Afterimage Review

Do Military Contractors Threaten Sovereignty ?

private security
Do private security or military contractors threaten sovereignty because they take away the state’s monopoly on ‘force’?

Does conventional military and security have the time or even interest to protect everyone in every country? As a society we need this kind of discussion.

A recent report by the charity War on Want criticised the “rise in mercenaries fighting on the front line in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East” and warned of a “frightening return of the ‘Dogs of War’.” Charity director John Hilary went as far as to state that he believed “the time has come to ban these companies from operating in conflict zones and end the privatisation of war”.

No doubt this will be music to the ears of the generally uninitiated public who do not understand the apparently ‘murky world’ he describes which is dominated by UK firms, worth somewhere between $100bn and $400bn USD annually. I’d like to argue that somewhere along the line he has gotten past debacles mixed up with a genuine, necessary and hard-working industry.

A few months before the report (and unconnected) former MI5 boss, Baron Evans of Weardale made the alarming claim that private criminals and firms with bad intentions are compiling details of ordinary citizens using methods that are “just as intrusive” as those deployed by the intelligence industries. At the same time, organised crime around the world have 24/7 access to a raft of private manpower and technology infrastructure around the world to act against whoever they chose, whenever they chose. Are they any match for conventional military? Probably not one-on-one. Does conventional military and security have the time or even interest to protect everyone in every country? Most definitely, no.

Is it fair, then, that those with money can hire bodyguards, private security or even private military to protect their legitimate interests whilst those with no money cannot afford it? Absolutely. They are the targets. PMCs (private military contractors) are an increasing feature for international shipping – due to piracy and amongst oil corporations – due to terrorism, for example.

We should support the international military and security framework in which economies can flourish and anarchy avoided – but the wider public needs to acknowledge that business, NGOs, HNWIs and entrepreneurs cannot rely on often overstretched state security all the time. That’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money quite frankly.

No one would forbid you locking your door at home, hiring bouncers at a night club, setting up an electric fence around a farm. Few people would begrudge a remote farmer owning a shot gun. So why on earth would we have a problem with businesspeople, NGOs, entrepreneurs and HNWIs having executive protection or private military contractors work for them in a challenging environment at home or abroad? If they obey the laws of that country on what they are or are not allowed to do – what’s the problem?

So the private security bogey man is coming to get us, right?

Private Military Contractor inspect the documents on blocked territory Copyright: studio0411
Private Military Contractor inspect the documents on blocked territory
                               Copyright: studio0411

Okay, not us, other people in far-away distant lands. And that monster is unaccountable and rogue isn’t it – especially when they operate in failed states? Unlike those militaries in failed states which are pillars of society?

Does anyone remember that excellent 2015 NBC thriller series ‘American Odessy’ or just ‘Odessy’ as it was in the UK, starring Anna Friel? I loved it – but it did paint a rather one sided picture. What most people might remember though, if they cast their minds back, was the private military contractor who was thrust into the limelight in that highly tragic 2004 Iraq incident where those accompanying kitchen equipment were murdered and paraded. They remember other contractors who ran amok and committed unforgivable atrocities. Quite rightly so.

I am not saying that more regulation wouldn’t help and we are certainly not saying that the privatisation of defence and security is even desirable or conceivable let alone workable. Private security contractors are, by and large, honourable people who have had a previous career and still have a lot to contribute to society – be that in executive protection in global firms, protecting overseas aid missions or in any of the myriad of increasingly necessary scenarios. Oh, and can the general public distinguish between private security and private military contractors?

There are high profile failures, corrupt outfits, illegal activities all in the sphere of private security ranging from the large failure to adequately secure the London Olympic Games all the way through to an outfit which had to change its name following well publicised incidents in Iraq. But are there not even worse and even more frequent problems with state institutions and forces in less stable environments the world over?

It’s a totally separate and comparably rare issue over whether private actors should be allowed to affect adverse change.

Companies, NGOs and entrepreneurs need help and they need it consistently.

Do private security or military contractors threaten sovereignty because they take away the state’s monopoly on ‘force’? Surely that question can be bundled together with the US gun lobby’s right to bear arms? Would those supporting the right to bear arms argue that whilst today’s government is an okay sort, who knows about tomorrow (therefore justifying assault weapons)?

Although we are nauseated to say something like ‘because we’re an increasingly Globalised economy’ we’ll stick with saying that we do business with everybody today. ‘Everybody’ lives in some pretty interesting places. Companies, NGOs and entrepreneurs need help and they need it consistently. Sure, local forces can help them but nothing beats your own private security detail. Can they carry guns in some countries – yes? But in others – no. Can they wear camouflage? Why would you want them to? (But yes, it is forbidden in many countries).

The general public should spare a thought for the countless underemployed contractors just waiting for a job which fits their skills and experience. These are highly skilled people who are itching to get out there, make a difference, yes, make some money. Also, how would you like to work in a life threatening situation where, yes, you get $750+ per day, but no – you don’t have any life assurance or medical coverage for you and your family? Where no one is going to write your name on a memorial if you don’t come back?

Executive protection, K&R response and insurance don’t need to come ‘out of the shadows’, they just need the general public to demystify them, understand the difference between what they see in the movies and the hard working, genuine and ethical men and women working in the industry. This, in turn, could allow them to legally carry better equipment (so much in the K&R resolution field is forbidden in private hands). It could even lead to collaboration between state and non-state actors – something often muted or promised but rarely achieved.

Reports like ‘Mercenaries Unleashedby the War on Want charity are to be celebrated. As a society we need this kind of discussion. However, this is our humble response as industry writers and we do not agree that, as they assert it is ‘the Wild West’ out there.

The report’s listing of licenses issued by the UK Government alone starts to unravel this claim about lawlessness. Ignorance and fear breed opportunity for crime, corruption and an environment which becomes less safe for those working in it. Let’s shut down rogue outfits, shine a light on wrongdoing but ultimately celebrate the enormous effort of the private security and military sector.

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About the author

John W

John W. is an international close protection and K&R expert currently operating as a freelance consultant for a high profile UK Firm. Before working in the private sector he had a successful career in the British Army with tours of Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds the MSc in War Studies from Kings College and a Postgraduate Diploma from Cranfield University.