The United States is by far the largest consumer of private security contractors in the world. This being said, the US is also the largest producer of said security contractors, with many serving in the armed forces before joining private defense firms at a later date. In an age where the primary enemy combatants are non-state actors, and placed in myriad and ever-changing locations, private defense contractors provide the flexibility the U.S. government seeks for quick and decisive threat response. With support for large “official” military involvement steadily eroding since 9/11, private defense contractors have stepped in to a more prominent role. In the words of a report by the International Peace Research Institute, “private contractors fill the gap between geopolitical goals and public means.”
Private defense contractor firms are a relatively new addition to the defense industry. While corsairs, privateers, and mercenaries have been around for most of western history, they had faded from existence in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1965, when a group of ex-SAS British veterans started the firm WatchGuard International that modern private security contractors resurfaced. As conventional military budgets fell at the end of the end of the Cold War, close to 6 million soldiers from Western military powers were relieved of duties through the 1990’s. Fast forward to the year 2006, and over 100,000 private security contractors worked for the US Government in Iraq, a ten fold increase from the Persian Gulf War some 15 years prior.
While titularly private security contractors work in “support” roles for clients, services offered have expanded over time. Depending on who hires private security contractors, services can range from combat support, which includes the ability to coordinate and conduct large-scale operations, long distance strikes, and surgical strikes, to operational support, including training and intelligence, to general support, such as transportation and medical assistance. Though private security contractors are reportedly not used for offensive maneuvers, many are armed similarly to members of the military, may fire in self defense, or attack at an order from the State Department. Because many private security contractors are hired by the State Department, and not the military, contradictory security plans can surface. A recent report from Congress notes that of private security contractor actions requiring discipline during the Iraq war, many contractor abuses were caused by those working for the State Department and not the military.
With the unique and rapidly changing security concerns of states, corporations, and individuals in the 21st century, it’s not surprising that private security contracting is booming. The $100 billion plus a year industry is currently worldwide in over 50 countries. It’s not just a western phenomenon either, with the UAE recently paying Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide $529 million to create an elite guard for the emirate. As of 2012, Russia was openly talking of using private security contractors honed into a standing force to further interests abroad. Looking back to 1995, insurgent rebels were taking over large swaths of Sierra Leone, and the country looked to have fallen, save for Executive Outcomes, private defense contractors armed with state of the art artillery and aircraft.
In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractor fraud and waste is reported to have approached $30 billion. As with many large federal contractors, bids from firms that don’t have experience with large projects aren’t often awarded. In the event that a firm is involved with a debacle, they can rebrand, rename, and relocate, avoiding recognition for their tarnished brand. With different restrictions in different nationalities, firms will often relocate to escape particular laws. After being held responsible for gunning down 17 Iraqi civilians, Blackwater USA went through such a process. Rebranding themselves as Xe Services LLC and Academi in the matter of a few years.
Despite charges of massive waste in recent US-led wars, in many support roles, and particularly for nations without as advanced of a standing military, private security contractors are often an efficient solution. A 2005 cost comparison by the Congressional Budget Office noted that in support roles, the use of contractors was 90% cheaper than forming support organically from an existing troop base. The cost of training, equipment, salary, benefits, coupled with set tour of duty lengths buoys up the cost of using troops in support roles. When roles are purely logistical (non-combat) and perhaps only needed for short periods, the use of full time troops is often overkill. The military is particularly suited for the use of external employees on a contract basis due to the fact that defense needs fluctuate so abruptly and radically. In a comment on troop psychology, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Dr. Ashton B. Carter notes that “all studies show that [organic support] is more expensive than contractors and a distraction from military functions for military people.”
For individuals, corporations, or states without strong standing military power, cost effectiveness of contractors increases in relation to the “catch-up” costs (seen in terms of time, money, and the cost of security mishaps) that would be needed to develop defense expertise organically. The continued and increased use of private security contractors is evidence that they are cost effective (or the only option) in many circumstances. From 1990-2000, private military contractors were involved in over 80 conflicts, as opposed to only 15 from 1950-89. Though the first gets most of the notoriety, there are three main ways in which private security contractors provide services. Firstly, military combatant companies provide forces for combat. This form of private security contract work is a slim minority of the overall industry, and often receives the derogatory title of”mercenaries.” The second option includes military consulting firms, or firms who provide training and military advising, though some of these firms have also expanded to include security and bodyguard services. The third type of private security contractor are military support firms. These firms provide nonlethal aid and assistance, ranging from maintenance, technical support, explosive ordinance disposal, to intelligence collection and analysis.
Problematically, private security contractors often work in the moral vacuum of being non-state entities who act with the backing of state actors. The propensity to deploy private security contractors to war zones or regions in chaos deepens the ability of firms to move into moral grey area through the lack of accountability measures often present in destabilized regions. Though many wrongs have also been committed by state military actors as well, many private defense firms have been prosecuted for atrocious acts in war zones. Most notably the Baghdad shootings of 2007, in which Blackwater guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians, as well as DynCorp’s sex-slavery and trafficking horror story in Bosnia last decade.
Fortunately, international law, corporate ethical codes, and the laws of individual states are evolving to craft a clear and ethically sustainable role for private security contractors. Aside from several amendments to bills in 2007 and 2008, President Obama’s 2010 budget noted that the administration “will clarify what is inherently a governmental function and what is a commercial one; critical government functions will not be performed by the private sector for purely ideological reasons.” Fear of terrorism and crime, a growing global middle class with assets to protect, and a number surfacing non-state threats are also good news for the private security industry, with the industry expecting to grow to nearly $220 billion by 2015. Though the US currently accounts for around 35% of security services spending, this is expected to change in coming years with growth in countries such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.
Recent outcomes of larger scale private security contractor firm use include nations, corporations, and individuals globally. Most notably, over recent years, the UN has increasingly used private security contractors for guards, as well as for a range of services relating to humanitarian affairs, peace-building, and development. With new bills in the works, Russia is potentially set to open the doors for close to half a million new private defense jobs, some of the most newsworthy included amongst the alleged occupation of Ukraine. South African firm Executive Outcomes are known for a large presence in most African war zones, including Sierra Leone, Angola, Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Ethiopia, Namibia, and Lesotho. Though there official mission is to promote peace on the continent, reports have centered on their role in diamond dealing and exploitative practices.