The Role of Private Security Companies in Peace Support Operations: An Outcome of the Revolution in Military Affairs and the Transformation in Warfare

Michael, Kobi. The Transformation of the World of War and Peace Support Operations. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009.

The Role of Private Security Companies in Peace Support Operations: An Outcome of the Revolution in Military Affairs and the Transformation in Warfare

Christopher Kinsey


The idea of privatized security is not new. Private actors have played a significant role in war throughout the ages. Before the establishment of the nation state, the princes of Europe filled the ranks of their armies with mercenary soldiers. Even Napoleon was reliant on contractors, though he despised them for profiteering from war, calling them rogues “[w]ho roll in . insolent luxury, while my soldiers have neither bread nor shoes.”1 At the start of the twenty-first century, contractors are once more an important, if sometimes controversial, feature in war. Importantly, their presence in the operational theater is in part a consequence of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) that has led to a military transformation in warfare.

As state militaries have become more specialized, they have deferred more mission tasks to the private sector, while the increasing complexity of humanitarian disasters has left states with little alternative but to harness the capabilities of the private sector. As Duffield explains, “[L]iberal peace embodies a new or political humanitarianism that lays emphasis on such things as conflict resolution and prevention, reconstructing social networks, strengthening civil and representative institutions, promoting the rule of law, and security sector reform in the context of a functioning market economy.”2

No single agency, including the state, has the ability to undertake such a range of tasks. Instead, since the 1990s, new institutional arrangements have had to come into being to support government agencies, international organizations, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations, as they struggle to manage in areas of ongoing conflict. The British Army refers to these arrangements using the term “comprehensive approach,” while Duffield prefers to call them “strategic complexes.”3

In each case, new ways have had to be found to project power through networks and systems that are non-territorial and are located in the public and private spheres. In the case of the British Army, implicit in such an arrangement is an understanding that planning and execution must be coordinated across government departments and potential participants,4 the result of which is that the twenty-first-century battlefield is no longer the preserve of the military, but is instead shared with other actors, including those from the private sector.

The role of private security companies (PSCs) has fueled the debate on the future shape of the battlefield. They offer the type of services that would have previously been provided by states. Neither does it appear that demand for private security services is slowing down, though the Iraq bubble appears to be slowly deflating. It is estimated that the global market for private security stands at roughly $3 billion.5 However, this is solely for security services and does not include the provision of training, demining, and logistical support. Security services include guarding installations such as embassies and airports; acting as bodyguards to government officials such as Paul Bremer, who was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq; and protecting convoys in war zones. Private security also undertakes services in such areas as logistical support, military and security training, intelligence support, and the provision of humanitarian assistance. Moreover, as long as Western governments continue to reduce their force protection, leaving them with a capability gap, PSCs will try to fill that gap. Finally, if Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of what tomorrow’s operational theater is likely to resemble, then the future for private security is assured for the immediate and medium term.6

Before examining the notion that the privatization of warfare is an outcome of an RMA and, with changes to the international political environment that have occurred since the end of the Cold War, has sought to transform warfare, the chapter will discuss the role of private security in the early post-Cold War period. The reason for placing the argument surrounding the use of private security within an historical framework is to show how it has developed since the end of the Cold War.7

The chapter will then explore the relationship between the RMA and the increased use of contractors in the theater of operation. Greater use of sophisticated weapons systems has resulted in more contractors being placed in harm’s way, and the trend is set to continue. At the same time, the U.S. military in particular is concentrating its efforts on war fighting, as witnessed during the invasion of Iraq, leaving humanitarian operations to other agencies. In both cases, the specialization of military tasks will open up opportunities for contractors of all types, while the drive to improve cost efficiency will only deepen the process.

Following on from this, the third section will define peace support operations (PSOs) and identify the forces behind the drive to outsource aspects of PSOs to private actors. Such operations are no longer the sole preserve of the military, if indeed they ever were, but involve a whole array of national, international, public, and private actors. The fourth section examines the likely roles for PSCs in this new environment. The final section draws together the argument that the RMA and the rise of intrastate war have led to an increase in PSOs, which in its turn has increased the specialization and civilianization of Western military forces due to their growing reliance on contractors.


Even though private security has been active since the 1970s and 1980s, most notably on the African continent, it was not until Executive Outcomes (EO) operations in Angola in the early 1990s that the industry really came to the attention of the international community and media.8 According to Eeben Barlow, EO’s founder, in 1993 the company was approached by an international oil company, through a friend, who wanted to know whether the company could assist in Soyo to recover equipment that had been lost, or that had been laid to waste, but which the oil company wanted to recover because of its value.9 The company agreed to help recover the equipment, though at the time they did not know that Soyo was held by Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total do Angola (UNITA).10

The operations lasted two months and turned into a serious battle between EO and UNITA. As Barlow explains, “[F]or the first five days . all our guys did at Soyo was defend, until through probably very disciplined fire control they had worn UNITA down.”11 UNITA subsequently withdrew from the Soyo area leaving EO temporarily in control of the area. However, as Shearer remarks, “when the company pulled out shortly afterwards, leaving the Angolan battalions in place, UNITA recaptured the centre. The operation was nevertheless significant in that it was the first real demonstration of EO’s combat capabilities.”12

Then in July 1993 Barlow was once again approached, but this time by General Faceira, a senior officer in the Forças Armadas Angolanos (FAA). The Angolan government offered EO a one-year contract worth $40 million to train 5,000 troops from the FAA’s 16th Regiment and 30 pilots, and to direct front-line operations against UNITA.13 The contract was later renewed for a further twelve months in September 1994 and then again for three months in 1995. The contract finally ended in January 1996. EO’s main contribution was tactical advice, drawn from a solid understanding of UNITA’s weaknesses and supported by intelligence on UNITA’s activities leaked via South African sources.14

Even before it had finished its operation in Angola, the company was being employed in Sierra Leone. In May 1995 the company was contracted to help the government of Sierra Leone defeat the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The government signed three contracts with EO covering a twenty-one-month period for a total of $35 million.15 By the time the company arrived in Sierra Leone, the RUF was only 20 miles from the country’s capital, Freetown. Within eight months the company had forced the RUF to negotiate with the government for the first time in five years.16

At the same time as the company was operating in Angola and Sierra Leone, it was also involved in other operations in Africa and beyond. These operations mainly involved training special forces in covert intelligence gathering for special forces operations and not necessarily providing the direct combat support that was the hallmark of the Angolan and Sierra Leone operations.17 Neither was EO the only company operating at this time.

Established in 1987 by a group of former senior U.S. military officers, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) is a training, simulation, and government services company. Unlike EO, MPRI has been directly involved with PSOs ever since the end of the Cold War, working for the U.S. government. Such participation has taken the form of training foreign militaries in the same military practices employed by militaries in the West. The company is also involved in organizing security sector reform (SSR) programs and law enforcement-related services that focus on stabilization and reconstruction efforts. One of the company’s more high-profile contracts was with the Croatian government. A contract was signed with the Croatian government in 1994 to help the transition of the country’s armed forces from a Warsaw Pact to a NATO-style force. MPRI designed a Long-Range Management Program to provide the Croatian Ministry of Defense with strategic long-term capabilities to improve its opportunity of becoming a member of NATO.18

Sandline International was another company operating during this period.19 Established in 1996 and registered in the Bahamas, the company supplied military and security services to governments and multinational organizations operating in high-risk areas of the world. The company became infamous towards the end of 1997 when it allegedly broke a UN arms embargo to supply weapons to Sierra Leone. The company argued that its actions were intended to restore to power the democratically elected government of the country, while the company claimed the British government knew all about the operation, a claim denied by the government at the time. It later transpired that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had been informed, while Sandline maintained that some officials gave it their approval, a claim dismissed by the FCO, but accepted by the Legg enquiry. The enquiry noted that some in the FCO might have unintentionally given the impression that the operation had government support, when in fact it did not.20

Other PSCs also active in the 1990s included Defense Systems Ltd.-known today as ArmorGroup International-and Control Risks. These companies tended to focus on security-related activities, staying away from the type of military services supplied by EO, MPRI, and Sandline International. Indeed, in the case of the United Kingdom, they typified the security industry. In this respect U.K. companies such as ArmorGroup and Control Risks have tended to work for multinational corporations, supplying them with security services as well as a range of other functions, such as political analysis of countries that face internal disruption.

The focus on security and not military activity is typically a British affair and has its roots in the commercial security operations conducted during the 1970s. Today this distinction is reflected in the attitudes of many former British officers who now work in the industry. When retired Major General John Holmes was asked to describe the type of work Erinys does in Iraq, his immediate reply was “security work.” Holmes went on to explain that

the company supplies point security, which is defensive in nature, for the oil infrastructure and close protection for individuals working for the U.S. Corps of Engineers and other companies working in the country. We guard things and are no different to the tens of thousands of private guards anywhere else in the world. What makes us different is that we are armed and the company has expatriate management managing local people.21

The view that the industry provides security and not a war-fighting function is reflected throughout the U.K. industry, while Donald makes the same point when he explains, “British PSCs will not in the short or medium term undertake combat tasks because it would wreck their business. The sector has spent too long separating itself from the combat end of the private security spectrum to jeopardize it all with more ‘dogs of war’ headlines.”22

Importantly, these views differ from those held by some former U.S. military officers working for American companies. Blackwater Vice Chairman Cofer Black, for example, proposed dispatching a brigade-size force of private soldiers to Darfur as part of a UN peacekeeping effort to stop the fighting.23 According to Donald, the company may have quietly dropped the idea because of a lack of support from the U.S. government.24

In many respects, the 1990s prepared the industry for what was to come in the context of 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Unlike state militaries, PSCs were already adapting to the political changes occurring globally and especially in Africa. The increase in intrastate war has also meant an increase in business for PSCs protecting the assets of multinational corporations operating in hostile environments. Moreover, some companies were already engaging with international agencies involved with PSOs. Over the past fifteen years, ArmorGroup International has supported more than fifty-three missions, providing administrative and technical support to such organizations as the United Nations, UNICEF, and Care International in more than thirty countries from Afghanistan to Zaire.25 The same company is now a world leader in humanitarian mine clearance as a result of the amount of mine clearance contracts it has undertaken in the last decade.26 Neither is ArmorGroup alone in this respect. American PSCs have also undertaken to support PSOs. DynCorp supplied personnel for the International Police Task Force in Bosnia as well as personnel for the Kosovo International Verification Mission.27

Even so, the industry’s participation during this period was on an ad hoc basis with the focus mainly on logistical support and not the physical security that we are now witnessing in Iraq. 9/11 changed all that. Ever since then, the industry has continued to grow in importance, while militaries continue to rely on contractors for a multitude of tasks from servicing weapon platforms to supplying logistical support. Thus contractors today are a significant actor in the operational theater, notably because of the RMA, the transformation in warfare from interstate to intrastate, and the subsequent increase in the number of PSOs now being carried out. Nevertheless, in the case of PSCs, governments have been slow in acknowledging their role in the operational theater. Instead, PSCs have been left to operate in the shadows, adopting in many respects a quasi-legitimate personality in relation to the international community. As the remainder of the chapter explains, this is about to change. The RMA and the transformation in warfare that has seen a marked increase in PSOs will drive the international community to increase their reliance on contractors, especially PSCs.


From the moment the coalition force crossed the border into Iraq in April 2003, there has been growing public concern over the role of contractors in the war.28 While most of the focus has been on contractors engaged in reconstruction, such as Halliburton, and armed contractors, such as Blackwater and Aegis, there is a third group without whom the U.S. military could not have gone to war. These are the defense contractors who are responsible for ensuring the weapon systems used by the military function properly. Without them, the military would struggle to operate many of their sophisticated weapon platforms given the degree of technical knowledge necessary to operate them. As Singer points out, “[W]eapons systems required to carry out the highest levels of conflict are becoming so complex that as many as five different companies are often required to help just one U.S. military unit carry out its operations.”29 Such equipment has revolutionized the operational side of warfare, while in the case of high-intensity warfare, reliance on advanced technology has increased the need for skilled technicians from the private sector.

Although changes in weapons technology have seen military power concentrated into the hands of ever-smaller groups, it has also had a dramatic impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of war, changing the nature of the modern battlefield. In many respects, we now live in a post-heroic world because of advances in technology. The military has become risk adverse, while at the same time the introduction of virtual war means the public now demands that their soldiers stay out of harm’s way. The soldier is not removed from the act of war, but only from the dangers it entails. The U.S. secretary of the Air Force summed up this state of affairs when he argued, “The computer chip may very well be a most useful war-fighting tool. For example, while it is never a good thing when we lose a Predator on the battlefield, given the alternatives I look forward to many more computer chips dying for our country.”30

Many might refute this claim, but the truth is that technology combined with the ability for news agencies to instantaneously transmit pictures of the battlefield into the homes of millions of viewers has made politicians much more cautious about committing the lives of their soldiers to combat, especially when there are contractors who can operate advanced weapon systems that are able to engage the enemy instead. Indeed, this situation can only exist with the support of such highly skilled technicians.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, for every contractor there were fifty military personnel involved. In the 2003 conflict, the ratio was one to ten.31 If warfare is being transformed as a consequence of the RMA, then the primary transformation is technological, which in turn is leading to a secondary transformation: the specialization or civilianization of the military. This has opened up opportunities for the private sector to play a much greater role in war.

More importantly, in the case of the United States, if it is to maintain its military superiority, it will have to embrace technology from the private sector. Nor should we be surprised about how technology has impacted war. After all, the origins of industrial war can be traced back to the last years of the Napoleonic Wars.32 Then, as today, the military relied on the private sector to mass-produce muskets, cannon, and ammunition. By the end of the eighteenth century, the bureaucratization,33 industrialization, and nationalization of violence were starting to have a significant impact on how war was fought. War was becoming an activity endured by the masses.

Clausewitz himself, one of the great nineteenth-century military strategists, recognized this transformation in the organization of war when he “urged the replacement of cabinet wars by national wars . saying in effect ‘Give the War to the People!’ The State is the People.”34 Today war is back in the hands of cabinets, supported by contractors.

This has led some to argue that military and civilian roles are becoming blurred, when in fact the opposite is true. Specialization and civilianization of roles that in the past were the responsibility of the military are finding their way back into the private sector with the support of the RMA. Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” approach to war fighting, using technology in place of manpower to achieve regime change in Iraq, is a return to the quest for decisive warfare. It is an approach that sees soldiers engaged in fighting while contractors undertake the other tasks involved in war, from maintaining weapon systems to organizing logistical support for frontline troops.

While the tools to fight wars today are different from the tools used between 1631 and 1815, some aspects of the nature of war are strikingly similar:

[To] keep the costs of war reasonably proportionate to the purposes obtained. [Furthermore] if in a successful battle the enemy army could be substantially destroyed . then the whole course of the war could be resolved in a single day, and wars thereby might be won at relatively low cost, by avoiding the prolonged expenditure of resources and lives.35

These words apply as much today as they did 200 years ago. The U.S. military’s use of advanced weapon platforms has given them an unprecedented advantage, which means that opposing military forces can be defeated in months if not days instead of years, as the first Iraq war demonstrated. While on the one hand U.S. military strategists may be reassured by having a preponderance of force, the country now faces a different type of threat as its enemies adopt an asymmetric approach to warfare. Neither is asymmetric warfare confined to the United States. Other Western countries also face an asymmetric threat from the same enemies who want to wage war against the United States. Where does this leave the role of the advanced weapon technician in war today?

To suggest he or she is solely responsible for the increase in the number of contractors on the battlefield is only partly true. They are nevertheless an important driving force, while a further driving force is the increasing fusion between the corporate ethos of defense contractors and the military ethos that is leading to a strengthening of cooperation between soldiers and civilians. This in turn is making it easier to specialize and civilianize the future military. “The contention here is that . defense contractors tend to recruit ex-military personnel ‘predisposed’ to ‘ways of acting, based on values drawn from their experiences of military services,’ and who operate ‘to the same high standards’ of the armed services ‘while exhibiting the same moral values which were first instilled in them in the military.'”36 Thus, it is held that contractors working alongside military personnel frequently share the same experiences, dangers, likings, and difficulties, eroding further any cultural barriers that exist between them in a mutually beneficial relationship where values pass easily between environments, shaping attitudes and working practices.37

The fusing together of the corporate and military ethos suggests a new dynamic ethos that transcends the traditional civil-military relationship and the divide that has existed between these two groups for generations. Uttley sums up this new form of military ethos by suggesting that it replicates a new public service ethos and the sharing of best practices in other areas of state activity. Importantly, the provision of services is through a combination of public and private service agents and not an in-house monopoly.38

If the military ethos is being eroded in the field of technical support, it is also being eroded in the actual area of war-fighting and stabilization operations. In this respect, specialization and civilianization are confined not only to the sphere of high-intensity warfare, but also to the sphere of low-intensity warfare and specifically PSOs. Moreover, low-intensity warfare has become the norm for the time being, as the rest of the world realizes that it cannot challenge the U.S. military on its own terms. The amount of destructive power that U.S. forces brought to bear on Saddam’s army dictates that in the short to medium term, those who choose to challenge the will of the United States will do so using methods associated with asymmetric warfare.

Recognition of the asymmetric threats to the West actually emerged after 9/11 and, in the case of the United Kingdom, is identified in the New Chapter White Paper published in 2003. The New Chapter concluded that it was better to engage the enemy at long range and to have significant forces ready to deploy overseas to act against terrorist groups and regimes that harbored them. Particular U.K. strengths were identified both in find-and-strike operations and in prevention and stabilization operations. The former were identified as requiring high-intensity war fighting capacity and decision-making structures to enable forces to act rapidly and decisively.39 The analysis in the New Chapter pointed to the importance of what it called network-centric capability: the linking together of precision weapons and information technologies to produce a military effect at a qualitatively higher tempo.40 The support of civilian contractors is crucial here. At the other end, the New Chapter also recognized the need to engage in PSOs. Moreover, as the next section discusses, PSOs are no longer the sole responsibility of the military. The role and importance of contractors are increasing in this realm as well.


PSOs cover a wide area of activity. It would be wrong to suggest that the private sector has been able to encroach on all aspects of PSOs. It is therefore necessary to define what is meant by PSOs before any discussion can take place as to the type and level of encroachment into this area of operations by the private sector. A PSO is an operation that impartially makes use of diplomatic, civil, and military means, normally in pursuit of United Nations Charter purposes and principles, to restore or maintain peace. Such operations may include conflict prevention, peacemaking, peace enforcement, peacekeeping, peace-building, state-building, and/or humanitarian operations. Under the present international political climate, it is unlikely that PSCs will be allowed to engage in peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations. Many governments are still uneasy about using the industry and are still struggling to come to terms with the presence of so many non-state actors, including PSCs, now operating in the operational theater since the end of the Cold War. They seem unwilling to separate the concept of PSCs from mercenaries and are therefore not prepared to employ them. Even if the international community was able to reconcile the difference between the two actors, it is still unlikely governments would turn to PSCs to act as peace enforcers or peacekeeping forces in the place of state militaries. As noted earlier, Cofer Black has suggested using private soldiers in Darfur as part of a UN peacekeeping force, citing EO’s success in Angola and Sierra Leone in support of the idea. However, Jim Hooper, who for the last twenty years has written about the South African Defense Force’s (SADF) special forces combat operations, questions the validity of the claim. Hooper argues that EO’s success is directly attributed to their operators being former permanent forces cadres of the SADF with extensive experience in joint- conventional or special forces combat operations in Angola.41 Other than that provided by EO, there is no evidence to support the claim that a PSC could become an effective peace enforcement or peacekeeping force. It is more likely that such a role would be beyond their operational capability and the size of resources necessary to guarantee operational success.

If PSCs are to be a part of PSOs, it is much more probable that they will participate in conflict prevention, peace-building, state-building, and humanitarian operations. These areas of PSOs reflect closely Duffield’s strategic complexes mentioned at the start of the chapter in that they employ complementary diplomatic, civil, and, when necessary, military means to monitor, identify, and address both the cause of conflict and the longer-term needs of those suffering. Furthermore, peace-building requires a commitment to a long-term process that may run concurrently with other types of PSOs.42 This last point is pertinent to PSCs because unlike state militaries, which frequently have other operational commitments to consider, PSCs can afford to commit the necessary time (cost permitting).

What, then, is driving the military’s reliance on the private sector in PSOs? A number of reasons have been put forward, of which the two most common explanations are the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid in South Africa, which saw the downsizing of state militaries and the release into the marketplace of thousands of trained soldiers. The problem with these explanations is the fact they both occurred seventeen years ago. Consequently, they can hardly be responsible for the increasing role of PSCs occurring today. Thus, both reasons are problematic when explaining the expansion of the private security industry. The most obvious explanation is that outsourcing government services continues to be a priority for the U.K. and U.S. governments. This may be because they believe private companies to be more efficient than publicly supplied services, but the most probable reason is increased pressure imposed by operational commitments. To put it more starkly, there are too few soldiers and resources for operational commitments. In the case of the British Army, manpower has diminished from 160,000 immediately after the Cold War to 101,808 today, while operations have increased.43 More worrying for the Ministry of Defense (MoD) is the military’s inability to attract recruits. (As of August 2006, the infantry was short approximately 3,500 soldiers, more than 15% of its total strength.)44 The market is thus seen as a solution to a shortfall in manpower linked to an increase in the operational tempo of the army. Neither is this situation likely to improve in the immediate or medium term. The proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) spent on defense has fallen from 3.5% in 1993 to just below 2.3% today.45 This reduction in defense spending has resulted in an emerging capability gap that will create opportunities that PSCs will want to fill. Nor is the United Kingdom alone in relation to manpower shortages and increasing operational tempo. The U.S. military faces exactly the same problem in terms of recruitment as fewer Americans now choose to serve in the military.

Neither is the phenomenon new, as discussed above, though it was not until 9/11 that the industry really started to grow as demands for security services increased overnight. That said, it was only after the second Gulf War that PSCs started to sign multi-million dollar contracts. It is estimated that there are 630 companies working in Iraq on contract to the U.S. government, with personnel from more than 100 countries offering services ranging from cooking and driving to close protection, while their 180,000 employees now outnumber 160,000 official troops.46 PSCs only represent a small percentage of this figure. The precise numbers, however, are unclear, with some reports estimating the figure to be as high as 48,000 while other reports suggest the number could be as low as 25,000.47 Even so, such numbers represent a significant increase from two decades ago. Then, the industry only employed a small number of individuals, probably no more than 2000 to 3000,48 and would mainly have come from a special forces background, the Guards, or served with irregular forces such as the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces. Today, even ordinary soldiers see the industry as a second career after military service, especially given the U.S. government’s intention to rely more and more on PSCs for security functions in conflict zones. Other governments have been much slower to react, but will in all probability follow suit.

After all, using private security may make sense for functions such as perimeter Defense since it allows the military to free up personnel for combat duty. The U.S. military sees its primary role as war fighting, not PSOs, and therefore prefers to give more of the latter responsibility to the private sector. Nor are they alone here. With the majority of Western militaries struggling to attract adequate numbers of recruits, it is quite likely they too will turn to the private sector to fill the manpower and skills gaps. What is not clear is the degree to which governments will become reliant on PSCs to supply services in the future. The following section discusses the direction the emerging trend might take, highlighting, in particular, the roles governments are likely to want to outsource.


Donald identifies four areas where in the future we are likely to see an increase in PSC involvement in PSOs. They include intelligence provision and analysis, support to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction operations, SSR, and humanitarian and development assistance. Unfortunately, this chapter does not have the space to allow a detailed account of the nature of PSC involvement in these areas. Instead, only a brief analysis is possible.

Intelligence Provision

The private sector understands intelligence differently from the government. In the latter case, intelligence is privileged information, normally gathered covertly by intelligence services and not open for public scrutiny. For the private sector, intelligence is simply open source or declassified information that has been analyzed, thus making it useful to the client.49

In relation to PSOs and intelligence, PSCs are in a rather unique position compared to other non-state actors operating in conflict zones because they tend to employ former soldiers with experience in intelligence. In addition, the fact that they normally work over large geographical areas and frequently form close relationships with the local population, being able to adapt to a given environment,50 make them an ideal source of additional information for the military tasked with conducting a PSO. The last point is particularly pertinent because failure to adapt can seriously jeopardize their operational effectiveness and even threaten their survival.

As important are the implications for the military of turning to PSCs for intelligence. As with state militaries, PSC forces have different security and organizational cultures, usually reflecting the culture from which such forces are drawn. Thus, some PSCs may be better placed in cultural intelligence because their ethos is closer to a military culture that is used to operating in an insurgency environment. British PSCs, for example, may have an advantage over their rivals as a result of their employees having gained experience from operating in Northern Ireland, which would have taught them the value of adopting an open mind, cultural tolerance, and a willingness to communicate with outsiders. The same may also be true of other PSCs whose employees have intimate experience of insurgency operations as a result of serving in a state military. However, employees of PSCs can also have a detrimental impact on intelligence gathering by bringing to the operation habits and prejudices that are not conducive to good operational conduct. Employee attitudes towards the local community are especially important and can easily have a negative impact on the local population. Iraq is awash with stories of security contractors behaving badly towards locals, thus endangering not only their own company’s intelligence gathering, but also possibly that of other organizations.51

Where PSCs differ from state militaries is in how they operate, and it is in this area that they can make a contribution to intelligence culture, the military operational function of gathering and analyzing information about the theater and the enemy.52 In complex environments they are able to offer commanders and senior officers invaluable information as a result of cultural intelligence. In Iraq, for example, a number of PSCs operate from outside the Green Zone. This has meant being able to communicate with the local population, understand their culture, and remain open-minded and flexible, while also showing careful judgment in the application of force in what is frequently a very fluid environment. At the same time, PSCs appear well placed to operate in such an environment, notably because many companies employ former members of special forces with experience in both guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency. In each of these types of warfare, a crucial element is winning the hearts and minds of the local population. As Kain explains, “If you are a small unit working in a foreign country then you are dependent on the relationship between you and those people for your existence. If they dislike you and only associate with you because you provide them with dollars, then you can’t operate.”53 The same applies to contractors living outside the Green Zone. Crucially, the experiences of some PSCs suggest it is possible as long as the local population is prepared to accept you. That said, it is usually a temporary arrangement and is susceptible to political manipulation by local power brokers.54

Finally, this places PSCs in an ideal position, if only for a short period of time, for gathering field intelligence, which they do as a matter of course to support their own security operations, and which the military can also use to improve its own operational picture. Good intelligence is a force multiplier and is essential for the overall success of operations, particularly in the case of the U.K. military, which has traditionally relied on intelligence rather than increasing manpower. In Iraq, for example, most of the established PSCs have their own intelligence cells, which collect information on threats and pass it on to team leaders, who use it to allocate resources more efficiently and to avoid any potential trouble.55 This type of tactical intelligence is extremely useful to the military as an additional source. Importantly, it offers the military a unique insight into different aspects of the local population that is frequently beyond their operational capabilities or is simply ignored as a result of the military’s cultural boundaries, which block out outside cultural influences. In this respect, security contractors who live in the local community and have access to privileged information that is not always available to military intelligence can provide new insight and understanding regarding the complex context of the local arena.

Support to Post-Conflict Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations

This area is already familiar to PSCs. As mentioned above, in the case of DynCorp the company provided support to the Bosnian operation supplying former police offices to the International Police Task Force as well as police officers for the verification mission in Kosovo. In both cases they were supplied on behalf of the Department of State. In the case of the U.K. government, they have already hired PSCs to provide security for government staff who either work in or visit conflict zones. Recent figures show the cost running into millions of pounds.56 The most lucrative market, however, is likely to be in support of the military. Shortages in manpower coupled with an increase in overseas commitments suggest that the U.S. and U.K. militaries are becoming far too small to perform anything other than narrowly defined military tasks. This will invariably leave a whole range of activities in the hands of contractors. Indeed, both militaries already employ contractors to build and supply base camp facilities for their troops,57 while the United States also use PSCs to guard their bases, something British commanders are still not willing to accept. Finally, much of the logistical support militaries in the developing world are receiving from the U.S. government is coming from contractors. For instance, the State Department has hired DynCorp to help equip and provide logistical support to international peacekeepers in Somalia, giving the United States a significant role in the critical mission without assigning combat troops.58 While at present the U.S. government appears to be the only country willing to outsource in this way, it is a trend that is set to increase, especially if Western governments want to be able to influence organizations such as the African Union without committing ground troops or resources. Paying contractors to do your bidding not only allows you to influence what is happening in the developing world, it also lets you protect your national interests by proxy. In this way, Western governments can keep an element of control over events happening thousands of miles away without the political risk associated with committing troops. Furthermore, Western militaries are now facing the prospect of an emerging capability gap as a result of government willingness to act with fewer resources, which PSCs will try and fill, but only as long as governments recognize that they are part of the nation’s assets.

Security Sector Reform

The role of private security in SSR is best understood in the context of closer cooperation between the many different actors that now make up the development and security arenas. SSR reform describes the reorganization of a country’s security structures in terms of its relationship to the state and civil society. The notion of including the security sector within the development program originated from the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. These countries sought to reorganize SSR in a less parochial and ghettoized manner than had previously been the case.59 Inclusion of SSR within the development arena was considered necessary since a breakdown in development can rapidly lead to a breakdown in the security sector. Thus, failure to address social, political, and economic injustices undermines the judicial, police, intelligence agencies, and the military.

Much of the work undertaken by the private sector in this area is carried out by public sector consulting firms. These firms operate at the strategic level, undertaking work to promote long-term stability by helping to build local capacity and competence. In this respect, there is a difference between the type of work that a PSC is suited to and the kind of work public sector consulting firms engage in. Nevertheless, both groups engage in SSR alongside each other-not sequentially. Whereas in the past, longer-term SSR came after post-conflict tasks, this is no longer the case. Indeed, while a PSC may be contracted to disarm, demobilize, and then reintegrate (DDR) former combatants back into society-a post-conflict task-a consulting firm may be restructuring the Ministry of Justice at the same time, a long-term project. Neither is their role confined to DDR. PSCs can draw on a whole range of skills that they can place at the disposal of governments or international organizations. The most obvious is military and police training, which is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where contractors have been used instead of uniformed personnel.60

Military training has been a core business activity for some U.S. PSCs for the last decade. Most notable among them is MPRI. As mentioned earlier, the company was involved in training the Croatian and Bosnian armed forces throughout the early 1990s, while DynCorp trained the Liberian army,61 and Vinnell is training the Saudi Arabian National Guard.62 Neither are U.S. PSCs alone in marketing their SSR skills. Control Risks, a U.K. PSC, has a governance and development department that specializes in long-term stabilization programs. It is also, according to the head of Governance and Development, able to provide services normally provided by governments.63 This is normally the result of consciously employing former government employees with the requisite skills to provide such services. Importantly, PSCs offer surge capacity without the government having to employ additional personnel. Whether this is cheaper in the long run is debatable. However, what is not debatable is that some operating areas will be dangerous and require security that will invariably be supplied by PSCs, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Humanitarian and Development Assistance

This is probably the most controversial area in which PSCs might be engaged in the foreseeable future. There are potentially two roles that they can undertake: first, the direct delivery and provision of humanitarian aid and development assistance, and second, acting as coordinators of delivery of humanitarian aid.64 In the British context, the direct provision of humanitarian aid since the end of the Cold War has been increasingly managed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) acting in partnership with the British government on stabilization, reconstruction, and development projects. While the provision of hard security continues to be dominated by the military, human security-securing people against the threat from hunger, disease, and the physical environment-has been given over much more to the NGO community. However, handing over such responsibility can present a government with the problem of executing policy if, as was the case with Iraq, the NGO community suddenly withdraws its help in the implementation of human security tasks. It fell to the CPA to take on the role, which they were not suitably prepared for, and lacked the necessary experience. As Donald explains, “[M]any of its personnel were inexperienced in administering humanitarian or development aid projects.. The result was that there were very substantial holes in humanitarian and development provision.”65 As noted above, being so reliant on the NGO community to execute policy is problematic if they withdraw their services because they do not wish to be associated with a particular military operation. In this respect, PSCs are an alternative to NGOs in humanitarian aid delivery and development assistance, while also being able to provide their own security if required. Furthermore, since PSC personnel are invariably former soldiers, they are less likely to show hostility towards the military and more likely to be prepared to work alongside them, which is frequently not the case with NGO personnel.

Coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid is the second role that PSCs can undertake for government. This is precisely what Aegis is doing for the U.S. government in Iraq. It is frequently the case that post-conflict environments are chaotic, with government agencies and NGOs unknowingly working against each other to achieve their objectives. Because government agencies and NGOs are sometimes suspicious of the other’s motives, they may not liaise with each other, thus creating problems when it comes to sharing information. For those responsible for mounting humanitarian operations, maintaining a strategic picture is important if the right amount and type of aid are to be delivered. This can only really be achieved through a centrally organized process that is able to coordinate all the different actors involved. In Iraq, the role of coordinating all the PSCs was given to Aegis. They became responsible for tracking the movement of security companies, coordinating their movement with that of the U.S. military, coordinating rescue operations if contractors got into trouble, and sharing intelligence between PSCs. Such experience could be useful in other humanitarian operations, but it does require the support of all the agencies operating on the ground if it is to work.


The changing nature of warfare, which has occurred since the end of the Cold War, has made militaries more specialized in their war fighting and more likely to defer mission tasks to contractors. This trend is set to continue as long as governments choose to engage in more and more PSOs. As the previous section noted, there is a whole array of tasks that in the past would have been considered the responsibility of the military which are now being given over to PSCs or NGOs. Even so, certain countries are further ahead in deferring mission tasks to contractors. The American government, for example, has outsourced many security roles in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of using the army, while the British government appears reluctant to do the same. They prefer to use the army rather than commit to the level of outsourcing security roles that the American government has undertaken. Indeed, whereas the U.S. military employs PSCs to guard their bases and protect their convoys, the British Army still uses troops with many commanders uneasy about outsourcing such important responsibilities.

One possible reason for this unease may have to do with the fact that PSCs lack the legitimacy of state actors, thus raising real concerns for commanding officers. However, given the manpower shortage faced by the British Army, it may eventually have no option but to adopt the same approach as the American military for certain security roles, including using PSCs as static guards and convoy protection.

Finally, the combination of outsourcing military responsibilities with the military’s reliance on advanced weapons platforms has intensified the impact of contractors on the operational environment, thus increasing the speed of which the military is becoming more specialized as it seeks to focus on war fighting while leaving other non-war-fighting functions, including some mission-critical functions such as logistical support, to contractors.


What does the future hold for PSCs in respect to PSOs? While the industry is not going to go away, there is still uncertainty about the future regarding its potential contribution to PSOs, notably because it is dependant on other factors over which it has no control. At present the industry appears to be settling for less contentious roles within PSOs, in particular intelligence provision, support to post-conflict stabilization operations, and humanitarian and development assistance security sector reform. Peace enforcement and peacekeeping have for the time being been shelved because it is felt that the international community has no stomach for outsourcing these roles.

Governments in developing countries are particularly hostile to the idea of using PSCs, which they see as a modern manifestation of the age-old mercenary, while also denying them a potential source of revenue for their own troops. Western governments, on the other hand, are already relying on their services, though there are still significant differences between countries. The U.S. government, for example, is determined to move forward and outsource more functions to PSCs. On the other hand, there are countries, such as South Africa, that would like to see the industry banned.

This use of PSCs in peacekeeping has given the U.S. government a significant role in Somalia without assigning combat troops.66 This is a trend that the United States is actively pursuing. Nor is the U.S. government worried about outsourcing to foreign PSCs. Aegis, a U.K. PSC, won the Matrix contract in Iraq to protect U.S. government officials involved in reconstruction, while the British PSC ArmorGroup won a contract to protect the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. What this also suggests is that in the future, U.S. contributions to PSOs may include foreign PSCs. Several U.K. companies have already established offices in Washington with the intention of benefiting from the government’s move to outsource more responsibility for PSOs to the private sector.

In the United Kingdom, the government has been slow to react to the phenomenon and is lacking a coherent policy, instead preferring to leave it up to individual ministries to decide whether they should engage with the industry or not. While the Foreign Office, for example, uses PSCs to protect staff working in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and has a clear set of rules governing their working relationship with PSCs, the same is not true of the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Consequently, while military personnel frequently work alongside security contractors on PSOs, tensions can and do arise. This is especially so concerning the use of firearms by PSCs, which can make the PSO environment even more complex for soldiers. The main worry for the industry at present, however, is whether the government will follow the American example and increase its use of PSCs in support of PSOs. In the immediate future, this looks doubtful. The MoD and the Department for International Development (DFID) both appear uncomfortable with the idea. The MoD appears particularly worried about the legal implication of companies being armed and the fact that they could also pose a risk for soldiers in PSOs. This only leaves the FCO. Unfortunately for the industry, their contribution to PSOs is usually limited to the diplomatic arena and not to roles that are generally suitable for outsourcing to PSCs.

Other countries have also started to outsource some of their responsibilities in the area of PSOs. They are, however, a long way behind the United States and some way behind the United Kingdom. One of the reasons for this may have to do with public criticism of the idea, especially if it means risking the wrath of public opinion, which few, if any, politicians like doing. Even so, PSCs do offer another approach for countries that want to be seen to support PSOs but do not necessarily want to become directly involved for domestic reasons; PSO by proxy, some might call it.

Finally, the pace at which aspects of PSOs are being outsourced should be of serious concern for government. Policy makers need to understand the implications of such outsourcing for all those parties concerned. The last thing they need to do is to sleepwalk into controversy as the British government did over the “Arms to Africa” affair in the late 1990s with serious potential implications for the future role of PSCs in PSOs.67 In this respect, governments need to start addressing the issues of legitimacy, accountability, and transparency if the general public is to have any trust in a system that allows functions which in the past would have been the sole responsibility of the state to be undertaken by private actors.

This entry was posted in Academic and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply