The New Mercenaries - Corporate Armies For Hire

by Major Thomas J. Milton, USA

Security Contractors: Vinnell Corporation, Brown and Root, MPRI, Sandline Ltd., Executive Outcomes. As the armies of the major nations shrink, the number of companies that provide military assistance grow. These companies are filling a legitimate defense need, usually advising and training regular armies. Many members of the United States Army are familiar with the US based companies. Soldiers either have worked alongside them in operations, training, or in headquarters staff functions. But what about the others, the French, Brazilian, British, or South African? Some companies view themselves as military assistance corporations, similar to many United States based corporations; however, they have taken the military assistance role to the next level. Traditionally, corporations working for a foreign government provided only assistance and training, they did not conduct combat operations. This is changing.

When a nation cannot provide, for whatever reason, enough government security to meet the needs of the nation, private contractors will fill the void. Witness the increase in the number of security firms, bodyguard services, etc. in those countries where crime has become rampant. In 1994, South Africa ended its apartheid era. Their police service, whose mission had been to maintain and enforce the separation between the races, was not properly trained or organized to perform law-enforcement functions. Consequently, crime has soared. South Africa now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The number of private security guards in South Africa has grown accordingly. Today, private security guards outnumber the police. The same phenomena can be witnessed in places such as Russia or Columbia. In many aspects these private security companies can provide the security and protection that the government cannot.

Changing Missions of Armies: Just as private security firms are accepted as a positive development, if successful in reducing crime, so too are military contractors accepted, if successful in assisting an army to accomplish its missions at a reduced cost. Coinciding with the shrinking size of the world's armies, is the growing requirements placed upon them. Armies the world over are being asked to perform missions that are outside the traditional mission of defending national sovereignty. Assisting the nation in the policing of national borders, combating drugs, and humanitarian relief missions are now the everyday missions of armies around the world. What had been traditional police missions now have a mix of police, private security firms and military working in the same arena. With the proliferation of private security firms and military contractors who assist the armies, it is time the US Army begins to consider the implications of operating in an environment where the most capable military force may be a private company, not a government entity.

Changing Trade: Although not a new concept, the number of private security firms, and the scope of work they can provide has greatly expanded in recent years. It is wrong to think of these corporations as a new breed of mercenaries. These "armies for hire" can provide a variety of services; advice, training, equipping, maintenance, logistics and when needed, some can and will engage in combat operations. There are three major differences between these new corporate armies and mercenaries of old. First, they are business ventures foremost, not a venture for individual profit or excitement. Second, these corporations, at least those based in western states, do not take contracts that are in direct opposition to their country's national interest. Third, again for those based in western countries, they maintain a high level of professionalism and profess to adhere to internationally accepted norms of operations. Undoubtedly, many of the individuals who work for these corporations do so as a matter of patriotism. They are retired military who see this new line of work as a continuation of their chosen profession. The danger in this lies in the increasingly complex nature of defining what is a country's national interest. In areas where international interests are not clearly defined, these corporations will have opportunities that fall in the gray area of neither being totally within, nor directly opposed to their home country's interest.

 second problem may occur when Western Powers view the services of these corporations from different perspectives. If a security corporation takes employment to assist a legitimate government with a complicated, long-term problem, the reactions from the various Western Powers may be opposed to each other. This is very likely in African situations, where European nations often have different views on how best to react to a crisis.
Corporations Becoming Part of the Military: Within the United States, there are a number of these corporations that not only are working for the interest of the US government, but also are part of Department of Defense (DoD) planning considerations. Almost all of these corporations, such as Vinnell, Brown and Root, and MPRI have retired senior military persons working in and/or running the companies. These companies have become an integral part of DoD plans and operations. The professionalism and expertise within these corporations are without reproach.
It is important to remember, though, that these corporations only take contracts if financially beneficial. Foreign governments contract them to improve their country's military capabilities. While none of the contractors are to participate in direct hostilities, their advice and assistance are critical for combat operations. Just as the distinction between combat arms and non-combat arms has become blurred during operations, the distinction between "advising" and "doing" for these contractors is similarly blurred. The reality is that most of these corporations' operations become an integral part of the foreign government's military capability. If these companies ceased work during hostilities, the host government's military would not be able to function near its perceived capability. The Gulf War gave good evidence of this. The Saudi military and Saudi Arabian National Guard rely heavily on US-owned companies to provide military training, and maintenance support. Throughout the war, these contractors continued to provide the logistical and maintenance support to the Saudi forces. Some contractors who had trained Saudi units traveled with these units to provide tactical advice and at times aided in the development of some Saudi units' operation orders. The Saudi units, while proficient on their own accord, would have lost significant capabilities if these contractors had gone home.

The New Face of Military Assistance: A natural evolution of these corporate armies for hire has occurred in Africa. Several corporations have and will provide security assistance to governments. If warranted these companies will participate in combat operations. Press reports on these companies are mixed: some praise their capability at restoring order in countries threatened by rebel movements, as was the case in both Sierra Leone and Angola, other reports still view them as a group of mercenaries which eventually will cause problems in the region. Negative reporting on such companies usually links these corporations with being paid for their services by mineral or oil concessions from the government. A situation that is reminiscent of the days of colonialism.

ne point that all media accounts agree on, is that these corporations have been very effective, at least for the short-term, in assisting governments maintain stability. They employ professional, experienced soldiers, mostly from Africa. From the company's point of view, it is more cost effective, and saves more lives, for a government to hire them to assist a teetering government before it collapses, than it is to send in a peacekeeping force after a violent fight has subsided.
ompanies that provide security services are actively looking to expand their business. These companies emphasize that they only take contracts that are under the auspices of a legitimate government or entity (i.e., the United Nations), and that do not oppose the interest of the home government. Foreign companies view their US competitors as military assistance corporations. In their view, the difference between their companies and their US competitors, is that they have the capability to train, equip, or deploy a combat force if needed. In several instances foreign company advisors fought either with the units being trained or in a separate unit alongside the host government forces. If requested, such companies could respond to a humanitarian crisis, with a 300 man force, complete with communications, logistics, medical and close air support. This force would be to stabilize the situation and assist in humanitarian efforts until a UN peacekeeping force arrived.
The services provided by these types of companies are a growth industry. There have been small-scale operations in the Far East and some companies are now actively seeking to gain military assistance contracts with South American governments. Other companies with similar capabilities have reportedly been formed in Israel, France and Brazil. MPRI, Vinnell and smaller US based companies are also seeking contracts to aid militaries around the world, albeit without the combat capability of these more robust corporate entities.

New Capabilities for "Corporate Mercenaries": During the Cold War, mercenaries operating in Africa, and elsewhere, provided experience, leadership and small arms. Occasionally, a mercenary outfit could acquire a light plane or a few artillery pieces. Today, with the flood of weapons on the world's market a corporation involved in military training can acquire and provide a complete array of conventional and unconventional weapons systems. With the proper corporate financing, the new corporate mercenaries can purchase attack aircraft and helicopters, transport planes, tanks, artillery, night vision devices, secure communications, computer systems and software. Anything that a modern, western army has, they can purchase. This equipment can be of very good quality. Recently, countries such as Russia and France have been offering satellite imagery to individuals or companies able to pay for the service.

Implications for US Army: For the near future, it seems unlikely that the US Army will find itself in conflict with any of these corporations. Yet, with the Army being deployed more frequently to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in regions where these corporations may be working, the probability of coming in contact with them grows. Just as the military recently had to develop a system for working with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) during humanitarian operations, so it should begin to consider how it will deal with these organizations.

In the case of the US-based corporations, the issue is at present fairly routine. One should not lose sight, however, that these corporations ultimately could have different interests than that of the US military; the corporations are a business. In today's international politics, US interests and the interests of US allies, often are not clearly defined and may differ on specific events. This is particularly true when dealing with complicated peacekeeping or humanitarian situations. What happens when a corporation is hired by a foreign government whose objectives differ from the United States but whose overall intent is not against US policy? What happens if the US must deploy to that region? How will the international political aspects play out if a key US ally supports the use of these corporations?
The lucrative future for these corporations appears to be in areas of the world where a government is having difficulty with rebel movements or organized crime: Angola, Bosnia, Congo, Sierra Leone, Columbia, etc. These are also the regions where the US will most likely find itself deployed in Military Operations Other Than War. If used, these corporate armies may often be the preeminent army in a region. If the US deploys its military into a region where one of these corporate armies is maintaining the stability, what happens if a contract dispute causes the corporation to withdraw its forces? How will the US military coordinate with these corporations -- through the government represented or directly with the corporate representatives? What are the legal ramifications with dealing with these corporations? What happens when there is a conflict of interest between the corporate army and the US objectives?
Most of these questions will find their own answers as operations dictate. For now, though, it is time to realize that there are new players in the field and think about the changing operational conditions.

1997, Foreign Area Officer Association
Springfield, Virginia

Join our Daily News Headlines Email Digest

Fill out your emailaddress
to receive our newsletter!
Powered by

Information Clearing House

Daily News Headlines Digest