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Mercenaries, Mass and Morality: Private Industry as a Force Multiplier

To most of us, the term mercenaries evokes action movies like Dogs of War or The Expendables.  To some, it evokes medieval brigands or Xenophons 10,000.  Each of these films show adventure, danger and thrill as ignoble people, invariably men, fight the enemy face to face in the pursuit of money and a richer life. 

The reality, however, shows mercenary activity as a spectrum based around role.  Left of arc are the contractors who crew kitchens and provide maintenance across Defence.  Here we are looking at primarily civilian firms like Sodexo.  Sodexo is not often viewed as a mercenary firm, but their work is a cog in the military machine for the purpose of profit.  On the other extreme is the mercenary of Hollywood and infamous stories of mercenaries operating in remote parts of Africa selling their services to the highest bidder.  Executive Outcomes is a prime example of this purest distillation of the mercenary. 

The focus of this article is between these extremes and on firms who do not actively participate in combat operations but provide military specific capabilities.  Even the term mercenary is anathema to these firms due to baggage of the popular conception.  Yet Private Military Contractors (PMCs), and the myriad of similar terms, is merely a rewrapping of the mercenary concept of private entities providing military labour for profit.  As such, the term mercenary and private contractor are used interchangeably.  

This type of firm has grown substantially in recent years and has become an increasingly integral part of the militaries they serve.  These firms are broadening the capabilities offered to establish a trend towards private solutions to military problems.  This article looks to shine a light on this modern trend, respond to the key issues they face, and thrust the mission creep of private forces into the mainstream.  This article also considers how the use of private force to augment and lend mass to UK state forces can be advantageous and therefore deserves a credible place in the wider defence discord.

The strong ethical aversion to mercenary forces is mainly based around three key questions which must be addressed wherever private forces are merged into a state military.

Firstly, can mercenary groups be loyal? 

There are two types of firms: dependent and independent.  

Dependent firms’ business model depends on mutual loyalty, and they therefore have little reason to not be loyal.  This perspective speaks to most of the enterpriser firms which exist in the post-9/11 world, where a rapidly growing mercenary market was dominated by the US and ISAF contributors.1  This market dominance was to the degree where a private firm had no choice but to be loyal, as no other customer base existed.  As such, the use of dependent firms presents minimal questions of loyalty for state forces, removing the most prevalent question surrounding the use of private force.

Independent firms, however, are another story.  With no inherent dependence breeding loyalty, independent firms are susceptible to being swayed into inaction or betrayal by an enemy.  Widespread use of independent mercenaries by both sides of a conflict can make for an incredibly complex and chaotic situation.  This is best summarized by Machiavelli describing mercenaries in The Prince as “unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith of men”.  This was written in the context of various condottiero companies led by mercenary captains ravaging modern day Italy, known to swap sides if their current arrangement stopped proving lucrative, and at times defecting to the enemy on the eve of battle.  

Widespread use of independent mercenaries by both sides of a conflict can make for an incredibly complex and chaotic situation. 

While unregulated private markets have a tendency to punish breaking contracts by tarnishing reputations, the stakes in a military context are so high that utilising independent mercenary forces will prove extremely risky, lest they act like condottiero.  Even if it is collectively decided not to use unaligned or independent mercenary groups to support our state forces, how do we respond if our enemies, or even our allies, bring these forces into theatre?  While not used by the UK, could and should the UK benefit by buying off these firms if it meant weakening our enemy?

As a consequence, there is no fool-proof way of ensuring loyalty from private firms.  The scope for political machinations where independent mercenary forces are involved is severe.  There are however ways to mitigate the issue, by only utilising firms whose business model is dependent on work from the UK or our allies, removing any incentive to be disloyal.

Second, are they professional and how are those validated and maintained? 

The massacre at Nisour Square, where Blackwater personnel killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, punctuates the need for oversight and strict standards for mercenary forces.  Aside from the obvious moral issues, Nisour Square also painted US state forces in a bad light by association hampering the wider military strategy.  As such, it is vital to establish a strict framework of oversight for private firms working alongside military forces.  Here we can look at how civilian firms regulate contractors. 

A US State Department Contractor in Baghdad. By jamesdale10 – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25869931

To take a basic example; It is possible to draw two key lessons from the Health and Safety Executive guidelines for managing contractors.  Firstly, thorough research into a firm to gauge their internal standards and if they are compatible with our own. Secondly, diligent observation of their work while contracted by non-contracted staff to ensure compliance with the terms and standards of the contract.  

These factors combined greatly mitigates the risks inherent with hiring from outside.  Private firms still have issues with contractor and particularly subcontractor standards, such as the controversies of unsafe working conditions or use of child labour, yet they do provide a wealth of experience which can be exploited.  Such research and oversight, in a military context, could both ensure high training standards and also quash the ability of the mercenary firm to perpetuate the conflict for profit motives.  With these lessons from the civilian world heeded, there’s little reason why military contracting could not be held to a high standard.

Lastly, how could mercenaries be beneficial, is there not a vested interest in perpetual conflict?

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a trend of lowering the quantity and increasing the quality of the equipment used by Britain’s Armed Forces.  To stay at the cutting edge of technology, each service has reduced its numbers and as equipment becomes more expensive we buy less of it.  Examples of this include the Nimrod, of which 46 were ordered in 1967, being ultimately replaced by the P8, of which 9 have been ordered.

The Royal Air Force Example

While this trend creates a world class force in terms of quality, it can lead to gaps due to a lack of mass, especially in capabilities with aging platforms.  This issue could be mitigated by using mercenary forces in fields as the need arises.  An example of this can be seen in the air domain, where private firms are procuring former USAF and RAF tankers in order to contract themselves to forces who need extra air to air refuelling (AAR) capacity, making use of mothballed KC-135s and TriStars.  Without the long term upkeep costs of maintaining and crewing both new and old platforms during peacetime, the UK could use this military service for non operational tasks.  While newer platforms may be more capable than these retired aircraft, there is merit in the added capacity which is often cheaper than purchasing new-build aircraft. 

Such an initiative already has a basis, with the RAF’s AAR capability being contracted to Air Tanker’s Voyager fleet, where Voyagers are owned and maintained by a private company, albeit crewed by RAF pilots on operations.  These privately owned Voyagers are split between “core” military aircraft and “non-core” aircraft which are leased out to civilian firms and serve as surge capacity.  In effect, RAF AAR is already quasi-private, with industry ready to provide even more of this key capability in power projection, providing mass and flexibility to UK forces.

Private intelligence? 

An emerging type of mercenary force could allow better utilisation of national forces by helping create an intelligence picture.  Several firms, such as Total Intelligence Solutions, have in the recent past created spy rings within Pakistan and Afghanistan to monitor Kabul’s ruling class and their links to the Taliban.2  Using private intelligence networks like this may ease the burden on ISTAR fleets and intelligence actors, especially in the context of a shortage of mass, allowing alternate focusses or a more complete picture.  While these firms may prove expensive, the services they provide could save lives and material of friendly forces, making the costs, both moral and financial, justified.

The industry for private force is sufficiently mature to provide these capabilities and allow Britain’s Armed Forces to reap the benefits.  The flexibility offered aligns with the goals of the Integrated Operating Concept by offering on-demand mass to forward deployed elements and can prove useful in grey zone conflicts where adversaries may also be utilizing the industry.  The key obstacle is cultural.  The unwillingness for state forces to implement the frameworks or even have the debates needed to begin to take hold of the advantages due to predispositions is to the detriment of operational performance.

So what’s next?

There are three key factors which will determine the effectiveness of private firms providing military support:

  1. Healthy discord.  Visibility of, and debates about, how, when, and why private firms should be used is key to achieving productive discourse.  Defence should make use of expert panels and grassroots feedback to determine the requirements for private firms, and review their performance.  There is already a wide pantheon of topics which defence maintains a discord on so the topic of mercenaries should be able to fit in quite easily.  Such a discourse will also allow a unified and clear picture of what is possible to present to the civilian world, helping overcome the pre-existing ideas of who and what private forces are, in turn aiding the wider public discord on the topic.  Regardless of theoretical military efficacy, a lack of public support would prove fatal to ambitions of deeper private integration with state forces.
  2. Frameworks.  If private forces are to be used to generate capability at short notice, defence must have a framework in place to integrate private forces with state forces.  C2 interoperability, rapidly deployable oversight methods, and coherent standards of service need to be hashed out during peacetime in order to achieve the goal of a flexible and responsive force when it is needed.  This may require new legislation to best fit our needs, keeping in mind that our culture and ethics should drive our legislation, not the other way around. 
  3. Exploiting institutional experience.  The wider Civil Service has a long history of using contractors to perform a variety of functions and projects.  This experience can be immensely useful in helping to arrange new relationships with private industry on terms which differ from long term contracts where the MoD already have experience, such as AirTanker or the now cancelled Warrior CSP.

Each of these also help break down the cultural barriers standing in the way of private firms taking on new roles further along the mercenary spectrum.  In many areas, the MoD and its components have already made the decision that private forces are preferable to in-house provision, providing precedent for these 3 recommendations to occur.  As such, it is not unthinkable that the topic of further integration of private firms can neatly fit into the Defence environment.


Further utilising firms across the mercenary spectrum, as we have seen throughout this article, presents notable advantages to the British Armed Forces, often in newly emerging sectors of the market for private force.  A confident and reasoned approach to utilising private force can help the UK achieve its strategic objectives in a cost effective manner, a goal which underlines the Armed Forces as a whole.  As with anything, there are also notable risks, but not without mitigating factors with established precedents in the civilian world.  The key challenge is cultural, overturning lifetimes of viewing firms on the mercenary spectrum as evil simply by virtue of existing within that market.  Challenging these views through open minded discord, particularly if done before an adversary does the same, may allow the UK to punch above its weight class on the global stage.  Providing visibility and myth busting to the mercenary market cannot happen overnight, but it also cannot happen soon enough. 

Elliott Murphy

Elliott Murphy is a International Security MA graduate with a background in critical evaluations of NATO deployments in the Post-Cold War era. He also has undergraduate degrees in International Relations & International Development.


  1. McFate, Sean.(2014) The Modern Mercenary. P19. Oxford University Press.
  2. McFate, Sean. (2014). The Modern Mercenary. P56. Oxford University Press

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