
B. Civilian Contractors in International Armed Conflict
During a conflict between two or more state parties, DoD contractors are not lawful combatants. Instead, they are civilians who are granted the special status of persons accompanying the armed forces. Although this status provides some protections comparable to those of a lawful combatant, contractors do not have a comprehensive right to directly participate in hostilities. If contractors do so and become de facto combatants, they may be attacked by the enemy. Moreover, if they directly participate in hostilities outside of a narrowly defined support role, they will become unprivileged belligerents who can be held criminally liable for their actions.
Generally speaking, lawful combatants are defined as those individuals who are members of the regular armed forces of a state, militia and volunteer corps making up the armed forces of a state, other militia and volunteer groups insofar as they fulfill certain conditions such as carrying their arms openly, or a levée en masse. Civilians are defined as all individuals within a belligerent state who are not members of these organizations. Persons accompanying the armed forces are civilians who have been specifically authorized to work for the armed forces in order to provide essential support services. They include civilian members of military aircraft crews, war correspondents, and various contractors. Civilian contractors who execute aerial ISR missions on behalf of the DoD may fall into this last category insofar as their contracts provide the requisite authorization and they are provided with an appropriate identification card.
Perhaps the most important difference between lawful combatants and civilians during an international armed conflict is the availability of the combatant’s privilege. This ancient and venerable doctrine stipulates that a lawful combatant may not be held criminally liable for acts of violence committed against enemy forces as long as they are otherwise compliant with the law of war. As expressed in the seminal Lieber Code of 1863, “So soon as a man is armed by a sovereign government and takes the soldier’s oath of fidelity, he is a belligerent; his killing, wounding, or other warlike acts are not individual crimes or offenses.” Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions affirms that lawful combatants “have the right to participate directly in hostilities.” But there is another side to this privilege. The right to employ violence also entails the ability to be the object of violence. Thus, a lawful combatant may be individually targeted by the enemy at any time unless he is hors de combat. Additionally, if a lawful combatant is captured by the enemy, he is entitled to prisoner-of-war status and all of the protections included therein.
In contrast, individual civilians and the civilian population as a whole “enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.” As a customary rule of international law, a civilian who does not take part in belligerent activities may not be made the deliberate object of an attack. But in exchange for this blanket protection, civilians have no right to directly participate in hostilities and cannot claim the combatant’s privilege. If a civilian were to directly participate in hostilities, she would become an unprivileged belligerent and could be prosecuted under domestic law for any “offense arising out of the hostilities.” Such an individual loses many of the protections afforded to civilians without gaining the protections afforded to lawful combatants. In other words, an unprivileged belligerent may be the deliberate object of an attack, while she also may be held criminally liable for any warlike acts she commits.
It is important to note that unprivileged belligerency is not a per se violation of international law. Under the Law of Armed Conflict, the only sanction for such activities is the denial of those protections and immunities that are normally afforded lawful combatants, such as the combatant’s privilege. But without this privilege, civilians who directly participate in hostilities may be held liable for any conduct that violates the domestic law of a state. An unprivileged belligerent who kills a lawful combatant could be indicted for murder, even if the attack was otherwise lawful under international law. On the other hand, an unprivileged belligerent who purposely kills a civilian would be in violation of both domestic and international law. In either case, an unprivileged belligerent who is captured on the battlefield is not entitled to prisoner-of-war status, although the law affords these individuals certain basic protections.
Persons accompanying the armed forces such as DoD contractors are subject to a curious blend of the conditions that the law imposes on lawful combatants and civilians. As civilians, DoD contractors may not be made the direct object of an attack unless they directly participate in hostilities. But if captured, these individuals are afforded prisoner-of-war status. The United States has adopted the further position that contractors accompanying the force may be authorized to directly participate in hostilities in a support role without incurring liability under domestic law. For example, a contractor might help to repair a vital piece of war-fighting equipment even in the midst of combat without being subject to prosecution. Nevertheless, the full combatant’s privilege does not apply to them. Consequently, if a contractor takes a direct part in hostilities outside of a support role, he or she is an unprivileged belligerent and may be punished for any violations of a state’s domestic law.
In short, the Law of Armed Conflict places civilian contractors in an extraordinarily dangerous position if they execute tactical ISR functions against another state actor. Since they are directly participating in hostilities, they may be the object of an attack. Yet because they cannot invoke the combatant’s privilege, they may also be prosecuted for their illegal activities.
C. Civilian Contractors in Non-International Armed Conflict
During a conflict between a state and a non-state armed group, civilian contractors working on behalf of a state retain their civilian status. But unlike the case in an international armed conflict, contractors may directly participate in hostilities if they are authorized to do so by domestic law. Nevertheless, contractors who participate in hostilities under these circumstances must obey other applicable laws relating to belligerent conduct. In addition, these contractors may be attacked by non-state armed groups as a matter of international law.
The roles of combatants and civilians are not as clearly delineated in a non-international conflict as they are during an international armed conflict. While the terms “armed forces,” “dissident armed forces,” “organized armed groups,” and “civilians” are used in applicable treaty law, they are not specifically defined. Furthermore, there is significant disagreement as to whether the concept of lawful combatancy is even applicable during hostilities against a non-state armed group. For this reason, many commentators discussing non-international armed conflict eschew the term “combatant” altogether. The Manual on the Law of Non-International Armed Conflict simply uses the term “fighters” in order to distinguish groups that conduct belligerent activities from those that do not.
Despite these terminological difficulties, it is accepted that the principle of distinction applies to hostilities against a non-state armed group just as it does to hostilities between two states. Thus, the law grants civilians blanket immunity from attack as long as they do not directly participate in hostilities. But without an agreed upon definition of “civilian,” this provision has been construed in a number of divergent ways. Some states contend that during a non-international armed conflict, civilian status applies to all persons who are not members of a state’s armed forces, including members of a non-state armed group. Under this interpretation, a member of a non-state armed group must directly participate in hostilities before he or she may be attacked. On the other hand, the United States has adopted a narrower construction of civilian that does not include members of a non-state armed group. Instead, the United States analogizes these individuals to members of the armed forces for whom affiliation with a particular organization confers belligerent status rather than individual conduct. As a result, the United States argues that members of a non-state armed group are subject to attack at any time irrespective of their activities, just like members of the armed forces. Regardless of which definition is used, DoD contractors retain their civilian status as they do not belong to an armed group of any kind. Therefore, contractors are immune from attack unless they directly participate in hostilities.
Perhaps even more contentious than the definition of civilian is the applicability of the combatant’s privilege during a non-international armed conflict. The ICRC has adopted the “orthodox position” that the combatant’s privilege simply does not exist during hostilities against a non-state armed group. Under this view, international law does not provide immunity to any person who undertakes belligerent conduct under these conditions, regardless of his or her affiliation. Instead, an individual’s right to directly participate in hostilities is governed solely by domestic law. Thus, a state may choose to grant immunity for belligerent activities to certain individuals and withhold it from others based only on domestic considerations. For instance, a state might grant immunity to civilian contractors directly participating in hostilities on behalf of the government while denying immunity to uniformed fighters of a non-state armed group fighting against the government.
The U.S. position on these issues is more nuanced. The United States agrees that the combatant’s privilege does not apply to private citizens or to members of non-state armed groups during a non-international armed conflict. Consequently, such persons may be prosecuted under domestic law for a variety of crimes stemming from their participation in hostilities. But the United States contends that a version of the combatant’s privilege endures for state actors even in these circumstances. Citing the influential Caroline affair, the DoD Law of War Manual argues that “the privileges and immunities afforded lawful combatants and other State officials” are still applicable during hostilities against a non-state armed group. In other words, these individuals are protected from prosecution for their belligerent acts under international law as well as under domestic law.
Although this idea is only sketched out in the Law of War Manual, it appears that the United States is advocating for a “state actor’s privilege” that exists during a non-international armed conflict. Such a concept is significantly broader than the traditional combatant’s privilege. The Manual notes that during hostilities against a non-state armed group, state actors such as judges and police have a vital part to play against insurgent forces that might be considered direct participation in hostilities. Traditionally, these individuals would be considered civilians. However, the United States would likely argue that these individuals are actually lawful combatants who are entitled to some form of privilege based on principles set out in the Caroline case. Such protections could even be extended to civilian contractors who have been authorized to directly participate in hostilities on behalf of a state.
Whether or not a state actor’s privilege is recognized under international law, civilian contractors may perform aerial ISR activities and other belligerent conduct against a non-state armed group insofar as they are authorized to do so by governing domestic law. This seems almost certain to be the case in circumstances where the United States is involved in a non-international armed conflict within the territory of another state with the consent of that state. At the same time, it presents a striking contrast to the conditions that contractors face during an international armed conflict. But like all individuals who directly participate in hostilities, contractors must adhere to other relevant provisions of the Law of Armed Conflict. Furthermore, contractors who directly participate in hostilities are subject to attack by insurgent forces as a matter of international law.
IV. The Use of Civilian Contractors Under U.S. Law and Policy
In addition to the obligations imposed by international law, the United States has established a domestic framework for the procurement of goods and services governing the use of civilian contractors during military operations. This body of statutes and regulations prohibits contractors from engaging in activities deemed to be inherently governmental in nature. These activities include, most significantly, combat, security operations that are closely related to combat, and certain intelligence activities. It further requires that activities closely related to inherently governmental functions should not be performed by contractors whenever possible. As previously stated, there is significant disagreement within the DoD about how these prohibitions should be applied to contractors who execute aerial ISR functions. Based on a careful reading of the relevant policy, it is evident that many ISR activities are not inherently governmental and may be performed by civilian contractors insofar as they are in compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict. However, these same aerial ISR activities may become inherently governmental as their proximity to kinetic operations increases.
A. Inherently Governmental Functions
The concept of inherently governmental functions has evolved over the last 60 years as a method of walling off certain activities performed by the government from privatization. In the aftermath of massive federal expansion during the New Deal, the Eisenhower Administration declared in 1955 that the U.S. government would not “start or carry on any commercial activity to provide a service or product for its own use if such product or service can be procured from private enterprise through ordinary business channels.” In 1966, the Johnson Administration adopted this position in OMB Circular A-76, which in revised form remains the official policy of the United States. Despite a stated preference for private industry to supply commercial services to the government, it is understood that some activities are so fundamentally intertwined with the sovereign power of the United States that they are inherently governmental and cannot be performed by private entities. To this end, the 1999 revision of Circular A-76 issued by the Clinton Administration affirmed that “[c]ertain functions are inherently Governmental in nature, being so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance only by Federal employees.” The current revision originally issued by the George W. Bush Administration emphasizes that executive agencies must “[p]erform inherently governmental activities with government personnel.”
Prior to the Obama Administration, there were three major definitions of “inherently governmental functions” promulgated by Circular A-76, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), and the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act of 1998. Although these definitions were similar to each other, there remained considerable ambiguity concerning how to properly identify an inherently governmental function. By the late 2000s, however, public controversies surrounding the extensive use of civilian contractors during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spurred Congress to take action on the subject.
In October 2008, Congress passed the FY09 National Defense Authorization Act which required the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to
review the definitions of the term “inherently governmental function” . . . to determine whether such definitions are sufficiently focused to ensure that only officers or employees of the Federal Government or members of the Armed Forces perform inherently governmental functions or other critical functions necessary for the mission of a Federal department or agency.
The director of OMB was also instructed by Congress to “develop a single consistent definition” of the term in order to ensure that the heads of all government departments are “able to identify each position within that department or agency that exercises an inherently governmental function.
The law further stated it was the “sense of Congress” that “security operations for the protection of resources . . . should ordinarily be performed by members of the Armed Forces if they will be performed in highly hazardous public areas…and could reasonably be expected to require [offensive] deadly force.” Congress also felt that “regulations issued by the Secretary of Defense . . . should ensure that private security contractors are not authorized to perform inherently governmental functions in an area of combat operations.” Three years later, Congress provided in the FY12 National Defense Authorization Act that “nothing in [Title 10 U.S.C.] may be construed as authorizing the use of contractor personnel for functions that are inherently governmental even if there is a military or civilian personnel shortfall in the Department of Defense.” In 2012, Congress even directed Combatant Commanders to provide a comprehensive risk assessment and mitigation plan concerning their reliance on contractors to perform critical functions like security and intelligence during operations that are likely to involve combat. That assessment must consider physical risks to U.S. Forces and to the contractors, as well as government control over the contractors, and risks to institutional capability.
In short, between roughly 2008 and 2012, Congress provided by law that the Executive Branch must create a consistent definition of what constitutes an inherently governmental function and ensure that civilian contractors are not executing those functions. Congress did not provide any specific examples of inherently governmental functions in the legislation, although the wording indicates that Congress as a whole did not consider private security or intelligence operations to be inherently governmental. Nevertheless, Congress indicated that it was concerned with contractors performing these activities in a combat zone, especially when such activities are likely to require the offensive use of deadly force. Finally, Congress was concerned with a lack of government control over contractors and the possibility that government capabilities in key areas would atrophy. In June 2010, Senator Russ Feingold gave voice to these concerns when he argued that “[f]or the last nine years, the government has failed to establish meaningful control over security contractors in war zones, as a result, numerous civilians have been killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, [and] the reputation of the United States has been tarnished . . . .”
After a period of review and public comment, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) responded to Congress’ mandate by issuing Policy Letter 11-01 in September 2011. This document once again reiterated that all federal agencies must “ensure that contractors do not perform inherently governmental functions.” It adopted the definition of inherently governmental function found in Section 5 of the FAIR Act, which describes these activities as “so intimately related to the public interest as to require performance by Federal Government employees.” In order to aid decision makers, the Policy Letter provides an illustrative list of activities that are inherently governmental per se. These include combat, security operations that are closely related to combat, and the direction and control of intelligence operations. However, the Policy Letter does not provide definitions for these activities.
If a particular activity is not included on the illustrative list or designated by statute as inherently governmental, the Policy Letter establishes two tests for determining if the activity fits under the general definition. The nature of the function test asks if a particular activity involves “the exercise of sovereign powers of the United States.” In contrast, the exercise of discretion test asks if a particular activity requires the exercise of discretion that “commits the government to a course of action where two or more alternative courses of action exist and decision making is not already limited or guided by existing policies . . . .” Finally, in compliance with the provisions of 10 U. S. C. § 2330a, the Policy Letter requires that the Department of Defense will “to the maximum extent practicable . . . minimize reliance on contractors performing function closely associated with inherently governmental functions. . . .”
Based on the Policy Letter, the current version of the FAR likewise defines inherently governmental functions as “a function that is so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by Government employees.” Interestingly, however, the FAR states, “this definition is a policy determination, not a legal determination.” Further mirroring the Policy Letter, the FAR describes inherently governmental functions as “activities that require either the exercise of discretion in applying Government authority, or the making of value judgments in making decisions for the Government.” This might include the “interpretation and execution of the laws of the United States so as to . . . [s]ignificantly affect the life, liberty, or property of private persons,” but normally does not include “gathering information for or providing advice, opinions, recommendations, or ideas to Government officials.”
A year prior to the release of Policy Letter 11-01, the DoD issued a revised version of Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1100.22, Policy and Procedures for Determining Workforce Mix. This document lays out current DoD guidelines concerning what activities may be performed by civilian contractors and what activities are inherently governmental. In line with the Policy Letter, DoDI 1100.22 singles out combat, security operations related to combat, and certain intelligence activities as inherently governmental. Moreover, the instruction requires that many of these activities be performed by uniformed service members rather than by DoD civilians. The document also provides a useful definition of combat that is lacking in Policy Letter 11-01.
Together, Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22 lay a foundation for determining if a particular DoD activity is inherently governmental. Most aerial ISR activities can be grouped into two categories, which are specifically addressed in both documents; combat and intelligence. In certain circumstances, they might also be placed in the security category. It is therefore necessary to explore all of these categories in order to determine what ISR functions civilian contractors may perform under domestic law and policy.
B. Combat, Intelligence, and Security
Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22 treat combat, intelligence, and security as separate activities. Of the three, only combat is inherently governmental per se and must always be performed by uniformed service members. Intelligence and security are not inherently governmental although they may become so based on a number of factors. Despite this regulatory demarcation, it can be difficult to cleanly separate these categories from one another during real-world operations. Both DoDI 1100.22 and Policy Letter 11-01 explicitly recognize that security operations can quickly evolve into combat. As argued below, the same is true of intelligence. This highly fluid and ambiguous space at the boundaries of combat, intelligence, and security is one explanation for why contractors have been employed in such disparate ways during aerial ISR missions.
In truth, aerial ISR is often thought of as nothing more than an intelligence activity. It was in this sense that Secretary Carter and other DoD officials spoke of contractors performing CAPs in 2015. Although certain missions that are executed with ISR platforms clearly do not belong in the intelligence category, such as an airstrike, it can still be argued that there are discrete ISR functions that always remain intelligence activities, regardless of the overall mission. ISR analysts who provide real time intelligence about a potential target are notable examples of this claim. Even during an airstrike, it is not immediately obvious whether these analysts are essentially performing a combat function or an intelligence function.
This section of the article delineates combat, intelligence, and security in the context of aerial ISR. It also clarifies when intelligence and security activities may evolve into combat and require performance by a member of the armed forces. In so doing, it proposes two factors to consider when evaluating whether a particular ISR function is or is not combat. These are (1) The degree to which the performance of an ISR function could directly impact the execution of a deliberate destructive or disruptive action against an enemy force; and (2) The degree of temporal proximity which the performance of an ISR function has to the execution of a deliberate destructive or disruptive action against an enemy force.
Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22 agree that combat is an inherently governmental function, regardless of the circumstances. This also appears to be the sense of Congress. Combat, as defined in DoDI 1100.22, is
an authorized, deliberate, destructive, and/or disruptive action against the armed forces or other military objectives of another sovereign government or other armed actors on behalf of the United States (i.e., planning, preparing, and executing operations to actively seek out, close with, and disrupt and/or destroy an enemy, hostile force, or other military objective). Includes employing firepower and/or other destructive/disruptive capabilities to the foregoing ends.
The instruction further stipulates that all DoD activities must be coded for performance by members of the Armed Forces if
the planned use of destructive combat capabilities is part of the mission assigned to this manpower (including destructive capabilities involved in offensive cyber operations, electronic attack, missile defense, and air defense). This includes manpower located both inside and outside a theater of operations if the personnel operate a weapon system against an enemy or hostile force (e.g., bomber crews, inter-continental ballistic missile crews, and unmanned aerial vehicle operators).
However, combat does not include “technical advice on the operation of weapon systems or other support of a non-discretionary nature performed in direct support of combat operations.” Furthermore, the definition of combat does not “limit in any way the inherent right of an individual to act in self-defense.” Policy Letter 11-01 is even more explicit in this regard. In laying out restrictions for security operations, it states that contractors are not precluded from “taking action in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”
It is important to note that the definition of combat provided in DoDI 1100.22 is not co-extensive with direct participation in hostilities under the Law of Armed Conflict. Direct participation in hostilities is a much broader concept and may include actions which create harm for an adversary without necessarily causing an immediate destructive or disruptive effect. Tactical intelligence activities are a stereotypical example. For this reason, current DoD policy does not specifically bar contractors from direct participation in hostilities during an armed conflict. On the other hand, combat encompasses only those deliberate actions that are meant to create a destructive or disruptive effect. The relevant action may be kinetic in nature (firing a missile) or non-kinetic (an electronic attack). Although combat is primarily offensive, it can also include defensive activities such as missile defense and air defense if these activities involve the use of destructive combat power. Even so, it bears repeating that genuine self-defense is not combat as long as it does not involve the offensive use of such power.
While combat is fundamentally connected with some kind of destructive or disruptive act, DoDI 1100.22 emphasizes that an individual does not need to actually employ a weapon in order to participate in combat. Combat may also include planning and preparing for a destructive activity as well as seeking out the enemy in anticipation of an attack. Moreover, combat does not require geographical proximity to the battlefield. An individual can participate in combat and be thousands of miles away from a planned destructive action if that individual remotely operates some kind of a weapon system.
The instruction goes on to explain why combat must be considered inherently governmental and be performed by members of the Armed Forces. It argues that combat involves both the exercise of sovereign power and the exercise of substantial discretion in a manner that can “significantly affect the life, liberty, or property of private persons or international relations.” In short, the use of destructive combat power fulfills both of the tests outlined in Policy Letter 11-01. Moreover, the United States might be held liable for the misuse of combat power. The instruction therefore contends that the DoD must be able to hold “military commanders and their forces accountable for the appropriate and controlled use of combat power and adherence to rules of engagement and the law of war.” Commanders simply do not exercise that kind of control over civilian contractors.
At the very least, the principles outlined in DoDI 1100.22 prohibit contractors who operate manned or unmanned ISR platforms from employing a weapon against a target on the ground or from designating a target in order to facilitate kinetic action from another source. Employing a weapon against a target is destructive by its very nature and is likely to “significantly affect the life, liberty, or property of private persons.” It is, in fact, an act of sovereign power by the United States. While designating a target with a laser is not destructive in and of itself, it cannot be viewed in isolation. Firing a missile and guiding a missile to its final objective are both necessary elements of the same destructive act even if they are performed by separate individuals. Consequently, they are both combat functions even if the individuals involved are located outside the theater of operations. Such activities are inherently governmental by definition and must be performed by members of the Armed Forces. This conclusion is entirely uncontroversial among commentators, and it is neatly summed up by the “no armed drones” mantra that Secretary Carter and other DoD officials have publicly espoused concerning the use of contracted manpower.
More problematic are ISR functions that do not involve the direct employment of a weapon, but which are substantially involved in kinetic activity nonetheless. Intelligence analysts executing PED are an obvious example. These individuals do not actually control a weapon system or pull a trigger, yet they may provide all of the predicate information necessary to facilitate a destructive action in real time. This example can be expanded to include all personnel involved in the operation of an unarmed ISR platform. Like the analyst, these individuals do not control a weapon system. Nevertheless, they collect information concerning potential targets that they can immediately relay to another aircraft capable of deploying a weapon or to troops involved in offensive operations on the ground. Under these circumstances, the boundary between intelligence and combat can become both hazy and permeable.
Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22 emphasize that intelligence is not an inherently governmental function although certain enumerated intelligence functions are. Nevertheless, the DoD recognizes that activities such as aerial ISR straddle a line between intelligence and military operations. Consequently, these activities may evolve into combat and require performance by members of the Armed Forces.
Intelligence is not defined in Policy Letter 11-01 or DoDI 1100.22. However, the DoD elsewhere defines intelligence as the “product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign nations, hostile or potentially hostile forces or elements, or areas of actual or potential operations.” Intelligence also includes “activities that result in the product.” Policy Letter 11-01 states that “gathering information” and “providing advice, opinions, recommendations, or ideas to Federal Government officials” are not inherently governmental under most circumstances. In other words, collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence can typically be performed by government contractors. However, the “direction and control” of intelligence activities is always inherently governmental and cannot be performed by contractors under any circumstances. Furthermore, DoDI 1100.22 provides that when intelligence activities are “performed in hostile areas where security necessary for DoD civilian performance cannot be provided,” they should be coded for military performance.
Within the DoD, some maintain that aerial ISR activities that do not involve the direct employment of a weapon should generally be viewed as intelligence. Such a claim is implicit to the statements that Secretary Carter and others have made in regard to contractor-operated UAVs. In truth, there is language in both DoDI 1100.22 and Policy Letter 11-02 that could be read to support this perspective. The instruction states that personnel located outside a relevant theater of operations are participating in combat “if the personnel operate a weapon system against an enemy or hostile force.” This provision could be read inversely to mean that out-of-theater personnel who do not operate a weapon system against a hostile force are not participating in combat. Such a reading could potentially exclude pilots who remotely operate unarmed ISR platforms, as well as intelligence analysts who provide PED for both armed and unarmed platforms. In either case, it could be argued that these individuals are not actually operating a “weapon system.” In the same vein, it could be argued that remote analysts execute a non-discretionary role that really consists of “gathering information” and “providing advice” to decision makers who then choose a particular course of action. If this construction is accurate, it too could place remote analysts outside the definition of combat.
From a manpower perspective, this permissive reading of the instruction is very attractive to DoD components that may have a shortage of trained military personnel to execute aerial ISR missions. Insofar as uniformed Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, or Airmen operate all armed aircraft, a commander at least has the option to contract out other ISR functions. Moreover, there is a kind of intuitive sense to the argument. Can a person really be involved in combat when they are thousands of miles away and do little more than look at a computer screen and relay what they see to others?
Be that as it may, a careful examination of DoDI 1100.22 in conjunction with real-world experience demonstrates that these views of combat are much too narrow. While the operation of a manned or unmanned weapon system is perhaps the quintessential example of combat, it is not an exclusive example. In fact, the instruction clearly states that actively seeking out the enemy in preparation for a deliberate attack is included under the definition of combat. Further, the instruction also describes “high-risk, [on-the-spot] judgements on . . . whether [a] target is friend or foe” as inherently governmental. Together, these provisions embrace a large number of aerial ISR activities that take place before and during an attack but do not by themselves create a destructive effect.
In doctrinal publications, the DoD forthrightly acknowledges that ISR is not a purely intelligence function. Indeed, the official DoD Dictionary defines ISR as an “integrated operations and intelligence activity . . . .” The integration of operations and intelligence is most clearly perceived when ISR personnel engage in target acquisition. The target acquisition process obviously requires the collection and dissemination of information regarding a hostile force, activities that sound much like intelligence. Nevertheless, locating, identifying, and tracking a target are also necessary components of any kinetic action. The recently superseded Joint Publication 1-02 clearly emphasized the operational dimension of ISR during target acquisition by providing a definition of “intelligence-related activities” that excluded “programs that are so closely integrated with a weapon system that their primary function is to provide immediate-use targeting data.”
For these purposes, it is useful to consider aerial ISR operations in the context of the joint targeting cycle. The joint targeting cycle is the DoD’s doctrinal process for “selecting and prioritizing targets and matching the appropriate response to them, considering operational requirements and capabilities.” It includes the relatively quick “dynamic” targeting process as well the more methodical “deliberate” process. The planning, execution, and assessment phase of the targeting cycle includes six steps: find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess (also known as F2T2EA or the “kill chain”). The first three steps of the kill chain are “ISR-intensive” and include finding and identifying a target, fixing that target’s location in space, and tracking the target’s movements prior to engaging the target. During the targeting step, a target is validated to ensure that it “meet[s] the objectives and criteria outlined in the commander’s guidance . . . [and complies] with [the] law of war and [Rules of Engagement].” After this a target engagement authority (TEA) makes the final determination to attack the target. While this is occurring, ISR personnel continue to track the target and report any changes that might affect the TEA’s decision. An approved attack will then be executed during the engagement phase, potentially by the same individuals who control the ISR platform if it is armed. Finally, during the assessment phase, ISR personnel help to evaluate whether the desired effect has been achieved or if the target must be re-attacked.
Throughout the F2T2EA process, pilots of both manned and unmanned aircraft, sensor operators, and intelligence analysts must work together in order to collect information, analyze it, and disseminate finished products to the TEA for a decision. During dynamic targeting in particular, this procedure can take place extraordinarily quickly as analysts identify new targets of opportunity and relay them to the supported command for prosecution in real time. Even if ISR personnel do not have independent authority to initiate a kinetic strike, their efforts to “actively seek out . . . a hostile force,” to track it, and to rapidly assess whether a target “is friend or foe” ultimately provides the basis for the TEA’s decision.
When an unarmed ISR platform is actively engaged in a target acquisition role, its crew cannot be disassociated from the destructive acts that they facilitate any more than an artillery spotter located on the battlefield can be disassociated from a fire mission that is based on his or her observations. In civil law terms, there is no break in the chain of causation from these ISR activities to a subsequent destructive effect. Although ISR personnel may not directly employ a weapon or make the final decision to do so, such a consequence is reasonably foreseeable based upon the information which they provide. In fact, it is the very purpose for which they provide it. The collection, analysis, and dissemination of targeting information, and the employment of a weapon based on that information, are all component parts of the same destructive action. Reasonable people may disagree concerning the level of discretion that ISR personnel actually exercise under these circumstances. But even so, their activities are so intimately connected to an act of sovereign power likely to “significantly affect the life, liberty, or property of private persons” that they must be considered combat and be performed by uniformed service members.
There can perhaps be no bright-line rule about when an intelligence activity evolves into combat. However, the two most important factors to consider in making this determination are the degree to which a particular ISR function could directly impact a deliberate destructive or disruptive action, and the temporal proximity of a particular ISR function to that action. The combination of these elements establishes an unbroken causal relationship between the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence and a subsequent kinetic effect. If an ISR activity will have little or no impact on a destructive action, then it certainly cannot be said to have brought that action about or to be a part of that action. Moreover, if an ISR activity does not take place in close temporal proximity to a destructive action, the causal link between the two grows more tenuous until it is ultimately extinguished. Yet when an ISR activity provides the information upon which a destructive action is predicated, and provides that information as the destructive action is about to be carried out, it cannot be said that there is any meaningful distinction between the two. They have effectively become a single incident of combat.
uppose that the aircrew of an unarmed UAV consisting of a pilot, sensor operator, and analyst identify a potential target on the ground and track the target for some time in order to establish a pattern-of-life. However, there is no effort to immediately attack the target, and the UAV ultimately lands after collecting valuable data. The information that the aircrew collected may certainly have a direct impact on a destructive action against the target at some indefinite point in the future. But with no temporal proximity to an actual destructive effect, the aircrew is not taking part in combat for the purposes of DoDI 1100.22. Instead, they have been employed in an intelligence capacity.
On other hand, consider a remote analyst who is viewing information being collected in real time from an ongoing kinetic strike. The analyst has no ability to communicate with anyone involved in the strike and later incorporates the information into an intelligence product that is disseminated for use but has no immediate application. This analyst is likewise not participating in combat. Although her activities may occur in close temporal proximity to a destructive action, they have no direct impact on that action. Her activities therefore constitute intelligence.
Finally, once more consider the three-person aircrew of an unarmed UAV that have been tracking a potential target for some time. So far, the mission is arguably intelligence. Now suppose that the crew begins to continuously transmit targeting data to another aircraft that is preparing to employ a weapon against the target. In this case, all three ISR functions have a direct impact on a deliberate destructive action. The collection and dissemination of that information ultimately form the basis for an attack. Likewise, all members of the aircrew are performing their individual functions in close temporal proximity to a destructive action. Under these circumstances, the aircrew’s intelligence mission has evolved into combat and must be performed by members of the Armed Forces.
This same analysis is applicable to circumstances in which ISR personnel are providing over-watch to Soldiers involved in offensive operations on the ground. When ground troops engage in deliberate destructive or disruptive activities against the enemy, this indisputably falls under the definition of combat. If aerial ISR personnel provide continuous real-time intelligence to those troops concerning the disposition of enemy forces, they too are involved in combat. Their activities have a direct impact on deliberate destructive activities and are in close temporal proximity thereto. Even if these personnel are located thousands of miles away and are incapable of directly employing a weapon, they cannot be disassociated from the act of sovereign power that they are facilitating.
A more difficult question involves purely defensive actions in which personnel on the ground are attacked by enemy forces. As previously discussed, self-defense and the defense of others has been specifically exempted from the definition of combat under Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22. However, defensive actions that include the use of “destructive combat capabilities” are still considered combat. Therefore, if an ISR platform responded to this scenario by employing destructive combat capabilities, such as firing a missile, this activity would fit under the definition of combat and require military performance. Based on the direct impact/temporal proximity analysis, civilian ISR personnel would likewise be prohibited from facilitating the employment of destructive combat capabilities by providing continuous targeting information to others. Nevertheless, there is still a possibility that contractors employed in an ISR capacity could respond to a genuine self-defense engagement by providing information to the troops on the ground including the strength and disposition of the attackers. However, this possibility should be considered in light of DoD guidance concerning the employment of contractors to perform security operations.
Like intelligence, security is not an inherently governmental function. However, security operations may become inherently governmental if they have a high potential to evolve into combat. Although security is not defined in either Policy Letter 11-01 or DoDI 1100.22, the Department of Defense describes security as “[m]easures taken by a military unit, activity, or installation to protect itself against all acts designed to, or which may, impair its effectiveness.” The FAR further defines private security functions as the “[g]uarding of personnel, facilities, designated sites, or property of a Federal agency, the contractor or subcontractor, or a third party,” or “[a]ny activity for which personnel are required to carry weapons in the performance of their duties . . . .” Security certainly may involve the use of deadly force. Nevertheless, security is ultimately defensive in nature. Its purpose is to protect personnel and equipment rather than to deliberately inflict harm upon the enemy. In this way, security can be differentiated from combat, which is primarily offensive.
Be that as it may, Policy Letter 11-01 and DoDI 1100.22 recognize that the line between defensive and offensive action can be very thin indeed. Therefore, these documents prohibit contractors from performing security functions “in direct support of combat operations as part of a larger integrated armed force.” Moreover, contractors cannot perform security functions “in environments where there is such a high likelihood of hostile fire, bombings, or biological or chemical attacks by groups using sophisticated weapons and devices that, in the judgment of the military commander, the situation could evolve into combat.” Echoing Congress’s concerns from 2008, DoDI 1100.22 further prohibits contractors from executing missions where “an offensive response to hostile acts or demonstrated hostile intentions would be required to operate in, or move resources through, a hostile area of operation.” This might include the need for a contractor to “assault or preemptively attack” a hostile force. Finally, contractors may not perform security operations that “entail assisting, reinforcing, or rescuing [private security contractors] or military units who become engaged in hostilities . . . because [these operations] involve taking deliberate, offensive action against a hostile force on behalf of the United States.”
Thus, under existing policy, contractors may only be employed for security operations that are essentially static in nature, or have a very low risk of hostile fire. For example, contractors who perform aerial ISR might provide support for force protection at a military airfield just as AAI Corp. was recently hired to do in Afghanistan. In this capacity, ISR contractors could provide information concerning the disposition of enemy forces for defensive purposes, although they could not provide real time targeting data in order to facilitate a kinetic strike. Moreover, contractors should not be assigned as some kind of quick reaction force (QRF).
As alluded to in the previous section, the restrictions placed on combat-related security operations appear to diminish the ability of civilian contractors to come to the aid of troops who are in contact with the enemy. DoDI 1100.22 states that contractors may not assist or reinforce personnel who are under attack because it involves “taking deliberate, offensive action against a hostile force.” As a result, contractors who operate an ISR platform certainly could not employ an offensive weapon against an attacking enemy, nor provide targeting data to facilitate the employment of a weapon by another aircraft. These actions would plainly violate established limitations on security operations, and they would be considered combat under a direct impact/temporal proximity analysis. Yet even with these restrictions in place, contractors could still plausibly respond to a call for help in a genuine self-defense scenario. Under these circumstances, contractors could provide personnel on the ground with information concerning the strength and disposition of enemy forces. Such a response would not necessarily involve deliberate, offensive action. It also complies with the spirit of Policy Letter 11-01, which allows contractors to “tak[e] action in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.” The response would have to be limited in scope however. Notably, the contractors should not provide continuous PED support to reinforcing troops since this involves offensive action. Moreover, even in a defensive situation, the preference would be for military personnel to perform the mission.
V. Applying Law and Policy to Potential Aerial ISR Operations
As the foregoing sections have demonstrated, the Law of Armed Conflict and domestic government policy severely restrict the manner in which U.S. military commanders may employ civilian contractors to perform aerial ISR activities. Commanders do retain wide latitude to employ civilian contractors for aerial ISR during humanitarian assistance operations and similar missions that do not take place during an armed conflict and where combat is unlikely. Under these circumstances, the Law of Armed Conflict simply does not apply, and ISR functions are not considered inherently governmental under DoD workforce policy. However, appropriately utilizing civilian contractors for ISR missions during an armed conflict can be extraordinarily knotty.
During military operations against a non-state armed group such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, contractors may directly participate in hostilities if they have been authorized to do so by applicable domestic law. Such activity is also permitted by DoD policy. Nevertheless, contractors are prohibited from participating in combat or performing security activities that are likely to evolve into combat. Once again, combat is not limited to the employment of a weapon or designation of a target. Combat also includes the operation of unarmed aircraft as well as remote PED if these activities will have a direct impact on a deliberate destructive action, and if they are in close temporal proximity to that destructive action.
Thus, civilian contractors who execute aerial ISR during a non-international armed conflict may engage in strategic intelligence and non-combat security. These are arguably not direct participation in hostilities, nor are they prohibited by domestic policy. Contractors may also engage in tactical intelligence with certain caveats. Although the performance of tactical intelligence is direct participation in hostilities, it is not prohibited by international law. But if any of these missions evolve into combat based on the direct impact/temporal proximity analysis, they must be performed by members of the Armed Forces.
As previously mentioned, intelligence and security operations may evolve into combat very quickly. An ISR mission meant to collect pattern-of-life information might be dynamically re-tasked to provide support for an airstrike. A target of opportunity may suddenly appear during a mission that was meant to obtain intelligence for future operations. This porous boundary between intelligence, security, and combat will present a formidable challenge to commanders seeking to appropriately use contractors for aerial ISR missions even during a non-international armed conflict.
An armed conflict in which the United States takes military action against another state party such as North Korea or Syria presents an even more problematic scenario for civilian contractors. Under these circumstance, contractors are still prohibited from engaging in combat under U.S. domestic policy. However, the Law of Armed Conflict creates an even more formidable barrier. Under this regime, both combat and tactical intelligence are considered direct participation in hostilities. If a contractor were to engage in either of these activities during an international armed conflict, he or she would be considered an unprivileged belligerent who could be prosecuted for any violations of domestic law. Thus, in a war against North Korea, the only ISR activities contractors could perform while maintaining their protected status under international law and complying with domestic policy are strategic intelligence, non-combat security, or some kind of support function such as maintenance. In contrast, participation in tactical ISR operations would turn contractors into unprivileged belligerents and potentially violate domestic prohibitions against civilians engaging in combat. This state of affairs presents a significant danger for the United States based on its current use of contractors to perform tactical ISR mission sets.
VI. The Way Ahead
Although the combination of international law and domestic policy creates enormous challenges for the use of civilian contractors to execute tactical ISR activities, contractors will be required to fulfill at least some of these roles in the short to medium term. Consequently, it is necessary to implement policies both on a tactical and strategic level in order to ensure that contractors are properly utilized, and to create a standard of practice throughout the DoD.
A. Tactical Leadership
Tactical commanders and their legal advisors must immediately re-evaluate the manner in which they use civilian contractors to perform aerial ISR in order to ensure that they do not engage in combat. As previously discussed, contractors may directly participate in hostilities during a non-international armed conflict as long as it is permitted by domestic law. Thus, contractors may freely engage in tactical intelligence activities insofar as they comply with other applicable legal requirements. But the use of contractors to perform combat remains a violation of government policy regardless of circumstances. Commanders should therefore analyze contractor activities based on the direct impact/temporal proximity test. At the very least, this means that contractors should not be allowed to control an ISR platform or to execute real-time PED when some kind of offensive destructive or disruptive action is imminent. This is true whether or not the relevant platform is armed. If a contractor is either controlling an aircraft or executing PED during this kind of scenario, the contractor should be replaced with a uniformed service member for the duration of the mission.
Given the ease with which intelligence activities may evolve into combat, this may require extensive forward planning in regard to personnel. Commanders must have a sufficient number of service members available in order to execute ISR activities that support deliberate offensive operations. However, commanders must also have a sufficient number of service members available in order to assume control of operations in the event that a contractor-executed intelligence mission evolves into combat. A substitution procedure such as the one proposed here has enormous practical drawbacks. It is not a simple thing to have a service member seamlessly assume performance of a particular ISR function while a mission is ongoing. Nevertheless, such maneuvers will be necessary if contractors are permitted to perform tactical ISR.
In the event of an international armed conflict, direct participation in hostilities will become deeply problematic for contractor personnel. A tactical commander should not assume the risk of authorizing contractors to perform duties such as tactical intelligence, which may render them unprivileged belligerents. Although direct participation in hostilities is not prohibited by DoD guidance, nor is it a per se violation of the Law of Armed Conflict, it places individual contractors and potentially the United States in a dangerous legal position. Therefore, such a determination should be made at least at the Combatant Command if not the Secretary of Defense level.
Finally, tactical commanders must be able to provide an honest assessment to their superiors concerning the extent to which they are reliant on civilian contractors to perform tactical ISR activities. Such an assessment is necessary in order to evaluate the scope of the problem and for future planning efforts.
B. Strategic Leadership
Strategic commanders and civilian policy makers must continue to recruit and train an increased number of military personnel in order to execute aerial ISR missions on the tactical level. Otherwise, the United States may be at a serious disadvantage during future hostilities. When contractors are employed in a non-international armed conflict such as operations against ISIS, it is at least possible to shield them from engaging in combat. As a result, the continued use of contractors for tactical ISR is possible within this context. But if the United States were to become involved in an international armed conflict, contractors could not perform tactical intelligence activities without forfeiting their protected status. In the end, there can be no adequate substitute for providing a sufficient number of uniformed service members to control tactical ISR aircraft and to execute PED.
At the same time, strategic leaders must create explicit policy guidance concerning the use of contractors for aerial ISR activities that goes beyond DoDI 1100.22 and vague statements to the press about the control of armed aircraft. Such guidance is badly needed in order to standardize the diverse practices currently taking place across the DoD. As the FAR notes, whether a particular activity is an inherently governmental function is “a policy determination, not a legal determination.” Strategic leaders could create guidance that permits contractors to perform the full gamut of tactical ISR missions based on a definitive determination that these activities do not constitute inherently governmental functions. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Congress would acquiesce to significant contractor involvement in combat operations. Moreover, altering domestic policy would not solve the underlying problem of contractors becoming unprivileged belligerents during international armed conflicts.
Short of taking these more radical steps, the new policy should reassert the current prohibitions against using contractors to perform inherently governmental functions and provide tactical commanders with useful direction concerning when security and intelligence activities may evolve into combat. This direction should be based on the direct impact/temporal proximity analysis. The policy should also discuss the application of the Law of Armed Conflict to aerial ISR. Finally, the policy must provide specific approval authorities for permitting civilian contractors to directly participate in hostilities during an international armed conflict. If policy makers seriously contemplate the use of contractors to perform ISR missions as unprivileged belligerents, they should retain this authority within the senior levels of the DoD.
When Secretary Carter and other senior military leaders announced their decision to use contractors to preform CAPs in 2015, they understood that there are legal and regulatory restrictions concerning how those contractors may be employed for aerial ISR activities. For this reason, the use of contractors to perform CAPs is not a perfect solution, as they all seemed perfectly willing to admit at the time. Indeed, General Welsh argued that employing contractors to conduct aerial ISR is only a temporary expedient until such time as the DoD “can get our training pipeline mature enough.” Nevertheless, the apparent focus on whether or not contractors will operate armed ISR platforms is a red herring. It ultimately minimizes the scale of the problem facing the DoD, and sends a confusing message to lower-level commanders about what is and what is not permissible. Moreover, the assertion that contractors who engage in tactical ISR are not “combatants” is, at best, misleading.
The fact is that contractors who operate unarmed ISR platforms or who execute PED are more than capable of engaging in combat in violation of domestic policy and losing their protected status under international law. It is therefore imperative that leaders across the DoD clearly understand the relevant issues and address them unambigiously. While there are policies that can be implemented immediately in order to shield contractors from participating in combat during operations against various non-state armed groups, the only long-term solution to these issues is to train an adequate force of military personnel to execute tactical ISR missions.