Heavy U.S. reliance on military contractors has catalyzed the international mercenary trade, with supply and demand diversifying and expanding in chilling ways. On the supply side, the USA has marshaled a global labor pool of mercenaries.
Thousands of mercenaries got their start in Iraq or Afghanistan, and when those wars shrank, they set out looking for new conflict markets (that is, war zones) around the world, enlarging the wars there.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan allowed the private military industry to mature, with networks of mercenaries established and some modicum of best practices.
Others are imitating the American model, and every day new private military groups emerge from countries like Russia, Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia.
Their services are more robust than Blackwater, offering greater combat power and the willingness to work for the highest bidder with scant regard for human rights. They are mercenary in every sense of the word.
On the demand side, the USA has de facto legitimized mercenaries by using them so heavily. Can the United States really tell Russia not to use private military troops in Syria? No, it cannot.
New consumers are appearing everywhere, seeking security in an insecure world.
Oil and mining companies guarding their drill sites against militias, shipping lines defending their vessels against pirates, humanitarian organizations protecting their workers in dangerous locations.
But also oligarchs who need professional muscle, countries that want to wage proxy wars, regimes fighting civil wars, guerrillas fighting back, and the super rich for any reason you can think of, no matter how petty.
The mercenary trade is growing because mercenaries offer what clients want. It is simple supply and demand. One attraction is the industry’s covert nature. When you want to keep a secret, sometimes the private sector is murkier than government agencies.
In the United States, for example, researchers possess tools to investigate public sector actors, such as the military and CIA, using the Freedom of Information Act or public hearings on Capitol Hill.
Alternatively, they cultivate leakers and other unnamed sources for information. Leakers are ubiquitous in Washington and rarely held accountable.
Not so in the private sector. Private military companies hide behind proprietary knowledge, claiming every piece of information is a trade secret. Even employees’ emails are considered proprietary, no matter how trivial.
These firms fire employees who talk to the press, and sometimes large firms threaten media outlets with multi million-dollar lawsuits to chill free press.
Government agencies do not do this, as evidenced by the landslide of military memoirs of secret operations during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
If you want to keep a government secret, sometimes the private sector is better than the Pentagon or CIA. This is attractive to some officials and a way of circumventing democratic accountability of the Armed Forces.
For example, take the problem of mission creep. DOD uses contractors in war zones to get around Presidentially mandated troop caps, since contractors do not count as boots on the ground.
In 2016, President Barack Obama capped troop levels in Afghanistan at 4,647. By 2017, that number creeped to 9,800 troops, supported by more than 26,000 contractors—nearly a 3 to 1 ratio.
Contractors enable mission creep by allowing DOD to do more with less, although it erodes civilian control of the military.
Plausible deniability is another reason why the industry is flourishing. When a job is too politically risky, contractors are sometimes used because they can be disavowed if the mission fails.
Not so with the CIA or military. Special operations forces and CIA operatives do not get left behind, and this can be embarrassing for a nation caught running covert operations.
Contractors can be abandoned with minimal political fallout. Americans do not fuss over contractor casualties, unlike dead Marines.
Tellingly, Senator Obama sponsored a bill in 2007 to make armed contractors more accountable, a bill that President Obama later ignored. Russia uses mercenaries like the Wagner Group in Ukraine and Syria while denying involvement in those countries.
Nigeria initially repudiated media reports of them employing mercenaries against Boko Haram, until it became too difficult to deny. Contractors are invisible people, making them a stealth weapon in more ways than one.
Contractors are also cheaper, just as they have been for thousands of years.
The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan Federal agency that provides budget and economic information to Congress, found that an infantry battalion at war costs $110 million a year, while a comparable private military unit totals $99 million.
In peacetime, the costs savings are even greater; the infantry unit costs $60 million, and the contractors cost nothing since their contract would be terminated.
From 1995 to 1997, Executive Outcomes was paid $1.2 million a month to put down a rebellion in Sierra Leone—which it did—whereas UN forces swallowed up $47 million a month doing nothing.
Renting is cheaper than owning, and business excels at efficiency compared to the public sector. The cost of these savings may come at a high price. Mercenaries are not like army reservists, to be used only when you need them.
Military contractors do not reintegrate into the civilian workforce after a war but instead look for new employers because they are profit-maximizing entities.
Worse, linking profit motive with killing encourages more war and suffering, making another Nisour Square incident inevitable.
There are many reasons why private military contractors are a growth industry, but most of them are dubious. The U.S. national security establishment dismisses the issue, but the trend is clear.
Forty years ago, the idea of using armed contractors was anathema to policymakers. Now it is routine. This is not a Democratic versus Republican issue, but an American one.
Since the 1990’s, Presidents of both parties have used military contractors. More disturbing, others around the world are imitating this model, and it is evolving into a global free market for force.
National Defense University Press / ABC Flash-Point News 2022.