When the economist Milton Friedman penned his essay “Why Not a Volunteer Army?” in 1967, it is unlikely that the future he had in mind was one in which soldiers answered to corporate stakeholders rather than heads of state. Nevertheless, that is the future we are entering and, despite some trepidation in the international community, it is better future than Friedman could have hoped for.
I speak, of course, of the equally dreaded and employed Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), which offer military and security services at a price.
The relevance and use PMSCs has skyrocketed over the last two decades. In 2020, there were over 1,000 PMSCs in operation globally, representing a $200 billion industry that has become the norm with regard to international conflict and failing states. In the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. has deployed significantly more contractors than actual military personnel. Likewise, in conflict-torn Mozambique, PMSCs have proven essential to bolstering an ill-trained and ill-equipped national security force.
Aside from their market potential, PMSCs ought to be understood in terms of the value they provide to international stability and national legitimacy. In unstable countries such as Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia, PMSCs prove a vital tool for enhancing national and regional security precisely because they offer supplementary forces without compromising state legitimacy in the manner that a prolonged foreign military presence would.
To better understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand how foreign military aid can actually hamper the long-term security of states in crisis.
Political scientist Bruce Gilley wrote of the matter that, “any foreign program that bypasses the state (beyond that needed to jump-start bottom-up legitimation processes) will render the state weak and illegitimate, which will prolong the crisis that required foreign intervention in the first place.”
Long-term foreign military and humanitarian aid to states in crisis, in other words, undermine the security of the state over time by eroding the legitimacy of the government in power. PMSCs, however, sidestep this potential pitfall by contracting directly with the state government and acting merely as an extension of its indigenous forces.
As international relations expert Roxane Heidrich wrote, “PMSCs are ideally positioned to effectively serve as force-multipliers in UN peacekeeping operations, thus enhancing already existing resources but without taking over control of the operations or even being in the position to potentially violate international law”
A leading reason for this effectiveness is the loosely defined area of international law regarding the use of PMSCs and their separation from so-called mercenaries. Specifically, current law effectively prohibits the widespread use of PMSCs in a “tip-of-the-spear” fashion, meaning that most such companies are deployed to either maintain hold of objectives previously captured by uniformed services or to otherwise augment uniformed services in non-aggressive ways.
To this end, PMSCs have been successfully leveraged time and again as civil police in occupied territories and have been called upon to provide security, communications, information operations, and capacity building for state forces. It is along these lines that the legitimizing potential for PMSCs is made clearest.
The U.S. Army manual on counterinsurgency notes that access to “adequate sewer, water, electricity, and trash services” often prove to be far more potent motivations to partisan fighters than political ideology, and that security forces that tend to such matters help immensely to build legitimacy in the region they are deployed.
As such, procedurally deploying PMSCs to organically enforce and augment indigenous security forces can serve to enhance state legitimacy where they are hired, whereas prescribing a state-sponsored military force to prop up or otherwise coup-proof a regime is likely to undermine the long-term perceived legitimacy of said regime, and thus hinder future security efforts.
It is for these reasons that PMSCs have so proliferated, and that they ought to be further encouraged and regulated.
Indeed, few types of forces provide such a scalable solution to middle and lesser states’ needs for security and stability. PMSCs will be essential to future efforts to develop and maintain state legitimacy across heavily developing regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa.
This is not to say that criticism of PMSCs is unwarranted or fading. It is true that the industry has been defined by a relative lack of adequate regulation and norms. There is a growing trend toward regulation, however, stemming from within the industry and popular among those groups seeking an increased relevancy and legitimacy in the world market. The International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA), a multi-stakeholder initiative developed in 2013 to codify the responsibilities of private security companies under human rights and international humanitarian law, is a good example of this trend, and inner-industry initiatives toward self-regulation should be further promoted.
The privatization of peace was, in many ways, inevitable in the West and its former colonial holdings. Though mercenaries have existed for as long as war has, the boundary between free-lancers and uniformed soldiers has never been well particularly well defined, especially given the immensely contractual nature of military service in many liberal Western nations.
The proliferation of PMSCs ought then to be considered as a natural evolution of both market and cultural forces within an environment shaped by decreasing political legitimacy and international stability. Indeed, the privatization of war and security is merely the next step in Friedman’s half-century old quest for “voluntary methods” of military service.
With proper regulation and a better international framework for creating, hiring, and deploying PMSCs, the global community can effectively take the next big step towards privatizing peace and thereby grant a boon to those many nations struggling to craft and maintain legitimacy by their own limited means.
Written by Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke is a journalist covering issues pertaining to international defense and security. He is the executive editor of The Rearguard and a columnist at DecipherGrey.