Updated December 8, 2020

Private Military Companies in the United Kingdom and the United States

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Private Military Companies in the United Kingdom and the United States essay
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Private Military Companies are considered by many, such as Percy (2007, p 181) and Francis (1999, p.319) as the successors of historical medieval mercenaries. Since the first modern PMC, WatchGuard International, was established in the United Kingdom in 1967 by former members of the British Special Air Service, the use of PMCS has grown exponentially. These companies have been active in a range of operations throughout the world. As early as the 1960s, WatchGuard provided military training services to Middle Eastern monarchies. The 1970s saw Kulinda Security Ltd conducting operations in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. KAS enterprises, with the support of the World Wild Life Federation, handled anti-poaching contracts in the 1980s. The end of the cold war and the subsequent shrinking of standing armies worldwide, as well as the wave of neo-liberal privatizations sweeping many governments contributed to an even more increased usage of these companies in the 1990s (O’Brien, 2000, p. 60).

Reactions to this development have been mixed. Some actors have welcomed this. The Pentagon which has issued multiple directives outlining a desire to increase its reliance on private security forces (Dunigan, 2011, p. 11). Other states and international organizations, however, have condemned PMCs and their users. The Organization for African Unity, for instance, has issued resolutions explicitly referring to them as neo-colonial tools (Kinsey & Wuest-Famose, 2003, p. 103). In addition, South Africa has taken steps to limit PMCs from being headquartered in its territory (Buchner, 2007, p. 395). Despite both official and academic condemnations of PMCS, many scholars and practitioners have risen for their defense, such as Phelps ( 2014, p. 814) and Fabre ( 2010, p. 539).

This essay will provide an overview and evaluation of key arguments relating to the concerns over the rise of PMCs and their role in contemporary conflict. For brevity’s sake it will focus on a few main concerns that appear to be the most prevalent in the literature and matter most to policy makers : First, we will discuss broader issues relating to the role of PMCs in shaping the modern-day state system and influencing democratic norms. We will then evaluate concerns relating to the military effectiveness of private companies in conflict and how their conduct in war time affects human rights. Last, we will discuss the existing laws and regulations, or lack thereof, providing accountability for this conduct. While it will reference global trends and examples, we will be paying special attention to the use of PMCs by the United States, particularly in the context of its involvement in Iraq. The essay focuses on this particular case due to the high prevalence of PMC involvement in the conflict and the important policy implications arising from it. Overall, the essay argues that both a broad acceptance and a complete dismissal of these concerns are unjustified, as there is more nuance to be had as to the role of PMCs in modern conflict.


To narrow down the scope of this essay, we will mainly be focusing our analysis on the role of these actors in conflicts occurring in the contemporary era. We believe that the unique geopolitical and security challenges brought forth by the changes to the global system following the fall of the USSR and the end of the global bipolar system have been consequential enough to warrant their own conceptual distinction. As such, we will be defining this era as that corresponding to the time period from the end of the cold war in 1991 to the present.

The term Private Military Companies usually refers to private businesses that perform a range of tasks “related to war and conflict. Including combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence collection, operational and logistic support, training, procurement, and maintenance” (Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2006, p. 1). In addition to state contracts, PMCs have also been known to work with private companies, e.g. DeBeers, IGOs such as the UN, and even NGOs.

PMCs and The Nature of the State System

Avant considers the advent of private military companies as a threat to our entire understanding of what is a state. Considering their rise as entailing the “decline of the monopoly over the use of violence” (Avant, 2006, p, 69), Gillard (2006, p. 527) is of the same opinion. Dunigan (2011, p. 24) disagrees with them on this point, pointing out that all private military companies refuse to work with any actors except for recognized states, and the bulk of their work is contracted by established democracies. However, Dunigan further continues to say that “PMCs allow leaders of weak states to protect themselves while simultaneously eliminating the need to create bureaucratic state structures to tax the citizens to pay the military’ (Dunigan, 2011. P.24).

Dunigan primarily bases this argument on the case of Sierra Leone, where the weakened government hired out the South African based company Executive Outcomes, among others, to fight the Revolutionary United Front. The Sierra Leonian standing army was weak, lacked training, military discipline and proper pay, despite foreign assistance, thus the National Provisional Ruling Council hired several companies to provide training and logistics, most importantly Executive Outcomes. EO even participated directly in combat operations against the RUF (Francis, 1999. P. 325).

As we have previously mentioned, Dunigan concludes from this case study that the option of resorting to PMCs thus allows states to circumvent the need to strengthen their institutions to raise taxes as to establish conventional armies. The reality is much more nuanced than what Dunigan suggests, however. PMCs need to get paid just as much as, if not more than, conventional armies, thus the need for funds remains. In the case of Sierra Leone, as in many others, these funds come from natural resource endowments, such as diamonds. Natural resource wealth has been widely documented to be poorly conducive to the formation of strong and effective national institutions (Ross, 2012. P. 189). Thus, it is irrelevant to blame PMCs in this case for weak bureaucratic institutions, as if anything, their use is a symptom of, and not a cause, of the problem of state weakness.

Avant’s argument over the monopoly over the use of force lacks credibility on its own, as Phelps mentions ( 2014,p. 825). PMCs use violence not in place of, but on behalf of states. They operate through a mechanism known as a transfer of legitimacy, where the contractors act through and mirror the legitimacy of the states that employ them.

Dunigan’s criticism is still contentious. It is true that PMCs have, for the most part, worked with either internationally recognized states, international organizations, or in a few cases, sensitive businesses such as oil and diamond companies. However, it is not clear how this distinction will develop in the future. The UN Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of mercenaries prohibits mercenaries from engaged in overt combat operations. However, most PMCs evade this as they are technically considered incorporated and a part of a contracting state’s recognized military forces (Petersohn, 2014. p 482-486), despite fitting the description of being “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain” (UN, 1989, p.2). PMCs thus fighting on behalf of non-state actors such as insurgents or rebel groups would find themselves breaking the convention, as a result of which they’d be considered unlawful combatants, opening them up to prosecutions and running against business interests. The boundaries between state and non-state actors are not always so clear however, and in many cases, such as in civil wars, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what party of the conflict represents the legitimate government, genuinely representing the people.

PMCs and Democracy

As Avant and Nevers highlight when discussing the United States, private military companies “can provide a means for pursuing agendas that do not have the support of American, international or local publics” (Avant & Nevers, 2011, p. 88). What is especially troubling about this development is that it affects some of the core bases of the modern-day democratic peace.

Democratic peace theory has had a remarkably enduring popularity when it comes to the study of conflict and international relations. Despite its many critics, it nevertheless continues to have strong proscriptive power. One of the reasons stated in the literature as to why democracies are less likely to engage in warfare is the fact that their governments remain accountable to the citizenry. Ordinary citizens, who finance the wars, and more importantly, must fight and potentially die in them, are less likely to blindly support conflict (Doyle, 2005, p 464).

Some states, such as the U.S, have increased their use of private contractors to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with relying on national armies. There is evidence that in most cases, casualties and injuries suffered by the employees of PMCs affect public opinion far less than those of official troops (Bruneau, 2007, p. 111). Resorting to private military companies thus removes this important link between states and citizens, and consequently, it endangers a vital element of democratic peace.

PMCs and Military Effectiveness in Conflict

Dunigan (2011.p 66) has found that the use of private military contractors has had mixed effects on military effectiveness in combat. Namely, she cites problems relating to coordination and command and control structures. Furthermore, Dunigan’s research claims that the morale of enlisted troops was affected when they realized they were receiving less compensation than contractors working under PMCs. Cottam (2017, p. 69) has found similar issues with regards to Australia’s use of contractors in Afghanistan, stating that in many cases, the use of private companies has led to inflated costs, and outright failure or refusal by individual employees to go through with their obligations.

Other cases and studies point out, on the contrary, that these companies have a high rate of military effectiveness. For instance, when the Angolan government contracted the company Executive Outcomes to both train and fight alongside with its national troops. Multiple sources agree that “The company’s assistance brought the civil war to an end at a lower political and economic cost than could have been accomplished through the Angolan military” (Percy, 2007, p. 209). Although after the company left, hostilities were resumed. Executive Outcomes encountered a similar situation through the conflict in Sierra Leone. Despite initial military victories leading to a relative level of stability, the company’s exit led to a collapse of the government (Percy, 2007, p. 210).

PMCs, Human Rights and Wartime Conduct

One of the biggest incidents that critics point to when discussing PMCs is the 2007 Nissour square shooting involving Iraqi civilians and employees of the private firm Blackwater, then under a US army contract. The incident caused an enormous media uproar and led to the Iraqi government demanding the expulsion of Blackwater and its employees from its territory (Singer, 2007, p. 2). High ranking US military personnel also complained, as a result, that the practice of hiring contractors was counter effective, as actions like these lost ‘hearts and minds’, crucial elements in any successful counterinsurgency (Dunigan, 2011, p. 69). Other unfortunate incidents involving PMCs took place throughout the Iraq war as well, namely amongst others, the drive by shooting of unarmed civilians by an intoxicated contractor (Singer, 2007, p. 2).

Adding to the above, private contractors have also been implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal, where evidence was found of the systemic torture of Iraqi prisoners. (Bruneau, 2013, p. 642). Although official US troops were also involved in the abuse, those suspected of misconduct were subjected to the proper legal procedures, whereas none of the PMC personnel, despite being identified, faced any repercussions (Singer, 2007, p.3).

Although Singer uses these anecdotes as evidence of a widespread culture of human rights abuses and war crimes amongst employees of PMCs, the statistics he himself provides seem to contradict him. Singer states that over 50% of the guards and interrogators present on site at the Abu Ghraib prison were made up of private personnel, they were only responsible for 36% of the abuse incidents. (Singer, 2007, p. 4). By these numbers, we can conclude that, if anything, US army personnel was more likely to commit violations in this case than private contractors.

The violations discussed above have garnered media attention and led to a widespread condemnation of PMCs, however, they need to be examined within the proper context. The use of private contractors has been extremely ubiquitous throughout the US military involvement in Iraq. As of 2010, they were the largest troops present in the territory, well ahead of even US official troops (Dunigan, 2011. P.1). When considering these numbers, it becomes clear that despite the tragic nature of the events discussed above, they remain isolated incidents, and not evidence of a systemic pattern. Especially when taking into account the many claims against formal troops in Iraq (Martin, 2019, pp. 3). As is evidenced by the aforementioned Abu Ghraib incident.

It is also important to note that due to improvements in oversight and accountability, which will be discussed below, Blackwater employees involved in the Nissour square shooting have been indicted, tried, and found guilty of murder (AFP, 2018, pp. 11).

PMCS, Oversight and Regulations

As Cottam (2017, p. 58) suggests, much controversy has been raised about how domestic and international law regards private military companies. As we have previously discussed, they are widely regarded as exempt from the UN convention against Mercenaries. However, there are still certain bodies of international law that guide the behavior of PMCs and their employers, namely the 2008 Montreux Document related to operations of private military and security companies during armed conflict, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers a voluntary industry led code, and the Geneva Convention (Rousseau, 2012, p. 1).

Singer (2007, p. 112) also expresses concerns about what he describes as a virtual immunity enjoyed by PMC personnel in combat zones. With regards to national legal frameworks, only a few disparate states have adopted legislations specifically addressing and regulating the use and activities of Private Military Companies. These include South Africa, which introduced such legislation as early as 1988 (Buchner, 2007, p. 395).

Other states, despite their reliance on these companies, have failed to draw up regulatory domestic laws to make sure that the PMCs they engage are probably regulated and subjected to proper accountability procedures. Australia, despite being a prominent proponent of the Montreux document, has not drafted such measures (Cottam, 2017, p. 59).

The United States, one of the biggest employers of Private Military Companies, which further counts many headquartered on its soil, also lacks a specific legal framework. Under current US laws, PMCs are handled within the same regulatory frameworks that govern, amongst others, weapons manufacturers and exporters. They do need a special license to operate (as is required of weapons exporters) and require government approval, from congress, for foreign contracts totaling more than a certain amount, namely 50 million USD. Like weapons manufacturers, PMCs headquartered in the United States must abide by related sanctions and arms embargoes agreed to by the US government (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2006, pp. 45).

According to the US John Warner National Defense Authorization Act, if they are accused of misconduct, personnel operating under PMCs under contract with the US army or other agencies could be subject to court-martial. This is the standard procedure for US military personnel in similar circumstances. However, in practice, this would be very legally and procedurally difficult to undertake, and as a consequence, PMC personnel would be prosecuted along criminal statutes, although these developments are recent (Congressional Research Service, 2008, p. 22). In addition, following recent reforms, these contractors are now also subject, at least on paper, to the laws of the countries whose territory they operate in (Efflandt, 2014, P. 49)

Despite the vagueness of its regulations, the US still fares better than other countries in this regard, The UK government does not require formal approval for UK private military companies to operate abroad. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth office maintains strong, if informal, relationships with their leadership, and it is usually notified in case of new contracts. It has even prevented deals it disapproved of, as in the case of Northbridge International Security Services’ proposed actions in Cote d’Ivoire. There’s also a lack of specific regulations relating to the consequences faced by individual personnel in case of violations (Percy, 2007. P. 234).


This essay has attempted to evaluate the most prevalent concerns expressed through policy, media and academic circles, over the rise of private military companies and their role in contemporary conflict. For brevity’s sake, it did not evaluate some issues raised to a lesser extant in the literature. Namely, it did not cover the issue of PMCs acting as proxy tools of neo-colonialism, as raised elsewhere by Francis (1999, p. 319) and Kinsey & Wuest-Famose (2003, p. 103). It also did not discuss matters of cost effectiveness in hiring PMCs, as many have pointed out, relying on PMCs instead of conventional military forces is not always cheaper Cottam (2017, p. 70). Furthermore, it did not consider the abstract moral quandaries over the ethics of fighting war for profit as opposed to patriotic duty or ideological conviction, as that is beyond the scope of this essay and has been addressed plentifully throughout the literature of moral philosophy ( Fabre, 2010, p. 540).

Of the major concerns considered, some are either misleading or exaggerated. So long as they continue to be hired out primarily by sovereign governments, the rise of PMCs does not entail a decline in the monopoly of the use of violence or a consequent decline in state sovereignty. Claims about their personnel disproportionately committing human rights abuses, are mainly unfounded. Issues relating to their military effectiveness in conflict, however, remain to be settled, as existing evidence is contradictory. Some matters raised in the literature however, such as those relating to PMCs’ interactions with democracy, and the lack of suitable regulation ensuring proper oversight and accountability for their actions, are valid, and must be addressed in relevant policy circles.

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