Private Military Companies: The New Condottieri

Private Military Companies: The New Condottieri

Fulloon, Mark. Social Alternatives32.1 (2013): 49-52.

Abstract (summary)

This article examines the current role of Private Military Companies (PMCs) which have a growing profile in international affairs. They are not a new phenomenon but have evolved from past private military actors. They play a role today similar to that played by the Italian Condottieri during the Renaissance. PMCs are defined as a company that has the ability to provide an immediate and proximate capacity for violence by offering military services that are strategically essential to a variety of clients. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]

Full Text


This article examines the current role of Private Military Companies (PMCs) which have a growing profile in international affairs. They are not a new phenomenon but have evolved from past private military actors. They play a role today similar to that played by the Italian Condottieri during the Renaissance. PMCs are defined as a company that has the ability to provide an immediate and proximate capacity for violence by offering military services that are strategically essential to a variety of clients.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increased prominence in the age old profession of private armies or mercenaries operating in armed conflicts purely on the basis of profit. These private armies or mercenaries, however, have transformed into a new modern form: the Private Military Company (PMC). This article contends that PMCs can be seen as a new modern form of the Condottieri. The emergence of PMCs is becoming important in relation to who has a monopoly on the use of legitimate force. The monopoly on the use of legitimate force by the state is increasingly becoming blurred by the outsourcing of military services to PMCs. PMCs are corporate bodies that specialise in the provision of military skills that include combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence, risk assessment, operational support, training and technical skills (Singer 2003: 8). PMCs are also companies that have the ability to increase the immediate and proximate capacity for violence by offering offensive and defensive military services that are strategically essential to combat and warfare either directly or indirectly on a market to a variety of clients (Fulloon 2012: 74). PMCs have managed to transform the historically ubiquitous nature of ad hoc mercenaries into corporate military companies to provide military services to governments and non-state entities intricately linked to warfare.

Those mercenaries who rampaged across post-Colonial Africa and other places in the Third World have virtually disappeared. Their successors are PMCs that are more corporatised, staffed by higher skilled retired military officers, ex-special forces units, technically specific skilled civil and military personnel, retired frontline combat personnel, intelligence personnel, and low-skilled Third World military personnel who all found themselves without a job as a result of the structural changes within most of the armed forces around the globe as a result of the end of the Cold War. PMCs have now put a corporate face on one of the world’s oldest professions. Since the South African based, but Bahamas registered, PMC Executive Outcomes (EO) first emerged more than 15 years ago, international attention is focusing increasingly on the role and influence PMCs are having on the systemic nature of military operations and military services. The analysis of PMCs such as EO in Angola or Sierra Leone during the 1990s or Blackwater USA during the 2003 Iraq War does raise the provocative question of whether PMCs can legitimately contribute to military operations within the international system dominated by states. Although EO (1998) and Blackwater USA (2010) have since ceased trading, the use of PMCs in armed conflict shows few signs of diminishing. In fact, PMCs offering military services in high-risk environments have flourished in recent years, particularly since the onset of wars in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and recent Third World conflicts such as in Liberia, Sudan, and Syria. In Iraq, the US Government Accountability Office (GOA 2006) estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 former military personnel have been employed by PMCs supplying various military services to coalition state agencies and US based companies working on Iraqi reconstruction projects.

The uniqueness of PMCs cannot be understood without a degree of historical analysis. Granted that PMCs are a new phenomenon since the end of the Cold War, these companies are not some natural occurrence. PMCs do share some historical foundations from their former counterparts such as the Condottieri. Indeed, the world has changed dramatically since mercenary armies, pirates, mercantile companies, and Condottieri were regular features of military life. However, private military history does seem to consistently evolve and repeat itself. Not dissimilar to the current PMC industry at the end of the Cold War, where peace in one corner of Europe produced a fresh supply of out-of-work military personnel for recruitment into PMCs for conflicts in other parts of the globe such as the 2003 Iraq War, the mercenary trade during the Renaissance, became common practice and an important source of income for the out-of-work military personnel.

From Sparta to Athens, through to ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, via the ‘free companies’ to the Condottieri of the Renaissance to the 20th century, the ‘soldier for hire’ has been found in armies all over the world throughout history. In Italy, the Condotta developed into a contract of great care for Italian city-states, drawn up by the equivalent of modern-day lawyers. The Condottieri system enabled Italian city-states to maintain a permanent military force comprising of Italian mercenaries with specific military specialists that were hired out for particular military campaigns over set periods of time. Just like the US in relation to PMCs, Italy became the epicentre of private military actors. Military personnel were raised through Condotta (contracts), formalised with the Condottieri (contractor) supplying and commanding the mercenary company. Similar to the PMC, the Condottieri were not transient mercenary bands, but more permanent and disciplined organisations formally employed over defined periods of time.

Similar to the Condottieri, PMCs vary according to the needs of the employer. There would be retaining fees, troop number specifications, operational details, or restrictive covenants not to fight against the employer for a certain period of time once the contract had expired (Trease 1970: 17-18). PMCs such as Global Risks, Titan, or MPRI, are in a general sense primarily ideologically and politically detached from their battles. For the Milanese Dukes, Venetian Dogs, the Queen of Naples, Florentine Financiers (post-Machiavelli), and the Pope for that matter during the Renaissance, it became more politically convenient to hire such military companies under a business like contract than to employ potential rivals within their own respective domains.

The recent re-emergence of private military actors in the evolutionary form of PMCs appears more in line with the historical relationships between states, economic thinking, and the monopoly on the legitimate use of force across space and time. Although the use of PMCs in the twentyfirst century is a recently new phenomenon, the use of private military actors has been a long-standing practice throughout history before the rise of the nation-state. Much of the private military history before the French Revolution is reminiscent of the post-Cold War world today – multipolarity, b-phase economic cycle, small wars, and political battles for international supremacy. In the post-Cold War era, however, the PMC is now the primary player within the private military. Today’s general public’s assumption about conflict – that warfare is engaged by armed forces, fighting for a common good or cause – is becoming diluted. Just like pre-1648, private military provision of organised violence has always been a routine aspect of international relations right up to the twenty-first century, and will continue to do so in the future (Herbst 1999: 117).

Governments from both the First and Third World, and non-state actors such as oil and mining companies trying to protect themselves from direct threats have become increasingly willing to turn to PMCs for military and security services. Because of this increase in demand, the global market for the PMC industry has significantly expanded. However, the watershed for the PMC industry was the 2003 Iraq War where the former US President George W. Bush used some 20,000 PMC personnel during the war. With an estimated growth of approximately 7% per annum, the global market for the PMC industry has developed into a versatile, global multi-billion dollar industry (O’Brien 2000: 59-64). With this in mind, PMCs have given shape to one of the major entries in the lexicon of conflict analysis: the outsourcing of military services and war. The outsourcing of military services and war reflects attempts by those working in government institutions sympathetic to the neo-classical ideal to diminish the monopoly on the use of legitimate force away from the nation-state and public institutions into an era of neo-classicalism where free markets and private entities attempt to minimise state political and military power. This shifting nascent trend of relying on PMCs represents the extremity of government minimalism and the devolution of military power away from the state concerning the monopoly on the use of legitimate force towards PMCs.

PMCs were almost non-existent during the Cold War when superpower rivalries (US and Russia) were propping up weak states in the Third World with mass personnel and hardware. Since the end of the Cold War, however, there has been an increase in conflicts throughout the Third World where PMCs have filled the void from superpower withdrawal. At one point in Africa for instance, an arc of conflict ran from the Horn of Africa down to southern Africa. Ethiopia and Eritrea engaged in a destructive war against each other, while the brutal insurgencies in Liberia and Sierra Leone destabilised western Africa with consequences still visible today. The Congo ‘free-for-all’ formed a series of interlocking conflicts that stretched from Chad to Sudan in the north of Africa, to Angola and Zimbabwe in the south of Africa. These conflicts in the African continent could be termed as Africa’s ‘first world war’, a term quoted by Marina Ottaway (Ottaway 1999: 202). From Iraq to Afghanistan, to Colombia and the Balkans war during the 1990s, and to the African continent, PMCs are involved in these post-Cold War armed conflicts more than ever before. Disorganised military forces such as Sierra Leone that needed help to curtail rebel insurgencies, dictators trying to protect their political power and hard line rule, mining and oil companies operating in Third World countries trying to protect their valuable natural resources from insurgencies: all contribute to the rise in the PMC industry. As do powerful western states such as the United States (US) contracting PMCs to secure mineral deposits (oil) while occupying Third World countries such as Iraq. One could go to war as a public-private partnership with PMCs offering both tooth and non-tooth military services rather than as part of an international coalition of willing states. Not since the eighteenth century has there been such a reliance on private military actors accomplishing tasks directly affecting the successes of military engagement.

The West, particularly the US and UK, leads in the supply and demand of PMCs, and the policy shift towards greater reliance on such companies. The use of PMCs by the US government during the 2003 Iraq War is an indication of how far attitudes have changed towards using private military actors. The attitude of western countries such as the US is increasingly changing in favour of using PMCs to carry out certain military functions and services, in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan, instead of heavily relying on their own armed forces. The hostile environment in Iraq and Afghanistan needs no elaboration. PMCs such as Blackwater USA, Erinys International, Global Risk Strategies, Olive Security, and Triple Canopy have come under the international spotlight due to their involvement in Iraq. Since Iraq, PMCs are representing the newest addition to the modern battlefield, and their role in contemporary warfare is becoming increasingly significant and influential as the PMC industry grows.

While PMCs are being viewed in some quarters as nothing more than corporate mercenaries, PMCs represent a new type of military service provider on the domestic and international stage that is quite significantly different to the mercenaries that plagued the African continent and the Third World during the 1960s and 1970s. What differentiates a PMC from the mercenary is the degree to which PMCs have corporatised their company structure and operations (Nossal 1998: 26). PMCs are organised like commercial firms in more conventional styles of business operations. PMCs are formally incorporated on stock exchanges or in tax and secrecy havens, and although PMCs are not exactly paradigms of transparency, PMCs produce corporate literature, attend international conferences, maintain websites, and tend to be affiliated to defence and security professional associations. It is not uncommon for PMCs to be head-quartered close to centres of government powers such as Washington and London, but maintain offices in strategic locations throughout the world (Ortiz 2010: 6).

On some occasions, corporations offering private military services may not constitute a PMC in their entirety. This suggests a differentiation between what Ortiz (2007: 55-68) highlights as a stand-alone PMC and hybrid types of PMCs. Furthermore, PMCs may be independent or subsidiaries of larger corporations. These subsidiary and ‘hybrid’ types of PMCs are usually linked to broader corporate structures. These linkages are commonly established with aerospace, construction, defence, engineering, government services, security, and information technology (IT) corporations. Moreover, some private equity companies such as the Carlyle Group, wholly or partially, have control of some PMCs. The Carlyle Group used to own US Investigations Services Incorporated (USIS), a key intelligence contractor that trained elite units in Iraq (Ortiz 2010: 50). In 2007, however, USIS was sold to Providence Equity Partners. CACI International, though labelled a PMC due to its provision of translators and interpreters during the 2003 Iraq War, is a diversified IT Services Company. Northrop Grunman Corporation, another corporate giant part of the US military industrial-complex is a diversified corporation covering various military and defence services including a PMC within its structure. Former PMC, EO, and currently operating PMC MPRI are examples of standalone PMCs. Throughout its existence, EO remained an independent military service provider. MPRI was incorporated in 1987, but became a subsidiary to L-3 Communications Corporation in 2000. However, MPRI still retains its corporate identity and a large degree of operational independence. Since the ownership with L-3 Communications, MPRI has expanded beyond its original military training activity to include emergency management, strategic communications, maritime and driving simulations, development programs, and military logistical advice (Ortiz 2010: 50).

It is also possible to appreciate an even more dynamic view of PMCs. This is because of the continuous mergers and acquisitions that frequently shift the military capabilities of PMCs across corporate identities and commercial sectors. While some PMCs are subsidiaries within corporations in different commercial sectors, independent or ‘standalone’ PMCs also diversify and merge into various military sectors according to the needs of the contractual and client’s needs. This highlights how PMCs tend not to maintain a permanent workforce. Instead, personnel are hired for specific operations or to perform particular contracted tasks. These ad hoc units are assembled and disbanded as the contract requires, although, personnel in possession of specialised unique skills tend to be retained. Universal Guardian Incorporated, for instance, is also a large and independent PMC that also owns UK based PMC Secure Risks Limited (Ortiz 2010: 50). For its part, Secure Risks acquired another UK based stand-alone PMC Security Solution International Limited (SSSI) in 2004. This highlights that PMCs tend to own one another, which owns another over space and time, and the last two mentioned – Secure Risks and Universal Guardian – were in partnership in 2006 to provide military services for US personnel deployed at the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Furthermore, DynCorp International together with McNiel Technologies set up Global Linguist Solutions that became the key supplier of translators and interpreters for the US Army Intelligence and Security Command in Afghanistan.

The PMC industry has become big business. Globally, the PMC industry has hundreds of PMCs operating on almost every continent in over 110 countries primarily in the Third World. Most of these PMCs are in the service of their home countries such as the US, UK, France, Russia, or Israel, including some Third World countries such as Angola. PMCs have grown to such a degree that these companies deserve their own division of industry within the private military market. Ever since the PMC EO first emerged in the early 1990s, the nature of PMCs has changed dramatically to encompass all forms of military services. PMCs can sometimes be small, fluid, adaptable, and unidentifiable or can form part of a giant organisation, or a subsidiary to larger corporations, making it difficult where PMCs begin and end. Moreover, the majority of the contracts PMCs obtain are often confidential, won on no-bid competition or on sub-contract basis from other PMCs leading to further confusion. With PMCs bringing a comprehensive corporate structure to the once ad hoc nature of private military actors, individual mercenaries and out-of-work military personnel wishing to venture or persist in the private military market now need to become more professional with a clear business structure in order to compete with PMCs.

Outdated assumptions about the exclusive and permanent idea of the state within the military realm require a re-examination and amendment to account for the development of PMCs. Instead, we might acknowledge PMCs occupy a fundamentally different location in the contemporary field of international military operations. There is no current fixed timeline for PMCs. As long as there are conflicts, PMCs will exist. Whether or not the extensive use of PMCs is evolutionary or remains exceptional, the growth of the PMC industry shows no sign of diminishing.



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Mark Fulloon has a B. A. with first class honours from Griffith University. The research for this article was done as part of his Ph. D. studies at Griffith University.

He is also a sessional staff member in the School of Humanities and has recently coordinated the course Globalisation and Development in the Third World. His research interests include Military History, International Relations, War, Philosophy of War and International Political Economy.

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