Standing guard outside the presidential palace in Kabul, a group of well-built and
heavily-armed men frisks visitors and calls for radio clearance. Sporting crew-cuts,
wrap-around shades and pistols strapped to their thighs, they look every bit like
members of the US special forces who guarded this entrance until recently.
But they are not. All are employees of DynCorp, the Virginia-based company hired by
the State Department to guard leaders in the US-backed Afghan government against
Their home is Camp Aegis, an imposing compound next to the central bank in the centre
of Kabul, protected by steel containers filled with earth and loops of razor wire. It
houses about 150 people of 10 nationalities, including some 50 Nepalese Gurkhas --
famous for their fierce fighting in many wars alongside the British army -- who on a
recent off-duty afternoon were watching a Nepalese musical film on a huge,
Most of the men in Camp Aegis are former military personnel, including US Special
Forces and Delta Force troops who have served in hot spots such as Somalia and Haiti.
Some took part in the US invasion of Afghanistan before going private. "The most
visible US military presence in Afghanistan is DynCorp," says Nigel Churton, chief
executive of security firm Control Risks.
On the other side of the world, in Colombia, DynCorp operates a fleet of OV-10
"Bronco" jets leased from the US government. The aircrafts' noses bear military-type
insignias such as "Lone star rising: Austin, Texas" or "Ride like the wind: Chicago,
Unlike in Vietnam, where OV-10 Broncos were used to conduct spying missions and drop
napalm, DynCorp uses the aircraft in Colombia to spray coca plants with glyphosate, a
powerful herbicide, as part of a US-backed counter-drug strategy. Alongside the
Broncos, DynCorp pilots fly Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian police
officers, who rake the countryside with machine gun fire to protect the missions
against attacks by drug-funded Marxist rebels, known as the Farc.
"Up in the air we're free to do as we want," says a DynCorp pilot, as he lounges in a
Bogot hotel at the end of his two-week shift. "If the Farc are in the way of the
coca they get sprayed too - but not with glyphosate."
The missions in Afghanistan and Colombia are just two of hundreds being carried out
across the globe by private contractors. These so-called private military companies
(PMCs) are providing services for governments that were once the preserve of the
military. They are hired - principally, though not exclusively, by the US - for
relatively mundane tasks such as building and guarding army bases and sophisticated
roles providing battlefield logistics, training, strategic analysis and intelligence
gathering, for example. Some, a controversial minority, are hired for direct combat
Apart from a few historical arrangements such as the British Gurkha regiment and the
French foreign legion, most developed world governments, including the US, have shied
away from the use of hired fighters in battle, believing them unsuited for high
intensity combat. But private contractors now perform virtually every other function
essential to military operations, in what amounts to a creeping privatisation of the
business of war. In the first Gulf War, one in 50 US personnel on the ground was a
contractor. In the recent war in Iraq, that figure was one in 10. At the last count,
the Pentagon employed more than 700,000 private contractors.
In Iraq, DynCorp is recruiting and training a police force. Kroll, the US security
firm, may train a private security force. The Iraqi army is being trained by Vinnell
Corp, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. In Saudi Arabia, Vinnell has been
training the national guard since the mid-1970s, although its role was thrust into
the public spotlight this year when its compound in Riyadh was bombed and nine
"The global trade in hired military services is booming, and we're only just now
catching up to it," says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, who recently
published the first notable book on the subject.* "It runs the gamut from cooks whose
services have been privatised through to the maintenance people on fighter jets, to
communications technicians, to trainers and recruiters, to generals providing
strategic expertise, to fighter pilots and commandos. The entire spectrum of military
services has been privatised in some way or another."
To some, the fact that businesses are becoming important actors in the military
sphere is an unwelcome return to the 18th century world of mercenaries, privateers
and bounty hunters. It challenges deeply-held convictions about the modern state's
monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In Britain, the debate is particularly
sensitive: the controversial activities of the British company Sandline International
in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea caused a great deal of embarrassment for the
government in the late 1990s.
To others, the development of private military companies opens up possibilities for
the common good. For example, proponents say the United Nations could make use of
PMCs for peacekeeping operations where national governments are reluctant to
intervene, saving lives and cooling conflicts.
The private military industry is calculated to generate $100bn in annual revenues and
operate in more than 50 countries. With US defence spending rising at its fastest
clip since the Korean war, the business seems poised to get a good deal bigger.
But the industry remains little regulated and poorly understood. Many people dismiss
these companies as mercenaries hired by governments to fight their wars. In some
cases that is true. Companies such as Executive Outcomes and Sandline International,
now both officially disbanded, courted controversy by fighting for profit in Africa.
In many more cases, PMCs are not directly engaged in fighting. To use a military
analyst's analogy, companies such as Executive Outcomes are at the "tip of the
spear", providing services at the front line. But they are a minority. At the other
extreme of the industry, and farthest from the front line, are what Mr Singer calls
"military providers" engaged in the mundane but essential work of providing
logistical support to armies.
Companies such as Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of oil service giant
Halliburton, carry out a vast range of services that once were performed by military
personnel. They have supported US forces in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo during
the 1990s and have had a huge role in the recent US invasions of Afghanistan and
KBR has been serving the US military since the second world war. But its role has
expanded in the past decade since it won a mammoth contract from the US government
known as Logcap. The open-ended contract, introduced after the first Gulf war, called
for Halliburton to handle a whole range of the Pentagon's logistics, from base
construction and laundry services to airfield maintenance.
The latest Logcap contract was awarded to KBR as a 10-year deal in 2001 and has
served as a springboard for its involvement in Iraq. Among other things, it operates
the largest truck-stop in the world in the Kuwaiti desert, ferrying supplies to Iraq.
It delivers soldiers' mail in Iraq, does their laundry, provides them with clean
water and even helps boost their spirits through "morale welfare programmes". The
death of a KBR employee delivering mail in Iraq last week drew attention to their
presence. KBR also serviced Patriot missile batteries in Jordan.
Halliburton has come under intense public scrutiny because Dick Cheney, its former
chief executive, is now US vice-president. But it is one of the few companies able to
take on such projects and would probably get the business even without its formidable
It is the companies in the middle of the industry - neither at the combat end of the
"spear", nor involved in huge, run-of-the-mill logistical operations - that have best
managed to avoid public scrutiny so far. But in some ways the tasks they perform are
the most interesting and morally ambiguous. These "military consulting firms" -
including DynCorp, Vinnell and MPRI, another US company with close ties to the
Pentagon - provide the training, expertise and strategic analysis vital for waging
war. They say they do not participate in battle and are at pains to distance
themselves from mercenaries - MPRI, for example, maintains that its personnel do not
carry guns. But such a claim may be beside the point. As Mr Singer points out, it is
a rather antiquated distinction in an era when "a person pushing a computer button
can be just as lethal as another person pulling a trigger".
Furthermore, their services can have a huge impact on the battlefield. In 1994, MPRI
won a contract to train the Croatian army, at the time engaged in fighting the Serbs
in the former Yugoslavia. The deal was held up for months because of a United Nations
embargo on military assistance to the region. When it was eventually approved, MPRI's
aid seemed to pay dividends for the Croats almost immediately. They scored a big
victory against the Serbs, recapturing the Krajina territory in only four days and
virtually ending the war. MPRI went on to train the Bosnian forces and supply them
with a wide array of US-made weaponry, including 46,000 M-16 assault rifles, 45 M-60
tanks and 15 helicopters.
"The distinction between combat and non-combat operations is often artificial," a UK
government consultative paper on the topic concluded last year. "The people who fly
soldiers and equipment to the battlefield are as much a part of the military
operation as those who do the shooting."
In common with some other leading private military companies, MPRI declined to speak
to the Financial Times about its business for this article. But the company did brief
the FT two years ago on how it came into being and its subsequent activities.
In many ways, its rise is instructive. The company was founded in 1987 by a group of
former soldiers on the premise that private contractors could help the army perform a
number of tasks with greater flexibility and at lower cost. "There are certain things
that need to be done, but you just don't have people in uniform to do them," Ed
Soyster, a retired lieutenant-general and MPRI executive, told the FT in December
2000. "As the army has been reduced in size, it has had to look at outsourcing more
of what might be considered its core values."
The economic argument was straightforward. In 1969, the US Army had about 1.5m
soldiers. By the end of the previous Gulf war, that number had more than halved. Yet,
the military has faced a growing number of demands to intervene in conflicts around
the world. Analysts say a corporate "foreign legion" is filling the gap between what
US foreign policy requires and what a downsized and increasingly stretched military
can provide. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, has also pushed US forces to
become lighter and more agile, accelerating the trend towards the use of PMCs.
While the US has taken the lead, it is hardly alone. Governments all over the world
are making use of PMCs' services as standing armies shrink and engagements expand. By
one count, more than 6m military personnel have been demobilised worldwide since the
cold war ended. As demand for their services has grown, private companies have tapped
that supply of military expertise. There are also mountains of military equipment,
particularly from the former Eastern bloc, that can be hired quickly and cheaply.
The increasingly high technology equipment used in modern warfare is also feeding the
use of private contractors. Private companies have technical capabilities -- to
maintain weapons systems, for example -- that the military needs but does not possess.
In Saudi Arabia, employees from Britain's BAE Systems provide support and training
for the Saudi air force and navy. In the US, private contractors maintain the B2
stealth bomber and F-117 stealth fighter and actually operate some of the newest
weapons systems, such as the Global Hawk and Predator unmanned drones used in
Afghanistan and Iraq. Other military systems, such as the Marines' new truck and the
Army's Guardrail surveillance aircraft, are designed from the outset to be operated
by private companies.
"Industry is so much a part of the two-sided effort that government cannot get the
job done without [it]," George Sigalos, director of government affairs at
Halliburton, told a conference recently.
But the growing dependence on such private sector support concerns some military
experts. Part of the problem is that contractors are not subject to military
discipline and could walk off the job if they felt like it. The only thing the
military could do would be to sue the contractor later on - the last thing on the
mind of a commander on the battlefield.
This is not just an idle possibility. Since the end of the recent war in Iraq, US
army officers have complained that their troops suffered poor living conditions
because civilian contractors sometimes failed to show up. Even the mail handled by
Halliburton was slow to get through.
"We thought we could depend on industry to perform these kinds of functions," Lt Gen
Charles S. Mahan, the Army's logistics chief, was quoted as saying by Newhouse News
Service this month. He said it got "harder and harder to get [them] to go in harm's
One senior US official says the use of private contractors has "been going on now for
at least two decades and it has really intensified lately and has got some of the
military planners ... pulling their hair out". In part, says the official, this is
because US military planners are looking at a possible war on the Korean peninsula,
one that would be "a more traditional conventional war, if you will, one that will be
bloody as hell and fought on cross-compartmental terrain that makes the desert looks
like child's play.
"These people can't do that," the official continues. "You've got to have military
cooks and military people doing all this logistics tail and so forth. You aren't
going to get contractors to go. You have got this situation ... where better than
20 or 30 per cent of services that used to be done in house by combat trained people
are now [done by] contractors."
British troops were also let down by civilian contractors. According to a report in
Jane's Defence Weekly, a private maintenance team contracted to work for the Royal
Navy refused to go to the Gulf, forcing the Royal Navy to make other plans. In Saudi
Arabia, where an employee of BAE Systems was shot dead in a suspected al-Qaeda attack
in February, "a small number of people wanted to [leave]", according to Mike Sweeney,
a company spokesman, though he stressed it did not cause any operational problems.
Such personnel issues would be troubling enough in any industry. But war is not any industry. While the privatisation of war offers significant opportunities to governments worldwide, it also has important moral implications that deserve public examination.