Explainer: Private Military Companies

This paper will discuss private military companies and the implications of using them.

Explainer: Private Military Companies


By Peder Foss 

The use of private military contractors/companies (PMCs) in warfare is old as the history of warfare. This paper will discuss private military companies and the implications of using them. The war in Ukraine is the most recent war with PMCs, the infamous Wagner Group. There are volunteers fighting on the Ukrainian side, but they are in the regular Ukrainian army and getting the same salary as the native Ukrainian soldiers. 

The use of mercenaries is old as war itself. It was a common practice to use hired soldiers during wars.  The first record of using mercenaries is from Mesopotamia when a king of Ur had them in his army. The mercenaries had a significant role in Alexander the Great's army. The Macedonians were probably not able to leave the Greek archipelago without using mercenaries. 

The Carthaginian Empire was dependent on mercenaries during the first Punic War. It faced serious problems when an entire mercenary army revolted after not being paid. The solution was to hire another army of mercenaries to defeat the revolting army. The Carthaginians used mercenaries in the Second Punic War when Hannibal crossed the Alps to defeat the Roman army.

The Roman Empire, even during the Republic period, used mercenaries. It turned out to be more non-Romans in the Roman army than native Romans. The Byzantine Empire also relied on mercenaries to fight in their wars. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, western Europe entered the Dark Ages. Especially one profession within the military began to offer their knowledge to the highest bidder; the archers and those handling crossbows. The feudalistic society was a divided society, and the nobles (knights) did not perceive the longbow and the crossbow as a weapon of choice for a knight. Everything changed at the battle of Agincourt when the English archers defeated the French knights.     

Not only Kings and Emperors hired soldiers, but even private entrepreneurs also used the soldiers of fortune. The East Indian companies hired a lot of soldiers. The hundred years war between France and England took the use even further when “Free Companies” were fighting on both sides and many shifted sides depending on what benefited them. These “free companies” caused a lot of problems between battles and/or after a peace treaty when the “free companies” lost their income. The mercenaries compensated for the loss of income to pillaging and burning cities if these cities refused to pay for “protection.”

The thirty years war shows the same pattern as the hundred years war. The war began as a war between Protestants and Catholics. Both sides used a lot of mercenaries. The major shift occurred with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. France implemented conscription after the revolution. The citizen army was very effective during the Napoleonic wars when the neighboring countries did not use conscription. Even if the professional armies were most likely more effective than the French army, the French won because they had much more soldiers. Napoleon was also a talented commander and other French officers were equally talented and received their positions because they were talented and not because of their social status.

There was another major conflict ongoing at the same time as the French Revolution, the American Revolutionary War or the War of Independence. This conflict saw the use of mercenaries as well. The British forces hired a lot of German soldiers, especially soldiers from the German principality of Hessen. There were also Germans fighting on the American side.

The dual revolutionary wars changed both Europe and the United States politically, socially, and somewhat militarily. The 19th century changed the world in many other ways as well. The industrial revolution would change Europe and the United States. It also changed the wars, but not the how armies were conducting military operations. The Great War, or the First World War has always been viewed as the first industrial war, but I disagree. The first industrial war was the Crimean War, which was followed by three other wars; the Prussian/Austrian war, the Prussian/Danish war, and the Franco-Prussian war. The latter caused resentment between Germany and France which culminated during the Great War.

Major powers began to use conscription, but not the British. Britain has relied upon a small professional army and focused more on their navy. The French also established a new military unit during the 19th century. The French Foreign Legion, which exists still and it has a reputation of being an effective fighting force. It also provided the French government with a military unit to be used abroad without risking young Frenchmen's lives. The British hired another famous military force, the Gurkha soldiers from Nepal.   

The world changed politically and socially in the post- great war world. Women received their right to vote. Three empires vanished, the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the Russian empire, and the Ottoman empire. Wars had been fought with professional armies, but they were unreliable and rather ineffective against much larger conscripted forces. There is one weakness to have mandatory military service. These units can only be used to defend their own territory. They can be used abroad only if they have a good reason for it.

The Second World War was a total war. The participating countries used all economic, industrial, and human resources into the war effort. Volunteers fought on both sides of the war, the Germans had volunteers from the occupied countries, mainly in the Waffen-SS and the allied had also volunteers from the occupied countries. The famous Gurkha soldiers from Nepal fought in the 14th army against the Japanese in Burma and during the Italian campaign

Two new superpowers emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, the democratic and capitalistic West with the United States and the Communistic East with the Soviet Union. Both sides had nuclear weapons, which may have saved the world from a third world war. The Cold War caused an arms race and proxy wars. Mercenaries were used mostly in third-world countries, but that would change when the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc countries collapsed. That gave governments the opportunity to reduce the defense budget and deactivate military personnel. All these retired military personnel would soon find the opportunity to establish private military companies.

Executive Outcomes 

Executive Outcomes was a South African founded in 1989, it contained mostly of Special Forces personnel from the South African military with the experience from covert operations in Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia. Executive Outcomes became famous or infamous, depending on the perspective in Sierra Leone. Rebels, the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attacked from the neighboring country Liberia. RUF was successful, but brutal. Decapitation the leaders of local communities, putting their heads on stakes and amputation of limbs were a common practice. The government of Sierra Leone tried to resist, but it was hampered by the corruption. In 1995 the RUF controlled most of the countryside and the government of Sierra Leone controlled the capital. The? of Sierra Leone was a young army captain and he contracted the Executive Outcomes. The EO arrived to Sierra Leone with a limited force. The EO was surprisingly effective and did not only halted the RUF's advance, but also forced the RUF back 126 kilometers. It took EO only nine days to do it     

 The Balkans

The war in former Yugoslavia caused a lot of suffering and ethnic cleaning on scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War. Private military companies were not involved in the fighting, but another PMC was indirectly involved in Croatia, the MPRI, an American Military Consulting Company. MPRI contributed to changing the Croatian army from a ragtag militia to a highly effective and professional fighting force. The Croatian army took almost everybody off guard when they launched the major offensive, the Operation Storm against Serbian forces.

The war in the former Yugoslavia ended and the world was quite peaceful, the Cold War was over and more countries became democratic. What could go wrong? The 9/11 2001 changed the world and more armed conflicts with PMCs in these conflicts.

The dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq changed the play field. Especially in Iraq, the American-based PMC Blackwater founded by a former US Navy Seal caused some problems for the American administration. The war in Iraq contributed to the awareness of the problems with having PMCs in a war zone. Military personnel are employed by the governments, but PMCs are employed by the PMC and there is a huge problem with accountability when the military laws cannot be applied on those working for a PMC. There is another problem which is discussed later. Can a government depend on a privately owned military force?

The Wagner Group

The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 and it is involved in Syria and in some African countries. It has also been heavily involved in the war in Ukraine. It has been fighting in and around Bakhmut and claimed victory when they were able to capture the pile of rubble that once was the city of Bakhmut. The owner of the Wagner Group seems to have an ongoing feud with the leadership of the Russian armed forces. The feud took a rather strange turn quite recently when a force of the Wagner Group left Ukraine and entered Russia to capture the city Rostov-on-Don and later commenced a march toward Moscow, which was halted and the Wagner turned around and went back to their bases. There are indications the Wagner Group has regrouped in Belarus together with the owner of the company.

What happened in Russia shows the problem with private military companies. There are other problems as well. Mexican and Colombian cartels have contracted PMC. These companies provide these criminal cartels with military training, surveillance/contra surveillance, and how to operate in larger groups. There are also indications that some PMCs have provided the same training for terrorist organizations.

This paper discuss the problems with PMCs and the history of warfare and who fought in these wars. The use of mercenaries was the standard practice from the dawn of civilization up to the French Revolution. The founding of the national state which was a slow process influenced the military and the warfare. The major shift occurred after the Cold War when countries reduced their armed forces, but now new international issues have emerged. These issues fertilized the need for PMCs when countries cannot use their regular armed forces due to political reasons. However, there is a problem to have private companies with their own economic interests prior any political interests handling armed conflicts and wars which is that criminal organization, terrorist organization, and/or rough nation can buy the service provided by PMC. 

There is an increased risk of human right violations, war crimes, and making criminals more effective than what they already are. Therefore, both investigating reporters and academics should analyse and discuss the actions and conduct of PMCs. I truly believe in what we can call the “Monopoly of Violence”. Wars and armed conflicts are for the national states armed forces and domestic issues should be handled by the law enforcement without any privately owned military companies interfering into these spheres.

Disclaimer: This paper is the author's individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organization's viewpoint