Conservative estimates put the number of people employed by private military and security companies around the world at five million. That’s about the same as the world’s three largest armies – the US, Chinese and Russian – combined. For Peter W. Singer, a military specialist from the Brookings Institution in Washington, all of these numbers mark a new age of warfare: “We have an image of war in our heads, of a soldier in uniform fighting for his country, leader, beliefs or freedom. But, when you look at the world’s crisis zones today, it becomes clear: this image is no longer true.”
The highest bidder
In fact there are now millions of people who, like Marc Lindgreen, aren’t fighting for their country, freedom or comrades – but for the highest bidder instead. In other words, there are no good or evil clients for the PMCs, just ones that pay well. But this attitude can have a downside… For contractors Jerry Zovko, Scott Helvenston, Wesley Batalona and Mike Teague, their mission in the Iraqi city of Fallujah was simple: locate the enemy, shoot and under no circumstances stop – they had practised how to behave in an ambush hundreds of times.
But in March 2004, it all went horribly wrong. Their off-road vehicle was hit by dozens of bullets in the middle of the city. The contractors couldn’t radio the US Army for support because they’d withdrawn from the city. Seconds later, grenades tore through the vehicle. What followed then was one of the darkest hours in the early history of private military companies. The insurgents shot the four injured Americans, hauled their lifeless bodies out of the vehicle, set them alight and then dragged the corpses in front of rolling cameras through the city. In the end, they hanged the dead from a bridge. It was only five days later, when US troops advanced into the city, that the bodies of the contractors could be transferred home.
The unfortunate souls were just four of more than 1,500 contractors killed in Iraq alone. The death rate is similar in Afghanistan. One reason for the high number of deaths is that PMCs are often left to their own devices. And, as a rule, regular US soldiers have little interest in risking their lives for a few daredevils, who earn more in a month than they do in a year.
This makes it very important for the military companies to recruit well-trained men. Many companies, Asgaard Security among them, target battle- hardened special forces. Asgaard’s website lists a number of requirements for potential recruits. Applicants should be aged 25 to 45, physically and mentally strong, highly resilient and be able to cope well under pressure. They should be willing to work under stressful conditions for long periods. Those with a secret services background and experience of hand-to-hand combat are particularly encouraged to apply. Contractors are now some of the best-trained soldiers in the world. Many of them have more than 20 years’ experience in special forces. One company, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), is even said to employ more four-star generals than the United States Department of Defense.
Inexperienced fighters are trained for war in company boot camps. The United States Training Center (USTC) in North Carolina is one of the largest weapons and military training facilities in the States. More than 100,000 contractors have already been prepared for battle there. The training and tasks they perform are virtually identical to those of a US soldier. No one knows how or where the many armed contractors are working. But it’s likely they will follow the money in crisis zones in Africa and Asia or, more recently, eastern Ukraine.
The general rule is: ‘the higher the risk, the higher the profit.’ Clients – which in most cases are national governments – generally profit from outsourced wars, too. They’re in a win-win situation: PMCs work under contract and will only be paid if they get the required results. Compared with private military companies, the armies of the major world powers like Russia, China or the USA are unwieldy, less flexible and require immense logistical investment.
Fill in the gaps
Even though the US military has been reduced in number by a million since the end of the Cold War, it has essentially stayed the same size because PMCs fill in the gaps. And they have the weapons and the technology to rival even those of the US Army. Many experts liken the contracted armies to a foreign policy with limited liability, and criticise the idea that civilian fighters are in a legal grey area. “They are not bound to any law, but to the rules of the market economy instead,” explains military expert Peter Singer.
In fact, most of the PMCs enjoy a similar level of immunity to the militaries of governments at war, even though they’re civilians. Another reason why more and more governments depend on PMCs, and why they make up an ever-increasing share of the defence budget, is anonymity. Contractors operate outside the public eye and therefore can be discreet. With private armies there won’t be any coffins wrapped in the Stars and Stripes appearing on the news.
There are no fallen heroes, veterans or negative headlines. Former US soldier Marc Lindgreen is well aware of this. If he should die in his role as a contractor on the battlefields of Afghanistan, he will not be buried with full military honours. But his family will be financially secure for many years to come.