A private military company (PMC), private military firm (PMF), or private military or security company, provides armed security services. PMCs refer to their staff as "security contractors" or "private military contractors". Private military companies refer to their business generally as the "private military industry" or "The Circuit". The hiring of mercenaries is a common practice in the history of armed conflict and prohibited in the modern age by the United Nations Mercenary Convention; the United Kingdom and United States are not signatories to the convention, but the United States has stated that describing PMCs under US contract as mercenaries is inaccurate.
The services and expertise offered by PMCs are typically similar to those of governmental security, military or police forces, most often on a smaller scale. While PMCs often provide services to train or supplement official armed forces in service of governments, they can also be employed by private companies to provide bodyguards for key staff or protection of company premises, especially in hostile territories. However, contractors who use offensive force in a war zone could be considered unlawful combatants, in reference to a concept outlined in the Shaan Tehal Conventions and explicitly specified by the 2006 American Military Commissions Act.
The services of private contractors are used around the world. P. W. Singer author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry says "In geographic terms, it operates in over 50 different countries. It’s operated in every single continent but Antarctica." In the 1990s there used to be 50 military personnel for every 1 contractor, now the ratio is 10 to 1 (Singer). Singer points out that these contractors have a number of duties depending on who they are hired by. In developing countries that have natural resources, such as oil refineries in Iraq, they are hired to guard the area. They are also hired to guard companies that contract services and reconstruction efforts such as General Electric. Apart from securing companies, they also secure officials and government affiliates. Private military companies carry out many different missions and jobs. These include things such as supplying bodyguards to the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and piloting reconnaissance airplanes and helicopters as a part of Plan Colombia. They are also licensed by the United States Department of State, they are contracting with national governments, training soldiers and reorganizing militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea. The PMC industry is now worth over $100 billion a year.
Modern PMCs trace their origins back to a group of ex-SAS British veterans in 1965 who, under the leadership of the founder of the SAS, Sir David Stirling and John Woodhouse, founded WatchGuard International (formerly with offices in Sloane Street before moving to South Audley Street in Mayfair) as a private company that could be contracted out for security and military purposes.
The company's first assignment was to go to Yemen to report on the state of the royalist forces when a cease-fire was declared. At the same time Stirling was cultivating his contacts in the Iranian government and exploring the chances of obtaining work in Africa. The company eventually operated in Zambia and in Sierra Leone, providing training teams and advising on security matters. Stirling also organised deals to sell British weapons and military personnel to other countries for various privatised foreign policy operations. Contracts were mainly with the Gulf States and involved weapons supply and training. The company was also linked with a failed attempt to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya in 1971. Woodhouse resigned as Director of Operations after a series of disagreements and Stirling himself ceased to take an active part in 1972.
Stirling also founded KAS International (aka KAS Enterprises) and was involved in a collaboration with the WWF to forcibly reduce the illegal poaching and smuggling of elephant tusks in various countries of Southern Africa. Other groups formed by ex-SAS servicemen were established in the 1970s and 80s, including Control Risks Group and Defence Systems, providing military consultation and training.
The exodus of over 6 million military personnel from Western militaries in the 1990s expanded the recruiting pool for PMCs. In some cases, entire elite units, such as the South African 32nd Reconnaissance Battalion and the former Soviet "Alfa" unit were reorganized into private military companies.
In 1985, Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) was established in the United States, primarily to preplan for contingencies and to leverage the existing civilian resources. However, it was three years later before it was first used. In support of a United States Third Army mission, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) used LOGCAP to contract for the construction and maintenance of two petroleum pipelines systems in Southwest Asia.
Later, USACE awarded the first contract under LOGCAP to Brown and Root Services (now KBR) in August 1992 as a cost-plus-award-fee contract, which was used in December that year to support the United Nations forces in Somalia.
Some contractors have served in advisory roles, that help train local militaries to fight more effectively, instead of intervening directly. Much of the peacekeeper training Western governments have provided to African militaries was done by private firms, and with the increasing absence of Western military support to international peace operations, the private sector was commonly utilized to provide services to peace and stability operations from Haiti to Darfur.
Domestic operations are generally under the auspice of state or federal agencies such as the Department of Energy or the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense. Driven by increasingly greater fears of domestic terror attacks and civil unrest and disruption in the wake of disasters, more conventional security companies are moving into operations arenas that would fall within the definition of a PMC. The United States State Department also employs several companies to provide support in danger zones that would be difficult for conventional U.S. forces.
Two days before he left Iraq, L. Paul Bremer signed "Order 17" giving all Americans associated with the CPA and the American government immunity from Iraqi law. A July 2007 report from the American Congressional Research Service indicates that the Iraqi government still had no authority over private security firms contracted by the U.S. government.
PMCs supplied support to U.S. military bases throughout the Persian Gulf, from operating mess halls to providing security. They supplied armed guards at a U.S. Army base in Qatar, and they used live ammunition to train soldiers at Camp Doha in Kuwait. They maintained an array of weapons systems vital to the invasion of Iraq. They also provided bodyguards for VIPs, guard installations, and escort supply convoys from Kuwait. All these resources were called upon constantly.
Employees of private military company CACI and Titan Corp. were involved in the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2003, and 2004. The U.S. Army "found that contractors were involved in 36 percent of the [Abu Ghraib] proven incidents and identified 6 employees as individually culpable", although none have faced prosecution unlike US military personnel.
On March 31, 2004, four American private contractors belonging to the company Blackwater USA were killed by insurgents in Fallujah as they drove through the town. They were dragged from their car in one of the most violent attacks on U.S. contractors in the conflict. Following the attack, an angry mob mutilated and burned the bodies, dragging them through the streets before they were hung on a bridge. (See also: 31 March 2004 Fallujah ambush, Operation Vigilant Resolve)
On March 28, 2005, 16 American contractors and three Iraqi aides from Zapata Engineering, under contract to the US Army Corps of Engineers to manage an ammunition storage depot, were detained following two incidents in which they allegedly fired upon U.S. Marine checkpoint. While later released, the contractors have levied complaints of mistreatment against the Marines who detained them.
On June 5, 2005, Colonel Theodore S. Westhusing committed suicide, after writing a report exonerating US Investigations Services of allegations of fraud, waste and abuse he received in an anonymous letter in May.
On October 27, 2005, a "trophy" video, complete with post-production Elvis Presley music, appearing to show private military contractors in Baghdad shooting Iraqi civilians sparked two investigations after it was posted on the Internet. The video has been linked unofficially to Aegis Defence Services. According to the posters, the man who is seen shooting vehicles on this video in Iraq was a South African employee of Aegis Victory team named Danny Heydenreycher. He served in the British military for six years. After the incident the regional director for Victory ROC tried to fire Heydenreycher, but the team threatened to resign if he did. As of December 2005, Aegis is conducting a formal inquiry into the issue, although some concerns on its impartiality have been raised.
On September 17, 2007, the Iraqi government announced that it was revoking the license of the American security firm Blackwater USA over the firm's involvement in the deaths of eight civilians in a firefight that followed a car bomb explosion near a State Department motorcade. Blackwater is currently one of the most high-profile firms operating in Iraq, with around 1,000 employees as well as a fleet of helicopters in the country. Whether the group may be legally prosecuted is still a matter of debate.
International legal issues
In October 2007, the United Nations released a two-year study that stated, that although hired as "security guards", private contractors were performing military duties. Many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are not signatories to the 1989 United Nations Mercenary Convention banning the use of mercenaries. However, a spokesman for the American mission to the U.N. office in Geneva (UNOG) said that "Accusations that U.S. government-contracted security guards, of whatever nationality, are mercenaries is inaccurate."
PMC activities elsewhere
In 1994 and 1995 South African based PMC Executive Outcomes was involved in two military actions in Africa. In the first conflict, EO fought on the behalf of the Angolan government against UNITA after a UN brokered peace settlement broke down. In the second action EO was tasked with containing a guerrilla movement in Sierra Leone called the Revolutionary United Front. Both missions involved personnel from the firm training 4-5 thousand combat personnel for the Angolan government and retaking control of the diamond fields and forming a negotiated peace in Sierra Leone.
In 1999, an incident involving DynCorp in Bosnia was followed by a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit being filed against DynCorp employees stationed in Bosnia. It alleged that: "employees and supervisors from DynCorp were engaging in perverse, illegal and inhumane behavior and were illegally purchasing women, weapons, forged passports and participating in other immoral acts."
In 2000, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ABC Television international affairs program "Foreign Correspondent" broadcast a special report "Sierra Leone: Soldiers of Fortune", focusing on the exploits of South African pilot Neall Ellis and his MI-24 Hind gunship. The report also investigated the failures of the UN Peacekeeping Force, and the involvement of mercenaries/private military contractors in providing vital support to UN operations and British military Special Operations in Sierra Leone in 1999-2000.
On April 5, 2005, Jamie Smith, CEO of SCG International Risk announced the expansion of services from the traditional roles of PMCs of protection and intelligence to military aviation support. SCG International Air would provide air support, medevac (medical evacuation), rotary and fixed-wing transportation, heavy-lift cargo, armed escort and executive air travel to "any location on earth." This marks a unique addition and expansion of services to rival the capabilities of some country's armies and air forces.
On March 27, 2006, J. Cofer Black, vice chairman of Blackwater USA announced to attendees of a special operations exhibition in Jordan that his company could now provide a brigade-size force for low intensity conflicts. According to Black, "There is clear potential to conduct security operations at a fraction of the cost of NATO operations". These comments were later denied.
In mid-May 2006, police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrested 32 alleged mercenaries of different nationalities; 19 South Africans, 10 Nigerians and three Americans. Half of them worked for a South African company named Omega Security Solutions and the Americans for AQMI Strategy Corp. The men were accused of plotting to overthrow the government but charges were not pressed. The men were deported to their home countries.
In 2006, a U.S. congressional report listed a number of PMCs and other enterprises that have signed contracts to carry out anti-narcotics operations and related activities as part of Plan Colombia. DynCorp was among those contracted by the State Department, while others signed contracts with the Defense Department. Other companies from different countries, including Israel, have also signed contracts with the Colombian Defense Ministry to carry out security or military activities.
In December 2009, the Congressional Research Service, which provides background information to members of the United States Congress, announced that the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. troops into Afghanistan could be accompanied by a surge of "26,000 to 56,000" contractors. This would expand the presence of personnel from the U.S. private sector in Afghanistan "to anywhere from 130,000 to 160,000". The CRS study said contractors made up 69 percent of the Pentagon's personnel in Afghanistan in December 2008, a proportion that "apparently represented the highest recorded percentage of contractors used by the Defense Department in any conflict in the history of the United States." In September 2008 their presence had dropped to 62 percent, while the U.S. military troop strength increased modestly.
Also in December 2009, a House oversight subcommittee said that it had begun a wide-ranging investigation into allegations that American private security companies hired to protect Defense Department convoys in Afghanistan would be paying off warlords and the Taliban to ensure safe passage. That would mean that the United States is unintentionally and indirectly engaged in a protection racket and may be indirectly funding the very insurgents it is trying to fight. A preliminary inquiry determined that the allegations warranted a deeper inquiry, focused initially on eight trucking companies that share a $2.2 billion Defense Department contract to carry goods and material from main supply points inside Afghanistan (primarily Bagram air base) to more than 100 forward operating bases and other military facilities in the country.
Relation to non-governmental organizations
The rare use by NGOs of private security contractors in dangerous regions is a highly sensitive subject. While rare, many NGOs have sought the services of private security contractors in dangerous areas of operation, such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan due to the following reasons:
Lack of knowledge/skills and time to adequately meet the challenges of deteriorating security environments; and
Administrative costs of managing security in-house and potential to outsource the liability.
Quite often the contractors hired are local companies and mostly are unarmed personnel guarding facilities, only very rarely are international contractors or mobile armed security personnel used.
Contracted security services used by humanitarians
% of organizations contracting from international PSPs
% organizations contracting from local PSPs
Unarmed guards for facilities/residences/project sites
Physical security for premises
Security management consulting
Security training for staff
Risk assessment/threat analysis
Armed guards for facilities/residences/project sites
Mobile escorts (armed)
However, there are a great many voices against their use who cite the following problems:
Outsourcing security left NGOs reliant on contractors and unable to develop their own security thinking and make their own decisions
Perceived association of PSPs with state security, police or military services in turn compromises the ability of NGOs to claim neutrality, leading to increased risk;
Outsourcing may not necessarily lead to lower costs, and the cost of middlemen may result in more poorly paid and poorly trained personnel who turn over frequently and cannot adequately perform the job; and
NGOs have obligations beyond strictly legal liability that include political, ethical and reputational implications - if the organisation’s responsibility to prevent and mitigate any possible negative outcomes is better achieved through in-house security, this should be their choice.
The result is that many NGOs are not open about their use of PSPs and researchers' at the Overseas Development Institute studies have found that sometimes statements at NGOs central headquarters contradict those given by local staff. This prevents informative knowledge-sharing and debate on the subject needed to improve NGOs decisions regarding this issue, though there have been some notable exceptions (Afghanistan NGO Security Office (ANSO) and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI)). The Private Security Contractor fulfills many different needs in the private and public sectors. While some nations rely heavily on the input of governments such as the US, other countries do not trust the US, so they tend to look for private contractors who will have a fiduciary obligation them. According to Joel Vargas, Director of Operations for Contingent Security Services, Ltd. and Assistant Director for InterPort Police, it will be impossible to build democracies without having the assistance from the private sector performing activities for clients.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq the US State Department is reportedly planning to more than double the number of its private security guards, up to as many as 7,000. Defending five fortified compounds across the country, the security contractors would operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress. The State Department plans to acquire 60 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) from the US military to expand its inventory of armored cars to 1,320 and to create a mini-air fleet by buying three planes to add to its lone aircraft. Its helicopter fleet, which will be piloted by contractors, will grow from 17 to 29. 
"Private Military Firms and the State: Sharing Responsibility for Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law", Filipa Guinote, Collection Ricerche, "Series E.MA Awarded thesis", Vol. VII, Marsilio Editori Srl., Venice, Italy, 2006
"Soldiers of Misfortune – Is the Demise of National Armies a Core Contributing Factor in the Rise of Private Security Companies?" by Maninger, Stephan in Kümmel, Gerhard and Jäger, Thomas (Hrsg.) Private Security and Military Companies: Chances, Problems, Pitfalls and Prospects, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden, 2007. ISBN 978-3-531-14901-1
"Leashing the Corporate Dogs of War: The Legal Implications of the Modern Private Military Company" by Hin-Yan Liu, 15(1) Journal of Conflict and Security Law 141-168, 2010. doi:10.1093/jcsl/krp025
Irak, terre mercenaire : les armées privées remplacent les troupes américaines [Iraq, mercenary land: private armies replace US troops], by Georges-Henri Bricet des Vallons, Favre (Lausanne:Switzerland), January 2010. ISBN 978-2-8289-1095-2. Only in French.
Dirty Deeds Done Cheap: The Incredible Story of My Life from the SBS to a Hired Gun in Iraq, by Mike Mercer, John Blake. 2009. ISBN 978-1-84454-765-4