Sometimes labelled as “private armies”, private military companies (PMCs) are part of a global, multi-billion dollar industry. The United States of America along with many other Western and non-Western nations, has made ample use of this private military resource to enhance its military endeavors and promote their national interest.
PMCs are businesses that provide governments with professional services intricately linked to warfare; they represent, in other words, the corporate evolution of the age-old profession of mercenaries. Unlike the individual dogs of war of the past, however, PMCs are corporate bodies that offer a wide range of services, from tactical combat operations and strategic planning to logistical support and technical assistance.
The end of the Cold War and the victory of liberalism brought with it the privatisation of war. However, the wars of the new millennium, most notably the Iraq and Afghanistan war, were the contractors’ principle show of force.
Apart from the USA, the Russian state’s expanding (though officially denied) employment of private military contractors outside of Russian territory, as well as some crucial remarks made by top officials in Moscow, have sparked an intense, cross-sectional debate on PMCs and their status inside the country.
When it comes to China, it is safe to say that traditional means of security assurance do not always correspond to the new realities and the new needs of China’s increasing overseas presence. In this evolving environment, other instruments—to include the growing Chinese private security industry—are attaining a crucial role. In charge of intelligence, logistics, maintenance, translation, communication, and static and patrol security missions, all roles traditionally missioned by professional soldiers, the private military sector was not an essential part within the war effort—it was the war effort.
It is important to set the difference between mercenaries and military contractors. A mercenary, often referred to as a “soldier of fortune”, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for plausible personal profit, with a binding contract for an employer, and not their homeland. Being hired soldiers, they are by no means subject to any corporate structure, with no managerial hierarchy while discipline relies upon the charisma of a leader.
On the other hand, PMCs are yet the next stage in the development of military services that burgeons in parallel with an increase in capabilities of contemporary military corporate businesses.
Like any other economic bodies, PMCs benefit largely from their legal corporate structure. Private military firms have a clear-cut internal hierarchy, allowing them to go quickly through decision-making processes and implement new regulations quite efficiently. In its business structure, PMCs have the very same bodies as commercial law companies, including the management board or the supervisory board, or shareholders’ meetings.
From a securitisation perspective, the privatisation of war is part of a broader social process that predicts not only the transfer of traditional public sector work to private sector actors, but also a “mission creep” that will spread the logic of security (and particularly privatised security) ever deeper into the lives of states, not just at the level of political rhetoric but also at the level of boots on the ground. Indeed, this is precisely what we have seen in America’s most recent wars.
PMCs will increasingly continue to contract with different parties and they will do so for an extensive variety of activities, with an equally varying set of standards. As the industry grows so will issues that international law must acknowledge and address.
PMCs’ potential to operate with minimal regulation in regions with a history of conflict and an abundance of resources warrants a closer look at their activities. As their role in the global system grows, so does the need for further discussion about their use, both ethically and within the rule of law.