Sunday, February 10, 2013

Modern Mercenaries – Theory and Practice

The United States uses Private Military Contractors (sometimes called Private Security Contractors) in both armed and unarmed functions in combat zones, most notably during the war in Iraq.  The armed functions include security for convoys, buildings, and individual personnel as needed.  Unarmed functions include intelligence analysis, communications coordination, and security training provided to the Iraqi security forces.  

Report for Congress on PMCs in Iraq:

The PMCs have never been intended to replace combat troops in Iraq, instead they are meant to augment security operations so that the armed forces stationed in Iraq can perform combat roles instead of dividing manpower and resources between security and operations.  The combat realities of Iraq do not fit this ideal.  Security forces have been forced to engage attackers in contexts similar to those of active duty troops.  The enemy forces do not distinguish between contractors and soldiers and will attack all American installations and personnel.  Security contractors increasingly found themselves in the same situations as combat troops.

Najaf 2004: Blackwater Security defending a building compound
Ramadi 2011: United States Marines in shootout with Iraqi Insurgents

No Place at Home

Most PMCs hire contractors in a three tier system: Tier 1 is made up of former special forces and other highly trained soldiers from elite units.  Tier 2 is made up of logistics supporters, many of whom do not carry guns.  Tier 3 are usually local hires in the country of operation or third-country nationals, who are neither citizens of the United States or the country in which they are operating.  None of these tiers contain active duty soldiers.

When PMC contractors make $500 to $1500 per day it is easy to understand why someone would go to work for a PMC, even if it is in an active and hostile warzone.  Military pay is a minute fraction of what these men are making, but that is not the only reason why they join PMCs.  Many soldiers who have reached some of the highest levels of skill and training come home to find that without a college degree they cannot make more than minimum wage doing mainly service jobs.  PMCs offer these men the chance to support their families and use the skills they have learned over a lifetime.  There is rarely any niche for special forces soldiers stateside.

How to become a mercenary:

Gray Area

The United States Military, as a part of the US government, has mechanisms to prosecute and punish soldiers when they act outside of their command or commit any crimes during combat operations.  PMCs, on the other hand, have been shown to have relatively little, if any, oversight on their actions.  Most of this impunity stems from Paul Bremmer’s Order 17 (full text: which places PMCs firmly outside the sphere of Iraqi law.  This means that PMCs cannot be prosecuted for breaking any Iraqi law and cannot be brought to court in Iraq.  PMCs were still under US authority, but even the United States government has proven reluctant to prosecute PMCs.

CBS News – Blackwater Cleared in Baghdad Shooting:

PMCs do have internal accountability structures, formed to promote legitimacy and trust in the deployment and use of PMCs in place of regular troops.  The International Peace Operations Association is the umbrella under which PMCs have come together to find accountability solutions, and along with leading lawyers and human rights specialists have come up with the IPOA Code of Conduct (full text: ).  The Code, however, remains largely toothless as it does not possess any real methods for accountability or enforcement.  PMCs possess no internal structures for justice and prosecution and without any willingness by the government to prosecute there remains little real accountability for the contractors working in Iraq.

When Things Go Wrong

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is a big proponent of Private Military Contractors.  He believes that private entrepreneurship will step in and expedite processes that would otherwise be bogged down by military bureaucracy.   Big money and poor oversight, however, create new and sometimes dangerous challenges. 

Security contractors have won contracts without having any personnel on hand, believing that once they have received the contract money they will be able to adequately fulfill the needs of the contract.  In many cases this has led to a shortage of capable personnel, especially local hires, who have been known to take the offer of employment and then not show up to do the work.  With profit, and not country, as the bottom line, sometimes the correct equipment, including armored vehicles, weapons, radios, and other essential and potentially life-saving equipment is unavailable to those who need it most. 

The most devastating instance in which the PMCs failed to provide adequate support to their personnel occurred in Fallujah, Iraq on March 31, 2004.  A convoy of Blackwater employees, traveling in unarmored cars and without an adequate route through the most dangerous city in Iraq, was ambushed and four Blackwater employees killed.  It was 3 years before it was fully understood just what had gone wrong in Fallujah, and just how badly prepared the Blackwater men had been by their own company.

ABC News: Blackwater Bridge Video:

US House Oversight Committee Report on Fallujah 2004:

Future of Mercenaries

Mercenaries as PMCs are here to stay.  They free up valuable soldiers and provide top-level security.  The incidents involving unlawful conduct are as numerous in the regular armed forces as they are in the private sector.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current security climate in many other countries has created a need for security while depleting the number of American armed personnel to do that work.  Contractors work well as security because they have experience in the field, they have already been trained to a high level and are able and capable of deployment.  The benefits seem to outweigh the risks, but the risks are still great.  In the future, as now, private soldiers will be working alongside the military to provide security.

Further reading:

IPOA Code of Conduct review (Amnesty International):
Council on Foreign Relations Op-Ed – Accept the Blackwater Mercenaries:
Op-Ed – Iraq’s mercenaries with a license to kill:
Council on Foreign Relations Online Debate with Representatives of IPOA and Amnesty International:

Licensed to Kill by Robert Young Pelton: Overview of mercenary activities from the beginning to 2006 and day-to-day experiences of mercenaries in Iraq

Blackwater:The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill: In-depth look at the activities of Blackwater contractors.


  1. I understand that there are benefits with mercenaries in the fact that they are able to be deployed much easier, and that they can act in gray areas however my question is how affective have they been in past conflicts? Are there larger benefits that can be seen through utilizing mercenaries? Also do you think that the government will begin to create stronger legislation in relation to mercenary actions?

    1. Surprisingly, while there have been high-profile setbacks in Fallujah and Baghdad, Blackwater and other big-name PMCs as a security detail have a one hundred percent success rate. Not one diplomat, politician, or general has died while under their protection. The only incident to date in which a Private Security Contractor has failed was at the US Embassy in Benghazi, which was using a smaller firm that does not currently have any contracts in Iraq. Effective security procedures rarely seem to make headlines; when things are going right it means nothing interesting is going to happen.

      By far the biggest on-the-ground benefit of mercenaries is that it augments the military forces already on the ground. Without mercenaries if you have 35,000 troops on the ground some number of them, say 3,000, will have to stay behind to guard buildings and people. Therefore, your actual fighting force is smaller and it may be harder to do the fighting and maneuvers needed to win. If you bring in 3,000 mercenaries to do just the security, you have a larger military presence without having to ask for more troops.

      Unfortunately criticizing Blackwater and other PMCs seems to have gone out of vogue in Washington. There have been no more high-profile, newsworthy events involving PMCs (Benghazi seems to be a purely State Department issue, as all of the security men killed in the attack were State's own security forces, not mercenaries). Blackwater underwent a successful transformation designed, it seems to take them out of the public eye. In 2009, while still under media scrutiny they made a relatively high-profile name change to Xe Services. Two years later, and under new management, Xe changed it's name again to Academi and now resides in relative obscurity once more. Without any impetus for action, the war in Iraq over and the ending of the war in Afghanistan, and no recognizable and controversial names on the paperwork, I personally doubt that there will be much in the way of new legislation regarding mercenaries or their use by the US government.

  2. You remarked that in the future, PMCs will increasingly work in conjuncture with state-sponsored armed forces. Do you think, that since these forces are often better trained and have more intel than state armies, mercenary forces will begin to dominate the United States' foreign military action? Could this transition potentially happen?

    1. I'm not sure that PMCs have better training or intel than the government does. For one, many mercenaries are ex-special forces meaning that they have achieved equal skill and experience to the soldiers still serving in their country's armed forces. Men who come in from law enforcement backgrounds are given additional training, but again that training is done by men who are as well trained as the best Delta Force soldier or Navy SEAL. For another, the government actually has an advantage where intel is concerned. It is up to PMCs to produce any intel not actually given to them by the government, meaning they are already reliant on the US to provide most of their intel. The United States intelligence services also have the benefit of being able to work and share intel with intelligence services all over the globe, whereas foreign agencies would be less likely to provide a well-armed, private, American company with the same information. The government is equal, if not more capable, when it comes to the abilities of PMCs to wage a modern war.

      I don't think that the United States will ever transition to a completely private military-mercenary force for three reasons:

      American PMCs are working with the United States and serving United States interests, and will even consult the United States government before taking any contracts with a conflict of interest, but these companies and mercenaries are not under direct government control. In maintaining national security governments need to have direct control over security forces. Blackwater employees do not take orders from the US Military, which makes them less desirable as a primary fighting force. The contracts made between the Pentagon/US government and the PMCs list the specific duties and "orders" for the security details, but if the government needs to change some aspect of PMC deployment in the field they need to go through the companies because they have no direct control over the private soldiers with whom they are working.

      Arguably, this should be number one on this list. President Obama recently said in his State of the Union Address that the United States has the best military the world has ever seen. The ability to maintain and field a standing army, fighting under a national flag, is seen as a key point of prestige for any world government. Military power is seen alongside economic power as an ideal for any state wishing for respect and recognition from the US, Britain, and other great world powers. PMCs fight for a logo, not a flag, and while they may work for the interests of a nation they are not, first and foremost, representatives of that nation. While PMCs will be used for the foreseeable future, the US will never give up its own military power and the recognition that comes with the "best military the world has ever seen."

      The best thing about having a state-run armed forces is that you can use the flag patch on the uniform and the patriotism of your citizens to convince them to fight and die for a low wage. Soldiers the world over will tell you that they fight for their country, for freedom, and for their brothers in arms alongside them, but only mercenaries will ever be able to tell you they fight for the money. Blackwater and other PMCs get Cost-Plus contracts, meaning that they get payed and reimbursed for the money they spend executing the contract plus more so that the company can also make a profit. Defense spending is already hugely bloated, but if the government were forced to pay the actual costs of men and equipment PLUS extra so that the PMCs hired could make a profit spending and the debt and deficit would increase still further. Mercenaries get payed a market wage for the danger they put themselves in and the skills they use to do the job, soldiers can be hired more cheaply and, no matter how many F-22 Raptors the United States Congress orders, the soldiers low wages are helping keep the US afloat.

    2. Madison)

      I disagree with the notion that soldiers are necessarily cheaper and "low wages are helping keep the US afloat". The reality is that the costs of deploying a soldier aren't just wages, nor are all PMCs infinitely more expensive. Military personnel are entitled to a number of benefits which Contractors are not eligible for, such as combat pay, Tricare, Base Housing Allowance, etc. as well as extra pay for dependents, etc. They also are eligible for pensions and veteran benefits for service, something PMCs do not get (beyond any pension existing from pre-existing service). American PMC contractors also pay taxes on their earnings, something forward deployed troops do not do. The costs of deploying a US soldier to Afghanistan is at least $850,000. The conclusions of the Congressional Budget Office were that the costs of deploying Private Security Contractors "did not differ greatly form the costs of having a comparable military unit performing similar functions."

      I think the underlying reason why militaries are not likely to be privatized (at least on the financial side) is that militaries are absurdly expensive to operate in peacetime relative to their equipment costs. Most PMCs can only really supply "infantrymen", men with rifles and other small arms and light vehicles. A real military needs combined arms; tanks, aircraft, heavy weapons, all of which are extremely expensive and require dedicated support personnel and a constant supply of spare parts. This requisite level of maintenance essentially means that even in peacetime, the machines are costing money. The problem for a contractor would be that it would be impossible to sustain a business model in which you went long cycles without revenue combined with extremely high operating costs; thus they stick to light infantrymen and low maintenance vehicles.

      The real advantage of a national military is that it has heavy equipment. While Jeff's criteria includes a category for mercenary groups that can provide combined arms operations, said groups are rare and more often than not using their own equipment. Executive Outcomes had to borrow equipment from the Angolan military, since gunships would be a little pricey for their permanent inventory. National armies can afford to have artillery, jets, etc. and can fund regular maintainence and training exercises to maximize readiness; something which is too expensive for any privatized force.

  3. "In the future, as now, private soldiers will be working alongside the military to provide security." I understand the role and need of mercenaries as PMC are here to stay. And certainly there had been unlawful conduct on both sides- private and staty army sector as well. But since mercenaires being an evitable part of providing security in the future, are there any policies that will prevent collapses like one in Fallujah ? Or any policies and advocacy that will other than providing security, provide better human rights protection and treatment ?

    1. There is no doubt that there is a lack of clear and effective national and international policy when dealing with PMCs and human rights abuses. As Jenny Sue mentioned in her post and discussion, a lot of today's legislation lacks clarity or any means of enforcement when it comes to the American PMCs in Iraq. The IPOA's Code of Conduct is a first step, but without any punishments or real mechanisms for enforcement it remains a rather empty set of ideals.

      Fallujah could have been prevented both by Blackwater itself, and by the United States government and the Pentagon. If Blackwater had been more proactive in procuring the armored vehicles, men, and equipment that its own people had asked for, the men would have stood a better chance of survival. There also should have been a security walk through of sorts during the handover of Fallujah security to Blackwater. If the company had not been in so much of a hurry to set up its operation, there would have been time for a debrief and the Blackwater men would not have gone into the city so unprepared, they didn't even have maps of the area and had to ask a hotel clerk for directions. The PMC is responsible for the safety of its employees as far as giving them all of the tools needed to carry out their jobs. Companies need to remember that their men's lives are more important than the bottom line in the end.

      In making its contract with Blackwater, the Pentagon could have also made more specific stipulations regarding the force size and equipment that must be used by the contractors in the execution of their contract. In this way the men would have been more protected because the United States could have then gone after Blackwater by prosecuting them for breach of contract or even refusing payment. However, during the investigation of the incident, the Congressional hearing report notes that Blackwater tried to stall the investigation, which made it more difficult for the Pentagon to assess whether the contract had been met. More recently the security contractor Aegis has been caught telling their employees to lie about the hours they worked guarding the US Embassy in Kabul so that they would not be cited for breach of contract. When companies put their bottom line before their employees it is the employees who suffer the most. Fallujah demonstrated the fundamental flaws in using private companies because they are motivated to cut corners and do things too quickly to ensure they are payed.

  4. At what point, if any would it be more beneficial to use PMC or PSC instead of using conventional armies to solve conflicts? It seems to me that a government could hire a PMC or PSC to do its bidding and not have to face public scrutiny of using the military and all the implications that come with it.

    1. According to Singer's article, it seems that the government is using PMCs to hide military activity from congress, and through them from the public. The president must get approval from congress before taking military action. However, while the PMCs are under executive control through the pentagon's targets, the president is not required to get congressional approval in order to send mercenaries in to do the work congress would not allow.

      Using PMCs seems to be of greater legal benefit, the mercenaries have the same training and similar resources to carry out a secret mission without the need for the same legal recourse. On the other hand, it always looks better to send in "true American heroes" when dealing with covert ops when able, as we can see from the Navy SEAL's killing of Osama Bin Laden. Nothing ever really stays secret forever and perception can be just as important as the actual goals of the mission.

  5. Having just read the Singer article "Outsourcing War", I'm curious as to what this group's opinion towards internal enforcements vs international law enforcements is. The enforcements cited in this post seem critical of the current accountability structures in place. In your research, were there any other mechanisms you found or proposed mechanisms that might begin to remedy the lack of oversight that currently exists?

    1. There is an internal accountability mechanism being touted by the mercenary collective advocate IPOA which is the PMC's Code of Conduct. While it has many good points about not violating human rights, there is no enforcement mechanism attached to the Code. The PMCs can sign on to the Code of Conduct, but while they say they'll be good, there is nothing and no one that can stop them or punish them if they choose to violate human rights. If the code were to be given teeth, that is to say some method of enforcement, it might be seen as a first step towards accountability, but there is still concern that internal investigators would turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing of their friends and colleagues.

      As Jenny Sue said in class, there are also several external accountability issues. First, the definition and current legislation leaves the PMCs outside of the loop. Technically they are civilians and therefore cannot be tried in military courts even when they have been involved in military action. Order 17 means they cannot be tried in Iraq for any crimes committed while on Iraqi soil. The United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and American human rights violators cannot be tried there. And finally, even when investigated by US law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, for crimes committed in Iraq the PMCs being investigated are they ones tasked with providing the FBI security in Iraq leading to a conflict of interest. It is hard to try and convict the people with whom you have spent so much time in a hostile place and who have put their lives on the line to protect you.

      External accountability requires the ability to reliably prosecute for crimes committed. Without a well-defined legal mechanism PMCs will never be liable for any of their actions in Iraq and elsewhere.

  6. As mentioned in class and this post, accountability seems to be a big problem with PMCs. Since PMCs are "here to stay," do you see a future with more accountability? Could more accountability make PMCs more like traditional military forces, and thus lose some of the potential advantages for the U.S. government hiring them?

    1. I think that you've sort of answered your own question. Yes, it would be possible to regulate mercenaries more, but then they would be like traditional forces and lose some of their appeal. Companies, like Blackwater–our usual example–market themselves as guards that will do ANYTHING to protect the building or person they are in charge of. They can do this because if they shoot at civilians or make other kinds of mistakes, the punishment is virtually non-exsitent. Also, they don't worry about the bad PR this gives the US. Regulating PMCs would totally change this dynamic which is a core part of how they function. There is also the issue with the speed of deployment. PMCs are known for being able to deploy much faster than traditional forces and part of this is because there is little oversight into how they are used, where they go, etc. Regulation would undoubtedly change this as well. These are only two of the examples of how regulation would reduce the advantages that PMCs have over traditional forces, but what we have to decide is if these advantages are worth letting human rights violations and other types of crimes go unpunished.


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