Small Wars Journal

The Future of Contract Soldiers

Mon, 11/06/2017 - 7:56am

The Future of Contract Soldiers

Davis Narwold

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?

About the Author(s)

Davis Narwold has an MA in Security Policy studies from George Washington University and his background is in national security with a focus on illicit finance and transnational security.


J Harlan

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 11:10am

It's doubtful that PMCs are actually cheaper. If hiring a PMC would result in reduced military HR costs for the government then it might be less expensive but if hiring a PMC only results in troops being paid to stay home rather than go on operations while contractors are used it might be more expensive.

J Harlan

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 11:11am


During my stint as a contractor advising Afghan forces, I recall my team leader cautioning us to "avoid" describing our Afghan brigade headquarters as reaching "full operational capability", or FOC, because we might put ourselves out of a job (which I thought was the point). I think there is a real concern that PMCs might look for ways to prolong any conflict they're in because they want to keep their job. So while I feel that contractors & PMCs are valuable to have in-theater, I also feel their customer, the US government, ought to watch them more closely than they do. As McFate points out in his book, this is difficult because there aren't enough people in the military or civil service to perform the duties of Contracting Officer Representative (COR) for these companies which can lead to shady shenanigans by them.

Perhaps a way to approach the use of PMCs would be to (1) issue a Letter of Marque & Reprisal, giving the PMC a legal commission/ warrant to perform military tasks in a very specific manner; this should address any issues of country loyalty & legality....(2) once under the Letter of Marque, Company X (DynCorp, Engility, Aegis, Rebooted British East India Company, etc...) would have assigned to it several CORs, both uniformed and civil service, to oversee task performance IOT ensure the PMC is executing their functions per the Letter and contract.

I would recommend the audience, and particularly the author, read the book "The Modern Mercenary" by Sean McFate. McFate was US Army, and then part of DynCorp, and then got a PhD in IR. As a result, he doesn't just write a memoir of PMC ops in Liberia, but he gives a solid history of PMCs back to medieval times.

In short, private companies have long supplied troops and/or specialized skills that nations without professional standing armies lacked. Before the Peace of Westphalia (1648), everybody used mercenaries to some degree, but afterwards, armies began to professionalize and mercenaries effectively left the European stage (though not elsewhere). In more recent years, decolonization and the end of the Cold War have left a number of countries without professional military force, and PMCs have become more noticeable again, but they were never really gone.

This is all to say that PMCs aren't anything special, just another option with their own costs and benefits. Had we (the United States) been willing to do anything to stop the Rwandan genocide, the 82nd Airborne could have taken over the country and stopped violence in a week or so. No PMC could have responded that quickly, but the PMCs would have been cheaper. That PMCs could respond faster and more professionally than UN peacekeepers is less a credit to the bigger PMCs (which are largely run by American and British veterans) and more a statement on the United Nations.

Many PMCs do operate at a quality level and pricepoint conducive to humanitarian interventions in low-threat areas and reconstructing constabulary armies in disrupted nations, but only because they are optimized for such a midpoint between true professional armies and disorganized amateurs. They aren't and never will be real armies, because there isn't a profit margin in it.


Tue, 11/07/2017 - 11:45am

This article is full of bad assumptions and errors. First and foremost, PMCs are not independent actors -- they are employed by someone, and through their employer, subject to the same rules of national sovereignty as any nationally-backed military force...there's no "side-stepping messy political and international ties". Thus, no PMC will waltz into Myanmar and get between the local military and the Rohingyas. PMCs are not "international by design", although it may work out that way due to the available labor pool. Not sharing a national or ethnic background with their employers may occasionally prove advantageous, but unless hired from the local populace, they're just as often regarded as foreign invaders. If in-country by host-country invitation (or acquiescence), they're often still subject to local laws, restricting their operations.

There is nothing magical about PMC capabilities...their rapid strategic movement is due to their ready supply of people, being relatively lightly equipped and thus rapidly deployable via any commercial airline.