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Navy Outsourcing Training to Blackwater in Otay Mesa

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Aired 4/19/09

By now, it's no secret that Blackwater Worldwide plans to open a facility in Otay Mesa to train Navy personnel in counterterrorism. What's not well-known is that the Navy has been outsourcing to independent contractors to train sailors for years. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

It's inside this massive windowless warehouse at the southern tip of Otay Mesa that Blackwater intends to train up to 48 sailors at a time. The company has built a dingy gray two-story ship simulator with a hatch that leads to a third deck. Blackwater's Brian Bonfiglio says the goal was authenticity.

Bonfiglio: The railings, the stairs everything is identical to what you would find on a navy vessel. Those doors actually came off the USS Stark which I think is a fitting tribute to the sailors who will utilize this facility.

Bonfiglio says this simulated ship is the sailors' best teacher.

Bonfiglio: It teaches Navy personnel how to open up a ship's door, how a group of would move through very tight corners that you would find on a ship, how to do it safely, how to maybe evacuate a certain area if there was a threat on that portion of it.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Peter Hekman says simulators are now used for all types of Navy training.

Hekman: Ship maneuvering drills no longer take the ships to sea, and have new officers bring them into port and dock them and get them under way and dock them it's too expensive to do that. That's done in simulators as well primarily under contract personnel right here in San Diego. It's been that way for years.

In fact, Hekman says the genesis for hiring contractors to teach Navy trainees has its roots in the end of the draft in the early 1970s. Hekman says the military had to increase its pay to compete with the private sector in recruiting.

Hekman: The navy does really need to outsource training. They do not have enough personnel to have a training staff to perform this function. It's too expensive for the military. It utilizes people in a training environment where we need them more on the front lines.

Hekman says even though the Navy outsources training, it still monitors the sessions. But critics say that's not enough.

Sanders: Maybe I'm old school. Maybe I'm a traditionalist but I really believe that it's important for members of the military to take care of themselves as much as possible and rely as little as possible on outside contractors and civilians who you have very little or no control over.

Wade Sanders worked as the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy in the Clinton Administration. He says the Navy has the capacity to train its own. And he points out Blackwater uses mostly ex-Navy SEAls to teach sailors special warfare. Sanders concedes that the Navy saves money through outsourcing because it doesn't have to cover retirement and health benefits of the additional personnel.

Sanders: You have to ask yourself is the relief of that kind of cost worth having essentially an independent non-accountable force that's out there carrying out a function that the military is fully capable of carrying out itself. You know basically I think what it is it's an opportunity for a private concern like Blackwater to make an awful lot of money. They've either convinced the Navy that there's a need for them. Or the Navy has decided that they just don't want to do it themselves and they want to have other people do it.

Blackwater's Bonfiglio says the Navy could train its own but its expertise is spread out across the country. Blackwater, he says, is able to put all of those skills together in one place.

Meanwhile, despite political and public opposition to the proposed Navy training facility in southern San Diego, Bonfiglio still plans to open it in June. One remaining task is to name the new ship simulator. He says he might call it the USS Otay Mesa.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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