Probing International Security

The Rise of the Private Military and Security Industry

June 18, 2013

The trend of outsourcing government functions to private contractors contributed to the creation and impressive growth of private military and security companies. Operating in hot spots across the world and providing a broad list of services to corporate and state clients alike, these firms are not simply compensating the occasional shortage in state security, but seek to be recognized as legitimate actors in the use of military force globally. This introductory post will delineate the emergence of the private military/security industry, and begin to delve into the essence of its multi-dimensional implications.


 From state monopoly on violence to private warriors

Under the normative power of the neoliberal form of globalization, currently the dominant socioeconomic model, governments all over the world have been implementing since the beginning of the 1980’s extensive programs of privatization of state assets and functions in an effort to meet demands for reduced operational costs and levels of corruption, and for a general improvement of efficiency. This trend was initially prevalent only in the economy, in fields like energy, transportation and telecommunications; however, after the end of the Cold War, the calls for smaller governments had a spill-over effect, particularly in the United States, in the area of ‘high’ politics, namely foreign policy and national security. State monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and on the overall conduct of external relations, one of the most enduring principles of political organization, is gradually giving ground to decision-making processes in which private interests can lawfully influence as well as implement aspects of a country’s foreign policy. What is taking place is essentially the gradual privatization of war and foreign policy.


One aspect of this process is the rise of a thriving private military and security industry, starting in the early 1990s and intensifying with the ‘War on Terror’. Apart from the general trend of the downsizing of government apparatuses, the budget cuts, and the subsequent outsourcing of a wide range of state functions, the growth of private military and security companies (PMSCs) was fueled by an emerging international context characterized by a combination of systemic, geopolitical and ideological changes. A major contributing factor was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar international system, due to which regions like Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Latin America lost, at the time, much of their geopolitical value and, hence, the significant inflow of military aid from the two superpowers. At the same time, the need for security in various countries of those regions was maintained or even increased due to the growing presence and operations of non-state actors like multinational oil/gas companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the resurfacing of inter- and intra-state tensions that had been curbed during the Cold War. Quite naturally, according to the basic law of supply and demand, PMSCs quickly moved in to fill the created gap in the provision of military and security services, absorbing the excess personnel after the significant demobilization of national militaries, especially in the US and Russia.


Although an accurate account of the global size of the private military/security industry remains elusive due to the sensitive nature of the services involved and the calls, on the part of governments, for a certain degree of secrecy in the name of national security, there are trustworthy data that provide a sufficiently indicative picture of the growth of PMSCs. The US Department of Defense, for example, had issued between 1994 and 2002 contracts worth $300 billion to US-based private companies (1); in 2009 alone, the annual figure was more than $100 billion, which accounted for 23% of the total defense budget. (2) Iraq, the focal point of PMSCs’ operations for over a decade now, saw the greatest influx of private security contractors: from 15,000-20,000 in 2003, to around 200,000 personnel in 2009. (3)

The ‘mercenary’ stigma and the problem of definitions

The controversy around PMSCs begins even with the attempt to define and categorize them. These companies are private and profit-seeking, while the primary motivation of their employees is, in principle, not ideological, but pecuniary, i.e. personal financial gain. Furthermore, private contractors operate in foreign countries, usually in the context of armed conflict, and are not actual members of the regular armies of a party to the conflict, as they are not incorporated into any military chain of command. Due to these characteristics, PMSC personnel have often been described as mere mercenaries, an accusation that the companies themselves vehemently deny; understandably so, since mercenarism is illegal under existing international law. Some observers have supported the view that PMSCs and their personnel should not be classified as mercenaries in virtue of their corporate nature and the variety of services they provide to their clients, who have been anything from governments and multinational firms to NGOs and even the United Nations. Others, including former Special Rapporteur on Mercenaries of UN’s Commission on Human Rights, Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, claim that these factors provide no basis for real differentiation between mercenaries and PMSCs, since the primacy of the financial motive in this case can be considered decisive in characterizing a person selling his military skills as mercenary. (4)


One basic typology of PMSCs in fact distinguishes between private military companies and private security companies. The former are considered potentially more closely involved in combat action, possibly even operating in offensive missions, while the latter’s services are seen as more defensive and passive, normally limited to the protection of installations or individuals. A second widely accepted categorization focuses on three kinds of PMSCs: (a) the military provider companies, which have a tactical role in the battlefield and can engage in actual fighting or command combat units; (b) the military consulting companies, which provide strategic and organizational expertise, like for example on the reformation and training of a client state’s military; © the military support companies, which perform a wide array of auxiliary functions, from logistic support to intelligence gathering and analysis. Until the early 2000s, a number of companies identified themselves as “military companies”, but after the negative publicity attracted by the activities of companies like Executive Outcomes in the Angolan civil war during the early 1990’s and Blackwater in Iraq, the term “security company” became dominant among PMSCs, in an effort to stress the allegedly defensive nature of their missions and present a more benign public image. But a play on semantics did little to address the concerns raised over the operations of PMSCs. “Offensive” and “defensive” are highly subjective terms. Escorting a convoy in Iraq, for example, can be seen simply as a passive operation from the perspective of the US government, or rather as part of foreign aggression and occupation in the eyes of Iraqi militants. Similarly, whether safeguarding an oil rig in a war-torn country constitutes mere provision of security and protection of property, or in fact a fundamentally military mission of defending crucial strategic installations, is again largely debatable.


Mercenaries or not, private military/security contractors now play a significant part in the ongoing transformation of war, providing a comprehensive range of services in the context of armed conflicts, while holding the de facto right to potentially use lethal force according to their own judgment. From representing only 1% of the military personnel operating in various conflict zones in the early 1990’s, it was roughly believed that their number had increased to 1 out of 4 soldiers in 2011 in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The growth of the private military/security industry demonstrates a gradual diffusion of the control over the use of force to a diversity of non-state actors. This departure from state monopoly involves a multiplicity of implications, ranging from the most theoretical and philosophical – such as the challenge to the Just War concept, and the shifting tendencies in military ethics and norms in general – to broadly consequential practical and political side-effects in terms of military professionalism, public accountability and democratic control over military action. The highly ambiguous legal status of PMSCs has long been widely recognized, yet no substantial progress has been made towards an effective and transparent international regulation of the industry. What is clear is that the use of private military force has introduced a factor that further problematizes international security, and whose potential consequences warrant a serious consideration on behalf of governments.


1. Singer, P. W. (2003), Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press), p. 15.


2. European Defence Agency (2010), ‘European – United States Defence Expenditure in 2009’, p. 14.


3. United States Government Accountability Office (2009), Contingency Contracting: DOD, State, and USAID Continue to Face Challenges in Tracking Contractor Personnel and Contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Report to Congressional Committees, (Washington, D.C., October 2009), p. 9,; Also, in Singer, P.W. (2009), Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin), p. 9.


4. On Ballesteros, see Percy, Sarah (2007), ‘Morality and Regulation’, in Simon Chesterman and Chia Lehnardt, eds., From Mercenaries to Market: The Rise and Regulation of Private Military Companies (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 16.  


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