This week’s CCLKOW piece is brought to us by another colleague in War Studies. In this one we confront the seemingly never-ending debate: Do we need a private army to do our dirty work? As domestic politics further complicate the use of own troops in defense of interests but not threat and conflicts seem to demand rapid response, the appeal of the privatization of force grows again. Although of less importance in this latest age of state war, armies for hire are not new to the battlefield. Whether this is wisdom or wishful thinking is another matter. Enjoy the post and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW
It seems to be the debate that never dies: Last week saw the airing of yet another proposal to establish an army of private contractors, armed and ready to go into combat. One US news host thought it would be a good idea to establish such an army to fight ISIS. Now the idea of a private army is of course neither new nor practicable and has rightfully not attracted much serious discussion. However, a closer consideration of the issues attached to this proposal – such as political control, military effectiveness, and lawfulness – should revive discussion about the role of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) in contemporary warfare.
First, we should remember that the idea to employ a private force in lieu of state forces has been made previously not only by those trying to sell such an army but also by leading figures in the international community. In 1997, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed to use PMSCs for peacekeeping and the running of refugee camps. This idea did not find much support, but it is worth noting that the proposal was made after the international community failed to respond adequately to the genocide in Rwanda during a period that saw much soul-searching about which reasons could provide legitimacy to an infringement of state sovereignty.
As other commentators have pointed out there are many armed contractors operating around the world at this moment , working not only for governments but also private clients such as oil and gas and shipping companies. Also, not all PMSC employees are armed – unarmed guarding, security risk analysis, intelligence gathering and technical support are among the functions frequently contracted out. For all these tasks it is challenging enough to maintain adequate oversight, control and coordination. So intuitively the establishment of a private army is a bad idea. Or is it?
To answer that question, it is worth revisiting some of the classic arguments for and against PMSC usage in armed conflict. The most common arguments for contracting are as follows. PMSCs are cheaper than the military. They are more flexible. They free up military capability. They have specialist knowledge. The public cares less about contractor deaths than about military deaths. Now none of these is actually proven across the board – as with most other things it depends on the specific situation.  For example, short-term savings might be eaten up in the long term when a contractor acquires specialist knowledge on a contract, meaning the company is in a prime position to bid on a follow-on contract and charge more than before.
Arguments against employing PMSCs are just a varied as those in favour of it. The most common ones are: It is unethical to use PMSCs. They are too expansive. They are unpredictable and have a vested interest in a conflict to continue. They are not accountable to the public in the way the military is. Oversight is insufficient. Each of those of course has a counter-argument. For example, PMSC oversight and regulation have improved significantly in the past few years, not least through the establishment of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers. It is also not clear why PMSCs or their employees should be more interested in the continuation of a conflict than military personnel.
Why then does the private army idea keep coming up? Because it seems to be an easy option, a ‘quick fix’ instead of developing a strategy to counter what caused a crisis in the first place. It also might seem politically more appealing to present a one-stop solution rather than spending months or years reforming outdated protocols and structures. While I am by no means in favour of it there are a few questions I would like to put up for discussion. I would especially welcome input from those with field experience with security contractors.
With all this in mind, the questions for this week’s discussions are:
In an age of wars of choice, do ‘private armies’ offer states a better option for armed intervention than traditional armed forces?
Can PMSCs be of use in the fight against ISIL, and in which capacities?
What are the most significant challenges to their use from a military practitioner’s perspective?
How can PMSC-military cooperation be improved?
Join the discussion on Twitter, #CCLKOW.
1. See the Washington Post blog post by Ishaan Tharoor http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/09/26/a-history-lesson-for-bill-oreilly-on-when-mercenaries-go-wild/ See also Erik Wemple’s earlier post http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/09/24/fox-news-bill-oreilly-somehow-cable-home-run-with-mercenary-army-proposal/.
2. In fact Avant and Sigelman found that the US population cares almost as much about contractor deaths as it does about military deaths, but was less informed about the former. Avant, Deborah D./ Sigelman, Lee (2010): Private Security and Democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies 19(2), 230-265.