Modern strategic thought has no logic or grammar for private war; its goals might not even be political in nature. This must be remedied because private warfare is an emerging trend.
Not all wars without states will be marketized, but many will. Some wars will be political, fought by national armies or insurgents, but they might turn to mercenary help as it becomes available.
In terms of strategy for private war, the Italian Wars (1494–1559) are instructive. They were dominated by mercenaries since no one could afford their own standing army.
Machiavelli tried this and Florence paid for his imprudence in blood. The Italian Wars represent private warfare in extremis, but maximal examples make phenomenon more transparent. Still, the parallels between then and now are striking.
For instance, back then mercenaries were called condottieri—literally, “contractors”—who agreed to perform military operations described in a written contract, or condotte.
Both modern and early contractors sold their services to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit and operated in military units rather than as lone wolf mercenaries often depicted by Hollywood.
Both filled their ranks with professional men of arms drawn from different countries and loyal primarily to the paycheck.
Both have functioned as private armies, usually offering land-based combat skills rather than naval (or aerial) capabilities and deploying force in a military manner rather than as law enforcement or police.
The Italian Wars teach us that cunning and deception are the watchwords of private warfare, therefore lending itself more to Sun Tzu than Clausewitz. A full historical analysis of the Italian Wars is beyond the scope of this study, but key points can be gleaned.
Below are unique ways to win private wars, divided between buyers (demand side) and force providers (supply side). The marketplace demands an asymmetry of strategy.
Buyers have ample opportunity to swindle mercenaries.
Marketplace stratagems include: bribing the enemy’s mercenaries to defect, retaining all mercenaries in the area to deny the enemy a defense, and reneging on paying mercenaries once they complete the military campaign.
Sometimes, clients hired a larger mercenary group on a short-term contract to chase off or kill unpaid mercenaries. Wealthy clients can also wield market power to change the winds of war.
For example, they can buy all the mercenaries available in a region, driving prices up, then dump them on the market, driving prices down and creating mayhem for enemies who are dependent on hired guns for survival.
Rich actors can bankrupt adversaries by stoking a mercenary arms race or outspending rivals in a war of attrition. Mercenaries have a bigger recruiting pool than national armies, which are limited to their country’s citizenry.
The mercenary labor pool is global, allowing longer wars of attrition. Mercenaries enable strategies of cunning and deception. Clients can hire them as agent provocateurs, drawing rivals into wars of the client’s choosing.
Mercenaries are well-adapted for covert actions and zero footprint operations, maximizing plausible deniability for the client.
This is useful for conducting wars of atrocity: torture, assassination, intimidation operations, terrorism, civilian massacres, high collateral damage missions, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
Some clients might prefer to outsource human rights violations rather than have their troops caught in the act.
Similarly, clients might hire the private sector for false flag operations—for instance, secretly hire mercenaries to instigate a war between one’s enemies, reducing them while keeping the client’s name out of it.
Alternately, one can hire mercenaries for mimicry operations to frame enemies for massacres, terrorism, and other atrocities that provoke a backlash.
Despite Machiavelli’s rants, buyers can act unfaithfully toward mercenaries. Knowing the high danger of a mission, a client can misrepresent the threat so that mercenary casualties will be extreme.
Once they have achieved the mission the buyer cuts them loose and does not pay them. They will be too weak to challenge the client. There are also amoral hedging strategies.
For example, a buyer might contract multiple mercenary units to pursue the same objective without telling them. Each uses different strategic approaches, sometimes working at cross purposes.
The client rewards the first unit that completes the mission and the rest are cut loose, unpaid for their sacrifices. Lastly, a client can secretly hire multiple mercenary units to kill each other, thinning out their numbers and making them easier to control or swindle.
Mercenaries can also cheat their masters. Profit motive incentivizes them to start and/or elongate wars. This includes playing multiple potential clients off one another to foster mistrust that leads to more war contracts.
Asymmetries of expertise allow force providers to manipulate key military information to influence the client’s business decisions in favor of the mercenary’s interests.
Then there is the classic shakedown strategy: either blackmailing their client for more money at a crucial moment or selling out the client to the enemy for a greater return. Bribery was a powerful weapon during the Italian Wars.
Force providers can also act as a cartel by secretly cutting deals among each other and negotiating a war outcome that benefits all mercenaries at the expense of clients. A rising tide lifts all boats is an aphorism of economic theory.
Between contracts, mercenaries often sustain themselves through banditry, destabilizing whole regions. For them, it has the added benefit of artificially generating demand for their protection services. This can lead to extortion and racketeering.
They threaten to lay waste to a community unless it pays for protection money, similar to the Mafia. Then they try to establish payments on a rotating basis and raise prices whenever possible.
Mergers and acquisitions occur in the market for force. One approach is for larger force providers to buy smaller one, giving them market power. Alternatively, they can kill off the competition and become monopolists so they can raise prices.
Another strategy is praetorianism, a term deriving from the infamous Praetorian Guard, the imperial bodyguard of the Roman emperors established by Augustus Caesar.
During its 300-year existence, it assassinated 14 emperors, appointed 5, and even sold the office to the highest bidder on one occasion.
Mercenaries can hold a weak client hostage and bleed him dry of wealth for as long as possible and then look for a new host when finished. Alternately, they can establish a warlord kingdom to extract wealth from the area.
This is especially attractive in highly volatile regions rich in natural resources. Or they can capture a high-value asset like an oil field or small city and sell it back to the owner. When complete, they can ask for a contract to protect it from other mercenaries.
These are just a sampling of strategies peculiar to private warfare. Not one of them is taught in war colleges or studied in civilian security studies programs, leading to a gap in our strategic IQ.
Private wars do not behave like public ones and some of the best weapons may not fire bullets. It is possible to undermine mercenaries and their masters, but not by using traditional war strategies.
National Defense University Press / ABC Flash Point News 2022.