Although mercenaries have existed as long as the history of warfare itself, the 20th Century saw the resurgence of mercenary groups when states in the aftermath of WW2 and in the background of the Cold War were skeptical to get their hands dirty in smaller conflicts. The emergence of a lot of newly independent nations in Africa led to an increasing amount of conflict in the region. Countries not wanting to intervene, gave PMCs an option to make good trade from those conflicts. African theatre saw a lot of PMCs getting involved at the behest of, and a lot of them against local governments hired by former colonial powers to consolidate their interests (Adams). Their romanticisation and popularisation happened in the media in the latter part of the 20th Century, and thus were the laymen introduced to the idea of mercenaries. It was also this time when an important distinction between mercenaries and PMCs arose and so rose PMCs as a separate identity due to the multiple negative connotations attached with the word.
PMCs, although operationally appearing similar to a band of mercenaries, have some significant differences. As Adams points out in his article, Private Military Companies: Mercenaries for the 21st Century, “traditional mercs were more or less ad hoc collections of former soldiers who provided experience, leadership, small arms, and an occasional armored car. Their organizations were as ephemeral as the causes they fought for.” PMCs differ primarily from mercenaries by their professionalism, and focusing on the domain as a serious business, with its members wearing both business suits and camouflage equally (Adams).
What Modern PMCs are?
Modern Private Military Companies are a professional force, available to be hired for a variety of mission profiles, ranging from training forces, to even participating in active combat. PMCs don’t only serve individual interests but are also hired by national governments for either assisting the national armed forces in a conflict or in place of armed forces when tasks don’t demand their participation. PMCs are a recent phenomenon, with the first modern PMC, Watchguard, being registered in 1967, by David Sterling, a co-founder of British Special Forces SAS (Jefferies).
A growing trend has also been seen, where PMCs have been hired by a national government to train the professional armed forces of another country to build a local and organic security capacity. They are often organised and led by former military veterans, and thus derive legitimacy from either the leader’s service records or even from the reputation of the organization with which the owner/leader served. Although dealing in the domain of security, PMCs’ primary focus is on conducting business rather than conducting combat operations, and hence a lot of their operations might not involve actual combat even if they deploy in contested regions. This is one of the important distinctions between them and mercenaries. PMCs focus on their dual identity, of being professional businessmen and professional combatants, actively putting pictures of their operatives in both three-piece suits and combat camouflage side-by-side on their websites, to actively promote this dual identity (Joachim and Schneiker).
PMCs differ from PSCs, or Private Security Companies, in the domain of operations, and the type of clients they serve (Adams). PSCs and PMCs although hire from a similar talent pool of veterans of various militaries, yet PSCs tend to cater to smaller individual clients for primarily security-type job profiles, while PMCs tend to cater to the bigger clients in the form of national governments and other bigger organizations.
PMCs also have a ‘transnational’ identity, most of them are registered in a parent country whose rules allow their existence, since not all countries allow the creation of PMCs, and have their headquarters there (Singer). Yet they mostly operate away from the soil of their parent nations, and in distant lands like MENA, South America, etc.
It was in the late 90s that PMCs caught the public eye again, with multiple high-value contracts being awarded to them like the Croatian government hiring a US PMC, MPRI to professionalise their army, Angolan government hiring Executive Outcomes, a South African PMC, to help against rebels, or when British used Sandline International, a British PMC to help restore the government of Sierra Leone back to power, after a UN intervention in form of an embargo had failed (Adams). There was a meteoric rise in the number of PMCs operating and the market cap for such firms in the last two decades. The global market for PMCs has hence risen to more than $200 Billion in 2020.
What Modern PMCs Really are?
One of the most inclusive classifications of various types of PMCs was provided by Peter Singer. He classified PMCs, through his Tip of the Spear model, in three major types based on the type of services various firms advertise to provide – military support firms, military consulting firms, and military provider firms (Singer).
Military Support Firms tend to provide technical support services. They are not involved in the planning or execution of any military operation, rather they tend to stay back and provide their customers with technical support, with regards to various equipment, they are also involved in the logistical and transportation aspect of operations (Singer).
Then there are the Military consulting firms. These are possibly the most common type of PMCs to exist. As the name suggests, these firms tend to focus on providing training and advisory services to the customer. The members of such PMCs bring ample experience and advisory capacity due to their own experiences from their service. Aside from providing training, such firms also help in operation planning and organisational analysis for operations and armed forces as a whole (Singer).
Lastly, we have the Military provider firms. These firms are the ones that engage in active combat on behalf of the customer and are at the foreground of conflicts they are contracted for (Singer). These groups due to their smaller size and highly specialised nature, could, in fact, mimic special forces of the country, and be utilised in similar mission profiles but ones that don’t truly demand a Special Operations intervention.
Due to the nature of operations of PMCs that often require their ‘intervention’ in crises, at the behest of a customer, and the operations not requiring offensive operations but rather in a humanitarian-esque role, like distribution of aid in combat active areas, protection of certain areas, groups, etc. their lines might even get blurred with that of international humanitarian organizations. There the difference in the definition of PMC comes from their business end, they operate at a customer’s need rather than any humanitarian ideal. Although they do end up using said ideals for their advertising their activities in contested areas (Joachim and Schneiker).
PMCs also offer poorer or even newly independent nations with an interesting choice. Military capacity doesn’t come cheap, requiring a consistent budget, and in case there are potential hostilities, an ever-increasing one at that. For poor countries to maintain their standing armies hence becomes difficult. It is not just the creation and maintenance of these armies that are expensive but also the training. A lot of African nations suffer from this issue, having created large standing armies which end up having worse success ratios in combat operations. Newly independent nations end up having the issues of not having training infrastructure at all, aside from the financial issues that might come with even recruiting and/or inducting military equipment. In such cases, PMCs offer these nations an encouraging choice to get hired help. A small professional force available worldwide to deal with any immediate threats and even help with building capacity until the national armies get up on their feet.
The Case of Non-western PMCs
Due to the popular culture and the romanticisation of PMCs and ‘Mercenary’ culture in the 20th century, it might appear that PMCs are an entirely western phenomenon, which isn’t true. One of the most famous PMCs, Executive Outcomes, was based in South Africa. PMCs now aren’t exclusively an American and British phenomenon, as was the case during the majority of the 20th Century, except Executive Outcomes. A lot of other countries have seen the establishment of newer PMCs, like the Turkish SADAT Group, Russian PMCs like Wagner Group and Slavonic Corps, Peruvian PMCs like Defion, etc, and Chinese PMCs on the horizon.
Out of them, possibly the best known modern nonwestern PMC is of Russian origin, the Wagner Group. Headed by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, rather than a Russian military veteran, the Wagner Group is the go-to group for the Russian state to conduct operations where they don’t want their regulars to be seen (Band of Brothers).
The case of the Russian PMCs is quite interesting as both their connection to the state and their role in international politics are quite different. Hence, it becomes important to discuss them separately to fully encompass how PMCs have evolved and what happens when the relationship between them isn’t exclusively financial.
Western PMCs are employed under the ‘outsourcing’ policies, to save the cost of deploying state forces, the Russian perspective is far more complex. Russian PMCs are viewed as a politico-military tool. Russian Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov was noted to have publicly said that a network of Russian PMCs was needed to be used for ‘delicate missions abroad’. These PMCs offer a key feature to the Russian state in terms of international relations, one that of plausible deniability (Marten). This feature was most visible during the Russian campaign to annex Crimea, where ‘little green men’ without any identifying patches popped up throughout the Crimean peninsula until the referendum took place.
In the last three years, Russian involvement in the African theatre has increased dramatically, primarily through indirect support by providing supplies and training and at times through direct support of their allies in the region by the Russian PMCs. Wagner Group hence falls in both military consulting and military provider firms under Peter Singer’s classification system. Everywhere in the African theatre, except Libya we have seen the involvement of Russian PMCs without any direct support from the Russian Military, working simply as a military consulting firm but in Libya, it has been observed of Wagner Group working in a military provider profile in close conjunction with Russian armed forces (“Russia’s Escalating Use of Private Military Companies in Africa”).
Wagner Group also shares their Homebase with a Special force Brigade of GRU, a highly unusual phenomenon for a PMC to share a facility with State’s forces, that too with an elite and highly secretive service’s units. Wagner Group isn’t the only Russian PMC, yet it is the most famous (Marten).
We can clearly conclude that the connection of the Wagner Group with the Russian state is a deep yet opaque one. Such a relationship of a PMC with the state brings up a very interesting question.
PMCs as Legitimate non-state actors?
We have now seen how the PMCs rose meteorically in the last two decades, and with more and more such firms being set up every year. While most of them have a financial relationship with various governments, the case of Russian PMCs are interesting, as they bring up an interesting question.
What if PMCs weren’t as private as they seemed and were imbued with the state’s foreign affairs as a tool? What if PMCs could be made an extension of the state itself, to undertake operations on their behalf? This question might seem a bit redundant after the discussion already had above in this article, yet it requires a little more nuanced and hence needs to be discussed independently.
We already saw PMCs providing services to various states and a lot of the time their own states in foreign lands. The nuance here is that how should we perceive this new actor in international relations if such Private Military Companies weren’t truly private? In all other cases like US PMCs in Iraq and Afghanistan, PMCs were working merely for financial gains and hence didn’t feature in a state’s foreign policy. Russia demonstrates, with the Wagner Group, how such PMCs can be imbued with the state machinery itself, and hence attributed even as semi-state forces. They can, thus, be used or ‘contracted’ by a state, to conduct operations, be it clandestine, offensive, etc with plausible deniability to the rest of the world from any action, much like when we saw the involvement of the Wagner group in the annexation of Crimea.
Marten in his article, Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group, coined the term ‘semi-state forces’ for such PMCs, where the relationship is inherently non-capitalistic and rather invisible publicly, yet their involvement in conflicts carries a resemblance to the Soviet and Chinese ‘volunteer groups’ during the cold war. Their existence, and hence characteristics, also differ from other PMCs by their apparent legality, as PMCs are illegal in Russia. Officially, the Wagner Group does not exist, yet we know it does, with the majority of its employees’ recent retirees from Russian state forces, and sometimes even pro-Russian foreign fighters (Marten).
This type of semi-state supported groups could blur the lines between modern PMCs and a future proxy group. And once the line has been blurred can we ask ourselves whether we can refer to most proxy groups, official motivation aside, as simply PMCs of a different order? Could one-day semi-state forces be used as a direct proxy to fight out any smaller conflict on behalf of nations and various larger private groups even, corporations?
The other issue is what if someday a PMC could challenge a state’s monopoly of violence? The biggest units to control the supply and demand of most consumer goods on the planet have come out to be large multinational corporations, which many a time challenges various states in their domains, and sometimes operate beyond their purview. Following their path, it wouldn’t be prudent to assume a scenario where a large transnational PMC with sufficient resources at hand, might challenge a state and its monopoly of violence, and wrestle it away from them. Hence, the discussion on how that would affect the identity and sovereignty of the state seems to be required.
With the global costs of warfare rising there has been a sudden and amazing rise in the emergence and market cap for the Private Military Industry. PMCs have brought about a niche role for themselves on the back of off-sourcing warfare, with by the end of the Afghanistan war more PMC contractors were present on the ground than US Army personnel. PMCs’ existence is a direct result of the world order that was inherited post WW2 and, not in a small part, due to the Cold War as well. With the emergence of newer states that lack the expertise in defensive and combat arts, PMCs have found themselves in a perfect position to thrive.
The modern face of mercenary-esque groups which project their image as a new amalgamation of a warrior and a businessman, offers a lot of countries a lot of benefits, taking roles that a lot of states and powers are reluctant to undertake due to various constraints (Joachim and Schneiker). The profit-seeking behaviour also gives a certain amount of predictability to such groups’ actions, we can assume a rational actor behaviour, something that can be expected of states only under the realist assumption. After all, their depiction as irrational actors only ruins their imagery which is highly necessary for a business that awards a lot of contracts based on reputation only (Cusumano). These groups, for better or worse, are becoming major players in international relations due to the fact they can commit violence and compete with the state’s monopoly over it. We have seen PMCs undertake a variety of operations ranging from simple logistical work to straight-up getting involved in active operation and changing the geopolitical structure of a region, like the annexation of Crimea.
The existence of PMCs as semi-state forces, or as an extension of state rather than just private individuals undertaking contracts, making them more active in the domain of foreign policy and international relations. This type of evolution is more likely in countries that aren’t really known for their democratic institutions and puts them on the path of becoming this extension of the state, where their legality in the country of origin also plays an important part in the roles they undertake. One of the most famous PMC is the Russian Wagner Group, which isn’t the only PMC in Russia, but rather part of a larger network of PMCs that were created in the last two decades by the Russian government, as semi-state forces to undertake operations on their behalf, drawing up members from Russian Armed forces.
- Adams, Thomas K. “Private Military Companies: Mercenaries for the 21st Century.” Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 13, no. 2, Aug. 2002, pp. 54–67. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/09592310208559181.
- Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State. https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state. Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Cusumano, Eugenio. “Private Military and Security Companies’ Logos: Between Camouflaging and Corporate Socialization.” Security Dialogue, vol. 52, no. 2, Apr. 2021, pp. 135–55. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1177/0967010620923586.
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- Marten, Kimberly. “Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group.” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 35, no. 3, May 2019, pp. 181–204. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/1060586X.2019.1591142.
- “Russia’s Escalating Use of Private Military Companies in Africa.” Institute for National Strategic Studies, https://inss.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/2425797/russias-escalating-use-of-private-military-companies-in-africa/. Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Singer, P. W. “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Its Ramifications for International Security.” International Security, vol. 26, no. 3, Jan. 2002, pp. 186–220. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1162/016228801753399763.
About the Author: Shwetabh Singh is a military observer with a special interest in aviation. He is a Senior Editor at Indian Defence @IndianDefenceRA His Twitter handle is @singhshwetabh71 The views expressed are the author’s own.
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