The Future of Contract Soldiers
By the end of July 1994, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans had been killed in a hundred-day period historians refer to as the Rwandan genocide. Blocked by U.N. regulations and lengthy international deliberations, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda failed to save lives. Early in the genocide, the British company Sandline International, staffed largely by former British military, offered to deploy 1,500 employees to Rwanda to create safe havens and prevent further killings, at the cost of $150 million. To put that number in perspective, $150 million would have accounted for roughly 10% of the estimated $1.4 billion emergency assistance funds donated the following year by the international community for Rwandese refugees and displaced persons. Had the U.N. acted decisively, Sandline International could have provided safe zones that would have saved thousands of lives for a relatively low cost while reducing the number of displaced Rwandans.
Private military companies (PMCs) like Sandline International provide comparatively cheap and rapid solutions in warzones, while side-stepping messy political and international ties. Current humanitarian crises develop in low scale, indefinite duration conflicts requiring rapid response and involving messy diplomatic maneuvering unsuited to modern militaries. By employing private companies, the United States will increase the flexibility of its foreign policy while reducing taxpayer obligations.
By design, PMCs are international. They draw employees from a number of countries based on qualifications, not nationalities. The United States’ checkered international reputation can degrade the effectiveness of its soldiers in conflicts, by undermining the willingness of the locals to work with them. International companies carry less baggage, with their reputations based on their actions, not their leadership. In civil wars, international companies are better suited to act as impartial peacekeepers. National militaries and their governments often lean too far to one side and the U.N. frequently becomes paralyzed by powerful members with conflicting goals.
Those motivated by cost savings will find the use of PMCs equally advantageous. The benefits of contracting are already well known to the federal government. Open markets for contracts drives down prices. Well-structured contracts cap expenses. Competition drives innovation.
PMCs provide one crucial advantage over traditional militaries: rapid arrival in the theater. In cases such as Rwanda, the sooner the contractors arrive, the fewer lives lost. This can be difficult for modern militaries that find themselves stretched thin. Contractors bypass this issue entirely, as a requirement of the bidding process is the ready deployment of their employees.
Unfortunately, the first name that comes to mind when discussing private military companies is Blackwater, the company responsible for the Nisour Square massacre of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. However, the individuals involved are no more representative of private contractors than the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre represent the American military. The soldiers involved in Nisour Square were arrested, and are currently being prosecuted in American court, a far cry from the public perception of them acting without consequence.
Instead, policy makers should focus on the success of MPRI, a contractor employed to help train friendly forces in Bosnia, or the successes of Executive Outcomes in combating rebels in Sierra Leone and Angola. In both these cases the companies stepped in and succeeded after local governments failed. MPRI was hired by the United States government to assist friendly forces where the American military was unable. Executive Outcomes was hired by the local governments to combat insurgent forces after domestic military forces failed. Their intervention curbed death tolls and shortened conflicts.
Private military contractors suffer for their comparison to mercenaries, but nothing could be farther from the truth. These contractors operate within a strict regulatory framework and with loyalty to those who employ them. It was within this framework that punishment for the Nisour massacre is currently developing.
This is not a call for the end of modern militaries and their replacement with private companies. Rather, it’s a call to expand U.S. values/interests/etc by allowing the country to take on peacekeeping operations in distant lands. These interventions will save lives.
International opinion is unified in opposition to genocide. Despite this unity, the international community continues to struggle with preventing and responding to cases of genocide. The question of how to respond to genocide is playing out in real time in Myanmar, where military forces have killed over five hundred Rohingyas and displaced half a million. If the U.N. remains paralyzed and the international community doesn’t want to get their hands with deployment of forces, why not give the private sector a chance to do better?