Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dissertation: Private Military Companies

I was first exposed to the existence of private military companies, or PMCs, during a conversation in a surplus store back in 2006. I can't remember whether the guy I was talking to recommended it, or if I found it based on what he'd told me in the conversation, but I subsequently read An Unorthodox Soldier by Tim Spicer. Having worked almost entirely as a defense contractor since graduating from college, the ramifications of the privatization of various aspects of national security is of keen interest to me.

National security has always relied upon industry, but the current situation is unprecedented. In 1991, the uniform-to-contractor ratio of personnel deployed to the Persian Gulf was fifty to one. Reductions in American and NATO force strengths following the collapse of the Soviet Union were predicated on a belief that in future conflicts, reductions in manpower could be mitigated by increased reliance on technology. With extreme manpower requirements in Iraq, and the subsequent surge of forces in Afghanistan, the current uniform-to-contractor ratio is one-to-one.

In Tim Spicer's book, he advocated a system whereby legitimate PMCs would employ military veterans to assist legitimate governments in national security challenges. Rather than providing combat forces, Spicer envisioned PMCs assisting legitimate governments by providing training, logistical, aviation, and other types of support to host nation combat forces. Operating independently of national military forces, Spicer proposed that PMCs could volunteer for regulation by the United Nations. For the most part, Spicer's vision has failed to materialize.

What has happened instead is that "private security companies", as well as more long-standing defense contractors, have been retained by national militaries - primarily by the Department of Defense - to augment the uniformed personnel. This phenomenon occurs in both domestic and deployed units. There are few aspects of national security that aren't touched in one way or another by contractors and/or PSCs. Many contractors even carry weapons, providing security for bases, convoys, and high value personnel.

Thus far, I've sourced some books, but I haven't sourced any articles. Here's what I have so far.

  • Timothy Spicer; An Unorthodox Soldier: Peace and War and the Sandline Affair; Mainstream Publishing, 2000
  • Gerry Schumacher and Steve Gansen; A Bloody Business: America's War Zone Contractors and the Occupation of Iraq; Zenith Press, 2006
  • James Ashcroft; Making a Killing: The Explosive Story of a Hired Gun in Iraq; Virgin Books, 2010
  • Madelaine Drohan; Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to Do Business; The Lyons Press, 2004
  • Robert Young Pelton; Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror; Broadway, 2007
  • P.W. Singer; Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry; Cornell University Press, 2007
  • Jeremy Scahill; Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army; Nation Books, 2008
  • James Jay Carafano; Private Sector, Public Wars: Contractors in Combat - Afghanistan, Iraq, and Future Conflicts; Praeger, 2008
  • Deborah D. Avant; The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security; Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Steve Fainaru; Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq; Da Capo Press, 2008
  • Thomas C. Bruneau; Patriots for Profit: Contractors and the Military in U.S. National Security; Stanford Security Studies, 2011
  • Berube, Claude and Cullen, Patrick; Maritime Private Security: Market responses to piracy, terrorism and waterborne security risks in the 21st century; Routledge, 2012

    I know that the DoD has done some research on the long-term impact of employing PSC/PMC personnel, but I'm not sure how much of that research is in the public domain. I may be able to find some information at some of my old standby sources: Small Wars Journal, the Foreign Military Studies Office, Global Security, and the RAND Corporation.

    1. This is something I wonder about when I hear politicians discuss troop withdrawals. I always assume (because I'm cynical) that when they say, "We are taking all of our US military forces out of this country or that country," what they mean is that they will be leaving in private military forces. Have you come across any good numbers on how many private military contractors remain in places like Iraq or Afghanistan? Maybe this isn't the case at all.

    2. The short answer is that I haven't seen any numbers on it; then again, I don't deal in short answers.

      It's worth noting up front that the situation that Spicer hypothesized about in his '99 book was small- to medium-sized private armies - literally, private armies - which could fill the task of training or providing logistical support, possibly even fighting small scale conflicts, on behalf of legitimate governments whose military capabilities were insufficient to handle local security challenges. That's emphatically *not* what's happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the initial "PMCs" have morphed into "PSCs" in order to exploit the legal umbrella provided through working as sub-contractors to the American or allied governments. As such, modern PSCs operate in conflict zones performering a relatively narrow range of tasks, as opposed to the veritable private armies that never really took off - possibly due to the major hurdles Spicer had to overcome, which are described in his book.

      I know that there's a fairly large force of private security contractors left in Iraq on embassy duty and other tasks, but nowhere near the footprint we had as far as troops go - something on the order of five or ten thousand at most, mainly in Baghdad, as opposed to more than a hundred thousand troops at the height of the conflict. (I also heard on some news outlet, months ago, that they're starting to shrink and/or sunset some of the contracts and that they're considering reducing the size of the US Embassy, which is the largest embassy anywhere in the world.) The other element of your question, of course, is what's the difference between "troops" and "combat troops" - President Obama, for example, likes to say that our "combat troops" were pulled out of Iraq, or that our "combat troops" will be pulled out of Afghanistan, but even if it's "trainers" or "logistics specialists" who stay, it's a difference without a distinction.

      As far as Afghanistan goes, I've heard a figure thrown around that there's a 1:1 uniform-to-contractor ratio there, though I'm not sure if that's actual contractors or a mix of contractors and DoD/allied civil servants. Of course, not all of those contractors are "private military/security contractors" - a lot of them would be mechanics, or cooks, or logistics specialists, or any number of other non-combat jobs that used to be filled by military forces. There have also been some particular challenges with PMC/PSC forces in Afghanistan, with President Karzai threatening to ban all of them at one point or another (with various reasons for this being outrage over civilian casualties or just looking to open up more jobs for Afghans - remember, all politics is local!). The truth of the matter is that neither of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq would have been possible without PSCs, because they were doing armed security work (personal security details, convoy escorts, installation security, etc.) for which there were simply too few soldiers. The reduction in military manpower during the Clinton Administration resulted in a shift to contracted labor pools to meet the demand created by a shortage of soldiers for everything but combat itself.

      These are a few of the questions I could stand to address either in a paper about PSCs/contractors, or a different paper about education and national security.

    3. The distinctions are really interesting and something I will listen for in discussions about troop withdrawals. Your explanation also proves to me (although I already knew it) that I assume the worst in the government in terms of military transparency. Sometimes support personnel means support personnel and not, well, assassins.