Konstantinos anagnostakis 250

The privatization of war and the rise of PMSCs

Posted on Posted in Analyses

By Konstantinos Anagnostakis, Analyst KEDISA



The rise of non-state actors

If we could define war during the beginning of the 20th century, we would probably describe an armed hostile conflict between nations or political parties within a nation. Even after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War between the USSR and pro-USSR states against the United States and their allies, this definition would keep its main core with just a few objections. However, in the past three decades, we have witnessed a transformation of the traditional war theories and the multiplication of state and non-state actors involved.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, marks the end of the Cold War era and the bipolar global order. What it also marks is the creation of numerous <<Failed States>> (such as Somalia and Afghanistan), states whose apparatus ceases to exist for a certain period of time. These states found themselves dealing with the revival of pre-state forms and identities, such as the collapse of the legal economy, the rise of armed insurgent groups, local warlords, authoritarianism, and illicit trafficking. Meanwhile, the rising number of usually medium or low-intensity regional or internal conflicts gave birth to joint international humanitarian (peacekeeping) operations led by NGOs and private companies, who signed lucrative contracts with national governments. The Civil War in Sierra Leone, the case of Angola in 1993, and the first Gulf War serve as concrete examples of the rapid growth of a new industry, the private military and security companies industry, also known as PMSCs.

At the beginning of the 21st century, this private sector started booming after the 09/11 terrorist attacks,

when the US government initiated the War on Terror, spending billions of dollars on overseas military operations around the globe. During the wars in Afghanistan (2001-21) and Iraq (2003-11) the Department of Defense (DOD) relied on contractors to support a wide range of military operations. Thus, it should not surprise us that private contractors often accounted for 50% or more of the total Department of Defense presence in-country. Moreover, the rapid technological development and the high importance of information, have gradually posed new threads for national and international security, global order, and the markets. We have undoubtedly passed from traditional forms of security and defense (national armies, espionage) to modern, cyber warfare (cryptography, hacking). As such, the multiplication of professions linked to security has led governments and companies to the private sector to help them reduce possible risks and vulnerabilities. Today, these entities operate in almost every corner of the world, for a broad variety of clientele, providing several services for critical state and security functions.


A new phenomenon?

Today, private military and security companies have become significant actors in both the international arena and the domestic affairs of each state. Even though many believe that this privatization of war is a new phenomenon, it dates back to ancient history and especially to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The modernization of warfare we face today can be better viewed as a reincarnation of a historical lineage of private providers of physical force. For instance, Roman legions were almost always supported by barbarian mercenaries, paid to fight and conquer other barbarians. During the Middle Ages, mercenaries were trained men without a lord who sold their services to the highest bidder. The situation changed after the Peace of Westphalia when nation-states started investing in (national) armies rather than private mercenaries who gradually became outlaws. As mentioned above, it was the post-Cold War era that let the private military industry reemerge and multiply. But what exactly is a private contractor? The non-state entities of the 21st century differ from all their ancestors as they operate in extremely blurred situations where the frontiers are difficult to separate. Private contractors are usually former personnel from commando units such as US special forces, paratroopers, British SAS, former USSR military personnel, or former CIA, and FBI agents and directors. This <<double-life>> is often called the <<Revolving Door Syndrome>>. In politics, a revolving door is a situation in which personnel move between roles as legislators and regulators, on one hand, and employees or lobbyists of the industries affected by the legislation and regulation, on the other. It is analogous to the movement of people in a physical revolving door. These individuals cannot be defined as civilians, since they are armed, they carry (sometimes heavy) weaponry, and they fulfill military operations. They cannot either be considered soldiers, as they are not part of a national army or a chain of command. However, they are also not mercenaries, at least as this term is defined in the 1977 Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, since they are operating in foreign countries under legal contracts with legally registered companies. Among other tasks, they are assigned to protect assets, train armed forces, interrogate detainees, or even fight.


Possible dangers

Theoretically, a non-state actor and its employees who conduct military, espionage, or other operations on foreign soil should be bound by International Humanitarian Law and its rules. However, in most cases the private military and security companies operate in a legal vacuum, posing a real threat to humanitarian law, peacekeeping, and global order itself. It is a fact that the information publicly accessible on the scope, type, and objectives of contracts between governments and PMSCs is scarce and insufficient. Little is known about where they operate, under which conditions, and to whom they are accountable. There are numerous cases where these <<guns for hire>> have been accused of executions, acts of torture, human trafficking, abuses, etc. In 2007, for example, a group of Blackwater (now operating as Academi) employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians, an incident later called the Nisour Square Massacre.

Are these private companies and their employees under control?

In 1961, President Eisenhower addressed the American public opinion against the growing danger of a military-industrial complex stating: “(…) we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes”. A great example of the dangers that President Eisenhower predicted, is the recent coup d’etat organized by the ex-leader of the Russian government-funded private military company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin and his supporters turned against the Russian Ministry of Defense, staging a rebellion on 23 June 2023. Even though we cannot be sure of the aims and objectives of this paramilitary movement, it should alert national governments and authorities to how powerful and uncontrolled PMSCs have become.



As argued above, the private security and military industry has been booming since the end of the Cold War, especially in the context of the US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 attacks. Traditional warfare has been transformed into a complex, multiplicated security industry, where not only states but also rich people and companies can become superpowers and significant global actors (ExxonMobil, Elon Musk). The privatization of war has created a structural dynamic, which responds to the commercial logic of the industry, surpassing national security issues. Along with the technological process, the fields of security and defense have become a global market where non-state actors acting as cartels provide high-tech weaponry to governments, corporations, and individuals. In other words, war has not only become a business, but a very profitable one. It is no surprise, thus, that the UK-based PMSC company G4S, which offers a broad range of security services, has reported a total revenue of 3.7 billion euros for 2018. Unfortunately, this situation is not going to change as long as people are willing to escalate conflicts and fight wars for money.



Academic sources:

Bijos, L., & de Souza, R. (2020, December). Private Military Companies and the Outsourcing of War: A Spark of Destabilisation to the Global Security. In Annales de la Faculté de Droit d’Istanbul (No. 69, pp. 87-118). Istanbul University. (https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/1423278)

Silva, B. T. P. (2023). The regulation of military and private security companies. Caderno de ANAIS HOME.

Holmqvist, C. (2005). Private security companies. The case for regulation. SIPRI Policy Paper, 9. (https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/PP/SIPRIPP09.pdf)


Other sources:


Article by Faiza Patel, former Head of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries. 25/09/2012. (https://archive.globalpolicy.org/pmscs/countries-in-which-pmscs-operate/51933-the-explosion-of-private-militaries-and-mercenaries-post-iraq.html%3Fitemid=id.html#50211)


Article by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater. New York Times. 2017. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/opinion/erik-prince-contractors-afghanistan.html)


European Parliament TV: Private security companies: stricter rules and more oversight. 04/05/2017. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVCO4nByZPg)