April 13, 2004

The privatized military, from head to foot

Unfortunately, I sold my copy of Peter Singer’s Corporate Warriors before privatized military firms really hit the newsstands. Basically, everything the media has said about private military contractors can be found in Singer, in some form or other. So I figure I’ll give a quick summary of the book, before I forget everything.

First, Singer divvies up the privatized military firms into three categories. First, there are military providers, who provide entire arm units—often a whole division—to employ in battle. An example is when the Angolan government contracted with the now-defunct Executive Outcomes to provide an entire commando unit that worked with government troops to beat back the UNITA rebels and turn the tide of war.

Second, we have military consulting firms like MPRI. During the war in the Balkans in ‘94, MPRI consultants--including retired US generals and military strategists--taught the Croatian army the tactics they needed to push back the Serbs and force a truce. In general, these firms will provide strategic planning, tactical training, officer instruction, and organizational consulting.

Finally, military support firms include Brown & Root, that much-maligned subsidiary of Halliburton. The US military contracts with support firms to provide most of its logistical necessities: engineering, construction, transportation, refueling, etc. etc. In theory, this practice frees up US troops to focus on other matters--namely, fighting.

Now the fundamental structural problem with private military contracts is that they’re, well, financial contracts. The client has little to no ability to oversee the military operation and make sure everything is running smoothly. Price-gouging is frequent--oftentimes a military support firm like Brown & Root will be reimbursed for all costs, so naturally they have no incentive to keep costs down. In every contract, the privatized firm is primarily trying to pursue profits, which may set it at odds with the aims and goals of its client. Private soldiers and security personnel are under no obligation to fight hard; if anything, they have incentive to flee and save themselves when danger looms. Firms don’t necessarily have incentive to keep military secrets secure, so they may be a source of security leaks. Moreover, if the firms themselves see an incentive to renege on their contracts, they will do so, leaving the client twisting in the wind. (A danger the US may face with its contractors in Iraq. Note also that during war, firms also have tremendous leverage, and could easily raise its asking price. More dangerous is if the firm sees incentive to switch sides and attack or work against its former client. Recently, 150 Russian contract soldiers in Chechnya were allegedly killed by accompanying Russian military units, because of friction between the two forces. All of these problems emerge because clients have no way to ensure that a contracted firm will align itself with the clients needs. Money is the worst guarantee of loyalty.

On a global scale, privatized military firms (PMFs) upturn classical ‘balance of power’ analyses. If states can employ PMFs instantaneously, then it will be difficult to figure out just how strong a given state is, from a military point of view. No one could have forseen Croatia’s surprising victory over Serbia in 1994, because conventional military appraisals would have overlooked the possibility of a consulting contract with PMRI. In addition, state militaries may no longer be the ultimate locus of power. If terrorist networks and rebels can rustle up enough cash, they can employ advanced military firms and actually overwhelm weaker militaries. With enough local support, a unit like the one EO fielded in Angola could probably topple most governments in Africa, easily. In addition, weaker states may no longer be dependent on military aid from countries like the United States. Why grovel for a few Pentagon fighter jets, with all the strings that come attached, when you can spend a bit of cash and contract a MIG-29 fighter unit of your own (which is what Ethiopia did in its war with Eritrea)?

Of course, privatized military firms can also do a great deal of good, as conservatives have rightly noted in their defense of the Blackwater security guards killed at Fallujah. The overburdened and often incompetent UN could use PMFs for peacekeeping missions. In fact, back in 1996 the UN had planned to use Executive Outcomes to secure a humanitarian corridor in Rwanda. Unfortunately, the mission never got off the ground. But privatized firms may offer a more flexible and effective peacekeeping option than current measures. Of course, all the contractual caveats still apply.

More disturbingly, PMFs can be easily employed by governments when official military force is politically unfeasible. Ever since the Clinton days, the US government has sent in private military operations to help the Colombian military squash the insurgency. Private firms can stomach casualty rates that would have Congress reeling. And private firms can engage in shady activities, since they are, at the moment, not beholden to international rules of war. As private military contracts become more prevalent, the ability of, say, the President of the United States to wage war without Congressional approval will only increase. Overall, war becomes less a state-sanctioned activity, and as such, becomes less a public-sanctioned activity. The opportunities for abuse are certainly there.
-- Brad Plumer 6:49 PM || ||