(Analysis) The rise of Private Military Companies in Modern Conflict

(Analysis) The rise of Private Military Companies in Modern Conflict

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An infamous Wagnerian emblem. Source: Newscoop

On June 23, 2023, the world held its breath when the Wagner coup, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, rose in rebellion against what they saw as the Russian Armed Forces’s unjust killing of Wagnerian soldiers. However, within one day, Wagner and the Russian government ceased their hostilities and the conflict between the two parties was seemingly over; exactly two months after the rebellion, Prigozhin was killed in a jet crash in Tver Oblast. This signaled the end of the famous Wagner mercenary group that captured many headlines throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war. Nevertheless, Wagner may serve as the herald of a new era; an era in which soldiers fight under private entities instead of the state and PMCs engage in conventional warfare.

This trend of private actors engaging in war is nothing new at all, and in fact, has archaic roots. Before the rise of the modern state, European monarchs and nobles often hired mercenaries to fight in their feuds; the oldest surviving mercenary contact can be dated back to the 13th century

Modern mercenary or private contractors’ origin can be traced to the Cold War when ex-SAS veterans David Stirling and John Woodhouse founded WatchGuard International. Their missions were a far cry from conventional warfare and instead provided training and advisory roles. Private military organizations have continued to proliferate, especially after the end of the Cold War, due to significant cuts to military budgets throughout the 1990s. Initially, modern PMCs were contracted to provide support for traditional national militaries; PMCs provided logistical support and guarded key facilities, training, and reconnaissance. Gradually, the military has grown overly reliant on them. By the late 2000s, PMCs played a major role in both of the US’s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years, international corporations have also increasingly hired their services, especially to guard their resources and value facilities in unstable countries or prevent their cargo ships from being hijacked by non-state actors. However, the Wagner Group’s actions in the Russo-Ukrainian War represent a departure from the supplementary role PMCs have traditionally provided; rather than providing support to the military, they acted as a proper army and engaged the Ukrainian national army on equal terms. Judging from past developments, it is reasonable to assume that Wagner might not be the last PMC to attain such capabilities, and will likely serve as an example of what to expect in the international security landscape in the near future.

The graph indicates the number of private contractors throughout the history of conflict. Source: GIS

Why did PMCs return in the modern era?

Perhaps, the resurfacing of modern PMCs can be traced back to the nature of the state in the 21st century. Old mercenary formations were met with extinction when the state managed to centralize control over its population and resources. The state preferred to use the national army which was ideologically driven to fight in its interest, as mercenaries were notoriously unreliable when profit was involved. However, the modern state of the 21st century is seemingly losing that control, due to the globalization and digitalization of society, causing the state to become weaker and society to be fragmented.  Subsequently,  the loyalty of the population does not lie with the state in which they reside, and instead with outside entities. This can be seen in the case of American men who fought for the IDF in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war, or in the instance of multinational volunteer groups that fought on both sides of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Furthermore, the modern state is unable to motivate its young men to join the military as demonstrated by a poll conducted in the UK that indicated the young men will not fight for their own country. This case prompted a debate on the revival of conscription, a policy that may cause massive political backlash. The problem is exacerbated by declining fertility rates, making the prospect of fulfilling the recruiting quota in any developed country untenable. Given these challenges, the prospect of having ready-made soldiers for hire on the global market seems to be a tempting option for the state.

Additionally, the globalized economy created powerful multinational conglomerates that have independent economic interests in many parts of the world. The area associated with their interest might be threatened by undesirable actors, and the state may lack the capacity to protect the corporate interest. In this case, corporations have resorted to hiring private security firms to protect their interests. One such instance is the case of Chinese security firms protecting Chinese business alongside the modern Silk Roads, while another is PMCs protecting resources and valuable infrastructures of multinational firms operating in unstable states

Trainees from Dawei Security, a Chinese international private security firm that operates mainly along the One Belt One Road initiative project, training at a boot camp near the outskirts of Beijing. Source: Tribune

What are the benefits of using PMCs?

Although controversial, PMCs offer unparalleled flexibility to hirers. PMCs provide room for deniability and avoid political backlash for contractee states when engaging in risky foreign policy ventures. Throughout the US campaign in Afghanistan, PMCs suffered significant casualties, however, their death barely made it to the headlines in the news; in the same fashion, Russia denied its involvement with Wagner for many years before the Russo-Ukrainian war.  Moreover, in warfare, PMCs can provide quick supplementary soldiers to traditional armies that might lack sufficient manpower and bring technical expertise to insufficiently developed militaries.

Meanwhile,  there is a discussion of the possibility of using PMCs in peacekeeping operations. Normally, dispatching a peacekeeping force is a cumbersome process that requires consensus among the UNSC members, but the existence of PMCs provides an opportunity to tap into a wealth of experienced soldiers that can be quickly mobilized. Furthermore, PMCs can leverage their experience to support and train the traditional security and armed forces of weak states to combat non-state actors or prevent ethnic conflict in specific regions.

Though the prospect of privatizing peace is tempting, significant problems are attached to relying on such an entity. Indeed, PMCs are usually staffed with experienced personnel, however, it should be noted that these personnel are often plagued by mental illnesses such as PTSD, depression, and excessive alcohol abuse. This coupling with the loose structure of the private military organization can cause trouble for local populations;  In 2005, a video was circulated on the internet showing the members of Aegis Defense Services shooting at Iraqi civilians. Moreover, as the PMCs are financially rewarded for the conflict, ending the conflict and stabilizing the region may go against their best interest. 

Blackwater employee in Afghanistan, 2002. Source: whowhatwhy

Conflict of the future

The future war is already here; the Russo-Ukrainian war is revealing the general characteristics of the future war. Russia and Ukraine struggle to find enough soldiers to fight in this war. Russia only issued partial mobilization and did not bother to risk its regime’s survival with the total mobilization. Meanwhile, Ukraine struggles to find enough bodies to man the front line. Of course, both sides enjoy each respective domestic supporters and yet refuse to issue total mobilization, knowing the potential political backlash that the policy might cause. For example, the Ukrainian draft age only begins at 25 years old. The scale of the war in Ukraine is massive, but even an authoritarian state like Russia which allegedly has complete control over entire national resources, finding enough material to fuel the war is still a challenge. 

What we can learn from this? The world is looking at the potential escalation of the Sino-American rivalry. However, judging from the current trends of both states, whose people are fragmented and resentful of their government, it isn’t very certain that they would remain content if their countries ever issued total mobilization. Thus, this only allows the possibility of a small-scale war due to the limited pool of available manpower from both sides. This condition is highly similar to the characteristics of warfare in the pre-industrial era. If the conflict becomes prolonged, then both belligerent powers might seek the assistance of the PMCs to fuel their manpower needs. 

Overall, it has been estimated that the global value of private militaries is at 20k billion USD with a compound annual growth rate of 4.4 percent. Hence, the private security sector is a lucrative industry that barely shows any signs of slowing down. Private security companies will likely continue to proliferate, owing their success to the needs of both the private and public sectors. Their existence might be a subject of controversy, but they are here to stay and might be a common player in the future security landscape.

Please Read More for More Information;

Keating, Joshua. Welcome to “neomedieval world”. Vox. 6 Feb 2024

Fasnotti, Saini, Federica, The future of the private military companies. GIS. 6 Feb 2024

The Business of War – Growing Risks from Private Military Companies. Council of the European Union. 31 Aug 2023

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(Analysis) The rise of Pr…

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