Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.

The reallocation of the provision of military services from public to private and an increase in regional and ethnic conflicts around the globe have been two of the major drivers that have expedited the growth of private military security companies (PMSCs) into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. This growth has been facilitated by their widespread engagement by governments around the world, whose policy changes have been focused on privatising their responsibilities for the provision of an array of services such as military advice, logistics, training, policing, close personal protection, technological expertise, asset protection, and intelligence functions.

If Executive Outcomes set the precedent for PMSCs in the 20th century, then Blackwater undoubtedly set the conditions for the 21st century. Blackwater pioneered the industry by cost-effectively filling gaps in military capacity and capability. They revealed the extent that PMSCs were able to contribute to a government’s military operations and policy objectives within an international system. Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder, has often mentioned how the relationship between his company and the U.S. State Department was not only one of mutual benefit, but quickly developed into one of absolute dependency.

For instance, one of Blackwater’s first assignments in Iraq was arguably one of their most dangerous. They were to protect Paul Bremer, the appointed administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) following the 2003 invasion. At the time, there was no military solution that was readily available to achieve this exceptional task, so the U.S. government contracted Blackwater to fulfill this obligation. Blackwater completed this assignment and achieved their overall objective. The subsequent demand placed on Prince’s firm was unrelenting, extremely dangerous, but absolutely integral to the conduct of the U.S. operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This inter-dependent relationship has created an absolute reliance on private soldiers to accomplish tasks that directly affect the tactical and strategic success of a conflict. This reliance encouraged private military security companies to grow at such a remarkable rate that national and international legislation was, and still is, playing catch-up. This has challenged the traditional functions, roles, and responsibilities of states.

The challenge of private military security companies to traditional state functions

The outsourcing of war is presenting unique challenges to international security and to the traditional understanding of state power. One of the main criticisms that has been leveled at private military service providers is that they are diminishing a state’s power by taking certain functions away from the nation-state and public institutions, and bringing them into an era of neo-classicalism where free markets and private entities attempt to minimise state political and military power. This minimisation of state-supplied military services has effectively broken a core function of the Westphalian paradigm by separating the state from its natural entity of control by way of the legal use of lethal military force.

The distinction between public and private forms of authority is an important one to make, as public security authorities retain legislative authorisation and a jurisdiction that no other actor should possess. Private security, on the other hand, usually operates within a stipulated regulatory framework within this legislative authorisation, not parallel to it or above it. This distinction is important because, unlike other public functions which have seen government involvement significantly reduced, such as trade and finance, removing absolute control of the provision of violence from governments will see the state’s role in the security sphere become deprivileged.

The large-scale employment of PMSCs has also been criticised for lacking the level of accountability that using traditional military forces demands. The extensive use of PMSCs allows governments to effectively relieve themselves of the political liability that comes with sending uniformed soldiers to war. This unaccountability has been labelled by some as ‘anti-democratic’ based on PMSCs exerting power and influence on a stage that has previously been reserved for publicly elected officials and political parties.

Even though PMSCs have supported Western democratic governments in a number of conflicts to augment state- and IGO-initiated responses, PMSCs have on occasion also supported illegitimate governments and rebel forces. Thus, PMSCs are viewed as operating in armed conflict purely on the basis of profit, not out of any moral obligation to international security and peace. This ‘for-profit’ drive has seen PMSCs grow to such size and influence that they are able to significantly impact the outcomes of a given conflict to which they are contracted to provide their services. If violence and war are seen as a “tangled and thorny set of human, legal, political, and economic issues,” then introducing PMSCs into the fold exacerbates these issues to a far greater extent.