Why Do States Hire Private Military Companies?

Henry Sanchez


Due to the breakdown of state ability to contain or counter internal violence in the developing and newly emerging states after the end of the Cold War, States are increasingly rely on private military armies to maintain their security. These private forces have taken on the guise of profit making enterprises that offer military advice as well as providing fighting forces. This is a break from how they were traditionally as "mercenaries" and "soldiers of fortune". Though the development of states hiring "companies" to preform the tasks that were once the domain of govrenments may seem new, in fact the outsourcing of private military armies states has a long history dating back to ancient times in the Greek, Roman and Chineses civilizations. What has changed has been the level of sophistication of operations and the acceptance from industrialized and developed states for the uses of "legitimate" companies. There have even been recent suggestions that private armies could be used in peacekeeping missions for the UN to replace the fear and fatigue of member states to involve government forces in an increasingly dangerous operations.

Mercenaries, soldiers of fortune and private armies have existed since the time of the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Romans. Individuals, states or societies, which were unable to secure territory, property or engage in war, resorted to the practice of employing armies and soldiers. In the Westphalian order, the major characteristic of states as the provider of security has been "constitutive and defining for the modern state". States have monopolized violence with the ability to raise armies and wage war. Governments enlisted or conscripted their own citizens to secure their own citizenry and sovereignty from internal and external threats. Citizens fought wars in the name of states out of loyalty, nationality and ideology. This capacity for security at home and abroad has led to the ability of states to contribute to collective security on the regional and global scale. (Stein)

After the Cold War a shift occurred where weak and emerging states could not guarantee their own security or provide for and raise armies in the face of increasing internal violence and civil wars. These countries have looked to other states and international organizations for assistance and intervention. Due to the absence of international action, theses weak states have resorted to contracting private armies and mercenaries from abroad to maintain stability at home. 1

The demand for military assistance from unstable regimes has coincided with the major powers disengagment from the same regions because they no longer find it in their strategic interests and are incapable of fighting low intensity conflicts. The unwillingness of strong states to commit their own forces in these conflicts and the inability of weak states to counteract insurgent violence has created a market for private military forces. Both strong and weak states are increasingly relying on outsourcing security. As a result private military companies have proliferated and are taking the role traditionally left for states. 2

There are several definitional problems when identifying for hire private militaries or soldiers. One type of mercenary may be composed of individuals or bands that are least organized and strictly motivated by profit. Some of them have been involved is massacres, executions, rapes, looting and other human rights abuses. Another type may be one hired by a host country to guard a particular region and provide limited services. Third types are transnational or ideological groups that train and fight in foreign areas, for example some Islamic fundamentalists. The last group has more corporate features. These forces organize themselves like firms with internal structures based on business corporations. Rather than being a bunch of adventurers, soldiers or par-military forces clandestinely hired by states for covert activity, private military companies (PNC) operate according to business contracts and make their presence known. 3

Due to the trend of downsizing militaries, there has been a glut of soldiers and military professionals. Overall military personnel has fallen from 28,320,00 in 1987 to 23,500,000 in 1994. These soldiers and experts have formed the private security forces that are now for hire. In Africa alone there exist around 90 of these firms most of which are hired by Angolan oil and mining companies that are required to provide for their own security. While they vary in size and in the services that they provide the three most successful are: Executive Outcomes (EO) based in Pretoria, South Africa, Sandline International based in London, England and Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) based in Alexandria, Virginia. (Shearer)

Executive Outcomes [http://www.eo.com] is probably the most financially successful company earning a reported $55 million in the past four years. It is most famous for it operations Angola and Sierra Leone. In 1993-1994 EO trained Angolan government troops and engaged in fighting the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi. EO was hired by Sierra Leone, again to fight an insurgent rebellion, where it was paid a reported $60 million dollars and future revenues from diamond mining. In both countries, EO was instrumental in tipping the balance of power towards government forces. There is some question, whether these consultants are a "force for peace" or that they are simply after Africa's diamonds. 4

Military Professional Resources Inc. [http://www.mpri.com] advertises itself as "The world's greatest corporate military expertise" capitalizing on the skills of America's best seasoned professionals. Integrity, ethics, professionalism, quality, and cost competitiveness are their hallmark, "a claim born out by past performance." MPRI is distinguished from other similar firms in that it only provides limited services like training, operational planning, simulations, and technical analysis and does not supply soldiers for fighting. It has an edge over it competitors because most of its personnel come from former U.S. diplomatic corps and military, which carry high degrees of practical experience. Unlike EO, MPRI is not a strictly for hire company. MPRI can only operate in areas with US State Department approval and licenses. It is noted for its involvement with the Croatian Army and later with troops from the Bosnian-Croat Federation. 5

This poses the question whether the US government is using the services of MPRI to indirectly assist its national interests abroad. This may be a method of offering military influence cheaply and without sending in US troops. This can also be seen as a way of getting around congressional approval. Others have suggested that this amounts to the "privatization of US foreign policy and national security policy". 6

One of the more interesting companies is Sandline International. [http://www.sandline.com/site/index.html] They declare to work only for selected groups of governments, international institutions like the UN and internationally recognized liberation movements while refusing to work for any regime that has been accused of any human rights violations, drug cartels, terrorist organizations or any illegal arms trading. Sandline is a British-based company that employs both former British and US military personnel. They have recently been involved Angola, after the US requested that the Angolan government drop the EO contract, and in Papua New Guinea. Sandline was hired to provide "combat support and services" as well as training, evaluations, intelligence and strategic planning. 7

The head of Sandline, Lt. Col. Tim Spencer takes exception with the "shady reputation" that firms like his have. He has been suggesting that mercenaries and firms like his own be regulated internationally by governments of the UN and remove what he calls "shadow hanging over the business". Even without international regulations Sandline has adopted a "self regulatory" approach to the conduct of its activities. He has also spoke of the need for transparency, but without damaging the effectiveness of private militaries. 8 Spicer notes that his company, like MPRI, works with the tacit approval of the British Foreign Office to engage it own troops in combat missions in Sierra Leone. It is unknown whether the British Foreign Minister Robin Cook was aware of this at the time. 9

The Sandline web-site has proposals outlined for the regulation and uses for PMCs by states, international organizations and NGOs. Spicer also provides options and predictions for the Kosovo situation. The Sandline home page sites links to other companies like the Vinnel Corporation, a known leader in military training, facilities operation and logistics support in the United States since the Great Depression. Vinnell has "successfully" completed projects on 5 continents and in over 50 countries for a variety of government and commercial customers.

Despite the corporate image that some private military companies try to project, difficult moral, ethical and strategic questions remain unanswered. Not surprisingly, some commentators are supportive of the idea of contracting state security. 10 Private armies, in the case of Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, can react more quickly halt rapes, summary executions, prevent a refugee crisis and restore order contributing to a more stable environment before UN or regional peacekeepers can. States and the international community are enticed by the cost savings of contracting a PNC compared with the cost of traditional peacekeepers or the maintenance of government forces.

Other agree that military companies can do more "good than harm" because of the growing demand for military forces to control persistent conflicts, reduce human suffering and restore law and order. They could also serve as "strategic peacekeepers" fill the void where western states are indecisive or reluctant and unwilling to act. 11 However, firms such as Sandline and EO may make matters worse in particular regions. Rebels and corrupt regime hire other mercenaries to counteract the liberation forces or democratically elected governments that may be assisted by PMCs. Because of this reaction, private military firms may, in effect, end up contributing to the problems of arms proliferation and subvert fledgling democracies. In some cases governments employ mercenaries to destabilize a situation rather than stabilize a region. 12

Unfortunately the reluctance of major military powers and the international community to get involved in expensive missions and potential quagmires persists. After the experiences of Somalia and Bosnia, the UN and many western states are less tempted to intervene after mediation fails. On the other hand, employing private security firms poses a dilemma. Should states outsource security for the chance of negotiation and provide stability? Or should conflicts fester in the absence of international action because hiring private armies is distasteful? Besides, a private security company will stay only as long as they are paid. 13

PMCs are not always being met by universal approval. When citizens of Papua New Guinea learned that their government signed a $27 million contract with EO to train the Army to fight a secessionist rebel uprising it set off five days of rioting and protests. Even the Army commander refused to work with the South African firm. 14 States that hire private firms for security are usually financially poor but mineral rich. They often pay for services by offering concession earned through diamond mining, oil drilling or other natural resources. An enterprising military firm may end up exploiting a poor nation of its modest resources. As a result there may be a new "Scramble for Africa" over resources where no government exists or is desperate for help. 15

In 1995 the General Assembly adopted a resolution that urged all members states to take the necessary steps against the menace of mercenaries and to ensure that their territory and nationals are under the control of the governments of states. 16 Some states are responding by introducing measures and to ban and regulate companies offering military assistance. The South African Parliament had drawn up legislation to control nationals and private military firms. 17 In Botswana, the government is investigating whether mercenaries and former military personnel are operating under the guise or cover of working for safari companies the near borders of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. 18 Although the US officially disapproves of mercenaries, two years ago the US Defense Intelligence Agency hosted a meeting between private military figures and government officials to acquaint all sides with the growing mercenary phenomenon. 19 This begs the question whether some in the international community are giving tacit approval to PNCs despite public denunciations. 20 The British foreign secretary Robin Cook insists that he knew nothing of the involvement of British mercenaries in a coup in Sierra Leone. His officials say that is because he had no interest in Africa. 21

While some, especially in Africa, have already taken these steps, states continue to practice outsourcing security. Some academics argue that dismissing the private military sector as an unpleasant aberration is ultimately unhelpful. David Shearer suggests that if PMCs can stabilize a crisis, the possibility exists to complement them with international and peacekeeping forces. The impacts of coercion to resolve conflicts should not be dismissed. 22 Basically, a private army can be the mechanism that can halt hostilities and create the environment that make peacekeeping effective. The requirement here would have private military firms with congruent interests of that of the international community or organizations like the UN. There should be assurances that if there were different interests it would not adversely affect a peacekeeping operation. As the UN searches for solutions to the shortcomings of peacekeeping and the lack of prompt and decisive responses to emerging crisis, a PNC can offer advantages over a UN assembled force. A private company can deploy forces rapidly, avoid the difficulties of ad-hoc multinational forces (command is streamlined and cohesive), they usually have standing logistics for transport, appear to be cost-effective, and are willing to sustain loss of life. 22 Some believe that if the option fulfills the goals of the UN and moral objections are set aside for expedient and effective measures, contracting private military companies can provide an opportunity to remake peacekeeping strategy.

Important political, moral and theoretical implications need to be considered before the international community embraces the idea of contracting private military companies to serve as peace-enforcers, provide national security and stabilize crisises. The real effect of the uses of private armies is still being felt after initial successes. After Sandline's contract ran out in Sierra Leone, insurgent rebels reconsolidated after their losses and now retain considerable strength. The rebels have repeatedly threatened the government, and the region that was once touted as proof of the PNC's effectiveness has disintegrated back into a state of war. 24 Papua New Guinea is still dealing with the political fallout from the former government's contract with Sandline. The new government refused to pay the full $36 million owed to Sandline after the previous administration resigned. An international tribunal ruled in favor of Sandline and ordered PNG to pay the remaining balance of $18 million. The outcome of the ruling is now threatening to destabilize the PNG military and is deepening the political crisis across the nation. 25

The Angola civil war has restarted with a vengeance. The rebel UNITA group, with the help of independent mercenaries from South Africa and the Ukraine, has threatened to establish a new power base within the country. Apparently, UNITA picked up on the lessons of government troops that were trained and guided by private contractors. 26

The dilemma to hire or not to hire private military companies is likely to persist as states fragment, ethnic and civil wars break out and weak and emerging states lack the ability to raise and maintain national armies that provide for their own security. This may signal a shift in the identity of the state in the coming century.


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Additional reading:

Stein, Janice. "The Privatization of Security in Global Political Space," unpublished paper given to Yale H. Ferguson and Richard W. Mansbach for publication.

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