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Impact of Private Military Companies on Security

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What impact do Private Military Companies have on International Security?

1. Introduction

1.1. Scenes from Fallujah

Towards the end of March 2004, the world bore witness to by now familiar scenes of blood-letting from Iraq. Pictures captured on this occasion by an Associate Press journalist (Mascolo, 2006) showed Iraqis celebrating the killing of two foreigners. Emaciated and hardly recognisable, their bodies hung over the bridge they had just a moment ago attempted to cross. Some 30 miles west of Baghdad, the notoriously restless town of Fallujah formed the backdrop to the ambush where, it emerged from later reports, two of those killed as well as the surviving men were all American nationals who had been tasked with escorting the transportation of foodstuff. When they fell into the trap, all four had been sitting in their car. Following gunfire they incurred the wrath of insurgents keen to seek revenge on whom they saw as unwelcome occupiers by torching their vehicle (Scahill, 2006). Two of them managed to escape in time but the other two, it seems, could not retreat, either because they were already heavily injured or were already dead. Even to this day the precise circumstances of what really had happened remain unclear, and it will probably remain so.

What is clear, however, is that none of them – either the dead or the survivors – were bona fide soldiers operating in uniform. Belonging neither to the United States Army nor to any other army of the “coalition of the willing” stationed in Iraq, all four were, to all legal intents and purposes, “civilians”, who had, at least as it appeared initially, the gross misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But on closer inspection one could discern that all four of them were employees of Blackwater, a private security company headquartered in Moyock, North Carolina (www.blackwaterusa.com). Founded only eleven years earlier to the incident, Blackwater symbolizes the growth of a new and booming sector of the military economy, which entrusts private companies with tasks that had previously been preserved for the state. Referring to the process of deregulation, which had made this possible, the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, explained by way of comparison that, “we are trying to do for national security what Fed Ex did for the postal service. Fed Ex”, he went on to say in an interview with the Weekly Standard, “did many of the same services the postal service did, better, cheaper, smarter, and faster by innovating [which] the private sector can do much more effectively” (quoted in Hemingway, 2006). What his company was doing, he claimed, was nothing dissimilar and, in fact, in the national interest too, since his employees would save the American ratepayers a substantial amount of tax.

1.2. The challenge of Private Military Companies

For those who lived through the twentieth-century, where it was a given that state-instituted regular standing armies which recruited from its own people were entrusted with the nation’s security, this arrangement would strike an inconceivable note. Not even in the heyday of unbridled Victorian laissez-faire liberalism did the state feel the need to call upon publically-traded companies to look after its own geopolitical interests. Yet the self-confidence, expressed by Prince, in the capability of his private firm to provide a better service than the state cannot be pushed aside as mere marketing rhetoric. In 2003, for example, Blackwater, DynCorp and other private military companies (hereafter PMCs) turned over a more than impressive collective profit of 100 million dollars (Mlinarcik, 2006). If the prognosis of forecasters is any guide, this sum is set to double by 2010, making the military market a lucrative one and pointing to further deregulation. Limited to Iraq alone, where the incident in Fallujah took place, there were at the last count some 60 private security firms operating in the country, with a total number of 20,000 personnel, or “contractors”, on their books. So ubiquitous have PMCs become that their size now even dwarf that of the British army, the second largest state-sanctioned contingent in the area.

More importantly, PMCs have not limited their remit to support or mere logistics, situated far away from the field of combat, but ominously they now increasingly provide armed escorts, security in and around buildings and, if need be, take on roles which would normally be associated with soldiers in a regular army on fields of combat. Such a reliance on contractors moreover is set to escalate as states realise that outsourcing military responsibilities to these private firms, who typically hire experienced veterans of conflict, can be more effective as well as economical. Not least because of these attractions the United States government has taken out over 600 contracts in Iraq alone (Singer, 2003, 17). Such acts of outsourcing, it should be remembered, are not in themselves particularly unusual. Many states have had little qualms about taking on new spheres of responsibility while relinquishing others. Examples such as the postal service, transport and energy are recent industries that spring immediately to mind, and in which there have been notable, if at times controversial, successes. But the sanctioned use of force – the maintenance of security – has been an area that the state has traditionally monopolised. No modern political ideology, either left or right, has questioned the centrality of the state as unrivalled arbiters of peace, and herein lies the reason why the emergence of PMCs strikes the alarming cord it does.

1.3. State, security and PMCs

Traditionally, it has only been the state which could, according to the classic definition provided by Max Weber, legitimise the use of power. Through its organs – in the shape of the police and army – the state enjoyed the exclusive right to control, suppress, exert and maintain security within and without (Elias 1997). Only if the state can show off it supreme and legitimate control within its territorial borders, Weber went as far as to say, could the state be worthy of its name (Weber, 120). External interference in the monopoly of the use of force, such as civil wars and organised criminal activity, would cast doubt on the viability of the state as enforcers of security. Crucially, Weber presupposed that “the exercise of violence can be ascribed to other groups and individuals only to the extent that the state itself permits it” (Weber, 131), a statement which further underscores the tight relationship between the state and its own security. By taking over this monopoly on security, then, the concern is that PMCs are mounting a challenge to the centrality of the state as sole and supreme arbiters of power. The very modus operandi, in other words,of the state appears to be threatened.

For all of Weber’s brilliance as a thinker, such a classic definition could only have emerged during nineteenth century Europe, for it was the nation-state which reigned supreme at the time; but ever since then advances in modern technology and the movement of both people and information have conspired to limit how much authority states are allowed to wield. Responding to situations when individual states cannot act separately to solve security issues that are international or transnational, Krasner has pointed to moves by the United Nations to intervene in cases of humanitarianism, which incidentally not only emboldens the power of collective states to exercise force in the sphere of international relations, but also serves to limit the powers of states which fall foul of certain international laws. As President Roosevelt put it as far back as 1904: ‘Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may … ultimately requite intervention by some civilized nations’ (Krasner 1999, 181).

While alarming, PMCs should therefore not be considered as complete replacements of the state. Compared to standing armies, which PMCs could not realistically or wholly replace, PMCs would only be entrusted on occasions where there is a demand for its services. They would be delegated select tasks which the state apparatus feels would be better performed when outsourced. Importantly, these firms merely temporarily receive a limited mandate to use violence which would otherwise revert back to the state once contract ends. Such an arrangement, however, can be a potential danger to security, and this is where the fault lines of debate lie. As the last sentences imply, private firms come to the business of war not to serve the national interest but the financial interest. Despite the example of certain companies working only for the US Army, and thus for the national interest, there is nothing that would stop them from serving other states if they thought they could maximize their own profit. To that extent, it is almost exclusively the market that drives them. Such a difference worries some observers because, if PMCs were to choose to work for a rival country, for instance China, they would take knowledge and expertise that had previously resided with the United States for example. Since it is the market that guides them, it is far from out of the question that this will not happen. If not now then it could occur in the future. The question for some is not if – but when.

More ominously, by contrast to standing armies, which receive regular supplies of weapons and training by the state, PMCs have as a rule their own cache of weapons that the state would not provide. Such a state of affairs have lead to legitimate concerns that they might fall into the wrong hands when companies are made bankrupt or when the PMCs themselves, having firmly established themselves as multi-national corporations with a global reach and ample resources, should chose to eat the hand that fed them. From a more operational point of view, the security dangers would be manifest on the ground. Employees of PMCs are not strictly-speaking soldiers who are organised hierarchically but are civilians who are only accountable for their actions through the contracts they have made with their clients. Communication problems between two culturally different entities on the field of combat could, it is feared, end up compromising security. Such worrying tendencies, described memorably by Kofi Annan as the “privatization of security”, if true, go to the heart of what the state is all about: its control over security (Holmqvist, 2005, 8).

2. Literature review

2.1. Popular representations of PMCs

Private military companies today are keen to highlight the supportive and positive impact they have on international security. That they should do so is no surprise as corporations want to impress potential clients. To state that they help undermine security would be tantamount to business suicide. Such a reason explains why they are often vigorous in their denial of any criticism that they are in any way “mercenaries”. Even though firms such as the London-based Armor Group, have names to suggest otherwise, they do stress nonetheless they are in the business of delivering aid rather than unleashing threats to international security. Like most PMCs, the Armor Group is a listed company, headquartered in London, and trade shares in the city’s Stock Exchange as a bona fide business venture. More concretely, as one correspondent reported, it distributed between 2003 and 2007 a staggering “31,100 vehicles, 451,000 weapons and 410 million rounds of ammunition to the new Iraqi security forces, and items as varied as computers, baby incubators, school desks and mattresses for every Iraqi government ministry” (The Washington Post, 2007). As a publicly traded company, fully licensed by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Armor Group even took casualties, partly because it decided to refrain from using particularly powerful weaponry for fear of collateral damage. Why? “[It] did not want to be perceived as a mercenary force” (The Washington Post, 2007).

Such pains to present themselves as supporters of states in their bid to maintain security are often dismissed by commentators, fascinated in the phenomenon of PMCs, in favour of a narrative that spins secret plots and conspiracy theories that do little to contribute to the understanding of these companies as new and influential agents of international peace and security. In a recently published book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, journalist Jeremy Scahill, for example, entirely commits his analysis to doing just this. Pointing to PMCs as mere mercenaries, he goes as far as to state they would be the tool of choice for an adventurous American President’s covert power schemes. Drawing from otherwise correct premises about the end of the Cold War and the increased need for military know-how, Scahill however slowly strays from this promising start by underestimating the historical developments and the complicated changes which have occurred in the field of military services contracting. Ultimately, he ends up even ignoring the basic normative definition of “mercenary person” provided by Article 47 of the 1997 First Additional Protocol (FAP) to the Geneva Conventions. He also washes over numerous lawsuits initiated against Blackwater and other PMCs with reference to alleged safety violations leading to the death of several contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enlisting the agenda-ridden and highly selective accounts of unnamed US soldiers who were “envious”, he pours scorn on the attitude of overpaid “private soldiers [who] whiz by in better vehicles, with better armor, better weapons, wearing the corporate logo instead of the American flag”(The Nation, 28 May 2007). In a similar vein, Publishers Weekly chose to portray private military contractors as “heir[s] to a long and honourable tradition of contract soldier[s],” providing “relatively low-cost alternatives in high-budget environments” (Publishers Weekly Editorial Reviews, 10 April 2007).

Such portrayals of PMCs suggest contractors for these companies have an easy job. But this is far from the case. First, PMCs employees normally work in small teams which can neither count on close air support nor rely on artillery or mortar fire if backup were needed. The US government does not provide their ammunition, weapons systems or daily meals. Whatever they have or need to have (from their subsistence to the accomplishment of their mission) is privately shipped from the parent-country. Should anything happen, as it did in Fallujah, these personnel are on their own, and the odds during either a conventional fire fight or an ambush are far less in their favour. Second, one is not born a military contractor. Most of them have extensive military experience and/or law enforcement backgrounds, with years of training in special tactics and difficult environments. They worked hard to become the very marketable, final commodity that they represent today. It is not a “betrayal,” on their part, to honour their contract with the Armed Forces and then seek a more lucrative source of income. In addition, once these professionals have left their position (be it within the Armed Forces, a police department or other Federal or local government agency) all previous entitlements as far as life insurance (today in excess of $400,000), health benefits, family members coverage and combat zone tax exemption cease to exist. Although a one year-tour in the Middle East with Blackwater would earn a person with an experienced background between $80,000 and $110,000, this would not necessarily be an overriding incentive to go. Third, PMCs are a competitive work environment: good pay calls for knowledgeable, reliable individuals. The levels of professionalism are in general high, while open calls for concerted monitoring and a better regulatory system have further contributed to an effective screening of those applying for a position with all major military services providers (Burns, 2007).

2.2. Scholarly opinions of PMCs

Such an excursion must undermine the promiscuous notion that PMCs are die-hards whose sole intention is to con their way into subverting international security. More serious students of international security by contrast have been more cautious and keen to acknowledge the complexity that is involved in assessing the nature of PMCs. From a strictly realist point of view, which assumes the principle of states as rational unitary actors, with their own security at their forefront of their hierarchy of needs, the delegation of power to contractors smacks of surrendering sovereignty per se, and in this sense political scientists of this school of thought would conclude that PMCs have a negative impact on international security. Most obviously this standpoint manifests itself in examples where weak states, “convulsed by internal violence”, have failed to “deliver positive political goods to their population” (Rotberg, 2003, 1), which is the reason why they may have to resort to the services of PMCs. Conventionally-speaking this would mean PMCs would compromise security.

Yet the privatisation of defence and security, it has been argued, can actually play a positive role in countries which lack structures and technical expertise to achieve stability (Arnold, 1990, 170). By contrast to weak states’ traditional reliance on unpredictable warlords, it is pointed out, foreign military firms can, in fact, provide affordable and effective services to states on a low budget. Without the risk of further disrupting political and social equilibrium, PMCs would act as level-headed participants in conflict swayed less by emotional arguments than by the exclusive need to restore stability. Such an optimistic appraisal of PMCs is adopted by the foremost specialist on them, Peter Singer, who believes that weak states would benefit from their relationship with military companies. Responding to criticism that PMCs would be a drain on the host state’s resources, Singer claims that PMCs in this day and age do not need to secure a diamond mine or an oil field to underwrite their operations – as mercenaries of old had perhaps done. In most instances, a more lucrative market is provided anyway by international emergencies where coalitions of states, large NGOs or international institutions would be willing to pay handsome rewards for their services (Singer, 2002, 190). Such a sentiment is echoed by Jonas Hagmann and Moncef Kartas who remark that “the shift from government to governance, the trend away from state-centric provision for public services such as security and towards network- and private sector-centric provision, allows international organisations to play a role in the regulation of security governance (Hagmann & Kartas, 2007, 285-6). In this framework the calculated risk stemming from entrusting law enforcement activities to private contractors can have a positive outcome. International security is thus upheld.

On the opposite front, scholars such as William Reno (2002) have argued that the increasing resort to military contractors would bring about two different but equally negative consequences. First, private firms run the risk of being seen as enforcers of a new order represented by a resurgence of neo-colonialism. That the attackers in Fallujah, described at the beginning of this investigation, did not discriminate between contractors and regular soldiers is perhaps a case in point. Second, the presence and operation of private security firms, which are given the monopoly to exercise violence, would only add to the corruption of local ruling elites. Such a danger would of course apply more to lowly developed countries than highly developed ones, but, it is pointed out, regimes would be keen to utilise foreign professionals in the furtherance of their own agendas, where PMCs would contribute to the worsening of domestic political stability and territorial integrity (Reno, 2002, 70).

Such a gloomy assessment is also advanced by Paul Verkuil who warns that “reliance on the private military industry and the privatisation of public functions has left governments less able to govern effectively. When decisions that should have been taken by government officials are delegated (wholly or in part) to private contractors without appropriate oversight, the public interest is jeopardised” (Verkuil, 2007, 23). More and more government, Verkuil further observes, seem to favour recourse to outsiders, cashing in their own sovereignty as pawns in order to secure a solution to their more personal welfare. Similarly, Thomas Jäger and Gerhard Kümmel support the pessimistic view that sees the weakening of the state, especially in lowly developed countries. “The price for providing security for a beleaguered and cash-strapped government is exorbitant”, they announce, as those services cost “the contractual sum but also considerable parts of the state’s sovereignty” (Jäger and Kümmel, 2007, 120). Such pessimism has also been reflected in the work of Ronen Palan who bewails the commercialization of sovereignty. Pointing his finger at the expanding phenomenon of the offshore economy, which provides tax havens and financial facilities to large corporations and affluent individuals, Palan believes that a whole array of illegitimate activities are being staged today in those countries willing to give up on their security (Palan, 2003, 59).

2.3. Future development of PMCs

More ominously, scholars such as Thomson see dangerous portents for the future. Even though it would be possible to see the state delegating power, he accepts, in practice “increasing numbers of African rulers are opting today for alternatives to bureaucratic, territorially bounded institutional arrangements” (Thomson, 1995, 217-218), and are finding in private contractors a critical tool in the furtherance of such design. In support of this thesis, William Reno highlights the “fragmented sovereignty of Liberian and Sierra Leonean ‘warlord’ political units, and the associated enclave cities of Freetown and Monrovia.” To support their authority these new units have hired foreign contractors—foreign firms and mercenaries—to perform services formerly allotted to state bureaucracies. Closely recalling Rotberg’s definition, Reno points out how these new political units assume the ambiguous status of “non-state organizations,” profoundly divergent from the traditional norms of the bureaucratic state (Reno 1997, 493). Evidently, these non-states cannot produce societal advancement. They undermine economic development, lead to overlapping jurisdictions, promote conflicts among elites, and intentionally destroy bureaucracies” (Reno, 1997, 494), so as to allow the rulers to profit from the pervasive absence of government. Historically, mercenary groups have thrived in similar environments, but political ambiguity and ethnic-based conflicts are making the line between right and wrong almost impossible to draw between mercenaries and private contractors. More sophisticated, visible and publicly traded companies could, it is feared, one day be found working within these non-states, providing services that are legitimate per se, to far less legal entities. So far, no major private military or security contractor has lent its services to rogue states or actors not recognized by the international community – but it remains a distinct possibility.

From all this the implication is clear: does the emergence of PMCs present a real challenge to state security, even to the existence of the state itself? And what impact, if any, have PMCs had on international security? Do they help to undermine or bolster it? Such questions will be posed and answered in the course of this investigation. To do so it will be necessary to assess the extent to which PMCs present a challenge. First, the study will consider the theoretical arguments about sovereignty and security, placing discussion within the context of how the monopoly of violence came to be attached to the state. By doing so it should be possible to lay the foundations on which one can consider the extent of the threat posed by PMCs. Secondly, the study analyses the nature of PMCs themselves as a post-Cold War phenomenon. Taking care to differentiate between different types of organisations as well as discussing similarities ad divergences with armies, the investigation focuses on where PMCs should be situated, and considers the problem of where privatization begins and ends. Thirdly, the study looks more specifically at examples of PMCs in action from different parts of the world. All too often, theoretical discussion can be misleading. Dealing empirically with specific cases in the world’s hot spots in which PMCs have been deployed, it would be possible to ascertain the real effects of PMCs on the ground as well as on security in general. By incorporating all three elements – the theoretical/historical, analytical and empirical – it should be possible to reach in conclusion a more accurate understanding of PMCs and their real impact on international security.

3. History and theory of state sovereignty

3.1. State and security in historico-theoretical perspective

Before discussion can turn to the extent to which PMCs pose a threat to international security, it would be useful to consider the actor they are supposedly challenging: the state. More specifically, one should reflect on the foundations on which the state monopolises power, question how it developed to do so, and discuss the recent changes to the relationship between the state and security.

From a historical point of view, it would of course be possible to trace the existence of the state back as far as the ancient Greeks. Even so, it would be more common and appropriate to pinpoint the direct antecedents of the modern state to the Renaissance when Italy emerged having highly-organised city states. Most important characteristics of these fledging cities were their ability to possess standing armies, organise complicated bureaucracies and institute a rule of law to which the population would adhere. (Heller, 1934, 8). Such a process saw its completion during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when control, helped by improvements in communications, extended over vast regions, at times spanning the globe.

What was the key to this development was the amount of power the state could control. But for a long time power had been divided among different agents who would not necessarily obey the wishes of those in power. Even when Charlemagne, for instance, managed to conquer Europe during the medieval period, he could still not claim he was the most powerful man on the continent, since his Empire was ultimately subjected to recognition from Rome which could, in the figure of the Pope, refuse spiritual recognition. Power could also be left in the hands of the nobility, who for a long time kept peasants in perpetual servitude without the state being able to have a say in the kind of relationship that was forged between master and servant. Many city states, too, which boasted rich cultural and commercial pasts, could also resist the advances of larger states within their territory. Examples such as Florence, Venice, Hamburg and Bremen spring to mind as resistors of this trend, and it is hardly a coincidence that these proud cities for a long time evaded the dictates of administrative centres of Rome and Berlin, delaying the emergence of Italy and Germany respectively as modern nation states.

What was crucially important in the eventual emergence of the state was the ability to control the income of the people it subjugated – or more simply: taxes. At the outset taxes were levied as a temporary measure to fight wars but they were eventually made permanent following the One Hundred Year War, which raged between 1337 and 1453. Such a protracted war made it evident that a constant supply of finance to survive and triumph. Such a need in turn meant the creation of a more sophisticated bureaucracy that could effectively collect tax and use it for war. During the early modern period, the contributions of trade and commerce added further to a bulging budget, and the process of urbanisation which made this possible meant that central administrative organs as well as ruling monarchs would reside in towns and cities as a result.

More important for the purposes of this investigation was the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which established the principle of sovereignty. From this time onwards the state gradually established itself as the exclusive form of rule. Most memorably under King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, self-appointed monarchs consolidate the supremacy of the state over the Church, towns, people and economy to the extent that it could hardly be challenged. Even if the veracity of Louis’ famous quip – “L’etat, c’est moi!”- has been questioned, the statement succinctly conveys not only the self-righteousness of the King, but also the importance that was attached to the state itself. For without it the King could hardly cling onto power. Such moves naturally affected the nature of armies too. No longer would hired mercenaries do the job in prosecuting war – they had to be replaced by professional standing armies who would not, unlike mercenaries before them, switch sides depending on the way the wind was blowing. Much of the reason why PMCs are striking is because they seem to represent a throwback to a time when foreign nationals could join armies of other countries without this ever causing a stir or leading to doubt about their allegiance. Such a problem never really arose when absolute monarchs held sway. The crucial point was that soldiers should express their allegiance to the king or queen – to the individual head of the state – and that would be sufficient. But with the development of the nation-state, in which it was no longer necessarily to have monarchs for politics to function – circumstances changed so that citizens had to pledge allegiance to the state masquerading as the fatherland, to an abstract concept of the state no less.

Such disinterest in the kind of ruler the state embraces has been the hallmark to why the state has successfully remained the central force that it is still today. Concretely it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who first realised the full extent of the powers of the state as well as the willingness of people to be subjugated to it. In his classic book Leviathan, written in 1651, he described the natural condition in which there is neither state nor law. Only natural law – or ius naturalis – is present where everybody is free to do what they want. Such a state of affairs leads to all pursuing their own narrow interests, so that it quickly descends into a “war against all” in which everybody would need to live in constant fear of attacks on their own property, family and life. It is to avoid this situation that people come together to give up some of their freedom in return for guarantees of stability under a contract with Leviathan. Strikingly the Leviathan that Hobbes envisaged had almost unlimited power. Even though Hobbes conceded that citizens had the right of protest, he believed the state had the absolute right to control without which the existence of the state would be compromised.

3.2. Delegation of state competencies

Much of the reason why Hobbes invested in Leviathan such radicalism can be explained by the circumstances in which he found himself at the time he came to write his treatise. For it represented a time of the English Civil War, which raged between 1642 and 1649, during which time conflict took place between the King, Charles I and the Parliamentarians who challenged the right of the King to absolute power. Even though the Parliamentarians eventually triumphed, this did little to change the nature of the state, and the basic idea that under contract the state is given exclusive control over the use of violence, and thus the maintenance of security, is something that still lives on. For if the security of the people over whom the state rules is to be at all upheld, it would be necessary to confer upon the state the right to bear arms to defend its borders against others. Both the examples of absolute monarchy and Leviathan point up the extent to which the state has dominated during the past, and the difficulty that has attended any attempt at changing this arrangement. Even if the extent of the state’s power has been historically constituted, and is, as such, subject to change, it must surely be accepted that it would take more than the likes of PMCs to alter this arrangement.

All of this does not mean of course that the state needs to jealously guard all its competencies. Even though Hobbes drew up the all-powerful figure of Leviathan, it should be remembered that it is after all merely a theoretical construct – an ideal type – which would neither exist nor function in reality. Most students of the state would agree that the fundamental function of the state is to uphold order and security. In order to end the anarchy of a state-less world, institutions, such as the police and the army, would need to be created that would enforce this objective. But beyond this task it is debatable if the state should actually be involved. During the last two decades or so, there has been a tendency towards the privatisation of vast expanses of industry previously under the umbrella of state organs – a phenomenon which Singer has even called a “revolution” (Singer, 2003, 66). Postal services, public transport, even education have been privatised in many western economies, not least because it is believed that private companies would do a better job of running them. Even public-private partnerships have been conceived in which state and industry cooperates in ventures. Examples of private funding has been the construction of basic infrastructure projects, such as the building of bridges or motorways, which would be for the greater public good and which, so the private companies hope, would pay dividends in the medium-to-long term. Yet all these moves do not necessarily contradict the rationale of the state. As long as the state ultimately remains in control, it is not under threat. Much of the discussion among political theorists, which have informed the fears on which pessimists base their analysis of PMCs, overestimates the scope of the state’s remit and forgets that the contracts handed down to PMCs are in fact provided by the state in full knowledge that doing so would not undermine the authority of the state. The limit is of course reached when PMCs are in a position to flout the directives of the state. But even if, for sake of argument, PMCs were to replace the state it would not necessarily follow that this new arrangement would be detrimental to the maintenance of international security. Situations, in which PMCs, responsible to shareholders and transparent in their actions, call the shots, could prove to be beneficial.

4. An analysis of modern military companies

4.1 Problems of definition

Private military companies are profit-making ventures. Millions of dollars are made by firms such as Blackwater and DynCorp whose numerical presence in Iraq is second only to the United States. Their combined operations exceed even the number of troops the United Kingdom has sent to fight in the Middle East. One scholar was intrigued enough to calculated that for every 100 regular troops there would be at least 10 PMC operatives. Such a presence led The Economist to name the Iraq war the “first privatized war” (The Economist, 2003) where entities floated on the stock market would have a major say in how war would be prosecuted.

During a time of increasing military expenditure, the unbridled rise of market capitalism and globalization, it is easy to see why states have looked to the services of the private sector not least because they have seen opportunities for slimming down “big” government. What should not be misunderstood is that they have done so not only because it would be cheap to do so. Not only are PMCs able to offer highly-qualified individuals and training programmes, they are also able to provide their own weapons and transport capabilities that would put some regular standing armies to shame. Even though these companies, many of which are registered as firms in western countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa, and are as such supposed to abide by laws of the country in which they are headquartered, one could be forgiven for questioning if states would be able to control these companies if they did decide to turn round and direct their weaponry on their own government. Pointing to the now defunct example of the South African PMC Executive Outcomes, Singer reported on the widespread opinion held at the time that a single soldier of Executive Outcomes would be worth a whole battalion of the South African army (Singer, 2003, 101ff).

Since the end of the Cold War the number of PMCs has mushroomed. Such is their extent that it is far from clear whether all the 60 firms reportedly operating in Iraq, for instance, can be categorised as such, and scholars have experienced difficulty in doing just this – a state of affairs that can in part be excused by the fact that PMCs are recent phenomena whose nature is still very much in a state of flux and evolution. Most observers would however classify PMCs by how involved they are with conflict and the kind of military capabilities they are able to furnish. Peter Singer has usefully come up with a definition which distinguishes between three different forms of PMCs:

  • “Military Support Firms” which are used as logistical supporters during conflict (e.g. Kellogg Brown & Root)
  • “Military Consultant Firms” which specialise in training and consulting but are not usually involved directly with conflicts (e.g. MPRI, DynCorp)
  • “Military Provider Firms” which provide security and police services and are as such are involved indirectly in actual conflict (e.g. Sandline)

Even so, it should be made clear that these are ideal types, which can often have less application when set against reality. So that for example Blackwater, which has been categorised here as a Military Consultant Firm, has in fact the capabilities to do much more. Despite the emphasis placed on training and consultancy, it boasts a rich databank of potential contractors and has its own training ground, helicopters and combat vehicles (Hemingway, 2006). Similarly, a firm which is tasked merely with the transportation of foodstuff must also take into consideration that its employees would conceivably become embroiled, at one time or another, in direct conflict and would thereby need to be prepared for this eventuality. Such a cursory excursion underlines just how difficult it is to differentiate between the three basic categories. How much must, one might legitimately ask, be involved in conflict to become PMCs? Much of the problem with this kind of definition is that it attaches too much importance to the degree of conflict. Private security, involving the watching of buildings, would never be considered under this definition, while modern weapons technologies can make the distinction between direct and indirect involvement almost obsolete (Schaller, 2005, 6).

Such limitations call for a more open definition, which David Shearer has provided: “Military companies offer military skills that were once the preserve of governments … Their essential purpose is to enhance the capability of a client’s military forces to function better in war, or to deter conflict more effectively” (Shearer, 1998a, 23) In contrast to Singer’s rather narrow definition, Shearer’s renders irrelevant tricky factors such as involvement. What is rather important is that PMCs offer original military services. Less important is whether the firms are actually ones which carry them out. From the perspective of Shearer, then, it is of little consequence if companies choose to work for government, non-governmental organisations or even individuals. Yet Shearer’s definition can also be criticised from the point of view that while more open it assumes PMCs to be connected in one way or another with the prosecution of war. Security either domestic or international is a much broader term which can be applied to a condition or state that might or might not lead to war, and in which PMCs could be involved. Not only would the use of violence to uphold security be important here, but also the more general capability to assert control. For the purposes of this investigation it would be useful to extend and modify the definitions offered by both Singer and Shearer. First of all, PMCs should refer to all firms which offer to carry out military tasks regardless of whatever role they are nominally required to undertake. Second, PMCs should be understood not as associated exclusively to the conduct of war. As such, PMCs more concretely should be seen as agents who offer services that had previously been the preserve of states and provide them to clients who seek to improve their military capabilities.

4.2. Contractors and mercenaries

At the beginning of his book, “Corporate Warriors”, Paul Singer reminds his readers that “hiring outsiders to fight battles is as old as war itself” (Singer, 2003, 19). Much of the reason why he feels the need to point this out is because societies have become accustomed to equating armies with modern conflict. Yet for much of history this was far from the case. As employed men on contract, mercenaries were especially popular during the High Middle Ages and the Thirty Years War where they often turned out to be decisive in the outcome of wars. Only later when the state came to monopolise violence, a process described in the previous section, did the use of mercenaries gradually recede into the background not least because of the threat they were perceived to pose to the state. Ever since then mercenaries have acquired the rogue meaning that they tend to be labelled with today.

Much of this negative connotation has been peddled further in print and media. Film and novels often exploit the theme of mercenaries as Frederick Forsyth, for example, did to much commercial success when he wrote “The Dogs of War”, a fiction about the antics of mercenaries involved in a African putsch. Uncannily the book recounted the trials and tribulations of private firms, before PMCs came about, exploiting the natural resources of a dictatorship to maximise their profits. Even though the contents of the novel were far from true, the inspiration that Forsyth undoubtedly drew from was arguably very much real: he came to write it during the 1960s when numerous African countries were embroiled in conflict in which foreign mercenaries were also involved. In the Congo, for instance, a civil war broke out following independence during which time the Irish General of the Army at the time Mike Hoare sent out advertisement to entice mercenaries to join the side of the government. Perhaps the most famous mercenary of all, during this period, was the Frenchman Bob Denard who had fought in several Africa wars, participating in no less than all four putsch attempts on the Comoro (Singer, 2003, 40-4). Not only was the employment of mercenaries necessarily post-colonial or mono-continental. Even in Vietnam mercenaries were involved as James R. Davis, a former soldier in the Canadian armed forces who later joined a private security firm, relates in his book, “Fortune’s Warriors. Private Armies and the New World Order”. Following the capture of Saigon the last American soldiers were winched to safety by a helicopter that was flown not by US Army personnel but by a group of mercenaries hired by the CIA (Davis, 2000, 45).

What is significant about this literary genre is less its factual content than its use of discourses about mercenaries that are far from flattering. For most which tap this theme contributes to the idea of mercenaries as untrustworthy individuals who would have little scruples about fighting for the highest bidder. Far from the time when mercenaries were considered decisive in any conflict they can lay little claim on influencing the results of modern wars. More problematically the response to the advert put out by Hoare drew a motley grew of “alcoholics, drunks, booze artists, bums and layabouts” who could find no other means of employment and foolishly believed that fighting in the Congo would be easy money (Singer, 2003, 40ff).

Such an image is a far cry from today’s PMCs who make a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the mercenary label. So much so in fact that they regard themselves as professionals who ‘hierarchically organized into incorporated and registered businesses that compete openly on the international market. They link to financial holdings and recruit more proficiently than their predecessors’ (Singer, 2002, 190). By contrast to mercenaries, which are what Singer means by ‘predecessors’, PMCs are also keen to appear reputable so that they are able to tap markets more efficiently and creditably. Such companies have so far successfully defended their professionalism, Shearer adds, by making conscious use of internationally accepted legal and financial instruments and securing deals only with recognised governments (Shearer, 1998b, 69). Efforts such as international registration and open government contracting represent precisely this desire for respectability as a professional and accountable modern body of military and security personnel which would be traits the traditional mercenary groups would find hard to imitate.

Such cravings on the part of PMCs for respectability have meant they are able to argue they are legally-speaking completely different from mercenaries. Criteria which the Geneva Convention put down in Article 47 state that to be a mercenary a person:

  • Is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in armed conflict;
  • Does, in fact, take a direct part in hostilities;
  • Is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party;
  • Is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict;
  • Is not a member of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict; and
  • Has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces.

All criteria have to be met in order to be classified as “mercenaries”, and PMCs would easily argue they have little or nothing in common with them. Problematic and ambiguous from the start are points (b) and (f) since it is far from easy to define when a person becomes directly involved in conflict. Similarly, contractors of PMCs would point out that since they receive briefs directly from governments, whose armed forces are involved, they would not qualify as mercenaries under criterion (f) anyway. As the example of the Blackwater employees, introduced at the beginning of this study, shows they were sent on the express request of the American government. Even point (a) would not necessarily apply to PMCs whose contracts are not limited to a particular conflict but to many conflicts. All these qualifications contribute to the difficulty of classification. As Geoffrey Best has quipped: “any mercenary who cannot exclude himself from this definition deserves to be shot – and his lawyer with him” (Best, 1980, 328).

From all this it should be clear that contractors working for PMCs constitute a new type of paid fighters – an entity different from mercenaries – a point on which scholars generally agree. “Both personnel employment by military companies and mercenaries have military origins, are foreign to the country in which they operate and are paid for their services”, Shearer writes, but “beyond these shared characteristics, there are observable differences” (Shearer, 1998a, 21). Going much further Singer believes that PMS represent the “next evolution” of military services in which the key element is “corporatization”, or the ability and desire to present themselves as reputable companies – just like any other business. “PMFs [Private Military Firms] are ordered along pre-existing corporate lines usually with a clear executive hierarchy that includes boards of directors and share holdings” (Singer, 2003, 45). Consequently, these companies do not operate clandestinely, which was the preferred mode of conduct of mercenaries in Africa during the 1960s, but openly, publicising the services they offer even on the Internet accessible by anyone. So transparent are these firms that Blackwater, for example, on its homepage has a 28-page training manual that could be downloaded for a fee. Courses are even offered to the interested non-combatant who could be trained on introductory courses on how to use pistols to more advanced ones that impart techniques of sharpshooters. Further perusal would reveal “products” which are offered such as armoured vehicles, target systems and airships (www.blackwaterusa.com). Such openness helps to underline further the gap which separates PMCs from mercenaries. All they have in common, it seems, is a relationship to war.

4.3 PMCs and the army

If PMCs are not mercenaries then are they closer to state-instituted armies? From the perspective of international law the two appear to have little in common. Regardless of the issue of whether PMCs are mercenaries or contractors, they would not in any case enjoy the status of soldier; but equally it would be problematic to see them as civilians, even if they are this strictly by law. Even in some countries, such as Germany, participants in conflicts that have nothing to do with them can be prosecuted. Such a law would mean that states would need to be careful that employees of PMCs do not assume combat roles. Any appointment which would lead to confusion about them would have to be avoided if at all possible. Even then it is clear that in practice such rules could become irrelevant, as the activities of PMCs in Iraq amply attest. What is significant is that their direct military involvement is at times even desired to the extent that boundaries are readily blurred. Yet there are major differences between PMCs and armies in that, in contrast to soldiers, who operate within a state structure, contractors do not. Employees who see little combat to more active contractors who risk more on the ground are contracted to fulfil responsibilities to the company they work for. Unlike soldiers they would not need to follow orders. If they disagreed with a directive they would be free to resign from the position. What this makes possible is that they are free to operate in at times legally open territory as they would not be bound to the Geneva conventions. Even war crimes could theoretically be committed, although the International court at the Hague might debate the license allowed to operatives of this kind.

Not only should the legal aspects be pointed out as constituting important differences between armies and PMCs. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when states gradually established standing armies, the important aspect to this process was discipline in which soldiers would be drilled and housed in such a way to serve as a part of war-making machinery. Not only would this be achieved by accommodating them in barracks but it was also necessarily as the technologies used to prosecute war became increasingly complex. The loading and unloading of ever complicated rifles, guns and canons led to precise instructions about how it should be carried out which would be accompanied by countless exercises to perfect the various movements that would achieve efficient execution. More recently, this process has led to the disappearance of elaborate uniforms which have been replaced by simpler combat clothes. A system of hierarchy is imposed to make clear the precise line of command and separate rules of punishment laid down so that the soldier would be enmeshed into a narrowly-controlled instrument of the state (Foucault, 1979). But PMCs share very little of these characteristics. Even armies, despite their authoritarianism can and are made accountable under a democratic system to parliament and ultimately to the nation. Yet contractors are responsible not to voters but ultimately to shareholders (Holmqvist, 2005, 9).

4.5 The privatization of war

“Foreign forces or mercenaries” Shearer has explained, “tend to prosper in unstable conditions or following a change in the existing order.” Not only would this statement apply to fourteenth-century Europe after the end of the Thirty Years War, but it would also be fair to describe the world following the end of the Cold War. (Shearer, 1998a, 13) Despite the fact that there are many other causes to the instability, the Cold War undoubtedly helped to mask tensions, which simmered but never reached the surface at a time when geopolitics divided the world essentially into two ideological camps. Following the fall of the Soviet Union these unresolved conflicts broke out as newly independent states emerged, old ones tried to re-establish themselves, and ethnic minorities asserted their right to self-determination. Only the recent example of conflict in Ossetia, for instance, point up the extent to which this dynamic still needs to be played out to the full. Equally this very example tells us how far the two states involved – Georgia and Russia – had come from the time when they had been part of the Soviet Union. Compared to the past when states could turn to financial or military help from either of the two superpowers, then, such support would no longer forthcoming, and in the case of Georgia, neither NATO nor the United States were keen on intervening, while Russia, the former superpower, was now its foe.

Much of the reason why the west could not intervene might be sought in the diminished number of soldiers these countries were now committing following the end of the Cold War. In 1987 the British military operated some 599 missions in 30 countries; but the figure had diminished to 455 by 1997. Equally France was keen to scale down its military presence in post-colonial Africa, while the United States too drew away from intervention. Troop deployment in Somalia and Iraq are two major exceptions in a general trend away from dabbling in the matter of other countries. Even enthusiasm for missions conducted by the United Nations decreased. Such a downturn has produced, in turn, what Singer calls a “security gap”, which PMCs have been quick and eager to fill (Singer, 2003, 51)

Of more significance for this discussion was the number of soldiers who found themselves almost suddenly surplus to requirements following the end of the Cold War. Not only was this the case with armies in the United States and the former Soviet Union but also those from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. By 1997, for instance, the number of soldiers employed in the British army – 112,000 – had reached levels that were lower than at the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In the same year France recorded 381,000 soldiers - 150,000 less than what she had 10 years previously. In the United States the army is supposed to have shed a similar percentage – a third – of its manpower. Overall it is believed that there are less than 7 million soldiers today than in 1989 (Shearer, 1998a, 27-9). What this implies is self-evident: ex-soldiers, sometimes with experience and expertise, flood the market offering their military know-how to those who would want them. Such is the background and reason behind why so many PMCs have been founded by ex-soldiers. Some even promise to provide only experienced former military personnel so as to compete in the market (Singer 2003, 49-70). Combined with weapons and military equipment, which have also become surplus to requirements following the end of the Cold War, today’s world constitute an unprecedented period in which sophisticated military expertise and firepower are in the hands of private people and corporations.

Many of the clients PMCs serve are so-called weak states whose military capabilities are insufficient to maintain security either within or without their territories. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union intra-state as opposed to inter-state conflicts have been in ascendency in which common rules of wars – such as the Geneva convention – take a backseat and the distinction between combatants and civilians is blurred. Paradoxically in a nuclear age, these conflicts are also light on technology so that weapons are minimal and transport is provided in civilian cars and pick-up trucks. Yet while PMCs do provide services to these weak states, insofar as there is an expanded market for these things, it should not be forgotten either that traditional powers, including the sole superpower the United States, are keen to use their services too. Without them the rise of PMCs would be inconceivable. Why western states do so can be partly explained by their squeamishness about committing themselves to conflicts which generate too many casualties. What is foremost in the minds of those who do decide to go to war, is that while national interests should be furthered, they should not be compromised by too much blood-letting. By stark contrast to the ideal of mercenaries, or even the elite soldiers of the past, who would be prepared to give up their lives in combat, western democracies are prepared to go to lengths of stopping this from happening. Placed within what has been termed a “post-heroic society”, the tendency is to protect heroes from hurting themselves. Osama bin Laden drew attention to this and aptly described the difference between his men and theirs: “The Americans love life but our soldiers love death.” Such attitudes mean that military commanders now prefer “clean” wars to wars in which men are actually dispatched on the ground as foot soldiers. In such a way risk is minimised. Such risk is minimised even further by the use of PMCs. When on occasion employees of these firms are killed in action, they can be counted as civilian losses, which allow western states to report back figures that would not necessarily correspond to the level of violence in the actual theatre of war. Ultimately states can care less about the number of contractors that are killed – delegating tasks to PMCs washes the states’ hands of responsibility. More fundamentally the use of PMCs is justified by the costs. At a time when it is difficult to justify substantial increases in military spending, the attraction of PMCs lies in the savings states can make on their budgets. Additionally standing armies are at times inflexible and slow to react to the nature of conflict pursued today, whereas PMCs are quicker. They can also be charged, almost like part-time workers, by the hour and ordered to carry out specific tasks for a set amount of money. By contrast to standing armies, PMCs have less bureaucracy to work with and are not held down by protracted political issues that could slow down the process of decision-making. All in all PMCs are well-adapted to the needs both of post-modern society and war.

5. Private military companies in action

5.1. Executive Outcomes as pioneer

Perhaps the most famous pioneering example of PMCs is the South African firm Executive Outcomes (EO) which operated between 1989 and 1999 in conflicts of several African states. Even among specialists EO is considered to have been one of the most efficient PMCs. Founded in 1989 by Eben Barlow, a former elite soldier who had previously worked for the South African Defence Force, EO sought recruitment particularly among former soldiers in the South African army generally and the 32nd Battalion to which Barlow had been attached. Employed on a contract-by-contract basis, EO boasted that it could despatch thousands of men – who collectively had over 5,000 years of combat experience – to all corners of the world in minimal time. Not only did EO possess a database full of contractors, but it also had links to the firm Ibis Air which provided two military transport planes, several Russian helicopters and MIG fighter jets (Singer, 2003, 101-6).

The first major operation in which EO took part, and which made them famous, was the re-capture of the Angolan town of Soyo, which had fallen into the hands of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Called in by the Angolan military, EO sent a squad of 80 men who successfully regained control of this oil-rich city. Following this success, the Angolan government was so impressed that it offered the company a lucrative contact to train the army and continue the fight against the rebels, efforts which culminated in the army re-capturing further important strategic posts. As the government regained control of oil and diamond mines, it was able to bolster the army as well as offer EO further financial incentives. All in all EO participated in five large operations and contributed massively to the strengthening of the Angolan army. By the end of 1994 the United Nations intervened in a truce between the two belligerents, but the effectiveness of PMCs was now evident. Emboldened the EO went on to carry out work in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia and Congo. Only after the South African government made it mandatory for EO to ask for its permission and comply by promises not to break the rules of war did EO finally fold in early 1999. But it had already proved its usefulness and firms such as Sandline International quickly emerged to take its place utilising the networks EO had left behind. According to Singer EO signalled to the world how effective PMCs could be and how lucrative a market they could tap (Singer, 2003, 107-118).

5.2. Sierra Leone

At the same time EO was withdrawing from Angola, its services had been hired by the military regime briefly led by Captain Valentine Strasser who was fighting for control of the country against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). For an estimated $35 million, EO was placed in charge of training the largely ineffective Sierra Leone military units. Promising results were quickly achieved. Government forces successfully staged an offensive campaign that led to securing the capital Freetown, the Kono diamond mining area and the Sierra Rutile Mine. More to the point, EO dramatically improved Sierra Leone forces’ military performance, created local militias to aid in the effort to counter rebels (Musah, 2000, 98) and finally helped facilitate a breakthrough when, in January 1996, forces attacked and triumphed in a major assault of the RUF base in the Kangari Hills. The following negotiations brought about a period stable enough to allow the staging of elections and, towards the end of 1996, a peace agreement. This required, among other things, the withdrawal of EO from Sierra Leone. The contract was terminated, this time possibly far too precipitously, and


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