Small Wars Journal

Should We Send Armed Contractors to Syria?

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Should We Send Armed Contractors to Syria?


Gary Anderson


Should we replace American forces in Syria with armed contractors? Erik Prince thinks so. In an article for FOX News, Prince and retired General Anthony Tata suggested that a group such as the World War II Flying Tigers be formed to replace the US forces being withdrawn from Syria. This proposal is interesting and should not be dismissed out of hand. The Flying Tiger analogy is not totally appropriate as the members of the American Volunteer group (AVG) were paid and equipped directly by the US government and not through a private contractor. AVG personnel were drawn directly from the pool of US military pilots and ground crewmen, but were better paid than active duty personnel.


The United States admittedly does not have vital interests in Syria, but we do have interests. Arguably, the presence of US forces has done three useful things. First, has continued the suppression of ISIS which has been degraded to a point where it is no longer controlling significant segments of terrain; but it apparently remains a viable insurgent force - as demonstrated by recent attacks on American personnel. Second, it kept the Turks and Kurds from each other’s throats. Finally, the presence of US forces has denied the Iranians a clear corridor to attack Israel with its Quds force and allied Hezbollah personnel. A collateral effect is the provision of protection for relief efforts for refugees. None of these justifies participation by US conventional ground troops or Special Forces on a full- time basis, but boots on the ground are always more effective than pure aerial interdiction.


The Prince proposal would provide the US a funded presence on the ground without risk of casualties to American service members. Contractors are also less expensive than military personnel. Although the short-run cost per person is higher, the long-term cost for military personnel includes VA benefits, dependent housing, and retirement for careerists.


The proposal calls for contractors to provide aircraft to strike at ISIS residual hold outs and provide logistics support to armed contract elements on the ground who are advising anti-ISIS elements. It also provides for governance advisors to fill the vacuum of the local-level leadership that ISIS destroyed.


Mercenaries have gained a bad reputation over time - sometimes that stigma was earned. Throughout history, mercenary troops have been used and misused.  At its high point, the Byzantine Empire used mercenaries much the way the French have used their Foreign Legion for military campaigns outside or on the borders of the empire. Regular native forces were used for internal homeland defense until late in Byzantine history.


The foederati of the Western Roman Empire and the condottieri (contractors) of the Italian Renaissance are largely responsible for giving mercenaries a negative reputation.  The foederati were largely barbarian mercenaries originally hired to protect the Roman empire because it was cheaper to pay them than to fight them - at a time when it had become difficult to recruit Roman citizens into the ranks of the regular army. Eventually however, the foederati began to outnumber regular troops. Operating under their own officers and using their own tactics, they eventually figured out that they could cut out the Roman government as a middle man and run the empire themselves.


The situation was worse with the Italian condottieri who became the dominant military arm of many of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. These mercenary companies were notoriously fickle and would often change sides if the price was right. Worse, real combat became anathema, as one could not make money if killed. Consequently, combat among rival condottieri became increasingly bloodless until the mercenaries ran up against a real enemy as was the case in the Fifteenth Century when a bloodthirsty French army invaded Italy. The depredations of mercenary companies in the Thirty Years War effectively ended the process and one result of the Peace of Westphalia was the rise of truly professional national armies. But, the end of the Cold War also eliminated the post-Westphalian monopoly of state sponsored military violence and armed non-state actors reappeared.


Mercenaries have had usefulness when properly handled and controlled. With some notable exceptions, armed contractors working for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan have generally had lower incidences of war crimes than active duty troops.


In this post-Westphalian age of Hybrid Warfare in the Gray Zone between peace and conventional war, the United States should be able to be flexible enough to consider non-conventional options to unique challenges.


About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.



Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:24pm


Erik Prince has figured out how to broadcast a commercial on cable news without paying for it.  Clever marketing, but both he and the author need to re-examine history. 

The Flying Tigers were, in fact, contractors, released from the U.S. military to work for a Chinese aviation company under a tacit agreement between the Chinese and U.S. governments.  Note these folks were working for the *Chinese*, facilitated by policy goals *shared* by both China and the U.S -- that is, classic "by, with, and through".  That was the case until the AVG was absorbed into the USAAF later in the war in order to bring them under the U.S. command structure, and allow the personnel to rejoin the U.S. military.

Prince simply proposes to insert his own contract troops into Syria without concurrence from the Syrian government, under a U.S. contract that represents U.S. policy (which is generally opposed to what comes from Damascus).  Claire Chennault, he is not. 

The service sector of the U.S. defense industry has successfully fooled most of the government, as well as Gary Anderson, into believing contracted military specialists are cheaper than equivalent military personnel.  This can be true for those support personnel who perform tasks readily found in the civilian workforce without specialist military training or experience -- personnel, finance, supply, fixed-base operations and engineering, and the like -- particularly if the period of performance isn't open-ended.  It's flat out not true those whose role demands specialist military training or experience. 

In those cases, companies are drawing on people with prior military service, taking advantage of the training and experience gained there.  In the case of people who've completed enough time to retire, Anderson's argument is completely off-base -- the government is already paying their retirement and benefits, in many cases allowing their corporate masters to save money in these areas by offering less comprehensive benefits.  In other cases, it's literally a matter of eating our own young -- the government trains troops, provides them with their initial experience, then sees them leave for high-paying contract jobs after their first or second enlistment, so the government now pays a premium (including medical and retirement benefits) to retain training and experience they paid for to begin with.  Anderson can argue that this may still be cost-effective for short tasks, but the proposed task is hardly that. 

Since contracts usually mandate that contractors deployed be supported by the U.S. support infrastructure (also largely contracted), there's no savings for less military boots-on-the-ground, either.  Nor are there ready advantages in terms of visibility -- since contract troops are generally not recruited from the local populace, so they're regarded as much as invaders by the local populace as any foreign government troops.  To compound the problem, what missions contractors perform and how they perform them is governed not by U.S. policy as defined through the country team or the combatant command, but by the terms of the contract. 

In short, this was a bad idea when first proposed, and it's still a bad idea.