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The Rise of Public Military Companies and Global Stability

February 19th, 2017

By Kalyani Subbiah – Research Assistant

The death of a nation’s soldiers is often a politically charged and emotive issue, more so since the advancement of military technology has given civilians the illusion of distant, sanitized warfare with minimal casualties. Hence, the US government – both the Department of Defense and State Department – have in recent years sought to maintain at least a degree of popular support for a number of conflicts and sustain a force projection capability that would otherwise not be possible, by supplementing citizen-soldiers with private military contractors. In recent years, the number of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has exceeded the number of citizen-soldiers. In the process, the US government has legitimized a particular mode of military corporation called the Private Military Company (PMC) in the international arena.

The global phenomenon of the privatization of military personnel can be divided into three strands. The first is the re-introduction of state-trained foreign mercenaries, such as Colombian mercenaries deployed by the UAE in Yemen’s civil war. The second is the proliferation of PMCs, which provide training and combat support to state militaries. The rise of these companies has been mercurial in recent years, with US force projection efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan being the most high-profile examples. The third is the resurgence of mercenary companies such as Executive Outcomes in the form of new organizations such as STTEP. Mercenary organizations are organized as firms that directly wage battle for a price, including attack operations. In 2015, the former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan secretively employed South African mercenaries to launch a pre-election offensive on Boko Haram bases, involving the use of sophisticated equipment such as attack helicopters.

PMCs that provide military training and combat support, such as Academi and Dyncorp, do not usually engage in ‘pay for combat’ or ‘mercenary’ operations, though they have the capability. They are tailored to meet the needs of their primary customer, frequently the US government, both in organization and personnel. However, when such companies support US operations, US citizens only form a small fraction of personnel – generally as top-level management – while a large non-US personnel element staffs non-military positions such as logistics support. The crucial part of the workforce also consists of trained and armed contractors from across the world – Australia, Eastern Europe, South Africa, India, South America and so on. US citizens’ casualties are hence minimized, while information on contractor casualties is not freely available or publicized, hence perpetuating the myth of sanitized warfare.

The popular ‘dogs of war’ imagery of daredevil individual mercenaries has faded with the proliferation and legitimation of corporatized PMCs and the economic rise and stabilization of the African continent. Yet, even as some of these organizations are publicly incorporated in stock exchanges of the US/UK, they lack transparency and provide very little information to the public, including data on operations or even company locations. Their connections with traditionally secretive public military and intelligence agencies couple with corporate secrecy to create a toxic mix of unaccountability to the public. Hence, PMCs pose a threat to the democratic relationship between the citizen and the military.

Adding to the veneer of secrecy, the sector has seen a high turnover of companies, as the same actors open, close and rename companies to escape the public eye. For example, Blackwater changed its name to Xe corporation in 2009 post the infamous Nisour Square Incident, and then to Academi in 2011. Essentially the same group of ageing South African apartheid-era mercenaries have set up various companies as offshoots of the now-defunct Executive Outcomes. The international nature of these organizations results in the transfer of skills to contractors of developing countries who will have the capability to set up and operate their own companies in the future.

The effectiveness of South African mercenaries in the fight against Boko Haram has led to an increase in support for privatization. PMCs or mercenary companies can assist weak states with militaries that have been crippled due to fear of coups – especially in states with a history of military dictatorship. Several apologists for mercenary companies have argued that disinterested corporations have better human rights records than local soldiers, warlords or rebels – as in Nigeria’s case, where Nigerian soldiers stand accused of widespread human rights violations in the fight against Boko Haram. But, private actors’ disinterest in local politics could prop up tyrannies just as much as legitimate regimes.

Market forces have hence led to the specialization and rationalization of the military sector, where trainers and technologies can be bought for a price and state monopolies can be broken or surpassed. Privatization equalizes the playing field and further redistributes military power away from those with human capital to those with wealth. For example, Colombia has decried the loss of its best soldiers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and several nations have lost military talent to large PMCs. PMCs may also undermine the military capabilities of the US if they were to be employed by other nation states. However, in contexts where the primary risks come from extremists that are non-state actors, the option to strengthen state capabilities with specialized outsourcing is a positive step.

Could privatization result in a less conflict-ridden world? PMCs have minimized state expenditure on warfare, pushing the military market into greater efficiency. Efficiency in the military market may lower costs and loss of life per battle. But, in economics, more efficiency means more goods. Similarly, will more efficiency in the military market mean more war? As the US draws out of troubled regions, it leaves unemployed contractors in its wake, who were employed in the first place because they do not have to be paid during peacetime and are hence cheaper in the long run. Power can be employed through force or hegemony and PMCs have plenty of the former, which could result in ‘protection money’ operations or warlords in unstable regions as contractors struggle to find work. It could also result in the destabilization of peripheral regions and hotspots through ‘betting’ on rivals in a civil war, sponsoring coups or – in an extreme case – a cartel of PMCs sponsoring both sides of the conflict. Though these scenarios have rarely occurred in the past, PMCs enlarge the problem of Eisenhower’s ‘Corporate-Industry nexus’.

Hence, PMCs need to be seen as a neutral tool that can be regulated to ensure a stable world. This calls for a proper international definition of both PMCs and mercenary companies that is not riddled with loopholes or calls for an outright ban like in the UN Mercenary Convention of 2001 (resolution 44/34). Instead, the sector needs to be regulated to prevent employment by certain states on a blacklist and non-state actors, prohibit any independent action by PMCs, and establish a formal code of conduct set by nation states, guided by the ICRC’s Montreux document and the industry’s self-regulatory code: the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC). There must also be a means to prosecute offenses through international courts – the ICJ and ICC for serious offenses like war crimes, and national courts for transparency and contract issues. A legal framework for employing PMCs needs to be drawn up, prohibiting their employment in inter-state warfare (with exceptions) or in domestic ‘law and order’ situations by rulers. PMCs already have bases across the world, especially in the notoriously lax Dubai, out of fear of national bans.

Sturdy international and national laws and definitions in place of the presently weak and inadequate provisions or bans appear necessary for stability in the long run. The proliferation of privatized or mercenary warfare has precedent in history, specifically in Europe during the late Middle Ages. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was framed to address the continuous warfare and instability caused by the machinations of mercenary companies. It ultimately resulted in the establishment of a state monopoly on military force that largely persisted throughout the 20th century. Just as in the past, drafting clear regulations that firmly integrate PMCs with state operations, international regulation and oversight is the best means to global stability

About Kalyani Subbiah

Kalyani Subbiah is currently a Masters student of Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has previously interned with her institute's China Studies Centre, authoring a special report on China's 'One Belt One Road' initiative. Her research interests include international development and aid flows, China in global politics, Russia and NATO, and the Middle East.