“I refer to them as the whores of war,” said Katy Helvenston about private military companies. Her son was killed in Iraq in 2004 while working for a private military company called Blackwater. Eleven years later, Blackwater no longer exists but the war continues in Iraq and the markets for private security and military services are bigger than ever.
Compared to the global military expenditure – which in 2014 stood at $1600-1700 billion – private military companies (PMCs) and private security companies have a significant global market of an estimated $218 billion. To compare, the global drug trade is worth $300-400 billion. The global markets for PMCs have grown rapidly; as recently as in 2006 the industry was worth only $100 billion – and in 2007, $165 billion. The payrolls for private security companies have grown accordingly. In the United States the private security market employs some two million people, in Japan about 460,000 people, and in the United Kingdom 300,000 people. This phenomenon is bound to change our perception of security as something the state should provide – the amount of security guards in the U.K. is twice the amount of police officers, and in Russia and South Africa there are at least ten private security guards for every police officer. In India, the private security sector of an estimated five million people outnumbers the national military and police forces.
These private security guards can be encountered every day, for example at train stations, shopping malls, airports, and hospitals. The classical division of states offering public security and private companies offering private security does not hold in the contemporary global world, where flexible companies – not needing the same mandate as states do – can operate in several countries and locations at the same time. Private companies can offer security for travelling businessmen, trade vessels and strategic locations. They also offer states a way to outsource warfare and its risks.
Nowadays security personnel working for a private company abroad under a legal contract is often referred to as “private contractor” instead of “mercenary.” The word mercenary is complicated. It has a negative undertone and in many cases does not apply to private contractors due to the difficult legal definition. The United Nations Mercenary Convention unequivocally prohibits the use of mercenaries in a conflict, which is why we rarely talk about mercenaries anymore. Contractors are neither civilians nor soldiers – they fall somewhere in between. For instance, private security companies provide security for embassies and occupy checkpoints, load bombs, offer training for police forces and soldiers, and their employees often carry weapons. As such, one could easily mistake them for soldiers. Yet, they are not soldiers in the army or in the chain of command, and since they work for private companies the contractors can have different nationalities.
The number of contractors working in a conflict zone is sometimes larger than that of actual soldiers. In 2007, before the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq in 2011, the number of contractors exceeded the soldiers. The same happened in Afghanistan in 2014, when 108,000 private contractors accompanied 65,700 US soldiers. Currently, the 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan are supported by 39,600 contractors. The number of US troops deployed in Iraq to combat the ISIS is about 3000 while the number of private contractors stands at about 5000 – a fairly modest number compared to the 54,000 civil contractors working for the US Central Command in the Middle East. Although the US has the biggest markets for PMCs, these kinds of markets recognize no borders. Russian parliament is currently discussing a bill that would allow private military companies to operate inside and outside of Russian borders. One of the arguments supporting the bill is the size of the existing global markets for PMCs and the wishes of clients to hire military companies with nonwestern background. Previously, Russian contractors have become famous for working and fighting for The Slavonic Corps Limited in Syria in 2013. The first and only operation of the Hong Kong based Slavonic Corps failed, but it managed to deploy at least 267 Russians to guard “objectives” in Syria. The Russian contractors were ambushed, and forced to retreat and return to Russia early. Upon their return, two men involved in the operation were arrested and charged with recruiting mercenaries.
The Nigerian government has openly admitted to using help from foreign contractors in their fight against Boko Haram. Official sources state that the contractors are only providing technical and logistical support to the Nigerian armed forces, but there are reports of “hundreds of mercenaries” participating in operations for reclaiming areas occupied by Boko Haram. These contractors come from other African countries and are possibly linked to personnel of the former South African PMC Executive Outcomes, and they are effective. Soldiers can have great opportunities in Nigeria. Foreign contractors allegedly earn $400 a day. In Iraq, salaries in the private sector have been high enough to encourage military personnel to switch from public to private service. In an interview from 2014, a contractor revealed that he could make $400,000 in two years in Iraq as a PMC contractor compared to $120,000 for a five-years-service with the army in Iraq. Working for the British security company HART, a French contractor stated in an interview that he made €12,000 monthly from protecting oil convoys in Iraq.
With salaries this high, using private contractors cannot be cheap for private customers or governments. Between 2001 and 2011 corruption, fraud and waste in contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq has cost the United States between $31 billion and $60 billion (or $12m daily). The US Department of Defense spent $11.8 billion on private contracts in the Middle East in just 2010. So why do governments do it? Hiring private companies in a warzone might save the government money if done well. More importantly, using private contractors instead of soldiers outsources the political risks of warfare. Thus governments are hard to keep accountable for the actions of a private company. An ex-contractor in DynCorp International and author of the book “The Modern Mercenary” Sean McFate, says that using private contractors “offer[s] plausible deniability to policymakers” and that “they can get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re a national government.” This is not to say that all contractors would be like the rogue Blackwater (later Xe Services LLC and currently Academi) guards who were recently convicted in court for the massacre of unarmed civilians in Iraq in 2007. Questions of responsibility and accountability remain. The conviction would most likely have been different had the actors been part of the US military chain of command. It is also obvious that the interests of PMCs are not always aligned with the government’s interests. This is nothing new though; the growing markets for private security have brought new actors with their own goals onto the battlefield. And like there is demand for services, there is also labor supply. An anonymous commentator on a public forum summarizes this phenomenon accurately: “I was a mercenary for 24 years and I’ve earned a lot of money in my lifetime.”