Private military contractors: The 21st century’s Pandora’s Box?

Adham Shebl
Thursday 3 Aug 2023

Mercenary work is as old and ever-present as warfare itself, at least within Western civilization (Petersohn, 2014).


The ability to maintain a standing army is not the norm of societies in human history. It requires a substantial amount of financial ability to do so and a surplus in productivity to allow you to remove able-bodied people from the workforce and into the military force (Mcfate, 2019).

Some pre-modern political entities may have achieved productivity levels and had the financial ability to maintain professional armies.

They were more the exception than the rule. With the rise of the nation-state, public debt and taxes allowed for the establishment of standing professional armies for states (Joenniemi, 1977).

With the emergence of state security apparatuses, the state's monopoly on violence has become a pillar of modern statehood theory. With the recent "mutiny" by Wagner forces on Russian soil and subsequent developments, questions regarding state sovereignty and its relation to private military companies/mercenaries must be seriously considered.

The first modern private military company (PMC) was the British Watchguard International. It was set up to support the Royalist forces during the civil war in Yemen, and then the company spread to secure British interests in Africa. The general objective of the company was to safeguard British interests in areas where the British government could not act.

Watchguard International was able to set up a private military force that had a tangible political impact and was financially viable, ie, it was capable of generating an operating profit.

By the mid-1970s, the PMC industry had become a serious commercial actor. However, after the Cold War, the industry grew into a multi-billion-dollar industry. The industry took over warfare during the Iraq and Afghanistan military campaigns (Kinsey, 2007).

To put it into perspective, private employees outnumbered uniformed personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan during the campaigns at times; by contrast, during the Vietnam War, contractors represented less than 20 percent of US ground troops during that conflict (Stranger, 2015).

Additionally, during early PMCs usage, governments that had employed PMCs would deny any involvement once the PMCs presence had become known to the public. Currently, governments do not even attempt to hide that mercenaries are being employed to secure their political interest (Kinsey, 2007).

The ability to field mercenary groups has allowed countries to quickly and, for some countries, cheaply scale up their military presence.

In 2022, total military expenditure reached record highs of $2,240 billion. The top spender is the US at $877 billion, followed by China at $292 billion and Russia at $86.4 billion (SPIRI, 2023).

During the same year, it is estimated that the PMC industry generated $258.1 billion. This figure means that PMCs comprise roughly 10 percent of all military expenditures across the globe (Vantage Market, 2023).

PMCs are being hired by everyone at the current moment, from superpowers to non-state actors. When states rely on PMCs, they usually fall within two broad categories.

The first one involves states hiring PMCs when they do not have a solid grasp on the monopoly of violence and use mercenaries to regain that monopoly.

The second group involves states that hire PMCs to supplement their monopoly on violence. An example of the former would be Nigeria dealing with Boko Haram in 2015.

In this situation, the Nigerian government could not secure Cobra helicopters from Israel because the United States blocked the sale. The United States decided to stop the deal because they were worried that Nigeria did not know how to properly operate the vehicles (O'Gardy and Groll, 2015).

To overcome this, the Nigerian government secretly hired mercenaries from South Africa and the former Soviet Union.

These mercenaries arrived on the scene with refurbished Soviet-made Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships - flying tanks - and trained pilots to operate them. In subsequent weeks, they made substantial gains in the conflict against Boko Haram (Mfcate,2019).

The second group involves states seeking to supplement their monopoly. The rise in usage of PMCs within states that already have the best troops, training, technology, equipment, and resources means that these states are hiring PMCs to offer them a degree of cover domestically and internationally.

Examples of this include PMCs usage by EU member states to deal with the refugee "crisis," the United States' usage of PMCs during their counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, and the usage of Wagner by Russia in Ukraine and Syria.

The usage of PMCs by policymakers in these instances highlights how PMCs can allow these nation-states to circumvent both international scrutiny, as traditionally, PMCs are not bound by international law (Davitti, 2019) and domestic attention as there is no need to garner support for the war or operations.

PMCs, many of whom are ex-soldiers, in these theatres of war traditionally offer a substantial tactical advantage in terms of professionalism and talent.

 However, in most cases, their private missions differ from those of the overall public operation. These contractors are focused only on their contracts and getting them done (Singer, 2007).

This is highlighted in the escorts of Exline Starr, a former Coalition Provisional Authority adviser. In her experience, the soldiers would drink tea and play cards with the Iraqis (build relationships, which is what is needed to combat counterinsurgency).

At the same time, the security contractors moved aggressively, and their only focus was protecting Exilne Starr.

"Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad" (Fainaru, 2007).

Needless to say, this approach by the contractors is precisely how you do not want to be combating a counterinsurgency.

In addition to states employing PMCs, non-state actors such as oligarchs and corporations use them as private armies that secure their financial interests and investments in conflict or high-risk zones.

As one author said: "Can anyone really argue that Gabon is more influential in world affairs than ExxonMobil simply because it is a state? Now ExxonMobil can have its own intelligence service and army, too, making it even more powerful. This introduces the possibility of wars without states - private wars - a concept inconceivable to most national security leaders. This is the danger." (Mcfate, 2019)

In all the scenarios mentioned earlier, state sovereignty, as classically understood, is being seriously challenged. First, in the case of non-state actors hiring a private army, it is an evident loss of a nation-state's monopoly of violence.

An example of this is during the 2014 Ukraine conflict. Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky hired mercenaries to capture the headquarters of the oil company UkrTransNafta in order to protect his financial assets, not for the sake of the country (Taub, 2015).

The second case is the group of states that employ PMCs while having a tenuous hold on sovereignty within their territory. This group has received the lion's share of attention in the literature and popular discourse when discussing the relationship between PMCs and state sovereignty.

These states are already viewed as having weak institutions. It is believed that mercenaries and/or militias can gain considerable political clout in these states due to the pre-existing weakness present within them.

The problem here is the political power these mercenaries and/or militias acquire plunges the state into a loop of violence. After all, violence is what allowed them to gain their financial and political power.

Maintaining that violence and creating a setting in which their services would be indispensable becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (Davitti, 2019). The waters are further muddied when PMCs linked with another state's foreign policy goals become involved.

Before 2023, powerful states that hired PMCs did not have their monopoly on violence or sovereignty directly threatened by their reliance on PMCs. However, with the recent Wagner mutiny during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the world witnessed the risks of a beast that had grown too large for its owner to control.

Wagner's military presence in Ukraine was believed to be 50,000 by January 2022, according to the UK's Ministry of Defence, with the majority of them fighting in the Siege of Bakhmut. During the mutiny, Prigozhin claimed he had 25,000 soldiers under his command for the march on Moscow. These numbers and the fact that they were fighting in the most brutal scene during the wars as of yet indicate how vital Wagner is to Russia's military operations (Kuepper, 2023).

One could assume that this is just a Russian-PMC problem. Still, the importance of PMCs in frontier war is common for other powerful states. The U.S military has become too reliant on PMC.

"It has over-outsourced to the point that it is unable to imagine carrying out its most basic operations without them." (Singer, 2007)

While the U.S. government may see itself as immune to such mutinies of PMCs. The Wagner mutiny highlighted that militaries that become too reliant on PMCs are at risk of clashes between the PMC and military leadership over the conduct of the overall military operation.

These, in turn, are conditions that allow for a private army to fight against a powerful nation-state and threaten its sovereignty from within. 

*Adham Shebl is a senior researcher at BUC’s Centre for Global Affairs. He graduated with a Master of Arts in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations from the American University in Cairo (AUC). His research interests include Security Studies, the History of Imperialism, the Development of Capital Relations, National Identity, and the Formation of Political Subjectivity.

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