Here to stay: Wagner and the private security industry
The role of the Wagner Group in Russia’s war on Ukraine has refocused public debate on the vastly growing global security industry of private military and security companies (PMSCs). What motivates governments to enlist the support of PMSCs considering the potential risks involved? How efficient and effective are they in comparison to states’ armed forces?
What is this about?
The Wagner Group and the scandals surrounding its involvement not only in the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also in places such as Mali and Syria among others, have refocused public debate on a dimension of war which is as old as war itself: states’ reliance on private groups or individuals to achieve their political objectives.
How unique is Wagner?
It is often overlooked that Wagner is part of the vastly growing global security industry of private military and security companies (PMSCs), and that contracting these firms and the security services they offer has meanwhile also become a normalcy for many Western governments as well as the United Nations and humanitarian organisations when engaged in conflict zones. While the PMSCs they hire may not be as corrupt and criminal as the Wagner Group, their involvement has not been free of scandals either.
What is the author’s conclusion?
The author argues that PMSCs are here to stay, but that more national and international regulation is necessary to prevent excesses of private security and for the contract between Russia and Wagner to not become a model for others.
Private military and security companies (PMSCs) are a new breed of security actor. Media often refer to them as ‘new mercenaries’, a label that certainly fits some of these companies. PMSCs are nonetheless – and despite certain similarities – different from their historical precursors, in particular given their modern corporate structures. They are “firms and operate as businesses”.1
While the first PMSCs were founded in Great Britain in the 1960s,2 the industry has experienced a boom starting in the 1990s. Compared to 1989, when there were only fifteen such companies on the market, the number of PMSCs peaked in 2010 counting a total of 1,200, of which 120 alone were present in Iraq between 2003 and 2019.3
On the whole, the industry is very dynamic
These figures are perhaps even more staggering when considering that 70 per cent of the PMSCs are concentrated in only four countries, including the United Kingdom, China, South Africa and the United States.4 In the latter, private military and security companies “account for a leading share of the estimated total annual sales of PMSCs globally and are projected to reach more than US$80 billion in annual sales in the near future”.5 But PMSCs are also proliferating beyond these countries.6
Exact figures are, however, hard to come by since the commercial security sector is known for its nontransparency and heterogeneity.7 Some companies are stock-market registered giants such as MPRI, Amentum (formerly DynCorp International), G4S or Haliburton, which offer a broad range of services – spanning from people and compound protection, rescue missions, reconnaissance and risk assessment to training and combat. But there are also far smaller and dubious companies with a shady existence of the Wagner kind. On the whole, the industry is very dynamic with firms (re-)appearing and disappearing, albeit often under different names.8
The growing global security industry: supply and demand
The growth of the industry has, in part, been demand-driven with governments relying on PMSCs’ services to such an extent that they have “become an integral part of 21st century warfare in the Western and non-Western world, without which military operations can no longer be conducted effectively and sustainably”.9
One often cited argument Western policymakers provide for contracting these companies is that they are ‘force multipliers’ to armed forces. Faced with a rise in out-of-area missions, shrinking defence budgets and recruitment problems, PMSCs are claimed to help states and their militaries not only to compensate for personnel and equipment shortages, but also to operate in a more cost-efficient and effective manner.10
PMSCs have become indispensable to governments, as shown by several American key missions. During the US campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and Iraq (2003-2021), the number of military personnel deployed by the armed forces was increasingly replaced and eventually outnumbered by employees of PMSCs. In Afghanistan, the contracted PMSCs helped the American government to maintain its intended limit of 9,800 US troops, which was set in 2016, but cut to 5,500 in 2017, and subsequently compensated by 26,000 private security employees.11
Hiding the costs of war
Connected to the argument that PMSCs help to offset resource shortages, there is another reason for PMSCs being hired – a reason that public officials are, however, less willing to admit to publicly. At a time when political will to commit one’s own troops is declining in Western societies, PMSCs enable governments to hide the human costs of their involvement in foreign conflicts and to dissociate themselves from failure or wrongdoings.12
In general, the contracting of PMSCs stays under the radar of international media
The media exposure that the Wagner Group currently receives is exceptional, owed to its alleged involvement in war crimes and the recruitment of fighters for the war in Ukraine from Russian prisons as well as from Chechnya, Syria and Libya. In general, however, the contracting of PMSCs stays under the radar of international media, since the companies – as well as the casualties that they incur – are rarely included in the official statistics of armed forces.13
In addition, it is a quite common practice for PMSCs to rely for the delivery of services on either local sub-contractors14 or so-called third-country nationals (TCNs), who are even less visible. In contrast to employees who are residents of the country where their PMSCs are headquartered or locals of the country where PMSCs operate, TCNs are individuals who come from neither.
In Iraq, approximately 40,000 TCNs worked for companies contracted by the US government15 ; in Afghanistan the estimated number of deployed TCNs was 30,000. These third-country nationals came from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Fiji Islands or Sri Lanka.16 According to NGOs such as CorpWatch, many of them were lured into the jobs by “unscrupulous employment agencies”17 and robbed of their identities with their passports being confiscated upon their arrival.18
PMSCs’ strategic image management: dissociating from the bad apples
Although the boom of the industry is driven by the clients of private security services, PMSCs themselves are an important part of the equation as well as to why they are perceived as an accepted and taken for granted element of militaries’ force structure today. Ever since the 1990s, when individual companies got involved in recurring scandals,19 many PMSCs have engaged in strategic image management and have worked hard to dissociate themselves from the ‘bad apples’ in the industry.20 This includes, for example, a shift from martial company names and logos towards modern corporate designs.21
The difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is not clear-cut
PMSCs also have professionalised. Some have adopted internal behavioural codices specifying rules for their employees on how to conduct themselves in the field, while others subscribe to the codes of conduct of already existing industry associations, such as the International Stability Operations Association in the US22 or the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC) in the UK.23
These associations and the codices ensure, as the Director General of the BASP Andy Bearpark already stated in the mid-2000s, “that only legitimate companies are able to gain a market hold” since “[b]y definition the bad companies don’t want to join us, and the good companies that want to adhere to our association want to improve their image”.24 Yet, the difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is not clear-cut, given that, for example, the supposed ‘good’ PMSCs sub-contract alleged ‘bad’ ones for certain tasks.
Finally, the fact that many of the founders of PMSCs as well as the preferred employees are veterans, including former generals, navy seals or special operations officers,25 contributes to PMSCs’ perceived acceptability. By extension, they are seen as quasi-military and therefore reliable because they bring with them a skill and value set that their governmental contractors are familiar with.26
Addressing the legal grey zone
While these various developments already helped governments to justify the hiring of PMSCs, efforts to address the legal grey zone in which the companies exist and to better regulate the operations of PMSCs through the adoption of national laws and policies, also played an important role.27 These efforts were paralleled by international initiatives such as the dialogue of representatives of states, PMSCs and civil society. Instigated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the dialogue culminated in the non-binding Montreux Document adopted in 2008, which calls for the respect for human rights and human rights law by PMSCs engaged in conflict zones.28
How efficient and effective are PMSCs?
If one believes the PMSCs, their performance outdoes that of armed forces both in terms of costs as well as what they can accomplish. Self-assertions such as those of the leading American PMSC –Constellis – are not exceptional in this respect. They claim to “offer turn-key solutions to address our customers’ most complex challenges wherever we are needed around the world”.29
Even though comprehensive studies do not exist to date due to the lack of data, the evidence regarding the performance of PMSCs is quite mixed. What we know from missions in, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan, is that the involvement of PMSCs can have positive effects if contract conditions are clearly stipulated, competition among PMSCs exists, and the hired companies are publicly traded and therefore – due to likely reputational costs – may have greater incentives to deliver than privately owned firms.30
Weighing against these factors are, however, political realities. Governments tend to maintain long-term contracts with ‘prime contractors’ or conclude so-called indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts (IDIQ)31 that make it easier for companies to overstate the services provided as well as their costs.32 There is a lack of oversight which is problematic since violence, abuse and harassment have been found to increase when PMSCs are involved.33 That is not to say that there are no problems with national armed forces, but when it comes to PMSCs, the lines of accountability in case of wrongdoings are often more difficult to establish given intricate sub-contracting schemes and the employment of locals and third country nationals in addition to the company’s own personnel.
Furthermore, privatisation of security has long-term consequences, including the weakening of states’ monopoly of force and democratic institutions due to the growing dependency on PMSCs. After all, PMSCs have commercial interests. They assess security in economic instead of political terms, and might therefore exaggerate or misrepresent the danger or current situation to attain a new contract or prolong an existing one.
PMSCs are here to stay
PMSCs are a reality and here to stay, but further regulation at the national and international level is necessary to tackle existing problems and their future consequences. The recent announcement by the US government declaring the Wagner Group a criminal organisation is an important and necessary signal that companies of this kind and their disregard for international human rights law will be penalised.
However, more regulation alone is not enough. Governments and international organisations need to follow this up with more forceful and globally agreed upon measures also targeting other PMSCs engaged in illegal activities to prevent the negative effects of privatising security and from Wagner becoming a model for others.
- 1P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaka: Cornell University Press, 2003, p. 40.
- 2K. A. O’Brien, ‘PMCs, Myths and Mercenaries: The Debate on Private Military Companies’, The RUSI Journal 145(1), p. 59-64
- 3S. Akcinaroglu & E. Radziszewski, Global Competition, Corporate Structure, and PMSCs’ Accountability in Civil Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 103.
- 4O. Swed & D. Burland, The Global Expansion of PMSCs: Trends, Opportunities, and Risks, 2020.
- 5M. Picard & C. Goodman, Hidden Costs: US Private Military and Security Companies and the Risks of Corruption and Conflict. Transparency International, 2022, p.13
- 6Swed & Burland, The Global Expansion of PMSCs, 2020.
- 7The industry’s current worth is estimated at 240 billion US dollars and is expected to have doubled to 457.3 billion US dollars by 2030 (ASD News 2020).
- 8The probably most well-known company, Blackwater, founded by former navy seal Erik Prince in 1996, rebranded itself several times. First from Blackwater to Xé in 2009 following a scandal when working for the American government in Iraq, to Academi in 2011, prior to finally merging with Constellis in 2014, one of the largest PMSCs in the United States.
- 9A. Krieg, Defining Remote Warfare: The Rise of the Private Military and Security Industry. Remote Warfare Programme, 2018 p, 2
- 10T. Crosbie & O. Swed, ‘Introduction: Sociology and the Privatization of Security.’ In O. Swed & T. Crosbie (Eds.), The Sociology of Privatized Security, London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2019, p. 6.
- 11T. Gibbons-Neff, ‘How Obama’s Afghanistan Plan Is Forcing the Army to Replace Soldiers with Contractors’ The Washington Post (2016, June 1).
- 12A. Krieg, Defining Remote Warfare: The Rise of the Private Military and Security Industry. Remote Warfare Programme, 2018, p. 2.
- 13For example, the 1542 PMSCs employees who died in Iraq in addition to the 4464 military fatalities were not officially listed nor were the 887 who died in Afghanistan in addition to the 1667 casualties of the US armed forces (Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2011, Table 6). Also see: R. Lachman, ‘Why Privatize: The Reasons Rulers Today Buy, Rent, or Create Private Militaries’. In O. Swed & T. Crosbie (Eds.), The Sociology of Privatized Security (pp. 23–44). London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, p. 31 and S. McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
- 14E.g., in Afghanistan, US PMSCs were reported to have hired local subcontractors with dubious relations to armed groups including ones which were adversaries of the US government (Filkins, 2010).
- 15CorpWatch, Houston, We Still Have a Problem: An Alternative Report on Halliburton, 2004.
- 16P. Chatterjee, ‘Doing the Dirty Work’, Colorlines: The National Newsmagazine on Race and Politics, July/August, 33, 2006; P. Chatterjee, ‘Not Necessarily a Glamorous Existence: Tough Choice Faces Many Third Country Nationals’ Journal of Peace Operations, 4, 2009.
- 17Chatterjee, ‘Doing the Dirty Work, 2006.
- 18Chatterjee, ‘Doing the Dirty Work, 2006; CorpWatch, Houston, We Still Have a Problem: An Alternative Report on Halliburton, 2005.
- 19E.g., In 2007, a convoy of contractors of the then still existing company Blackwater who had been hired to guard State Department employees opened fire on 31 unarmed civilians killing 14 of them including children when they entering the crowded Nisour Square in Baghdad (Singer, 2007). Subsequently, the Iraqi governments prohibited the company from continuing its operation in the country and in 2015, a US court sentenced one Blackwater employees to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms (Hsu & St. Martin, 2015); they were, however, pardoned by former President Trump in 2020 (Wamsely, 2020). Employees of then DynCorp Aerospace Operations Ltd. and now Amentum were allegedly involved in a sex slavery scandal during their contract with the US government for the SFOR mission in Bosnia in 1999 (Human Rights Watch ‘SFOR Contractor Involvement’, https://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2002/bosnia/Bosnia1102-11.htm). And the now defunct and then UK and US contracted PMSC Sandline International was accused of illegally selling weapons to the government of Sierra Leone and violating an existing UN arms embargo in 2007; O’Brien, ‘PMCs, Myths and Mercenaries’, 145(1), 59–64.
- 20J. Joachim & A. Schneiker, Private Security and Identity Politics Ethical Hero Warriors, Professional Managers and New Humanitarians, Routledge, 2019.
- 21E. Cusumano,‘Private Military and Security Companies’ Logos: Between Camouflaging and Corporate Socialization’. Security Dialogue, 52(2), 2020, 135–155.
- 22ISOA. Home. 2023.
- 23BAPSC. Home, 2023.
- 24T. Pfanner, ‘Interview with Andrew Bearpark’. International Review of the Red Cross, 88(863), 2006, p. 457.
- 25J. S. Butler, B. Stephens & O. Swed, ‘Who Are the Private Military and Security Contractors? A Window to a New Profession’ In O. Swed & T. Crosbie (Eds.), The Sociology of Privatized Security, Springer International Publishing, 2019.
- 26Akcinaroglu & Radziszewski, Global Competition, Corporate Structure, and PMSCs’ Accountability in Civil Wars, p 103-104.
- 27Swed & Burland, The Global Expansion of PMSCs
- 28International Committee of the Red Cross, The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies, 2020
- 29Constellis, Who we Are. https://www.constellis.com/who-we-are/ (accessed 3 March 2023), 2003. In 2003, the International Stability Operation Association (ISOA) released an operational concept paper in which a consortium of private military and security companies claimed that the then ongoing UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo could not be successful without their support. If they were to be contracted, the companies would not only cost the UN less than 20 per cent of the annual total costs of the mission, but they could also deploy personnel within a much shorter time than what is typical for UN operations (Foreign and Commonwealth Office. (2002). Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation (HC577). The Stationery Office).
- 30Akcinaroglu & Radziszewski, Global Competition, Corporate Structure, and PMSCs’ Accountability in Civil Wars, p. 110, 2020b; B. Tkach ‘Private Military and Security Companies, Contract Structure, Market Competition, and Violence in Iraq’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 36(3), 2019.
- 31This is a type of contract that provides for an indefinite amount of supplies or services delivered over a fixed period.
- 32Following the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, an investigatory committee concluded that contractors ‘have performed vital tasks in support of U.S. defense, diplomatic, and development objectives. But the cost has been high. Poor planning, management, and oversight of contracts has led to massive waste and has damaged these objectives’ (Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan 2011).
- 33M. Picard & C. Goodman, Hidden Costs: US Private Military and Security Companies and the Risks of Corruption and Conflict. Transparency International, 2022; E. Krahmann & A. Leander, ‘Contracting Security: Markets in the Making of MONUSCO Peacekeeping’, International Peacekeeping, 26(2), 2019; U. Petersohn, ‘Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), Military Effectiveness, and Conflict Severity in Weak States, 1990–2007’ Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(5), 2017.