The Dogs of War Go Corporate

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

March 19, 2004

A planeload of mercenaries that touches down in the middle of the night, an evil dictator who tortures his victims on the beach, shady multinational oil interests, an arms deal gone sour, and the key protagonist a former SAS trooper whose last job was acting in a movie: it has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster. But the Logo Logistics affair of Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea is just the latest appearance on the international stage of an important global development—the privatised military industry.

Private military firms are business providers of professional services intricately linked to warfare. That is, they are corporate bodies that specialise in the sale of military skills. They do everything, from leasing out commando teams and offering the strategic advice of ex-generals to running the outsourced supply chains for the US and now British armies.

Such firms represent the evolution, globalisation, and corporatisation of the age-old mercenary trade.

The private military industry got its start in the early 1990s with the rise of the firm Executive Outcomes, the very same South African company that Simon Mann and many of the other coup suspects used to work with. Executive Outcomes, which was linked with multinational mining and energy interests, fought in Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo. While the firm formally went out of business in 1999, its success spawned a global industry of copy cats.
In the decade since it began, the private military industry has mushroomed. Private military firms now operate in more than 50 countries and do up to $100bn business a year.

In Iraq, for example, there are more than 15,000 private military contractors. They protect convoys and key installations, train the Iraqi police, paramilitary, and army, and also do mundane chores like feeding troops and fuelling vehicles. The biggest player in Iraq is Dick Cheney’s scandal-plagued Halliburton firm, presently besieged by a series of accounting and overbilling gaffes, but there are also a number of UK-based companies.

One is Global Risks, reported to have 100 former British SAS troopers, 500 former Nepalese Ghurkas and 500 ex-Fijian soldiers working on the ground in Iraq. This one company has the sixth largest troop contingent in the coalition. Thus, President Bush’s international effort has finally come to pass, except to be completely honest he might want to rename it the “Coalition of the Billing”.

In a world where we police even the fat content of cookies, perhaps what is most surprising is that this industry, so central to national and global security, is completely unregulated. No international laws apply. National laws are little better, with the majority of states, including Britain, having none that fully controls the firms.

Zimbabwe, for example, can only charge the suspected coup plotters with firearms and immigration indictments. In addition, many firms that claim to be “British” or “South African” are actually registered in tax havens such as the Caymans, Bahamas, and Channel Isles.

Firms in the industry often argue that the lack of rules is not a problem, as they claim only to work for “reputable” clients, and have corporate codes and structures that preclude misbehaviour.

But the news from Zimbabwe pokes yet another hole in that thin claim. To begin with, voluntary codes of conduct are just that, written by the firms themselves, voluntarily adhered to and carrying no punishment if broken, either by the firms or their individual employees. Thus, it is up to the firms to decide who they want to hire—the Logo indictees range from class act veterans to a gentleman under indictment back home for murder—and who they want to work for.

Some firms have worked for democracies, the UN and even environmental groups, while others have prospered at the other end of the marketplace, working for dictators, drug cartels and terrorist-linked groups. Indeed, Logo illustrates the very problem of firms determining reputable clients for themselves. Who was the legitimate player to choose, the dodgy coup plotters or the dictator who took power by killing his uncle? Legitimacy is hard enough to determine in international politics, and even more difficult when millions in potential profits comes into play.

The private military industry has grown up, but our regulation and oversight has not kept pace. International and national laws must be updated to account for the behaviour of businesses in war and, in particular, control who they can work with. Likewise, if governments such as those in the US and UK are to continue to be clients of such firms, they must become more business-savvy, and establish sound competition and supervision in their outsourcing. War is far too important to be left to the CEOs.