A piece last week on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today Programme’* on a critical development in military affairs was broadcast as if it were a mere curiosity. In it, Typhon founder and CEO Anthony Sharp discussed with the announcer how his new firm would distinguish its business from the rest by deploying its own navy to provide maritime security to its clients. That is, he was describing a private navy operating on the high seas.
Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware of the historical antecedents to such a development. Letters of Marque,** privateers, commandeering are just a few of the more recent iterations of what has been a long-standing practice of blending private maritime assets, expertise and interests with public necessity – both in wartime demand and peacetime lean.
Nor am I naive about the importance of the threats to global trade in too many of the chokepoints for shipping. Or the rigors of military service in support of maintaining the security of passage. I have no doubt that it would be quite helpful to add more assets in support of the mission at sea. Although as one navy officer pointed out to me, the answer to the problem of piracy is to be found back at home on land, not at sea. Thus, these maritime activities will only ever serve to fight the piracy already in existence; they cannot, however, eliminate it.
Nevertheless, let us be clear: this most recent experiment in private military capability in land warfare is quite young and its results remain challengeable.*** But whereas the essence of the contracting business in landpower does not exceed the tactical or operational, a navy, even a small one, is a beast of another order, a strategic asset, even if one only in its infancy. In contemporary conflict this is new territory for enterprise-based armed forces.
And yet, there is very little discussion at the level of national security, policy, strategy, or military affairs generally regarding the implications of this emerging trend.****
Therefore, how about this as an idea. Before this phenomenon replicates itself beyond control, why don’t we have a discussion of the issues involved. Because these folks won’t operate in a vacuum. States will inevitably come to bear a degree of responsibility for the actions of these companies or the tragic consequences of a failed gig.
A minor edit was made in the 4th paragraph based on the tweet by Adam Elkus – when I speak of military contracting in landpower, I am speaking of it as an iteration of a recurring trend in warfare. In my mind this was obvious from the references to the historical precedent in naval warfare, but clearly from the text that understanding was not so clear.
* See also this other interview with Sharp.
** At my paranoid worst, I wonder at the confluence of the rise of these firms at the moment of widespread state austerity. Will governments see the opportunity to sell off bits of their authority as the legitimate holders of military power to the highest bidder?
*** In terms of military effectiveness, the quality of the product in such areas as contested logistics leaves much to be desired. Additionally, Halliburton’s and Blackwater’s bills from OIF do not sustain the assertion that contracting is the more cost-effective option. Finally, the linkage between these assets and strategic risk is uncertain – for example, contractor casualties can cause either too much or too little response.
**** I understand that these subjects are the meat of much thought within the academic and analytical fields concerned with the privatization of military capabilities. However, as important as these may be in their own right, the subject transcends its specialized focus and demands attention in broader, more general quarters.