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US: Private Military Companies, Handle with Care

In even the most benign environment, PMCs complicate military command and control, communications, intelligence, and operational security. They make combat commanders' duties more difficult and hazardous, and they blur political-military-private sector delineations that have served nation states well for the past four hundred years.

by Paul MarxUnited States Naval Institute
May 25th, 2005

Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, 0041798X, Feb2005, Vol. 131, Issue 2 Database: Military & Government Collection

Transformation is the favorite buzzword in the current Department of Defense (DoD). While change in our armed forces is long overdue, the greatest transformation is occurring outside the government, with the wholesale embrace of privatized military companies (PMCs), foreign and domestic. This seemingly pragmatic response to increasing commitments and decreasing personnel will have significant effects on U.S. and allied military operations.

In even the most benign environment, PMCs complicate military command and control, communications, intelligence, and operational security. They make combat commanders' duties more difficult and hazardous, and they blur political-military-private sector delineations that have served nation states well for the past four hundred years. This presents an expanding area of potential fraud, waste, and abuse. Most important, however, the legal and tactical intelligence issues are not defined clearly.

-- Security Implications. PMCs are successful because military recruitment and retention continue their downward spiral. As the lure of military service declines, PMCs fill the void. But quality over quantity is on the verge of diminishing returns, even as technological demands increase. For example, China and Russia are fraught with manpower issues - military conscription is political suicide and inept draftees are no match for integrated professionals. Modern warfare demands the individual technological and tactical competence that PMCs can provide.

These companies recruit qualified warriors using lots of money. But money cannot buy patriotism, selflessness, a sense of duty, and national security. Envisioning worst-case scenarios is too easy: imagine al Qaeda or Indonesian insurgents hiring privatized military companies. There are millions of ex-servicemen the world over with decades of experience to sell. Some would give their souls for fame and fortune; others simply have few other job options. In the immortal words of a Marine infantryman, "There ain't no big demand on the outside for machine gunners." Rogue use of PMCs offers a paradigm shift in the conduct of international warfare.

PMCs remain largely subservient to highest-bidder phenomena. Although patriotism, ideology, and theology surely account for some of their recruits, money, benefits, and training are the greatest lures. They offer governments a feasible alternative to all-volunteer forces and conscription.

-- Legal Implications. PMCs are politically correct versions of age-old mercenary units. Unlike the French Foreign Legion, however, they are not bound to any single nation and are not treated legally as military forces. They are highly trained and economical civilian organizations that encompass all facets of warfare. Because they are civilian contractors, their various services and subsidiaries offer plausible deniability and require little governmental oversight.

PMCs provide political cover for politicians of all stripes. Public outcry over
casualties and prisoners is minimized. In comparison to military casualties, the media creates little stir when civilian contractors are killed or wounded.

Consider just a few of many questions: How does one discern between a civilian, a PMC employee, and an enemy combatant - especially in an insurgency? PMC personnel are not in the U.S. chain of command and subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. What levels of security clearance, if any, can be granted? In view of their corportate ties, can they be trusted in any case? What authority do U.S. commanders have with regard to PMC hostile fires, and the capture, torture, or killing of friendlies by PMC personnel?

-- Intelligence Implications. Historically, intelligence is the weakest facet of U.S. war fighting; proliferation of PMCs will exacerbate this vulnerability. Our intelligence planners will have to build yet another intelligence database to identify and analyze PMC personnel, contracts, preferred missions and expertise, and weapons and equipment - in effect, a PMC order of battle (OOB). This task alone vastly complicates tactical analytical expertise. The scope of such an OOB is mind-boggling: personnel alone would range from former and retired military and police professionals, to thrill seekers and grudge holders, to rebels and outright criminals.

While reputable PMCs will have higher standards and stringent vetting processes, less reputable companies will play only to bids and leave the field wide open to corruption and deceit.

Assuredly, given the growing dearth of qualified professional troops, "PMCs offer an easy out to politicians, ex-military businessmen, and the inventive underworld. But at what cost? Widespread privatization of warfare will prove more harmful than ever imagined - especially if PMCs become tied to, or infiltrated by, terrorists. The picture of Army and Marine combat troops risking life and limb while PMCs profit is not a pretty one.

Private military companies on the battlefield pose immense problems. Their use in U.S. campaigns must be examined and weighed carefully.





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