Private military security companies (PMSCs) are by no means a new phenomenon, and the outsourcing of military services is as old as war itself. What is new, however, is the highly privatised way in which war is now being conducted and how the corporate world is being contracted to fulfil what have been traditionally state-dominated tasks. The predecessors to the highly publicised ‘civilian warriors’ of today can trace their heritage to a number of highly volatile and unstable continents spanning the globe throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

The contemporary PMSCs of today have grown into something that the ‘mercenaries’, ‘soldiers of fortune’, ‘wild geese’, or ‘less affreux’ of over half a century ago would never have thought possible. This growth has not been without controversy, and this controversy has appeared at both the tactical and strategic levels and has affected both domestic- and international-level political affairs. This evolutionary process has seen the concept of individuals who embraced mercenarianism as simply a lifestyle choice evolve into the highly professional, highly corporate, and above all else, highly legitimised practice that it is today.

This series will begin by reflecting on the historical roots of PMSCs as well as their activities, significance, and the conditions under which they have prospered within the international system. I will then talk about the PMSC phenomenon and the unprecedented ways in which they have evolved, as well as the contributing factors to their growth and the associated issues that have accompanied the demand for their services. Finally, I will question the future of PMSCs and whether their current construct is suitable to the international system in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Early concepts of private military security companies

By the very nature of the services they provide, private military security companies ultimately thrive in non-permissive environments where violence and instability are commonplace. The decolonisation period that ensued after the Second World War certainly provided an abundance of such regions, and consequently a stage on which the foundations for the modern PMSC could be set. When tracing these origins, the infrastructure of modern PMSCs are generally attributed to the activity of firms that were contracted to provide military and security-related services throughout a number of continents spanning the globe in the latter half of the 20th century.

Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas are littered with examples of military firm activity, with some notable case studies setting the precedent for their effectiveness through widespread utilisation. For instance, Africa, and the war in Angola in particular, could be viewed as one of the benchmarks for PMSCs with firms from around the world lining up to offer their services to assist the Angolan government in their struggle against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). These services included the training of the Angolan armed forces; logistical support; transport, including the maintenance and flying of Angolan aircraft; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tasks; demining; and the protection of critical assets and infrastructure such as the diamond fields and key supply routes.

The two notable firms that fulfilled these contracts were Executive Outcomes (EO) and International Defense and Security (IDAS). EO has long been credited as being one of the most influential PMSCs in regards to its modern counterparts; this firm clearly showed how a private entity with better organisation, training, and equipment, as well as an enhanced readiness to respond to crises anywhere in the globe, could fill critical capability gaps that existed in state-supplied military contingencies.

PMSCs such as EO were well organised and suitably enabled to avoid the complications associated with the ad-hoc multinational forces that inter-government organisations, most notably the United Nations, had become renowned for deploying in order to deal with crises and violence (McIvor, 1998 p.3). The success enjoyed by EO in Angola and later against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone all but confirmed the potential for the highly structured and extremely capable private military firms, which possess the capacity for global reach, at short notice, in order to deliver outcomes that are beyond the means of conventional and multinational military forces.

Contemporary PMSCs were driven not only by this realisation but by a combination of historical circumstances and opportunities that set the conditions for the unprecedented growth of this very lucrative market. The following section will detail the next evolutionary jump that PMSCs took and how this growth has been criticised for encroaching on traditionally state-held responsibilities.