Private Military Contractors
Private Security Contractors
Private Military Contractors
Private Military Contractors (PMCs) are a necessary but imperfect tool in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly unstable world, utilized by the United State military, rife with ethical and other complications. Today’s world is burgeoning with modern, powerful democratic states. As a means of filling roles once reserved exclusively for the military, these states are increasingly relying on the services of PMCs. The services provided by these contractors vary and can include: logistical, technical, supply, protecting vital governmental entities, and consulting services regarding the restructuring of the client’s armed forces. One of the largest PMCs used by the United States is Blackwater, recently renamed Xe, who has assisted the American military on a variety of fronts, but most notable in Iraq.
To further understand the reasons why PMCs have become increasingly popular, despite the complications and ethical implications, an overview of PMCs will be given. This will then be followed by the benefits and disadvantages of their use. Lastly, a review of Blackwater’s operations in Iraq and the challenges that have been experienced there, as well as their successes. In the end, this will demonstrate that although PMCs involve many challenges, they are a tool that when properly wielded can be a very effective means of extending a state’s military capabilities in a variety of areas.
Private Military Corporations
Despite the recent media coverage, PMCs are not a new idea. As Avant (2004) notes, before the rise of the nation-state, hiring military contractors was a common occurrence. During the late Middle Ages, soldiers, who were trained within the feudal structure, were employed by military contractors and sent out to whomever could pay for them. These ancestors of what would become the PMCs of today not only fought in wars, but also maintained order and collected taxes. Avant concludes that historians surmise that the rise in the use of contracted military was in response to the feudal system’s inability to meet the needs of an increasingly complex and modernizing society. As an example, the need for the protection of trade routes for merchants. There are reasons similar to this that still exist today, including: advancing technology, social change due to globalization, and market pressure that equate to militaries being unable to meet these ever-expanding demands. PMCs not only help with peacekeeping missions, as Avant notes, but also governance building missions, such as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. PMC personnel are also instrumental in staffing civilian police forces, until an area can staff it themselves. Training of these new police forces, as well as new local military forces, is another task at which PMCs have been shown to be adept.
Today, PMCs are corporate enterprises that provide a variety of functions. These tasks may include training, security, logistical support, risk analysis, and much more (Singer, 2004). They step in when coalition forces cannot be put together quickly enough to be effective (Singer, 2003). These organizations are professional and work for multiple employers at once, according to Avant (2004). Instead of using permanent employees, today’s PMCs use temporary personnel pulled from a database of former law enforcement and ex-military. This database includes a listing of the potential employee’s experience as well as special skills. In this way, the contractor can choose which employee is the best fir for each individual project. Oftentimes, the individuals are in several databases and it is common for them to move from one company to another, as the contracts become available. When they are not under contract, these private military personnel often freelance. Avant notes that despite the fact that most of these employees are honorable, there is the ability for ‘1960s-style soldiers of fortune’ to be brought on board a PMC. However, PMCs are not mercenaries.
Avant (2004) defines mercenary as “a wide variety of military activities, many of which bear little resemblance to those of today’s private security companies” (p. 20). Mercenaries were used by the British East India Company, in an effort to build colonies and facilitate the establishment of long-distance trade. Mercenaries also fought in the American Revolution. The Hessians leased these units to the British Army. In the 1960s, mercenaries could be found in the turmoil on the African continent, were ex-military operated from the shadows.
In the United States, although there has been much media coverage of PMC usage by the American military since the beginning of the Iraqi War, the use of PMCs pre-dated this conflict. After the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s, military outsourcing to PMCs was expanded, according to Singer (2003). The end of the Cold War ushered in an era of false security, that led to the reduction in American military forces. However, there were several regional and ethnic conflicts that had to be addressed, despite the lack of military resources (Avant, 2004). In fact, there are three primary reasons why the use of PMCs has grown significantly over the past two decades. The first is the increase in the number of small conflicts in the Third World and the fact that these nations can no longer count on military and financial support from the two superpowers. The second is the decreased willingness for Western governments to get involved in international peacekeeping missions. Third is the reduced defense budgets many nations are working with, post-Cold War (Krahmann, 2005).
In 1991, during the first Gulf War, America deployed approximately one PMC contractor for every 50 active-duty personnel. By the mid-1990s, due to the ethnic conflicts arising in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the need for PMC personnel increased. In 1999, the conflict in Kosova further taxed American military resources, raising the PMC contractor to active-duty soldier ratio to about 1 contractor for every 10 soldiers.
This is approximately the same ratio as that found in the recent Iraq War. However, Avant (2004) notes that once ‘major combat operations’ were completed in Iraq, an increased contingent of PMC personnel has been sent into the country.
Benefits of Using PMCs
Looking at the long history of use of contracted military forces, it is not surprising that there are a variety of benefits to using the services of a PMC. One of the primary benefits of using PMCs is the flexibility it allows states’ militaries. A state’s military has to meet a rapidly changing challenges in today’s world. As noted earlier, Avant (2004) describes the reasons for using PMCs in today’s modern world as being similar to those reasons that were present in the late Middle Ages. A nation’s military can quickly become overextended, especially in today’s increasingly globalized world. The demands for military assistance increase, but this does not mean the military has the resources on hand to meet these increased needs. This is where PMCs can be most useful.
As a military is spread thinner and thinner, hiring PMCs for certain tasks allows the military to concentrate their forces in other areas. A corporation can be used as an analogy for the military. Corporations all over the globe have realized the benefits of outsourcing certain tasks that they had, in the past, handled in house. By outsourcing, corporations can often save money, as these outsourced organizations can take advantages of economies of scale, due to their specialization. In addition, these outsourced organization often are more skilled at the specific task given to them, as it is their particular specialty. This leaves the corporation to focus on its core business, making them more competitive, nimble, profitable and successful in achieving their corporation’s mission.
The relationship between a military and a PMC is very similar. The PMC gives the military an enhanced flexibility, it doesn’t have with its own resources. By selecting specifically skilled personnel for a mission, PMCs can be more effective in completing the tasks given. Oftentimes, there’s a cost savings advantage to using a PMC as well. Even if a military were financially able to ramp up the number of soldiers in their ranks to physically addresses these needs, timeliness is a critical factor.
Training of new soldiers simply takes time. Given the rapidly changing global challenges militaries have to address, in today’s world, oftentimes militaries don’t have this time to spare. Gone are the days when untrained village farmers could be rounded up and armed with whatever was on hand, and that rag-tag group was called an army. To do the equivalent of this today would be sending these citizens to their slaughter. The responsiveness of using a PMC who has access to specially trained, senior-level personnel cannot be matched. As Avant (2004) notes, PMC personnel are already highly trained and have the technical expertise to support even the most complex weapons systems. In order to meet this level of responsiveness, a military would have to have on staff a significantly larger force than they have currently.
Although in times of need, these extra soldiers, and the requisite equipment, would be able to quickly respond, in conflict downtimes, they’d simply be sitting idle. Nations would have to not only pay for their initial training and continued training, but also the other costs with maintaining soldiers including: salaries, housing, food, benefits, equipment, and other overhead expenses associated with the administration of these costs. During times where they are not needed, this would be a waste of resources. Instead, a PMC is there when the military needs it, and when the mission is over, the military no longer has to spend resources to maintain their personnel.
Another benefit, although this is also the source of many ethical challenges as will be discussed later, is a PMC’s ability to operate more freely than a state’s military. As an example, there are strict rules that the American military must operate within, while trying to achieve a mission’s objectives. These rules stem from both national and international sources. The ever-present media, as well as governing body watchdogs, mean that even one toe over the line is quickly fodder for an international scandal that can endanger the entire mission. This oftentimes restricts the military’s ability to operate at maximum efficacy. However, by using a PMC, their personnel can take advantage of some of the grayer areas of these rules, to the best of their mission’s advantage. Along similar lines, PMCs are able to better maintain secrecy.
When one thinks of military secrecy, images of blacked-out files with “Top Secret” stamped on them come to mind. However, the reality is that much of what the military does is open for the world to see, once plans are put into action. The recent Iraq War took a quantum leap in military transparency, with the number of embedded reporters it allowed in the field. These media members were allowed to report, oftentimes live, whatever they had observed. Certain information, such as troop location, obviously was withheld to keep the troops protected; however, the actual actions of the soldiers and their maneuvers were reported with stark accuracy and detail. This set up of embedded reporters was to facilitate the public’s desire to know exactly what was going on. Military actions had to be tempered with the knowledge that the entire world was watching. As private corporations, PMCs don’t have to be this open. Although the world may demand that the militaries they pay for show how their tax dollars are being spent, PMCs do not have this same obligation. This secrecy can become very important when gathering intelligence as well.
The modern war on terrorism, as Avant (2004) notes, is highly dependent on accurate intelligence. PMCs are especially skilled at providing intelligence services, even in situations where the means to the end is somewhat ethically debatable, such as prison interrogation. PMCs are often able to infiltrate key groups to gather information, or use borderline methods of obtaining information. Even tasks that normally don’t appear to be technically difficult, become so in the face of conflict.
PMCs are skilled in what are normal, everyday tasks that evolve into dangerous duties during conflicts. Avant (2004) uses the Iraq conflict to demonstrate this concept. He uses truck driving as a duty that is rather simple during times of peace. However, this task becomes integral to military success when, during conflict, that truck is delivering fuel to troops, in combat zones. Language interpretation too may seem mundane, but in the midst of a war a skilled interpreter or translator can be a matter of life and death.
Although there are valid concerns about contractor accountability, many governments, including the United States, establish regulations that control security contractors. The United States uses Federal Acquisition Regulations, along with Department of Defense rules, to govern the contracts they have with PMCs. PMCs can be fired from their contract, which Avant (2004) notes is motivation to hold them accountable for their actions. Market accountability too has an effect in ensuring PMCs conduct themselves ethically. As an example, GSG refused to train Sierra Leone troops for fear that this would give them a reputation for being mercenaries (Faite, 2004). In fact, humanitarian groups favor the use of PMCs.
It is true that there is an economic interest, for PMCs, in prolonging conflict, as Avant (2004) notes. However, rarely have PMCs been accused of facilitating conflict simply to ensure the continued use of their services. Instead, many human rights organizations understand that PMCs actually hasten the solutions to conflict by intervening much more quickly than forces from other countries would be willing to do so otherwise. Fitzsimmons (2006) believes that the use of PMCs in Darfur is one such area where they can do humanitarian good. Noting that PMCs could engage and defeat insurgents, Fitzsimmons states that with their commitment to mission success and with a sufficiently robust force, the area could be secured so that humanitarian relief could be brought in.
Disadvantages of Using PMCs
Despite the benefits of using PMCs to assist state military forces, there are disadvantages to their use that continue to be a concern for opponents of these private security forces. One of the primary concerns, for the use of PMCs, is their ability to work outside of international and national laws that govern military forces, which is compounded by their questionable accountability. PMCs are sometimes subject to the laws in the country they are operating within and sometimes only subject to the laws of their home country. Most fall outside the control of the 1989 U.N. Convention of Mercenaries. This legal confusion creates a gray area that PMCs often use to the advantage of their clients. Governments have been known to use PMCs in order to avoid accountability (Avant, 2004).
With thousands of PMCs contractors operating in places like Iraq, Jordan (2009) notes that many are undertaking activities that were traditionally reserved for the U.S. Armed Forces. Jordan states, “A gap in the laws of armed conflict has allowed PMCs to operate free from any true measure of criminal liability” (p. 310). Avant (2004) again uses America as an example of how this occurs.
The legislative branch of the American government has to approve the military budget. This means that congress has to OK any direct military spending. However, the executive branch of the American government hires contractors, and congress has only limited access to information regarding contracts. With this system, the President can evade some of the restrictions on American actions and limit the amount of influence congress has on foreign policy. This allows PMCs to facilitate foreign policy by proxy, according to Avant (2004). Yet, there’s a significant negative effect to not holding PMCs accountable that must be taking into consideration.
Jordan (2009) gives three reasons when PMCs need to be held accountable. First, there is the integrity of the U.S. Armed Forces. If there is no accountability with PMCs it can damage relations with the host country and create a more hostile environment. Second, there is an overall lack of military training and discipline in PMCs. Third, accountability must be in place to ensure PMCs are complying with the appropriate rules during combat and contingency operations. The use of PMCs also allows the government that has hired the PMC to alter the situation, but from a distance, giving them plausible deniability.
This plausible deniability came into play in 1994 when the United States contracted with Military Professional Resources International to advise and train the Croatian government. This allowed the country to receive the advantages of having American military assistance, but via a private corporation. A similar relationship can be found in many of the nations the United Kingdom has commercial interests, with the British government using private contractors to provide military assistance, but at an arm’s length. In fact, the more powerful country often loans the country needing assistance the money to pay for the PMCs. This occurred in 1986, when the British government loaned Mozambique money to hire Defense Systems Limited to train soldiers that would in turn protect British-owned tea and sugar estates from rebels (Avant, 2004). In addition to this concern, there is the expense of using PMCs.
According to Avant (2004), studies on outsourcing and privatization have surmised that there are two conditions that have to be met for the private sector to be a more efficient resource than the government. These two conditions are a competitive market and the flexibility of the contractor to fulfill their contract. However, governments often forego competitiveness. Instead, they would rather rely on receiving a price from a singular contractor who they feel is reliable. In fact, Clark (2009) specifically states that Blackwater contracts in Iraq were in violation of the U.S. procurement system’s three basic principles: integrity, transparency, and competition. This was also the case, as noted by Avant, when Kellogg, Brown & Root won a no-bid contract, in 2003, to rebuild Iraqi oil fields. Cost effectiveness, while a contract is in effect, is not a reason to employ PMCs. Contractors often make multiple times the amount of active-duty soldiers, with Avant citing some making $20,000 per month. However, one has to remember that the military has not incurred the costs of recruiting, training and deploying these personnel, as well as the continued expense were they to sit idle once the mission is complete. Dependability too is a concern.
PMCs may not be able to fully meet mission objectives. As an example, in 1995, Executive Outcomes (EO) was contracted to help Sierra Leone’s army to defend their capital from rebel forces. Part of this contract was to also retake the country’s diamond mines. EO was unable to retake the mines, but their payment was tied to the mines, in addition to the mining companies employing EO subsidiaries. With so much on the line, EO turned to local militias and ended up developing a parallel force that added to the turmoil, as opposed to helping resolve the conflict (Avant, 2004). Lastly, Fitzsimmons (2009) states that the diversity that is a critical benefit for PMC personnel can also be a disadvantage as well.
Personnel employed by PMCs come from a variety of backgrounds. They have a vast array of tactical skills, and practice varying degrees of discipline. This means that state forces that must deal with these contractors often find it difficult to have consistent expectations, regarding PMC personnel behavior, according to Fitzsimmons (2009). The backgrounds of PMC contractors can include veterans of Western militaries that are both extensively trained and very disciplined, such as veterans from the United States Army Special Forces or the British SAS. Or, a PMC contractor may be a local with little to no military training at all. As an example, Maclellan (2006), notes that there were more than 1,000 Fijians in Iraq serving as PMC contractors, some with no military background at all. This inconsistency in backgrounds makes it difficult for other who have to work alongside PMC contractors, or those who have to rely on them for success.
Blackwater’s Operations in Iraq
With the announcement that ‘major combat operations’ were completed in Iraq, an increased contingent of PMC personnel has been sent into the country to complete the mission coalition forces began (Avant, 2004). One of these PMCs is Blackwater USA. Regretfully, this division of Halliburton Industries has added to the concerns opponents of PMCs have had all along.
While Blackwater has not been the only PMC assisting coalition forces in Iraq, some of its efforts have been the most questionable. The PMC has received multiple contracts, including the original in 2003 and the second in 2004, which were both awarded as sole source/no bid contracts. Blackwater was originally hired to guard Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalitional Provisional Authority in Iraq. The company provided security for a minimum of five regional American occupation headquarters. This included security for the headquarters located in Najaf. Clark (2009) notes that witnesses state that the battle at Najaf began when Blackwater personnel fired into a crowd that was gathering around the headquarters gate, in Najaf.
It was reported that not only had Blackwater given the order to commence firing, but also that several active-duty military personnel were being commanded by Blackwater contractors, at the time. Although not involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Blackwater has had numerous incidents, according to Clark (2009) of shooting Iraqi civilians. The PMC’s actions, according to a senior military official cited by Clark, “may be worse than Abu Ghraib” (p. 709) and created resentment amongst the Iraqi citizens. Since 2005, there have been more than 195 shooting incidents that involved Blackwater personnel.
According to incident reports compiled by Blackwater themselves, more than eighty percent of the 195 shootings were incidents where Blackwater fired the first shot. Additionally, most of the incidents involved Blackwater personnel firing from a moving vehicle and leaving the scene before they could determine if there were any Iraqi civilian casualties. Numerous Iraqi civilian deaths have been blamed on Blackwater (Clark, 2009).
According to Clark (2009), the most recent incident of Blackwater ethical issues in Iraq came on September 16, 2007. The incident at Nisur Square, in Baghdad, Iraq, resulted in the deaths of seventeen Iraqi civilians, including a woman and an infant. Not only had Blackwater once again fired first, but it was concluded that there was no enemy fire during the incident, per a preliminary Iraqi investigation. Fourteen of the deaths in Nisur Square were found to be unjustified and that the action had violated deadly-force rules that PMCs must abide by in Iraq.
In December 2008, five Blackwater security guards were charged, with voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter and weapons violations, by the U.S. government, in response to the shooting at Nisur Square. A sixth Blackwater contractor pled guilty to the charges for his role in the shooting. This indictment is the first prosecution under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), against a non-Defense Department PMC. This was made possible thanks to amendments made to MEJA, in 2004, that expanded the Act to include PMCs who provide services “in support of the mission of the Department of Defense overseas,” as cited by Mokhbier (2009, p. 52). Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, continues to defend his contractors, despite the uproar the Nisur shootings caused, indicating that his contractors are not mercenaries, but are “Americans working for America, protecting Americans” (cited in Stoner, 2008).
PMCs are not a new concept. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for nation-states to hire private soldiers to meet the military needs of an ever-changing world. Today, the unique challenges presented by increased globalization, increasing conflicts, reduced military budgets, and a general unwillingness to continue to be the world’s peacekeeper, has led to the increased use of PMCs. There are a variety of benefits associated with the use of PMCs. These private organizations give more military flexibility. A nation’s military can focus on their core competencies, rather than being spread too thin when conflicts arise. There is a cost-savings associated with not having to recruit, train, house, etc. An army that is only used sporadically. PMC contractors also often have military training and specialized skill sets that allow PMCs to choose a group of contractors specific to the mission at hand. Despite these benefits, there are disadvantages as well.
PMCs often are able to work within the gray areas of international and national law. As such, this makes accountability a significant concern. In the United States, the procedure for hiring contractors means that the executive branch of government can circumnavigate the legislative branch, which is supposed to serve as a checks and balances measure. When in use, the costs of PMC contractors are significantly higher than that of national soldiers. Lastly, because of the varying backgrounds, it is often difficult for the military to know what to expect from their PMC counterparts. When looking at Blackwater’s troubles in Iraq, one can see how these disadvantages can be a significant concern.
Blackwater’s questionable ethics in the fulfillment of their contracts in Iraq highlight many of the points discussed concerning disadvantages of PMCs. Several contractors have now been indicted for murder, for the Nisur shootings, and there have been a variety of other incidents that have served to damage the coalition force’s relationship with the Iraqi people. However, despite the tragic loss of life in Nisur, and the other incidents that have happened, for the most part the 1000s of Blackwater contractors that have been on Iraqi soil have performed their tasks without fail. It’s regrettable that these other incidents have occurred, but it doesn’t mean that the company’s efforts have been a waste. Instead, the majority of Blackwater contractors have been of great service to the military and the Iraqi people, helping control a very unstable environment. This is a reflection of PMCs in general, no matter what the conflict.
There are gray areas that PMCs are able to manipulate to best suit their mission’s needs. If this is truly a concern, then these loopholes need to be closed, and more regulations need to be put into place, such as the amendment to MEJA. Ethical concerns about accountability do need to be addressed. However, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. PMCs are a valuable tool that wielded correctly can effectively and efficiently perform tasks that allow the military to concentrate on what they do best.
Avant, D. (Jul/Aug 2004). Mercenaries. Foreign Policy. pp. 20-28.
Clark, A. (Spring 2009). Reclaiming the moral high ground. Public Contract Law Journal, 38(3). pp. 709-739.
Faite, A. (2004). Involvement of private contractors in armed conflict. Defence Studies, 4(2). pp. 166-183.
Fitzsimmons, S. (Aug/Sept 2006). A private solution to a humanitarian problem. Vanguard. pp. 18-20.
-. (Mar/Apr 2009). Shadow warriors. Vanguard, pp. 26-27.
Jordan, C. (Winter 2009). Who will guard the guards? The accountability of private military contractors in areas of armed conflict. New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement, 35(1). pp. 309-336.
Krahmann, E. (Aug 2005). Security governance and the private military industry in Europe and North America. Conflict, Security & Development, 5(2). pp. 247-268.
Maclellan, N. (Sep 2006). From Fiji to Fallujah: The war in Iraq and privatization of Pacific security. Pacific Journalism Review, 12(2). pp. 47-65.
Mokhbier, R. (Jan/Feb 2009). Blackwater on trial. Multinational Monitor, 30(1). p. 52.
Singer, P. (June/Jul 2003). Peacekeepers, Inc. Policy Review. 59-70.
-. (Mar 2004). The privatized military. Multinational Monitor, 25(3). p. 25-29.
Stoner, E. (Jul/Aug 2008). Outsourcing the Iraq War: Mercenary Recruiters Turn to Latin America. NACLA Report on the Americas, 41(4). pp. 9-12.
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