Private Military Companies Are the New Army

photo by Rande Archer via Flickr modified by Curiousmatic

In the past decade, private military companies (PMCs) have flooded foreign war theaters in mass, with private security personnel in Iraq alone numbering about 17,000 in 2010.

In step with an increased usage of private contractors, globally speaking, the already massive business of PMCs has exploded into a lucrative, multi-billion dollar, multinational, industry (pdf), and in some cases has even usurped the role of the traditional military.

But just what are PMCs, and how do they work?

Private Military Company

In the U.S., with the blessing of the federal government, PMCs are classified as “security contractors” who provide armed services to their customers. The U.S., which has contracted $5 billion worth of military related services between 2001 and 2010, is also home to some of the world’s largest security contractors, such as Blackwater and Halliburton.

The employees or “private military contractors” of PMCs themselves come from all over the world, often with military backgrounds, and may vary in nationality depending on what company they’re hired by. Below are a few of the world’s largest PMCs and where their employees come from.

  • G4S – The world’s largest private military company employs 620,000 contractors. This PMC is British based and finds the majority (266,872) of its contractors in Africa and other emerging markets (458,000)
  • Unity Resources Group – This Australian based company employs over 1000 people worldwide. The company derives most of its employees from Australia and has been involved with security contracts in Iraq.

Triple Canopy – This company, which is headquartered in the greater Washington D.C. area, employs over 1800 security contractors. Triple Canopy has also merged with Acedemi–formerly the Blackwater Corp–to form Constellis Holdings.

What do they do?

Private military companies are, in general, known for their role in security, meaning they are not employed for offensive missions, but rather to protect. Public perception of this role, however, has changed during PMC involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan when Blackwater Corp employees fell under scrutiny for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians–this being one of several other controversies.

Private military contractors have in recent years been employed for various duties, from guarding private convoys, to protecting embassies, and even providing security following natural disasters, as exemplified in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Often times such private companies are used for perceived cost-effectiveness, since normal military functions require significant federal funding.

A distinction is made between PMCs and general military contractors. PMC refers to armed personnel, who are often involved in dangerous security situations, whereas military contractors may fill a number of sideline roles such as military intelligence, reconstruction, and transportation.

Are they legal?

Private military companies usually dance successfully around international law; which per Geneva convention guidelines, strictly opposes the use of mercenaries defined as “professional soldiers hired to fight for a foreign army.”

A contributing factor to the controversy which shrouds PMCs is centered around the accountability under international law, or lack thereof. Since private security contractors are defined as civilians and not military officials–which is necessary to skirt the definition of mercenaries–they are only accountable under the law of the country contracting them.

Since the laws surrounding PMCs are often ill-defined and because there is often little political motivation for home-states to prosecute PMCs, war-crimes like the killing of Iraqi civilians mentioned above usually go unpunished.

The Takeaway

The shift towards the widespread usage of PMCs has left many with legal and ethical questions while the understanding of their role in military situations grows more and more ambiguous. Below are some key points to help grasp the state of private military personnel.

  • PMCs are a lucrative and booming industry worth 100’s of billions of dollars
  • They employ contractors worldwide, often with military backgrounds
  • They have caused a great number of controversies since their widespread usage
  • They sometimes take the place of military roles
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James Pero