Andrew Liaropoulos
(Senior Analyst)


The privatization of security has been one of the most important developments in international security over the last years. The rise of the private military and security companies (PMSCs) has shifted the location of power in the field of security from the public/state to the private/market. (1) The role of PMSCs has been expanding since the early 1990s and the recent war in Iraq strongly demonstrated the benefits and dilemmas involved with the expansion of the private military contractors. According to Singer, the growth of the industry was driven by three factors: the end of the Cold War, the transformation in the nature of warfare that thickened the traditional lines between soldiers and civilians and finally the general trend toward privatization and outsourcing of government functions. (2)

In a way the PMSCs represent the corporate evolution of the age of old profession of mercenaries, but the role of these companies today is much broader. PMSCs provide a wide range of services, from armed support to governments, UN peacekeeping operations and non governmental organizations (NGOs), to logistical support, technical assistance and intelligence analysis. Private contractors have been employed for housing, management, transport and logistics, as well as protecting personnel, infrastructure and aid deliveries. (3)

Modern militaries would be unable to perform without the assistance of PMSCs. Nevertheless, their role has been controversial. The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq raised operational, legal and ethical dilemmas. To start with, the interests of a private (military) company do not always side with its clients’ (government) interests. Unlike national armies, PMSCs can always abandon or suspend operations if they become too dangerous or unprofitable, and thereby jeopardize the success of a campaign. (4) Another problem involves the personnel of these companies. The recruiting, hiring and screening is carried out by the companies themselves. Such a practice weakens state control with regard to loyalty and accountability of employees. (5)

Ethical issues are also raised in relation to the PMSCs’ clients. Usually military contractors are employed by democratic governments, the UN and NGOs, but what about the cases were the employers are dictators or rebel groups? Are there any regulations, domestic or international that define and control the activities of the private military industry? Military contractors are neither civilians nor soldiers and no international convention or law covers PMSCs. According to Kinsley, current international law on mercenaries does not apply on to PMSCs and the only viable option is to improve national law. (6) The US and the UK have recently defined the role of battlefield contractors. The US Army Regulation 715-9 ‘Contractors Accompanying the Force’ and the UK’s ‘Contractors on Deployed Operations’ clear both the legal status of PMSCs in combat environment and the Rules of Engagement (ROE). Such developments although not adequate, definitely point to the right direction. (7)

By privatizing parts of a military campaign, governments can lower the political price of military interventions. If it was not for the 20.000 contractors currently operating in Iraq, the Bush administration would either deploy more of its own troops and/or persuade its allies to send more troops. In both cases, the political cost would be significant, judging from the success of the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. (8) The final concern raised by the extensive use of PMSCs involves the future of the military itself. These companies very often recruit from within the military and a private contractor will earn much more than any regular soldier. In other words, the military has not only lost it monopoly on military and security activities, but might also find it difficult in the near future to retain talented soldiers.

The above analysis suggests that governments must realize not only the benefits, but also the disadvantages of using PMSCs. The private military contractors allow governments to accomplish public ends through private means, but at the same time it raises practical, ethical and legal issues regarding the monopoly of force, the accountability of the private military industry and the future of regular armies.


(1) Leander, Anna, ‘The Power to Construct International Security: On the significance of Private Military Companies’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 33, 3 (2005), pp.803-826.
(2) Singer, P.W., ‘Outsourcing War’, Foreign Affairs, vol.84 (March/April 2005).
(3) ‘Contractors in War’, Strategic Comments, vol.13 issue 9 (London: International Institute for Strategies Studies, November 2007).
(4) Singer, ‘Outsourcing War’.
(5) Rosen, Frederik, ‘Commercial Security: Conditions of Growth’, Security Dialogue, 39, 1 (2008), p.93.
(6) Kinsey, Christopher, ‘Challenging International Law: A Dilemma of Private Security Companies’, Conflict, Security and Development, 5, 3 (December 2005), pp.269-293.
(7) O’Briean, Kevin A., ‘What Future, Privatized Military and Security Activities’, The RUSI Journal, 152, 2 (2007), p.57. See also Lindemann, Marc, ‘Civilian Contractors under Military Law’, Parameters, XXXVII, no.3 (Autumn 2007), pp.83-94.
(8) Singer, ‘Outsourcing War’.

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