Hired Guns: Private Armies around the World

Numerous activities in the military and defense worlds have been privatized over the years, from logistic services to actual fighting. The world of mercenaries is expanding, providing many countries with a high-quality military solution. Special review

Photo: Bigstock

Soldiers who fight for money, regardless of ethnic origin or political allegiance, have been around since the dawn of history. In fact, over long periods of time, these military professionals constituted the most common category of soldiers, until the French Revolution and Napoleon – regarded as the first founder of a national "popular army". Whole countries, like Switzerland, supported their economies for hundreds of years by providing the armies of kings in and outside of Europe with highly-trained mercenaries.

During the second half of the 20th century, after the countries of Africa and Asia had broken free of the burden of European colonialism, hundreds of conflicts broke out in those countries and various parties started hiring western specialists, normally former skilled servicemen, to train and drill the local soldiers and sometimes even take part in battles alongside their trainees. Naturally, many Israelis could be found among the numerous mercenaries.

Following the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s, the South African Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes made the headlines, after having taken part – among other things – in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Pursuant to the public outcry that arose around the extensively-covered and highly-publicized involvement of this company in bloody conflicts throughout Africa, it was dissolved. The September 11, 2001 attack on the WTC towers in New York, following which the USA embarked on a war against terrorism, marks the beginning of the present Golden Age of private military companies.

Privatizing Military Services

Following the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, someone came up with the idea of "outsourcing" numerous military services, namely – reassigning them from the various branches of the US military to private military companies. Most of the services sourced from these companies were "combat support" services, like logistic replenishment, convoy escorts and dignitary protection, while the direct combat tasks were still assigned to the US military. However, over the years it turned out that separating between these mission categories on the ground was not a simple undertaking, and that in many cases the employees of the PMCs, who were, for the most part, former servicemen themselves, were compelled to take part in direct combat operations of all types.

The services offered by PMCs remain attractive, as governments can employ these companies and their employees more freely than they can employ the men of their regular armed forces, and the injury or possible death of such employees are "easier to digest" for the public opinion, as they are conceived as individuals who had been fully aware of the risk associated with their job and accepted it willingly. This applies even to the case of American public opinion, even though the US military is a professional-voluntary service without compulsory military service.

Numerous PMCs operate in the USA, but the most famous PMC is, without a doubt, the Constellis Group, formerly known as Blackwater and subsequently as Academi.

In fact, this is a group of companies that provide military services of all types, worldwide. The group HQ is located in the USA and the US Government is its primary client. The group won numerous tenders issued by the US Army and by many other agencies and organs of the US Government, for the supply of various services in conflict areas worldwide, especially in the Middle East. They provide such services as overland and airborne logistic replenishment of US military units in Afghanistan; training and drilling of the personnel of friendly armed forces at the group's facilities in the USA and dignitary protection in Iraq. Jointly, the group employs more than 20,000 employees who have at their disposal installations, airports and aircraft owned by the group. The group even manufactures its own armored vehicle and has the license for the manufacture of firearms and even military land and aerial platforms of various types.

Interests in Collision

Over the years, the group's name has become associated with several scandals, like attacks against civilians in Iraq. Additionally, according to various reports, the group intended to open a training and logistic center in western China, to provide support and security services to the 'One Belt, One Road' initiative of the Chinese government. The official objective of this initiative is to establish a modern "Silk Road" and enhance trading between China and other countries in Asia, Africa and Europe by massive development of infrastructures through Chinese investments. At the same time, the critics of this initiative claim that its primary objective is to enhance worldwide Chinese influence. This objective is opposed to the interests of the USA – currently the largest client of the Constellis Group.

Photo: AP

The success of PMCs in the west led Russia to adopt similar courses of action. During the conflicts with the Ukraine, which broke out in 2014, the Russians employed their private security firm Wagner to capture the Crimean Peninsula from the Ukraine, with hardly any significant military operations and with no way to associate the Russian Government directly with this act. The Russian media distributed the myth according to which the citizens of the Crimean Peninsula hired a PMC to capture the peninsula from the Ukraine and hand over command to Russia. Subsequently, Wagner mercenaries took part in the war in eastern Ukraine, alongside the pro-Russian separatists, against the Ukrainian military. Later on, they took part in the Russian military involvement in Syria, alongside the military forces of President Assad and their allies, against the Sunni Islamist opposition forces as well as against the democratic opposition forces.

In the course of the Russian involvement in Syria, the Russian mercenaries sustained massive casualties – hundreds of deaths and injuries, as was the case, among others, in early 2018, when they attempted to capture a Kurdish-American post near the oil fields in the eastern part of the country. In this case they ran into fierce US opposition, during which the US military forces called in air support, which destroyed the tanks used by the Russian mercenaries, and inflicted heavy casualties on their personnel.

The Russian government refused to provide the mercenaries with official help and even refused to acknowledge the existence of the company. According to various reports, heading the Wagner Company is a former Russian Army colonel who maintains a neo-Nazi worldview, along with an oligarch who's a close acquaintance of President Putin. Apart from their involvement in eastern Ukraine and Syria, reports claimed that the company was involved in conflicts in Libya, the Central African Republic and recently in Madagascar and Mozambique as well. Several journalists who had attempted to investigate the company's operations were murdered by unknown parties, according to various reports.

Even smaller countries other than world powers employ mercenaries. For example, according to numerous reports, the Saudi government employs Colombian and Sudanese mercenaries in the war against the Houthis in Yemen, and the same applies to the UAE.

In recent years, additional defense activities were privatized and we have witnessed the blurring of the line between government organs and private organizations worldwide. One may estimate, prudently, that this trend will continue and even intensify within the foreseeable future, pursuant to the relative success of PMCs in military and defense activities and the option available to governments to use PMCs in places and for missions where employing these companies will be much more profitable than using the regular military forces, with regard to the economic aspect as well as with regard to public opinion.