Private Armies and Private Military Companies (PMCs)

Apr 8


Sam Vaknin

Sam Vaknin

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Modern armies contract and farm out many of their traditional functions.


Interview granted to Barry Zellen,Private Armies and Private Military Companies (PMCs) Articles INTERSEC (UK), February 2008

1. Since the end of the cold war, what has been the role of private contractors in the conduct of war? Has it been on the rise?

A. Private contracting of military functions has been on the rise since the first Gulf War (1991). With the collapse of the USSR, the militaries of the main Western protagonists, the USA and the UK, have been drastically scaled back, a process known as the "peace dividend". At the same time, economists and politicians throughout the world embarked on an ambitious plan involving the privatization of state-owned firms and functions. Inevitably, the two fads coalesced and huge chunks of hitherto state-monopolized warfare were contracted out, outsourced, and even offshored.2. What have been the primary functions for contractors in war zones, and how has this aided the war efforts of states?

A. Third World countries have always leveraged mercenaries to subdue adversaries at home and abroad. Many armies in Africa and Asia and even in certain parts of Europe (such as the Balkans) were or are being run by third party contractors who sometimes also actively participate in the fighting.

As far as the USA and UK are concerned, until the Iraq war, private contractors were mainly responsible for logistics, training, and security tasks. This narrow definition of their roles is in flux, though. Private soldiers of fortune may yet be hired and rented out even by the governments of the West, though I regard this as extremely unlikely.3. With the demise of the USSR and the end of bipolarity in international affairs, most of the wars have been to some degree asymmetrical contests between unequal adversaries. Do private contractors help states sustain their warfighting efforts during asymmetrical, protracted and low-intensity conflicts when a full military mobilization is politically and/or economically unfeasible? How would you describe the current role of private contractors in GWOT (Global War on Terror) operations? The numbers appear to be large, perhaps over 100,000 contractors in Iraq alone: what does this tell us about the transformation of war?A. Though it would make eminent sense, I am not aware of such a role. Granted, private military companies are involved in the provision of logistical, training, and security support to forces on the ground and they also collaborate with field agents of secret services (such as the CIA). But, asymmetrical warfare is still carried out largely by regular armies, backed by intelligence gathered by state-run agencies.

Actual combat is not being transformed by the influx of private contractors. We are simply reverting to earlier times and models when war was a public-private partnership and military camps incorporated entrepreneurial suppliers, contractors, service providers, and hangers-on. The attempt to render modern armies self-sufficient and self-sustaining has clearly failed.4. Part of Secretary Rumsfeld's Transformation program was a trend toward a decreasing size of our armed forces, and a continued shift toward superior technology to defeat the enemy. Does the increasing role of contractors enable defense organizations to shift their resources on the higher-tech functions, effectively "outsourcing" the lesser skilled functions? Is the "privatization" of the warfighting functions consistent with the Transformation and the Revolution in Military Affairs, as we shift toward leaner, higher-tech, armed forces?

A. Not in my view. Lean, technology-rich armies are an inevitable outcome of budgetary constraints and ever more sophisticated gadgetry. The Transformation program is a response to these trends, not to the changing face of war. Truth be told, the USA has always faced low-intensity asymmetrical warfare. It rarely found itself engaged in conventional battles, mainly in the European theatre.

Private contractors merely substitute for existing structures. Their functions are not always low-skilled, quite the contrary. Moreover, the army duplicates the functions of private contractors. This redundancy may appear wasteful but it stems from the deep and justified distrust professional soldiers hold towards civilian contractors.5. Looking ahead to the future, will we see an even more prominent role of private companies in future wars? A. Quantitatively, yes, but not qualitatively. PMCs and private contractors will grow in number, stature, and contribution to the war effort. But they are unlikely to replace the professional soldier in actual combat or the field agent in HUMINT. Their functions will remain largely limited to logistical support and training.

6. What does this private/public partnership mean in terms of the ability of states to engage in multiple engagements at once without a general mobilization - is an 'outsourcing model' smart economics? And what about the political and diplomatic implications -- are there dangers of the perception of too great a role of private contractors in the conduct of war, and potential problems with the chain of command? Back to the GWOT and its emphasis on low-intensity conflict, counter-terrorist and counter-insurgent operations, and pre-emptive strikes against rogue states and non-state actors, does the role of private contractors complement the war aims of the coalition of states aligned in the "long war" against terrorism?A. Private contractors are not GIs. They provide no substitute for the fighting men and women of the armed services. I doubt if they ever will. Thus, they do not alter the military equation in any meaningful way. Their involvement has no bearing on whether to draft and mobilize fighting age conscripts.

Incredibly, there are no serious studies that decide the question whether private contracting is a clever move, from the pecuniary point of view. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not and that waste and corruption are as rife there as among the traditional state bureaucracy.

Chain of command issues are inevitable. This is especially true when contractors are granted immunity to the consequences of their delinquency, crime, waste, and venality. There is no love lost between the fighting corps and private contractors. As we have seen in Iraq, the involvement of PMCs is often resented by host governments and leads to diplomatic and other incidents.

The solution, of course, is to hold private contractors accountable for their actions and misdeeds.7. I was thinking about how Xenophon and many of the battle-hardened Greek warriors hired themselves out to the Persians in an effort to foster regime change there 2.5 millennia ago -- resulting in his infamous "march of the 10,000" back to Greece after the effort failed. It seems that there has been a very long history of private entities participating in warfare -- lots of military theorists have examined the topic, Machiavelli comes to mind. I am curious your thoughts on this long history -- in some ways it seems like an old phenomenon; but then again, something seems new as well. With Napoleon's levee-en-masse transforming the conduct of modern warfare, resulting in the emergence of total war, and later a series of world wars, I am wondering, does the recent trend toward "privatization" suggest a return to the classical roots of war seen in ancient and early modern days, and a shift away from total war toward more limited engagements -- or might this be temporary, until a new peer adversary such as China rises to shift things back toward mass warfare?

A. The modern armies that emerged after the Crimea War are a historic aberration. With the exception of the last 150 years, armed forces throughout history were composed of professional soldiers for hire augmented by ad hoc, short-term bodies of conscripted vassals or citizenry or militias. The erstwhile fighting corpus in its camp incorporated hordes of suppliers of goods and services ("private contractors" in today's parlance).

The attempt to render modern armies self-sufficient and self-sustaining by getting rid of these "parasites" has clearly failed.We are back to where we started: the traditional army.

It is also completely wrong to postulate that "Total War" is a modern phenomenon. It is at least as old as the Bible. The ancient Hebrews were instructed by God to eradicate their enemies, men, women, and children and to confiscate the property of their vanquished foes. How more Total can it get?

Mankind has always cycled between geographically-limited, guerrilla type skirmishes and all-out warfare. Top-heavy Goliath forces, armed with the latest technologies always faced pebble-slinging, nimble, "low intensity" Davids. There's nothing new about that. We are simply in an interim period between two classical wars. Call it a respite.

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