Can Private Security Guards Protect Military Bases?

After 9/11 more private contractors took over security responsibilities on military bases as troops headed overseas. Recent veterans weigh in on the impact of that shift.

Erich Schlegel/Reuters

The most recent catastrophe at Fort Hood has Congress asking questions: how can we prevent this from happening again? Along with talk about treating and screening for service members with mental health issues, the focus has been on the security procedures at military bases and how it might be improved.

As CNN reported April 6th, lawmakers are examining how the military secure its installations, and whether current controls are sufficient. Along with looking at physical security measures to prevent the transport of illegal firearms on base another issue being reviewed is whether the military should return to using troops to guard checkpoints, rather than the private security contractors common today.

Attempts to improve security by making it more difficult to bring weapons on base may bear fruit but face substantial hurdles. The effort and manpower required to check every soldier and civilian moving on and off post for contraband material would be enormous. Given current budget concerns, it seems unlikely that there’s a future in solutions that require substantial investments, such as metal detectors, training, checkpoints, and additional infrastructure.

Potential changes also need to consider the impact that invasive security measures would have on morale. If troops and their family members are subjected to a TSA style inspection every time they come on base, it would quickly erode the basic trust that’s essential in a volunteer military.

Another possibility, in the wake of the drawdown from Afghanistan, would be to replace non-military security contractors with additional Military Police (MPs) and other troops serving as guards.

In 2004, the U.S. expanded civilian base contractors by thousands, in an effort to free more combat power for deployment to Iraq. Whereas in the past, guards at military installations tended to be uniformed soldiers, the gate guards today are employees of companies like G4SGS (formerly Wackenhut Services), Akal Security, Garda World (formerly Vance Federal Security Systems), and Coastal International Security. In other words, the bulk of the front-line security for U.S. bases has been provided by private companies. Nevertheless, as Robert Beckhusen pointed out recently, life on a military base is much safer than communities of similar size.

“We believe many private companies, to include G4SGS, have the capability to provide adequate protection for installations,” said Susan Pitcher, a spokesperson for G4SGS.

A comprehensive review of security procedures and rates of violence would be needed to determine whether uniformed civilians or military guards provide better security for bases. Doing a statistical analysis of private vs. uniformed security seems like a pre-requisite for making informed policy decisions but right now the jury is still out.

Yet, despite the high profile shootings at Fort Hood, there’s strong anecdotal evidence that suggests current troops and recent veterans are confident in the private contractors that provide base security.

Jeff Nyhart, a spokesman for Marine Corps Base Pendleton, explained that the military already has strict policies governing personal weapons use on post. “You have to register any personal weapons when you arrive on post,” he said.

There are other reasons privately contracted security officers are useful. “It’s good to have civilian gate guards,” Nyhart said, “because they don’t turn over as much as Marines. A lot of military personnel switch bases every two to four years—this gives continuity.”

Veterans from the recent wars have mixed reviews of contracted base security officers but most agree that they’re better than the alternative—having troops doing guard duty at a base’s entrance.

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“Can soldiers potentially pull guard? Absolutely,” said Clint Broadhurst, a former enlisted paratrooper who deployed twice to Afghanistan. “Soldiers are, for the most part, professionals, and will overcome any challenge you give them.” Still, “Soldiers already work—hard… pulling guard would simply add more stress to soldiers and their home life.”

Stress that could, paradoxically, put them at greater risk for the type of incident that occurred on Fort Hood. In addition to taking time away from their families, adding guard duty to troops’ schedules could also take time away from training on their essential job tasks.

Jonathan Nordin was an artillery officer in the Army who deployed multiple times to Afghanistan. He remembered the base security contractors in Germany being very impressive, and effective deterrence to actual criminal activity, “Entry control points [ECPs] looked the part: 100% military ID checks, overwatch positions, visible weapons to include HK assault rifles.”

During Nordin’s time at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the gun violence threat is far higher than in Germany, he had a different experience with private guards on base.

“Budgets did in fact require soldiers to man the ECPs in lieu of contractors.” Nordin described a system in which units had a rotating, repeating responsibility to provide soldiers for guard duty—and that those soldiers would become permanent guards for up to 6 months at a time. But the soldiers assigned to those duties were not specialized for the task, and were given only a limited amount of training before being assigned to the job.

The Soldiers assigned as guards were experts in their military fields but “are they experts in fixed site security?” Nordin asked rhetorically. “Absolutely not.” “Furthermore,” he said, “to assume that commanders send their best soldiers to fill these security details is absurd.”

Alan Bakula, an infantry veteran of the 10th Mountain Division who deployed twice to Afghanistan, remembers being assigned briefly to gate guard duty a month after redeploying from Kunduz Province. “It was a terrible idea,” he said. “Four infantrymen carrying rifles, sitting around a HMMWV, checking civilians’ cars—recipe for disaster.” He feels that having civilian contracted base security adds far more than it detracts, “allows soldiers to focus on training, not wasting time pulling guard.”

Nordin believes that while soldiers are capable of fulfilling the task, private companies are probably the best short- and long-term solution. “If professional fixed-site security is the end state, then private firms specializing in this field should be employed.”

Though veterans offered mixed reviews of civilian guards, they agreed that the Fort Hood shootings couldn’t be attributed to the decision to use private security on a military base.

As Congress’s review goes forward, more analysis is needed of the comparative effectiveness and second order impacts of using private vs. military security.