A failing government trying to prevent the imminent capture of its capital, a regional power planning for war, a ragtag militia looking to reverse its battlefield losses, a peacekeeping force seeking deployment support, a weak ally attempting to escape its patron’s dictates, a multinational corporation hoping to end constant rebel attacks against its facilities, a drug cartel pursuing high-technology military capabilities, a humanitarian aid group requiring protection within conflict zones, and the world’s sole remaining superpower searching for ways to limit its military costs and risks. When thinking in conventional terms, security studies experts would be hard-pressed to find anything that these actors may have in common. They differ in size, relative power, location in the international system, level of wealth, number and type of adversaries, organizational makeup, ideology, legitimacy, objectives, and so on.
There is, however, one unifying link: When faced with such diverse security needs, they all sought external military support. Most important is where that support came from: not from a state or even an international organization but rather the global marketplace. It is located here that a unique business form has arisen that I term the “privatized military firm” (PMF). PMFs are profit-driven organizations that trade in professional services intricately linked to warfare. They are corporate bodies that specialize in the provision of military skills—including tactical combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence gathering and analysis, operational support, troop training, and military technical assistance. With the rise of the privatized military industry, actors in the global system can access capabilities that extend across the entire spectrum of military activity—from a team of commandos to a wing of fighter jets—simply by becoming a business client.
PMFs represent the newest addition to the modern battlefield, and their role in contemporary warfare is becoming increasingly significant. Not since the eighteenth century has there been such reliance on private soldiers to accomplish tasks directly affecting the tactical and strategic success of engagement. With the continued growth and increasing activity of the privatized military industry, the start of the twenty-first century is witnessing the gradual breakdown of the Weberian monopoly over the forms of violence. PMFs may well portend the new business face of war.
This is not to say, however, that the state itself is disappearing. The story is far more complex than that. The power of PMFs has been utilized as much in support of state interests as against them. As Kevin O’Brien writes, “By privatizing security and the use of violence, removing it from the domain of the state and giving it to private interest, the state in these instances is both being strengthened and disassembled.” With the growth of the privatized military industry, the state’s role in the security sphere has become deprivileged, just as it has in other international arenas such as trade and finance.
The image people often have is plane-loads of these [jihadists] flying out, but that’s the wrong image: It’s people filtering out in dribs and drabs.