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When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

April 27, 2004

Mercenaries and Whatnot

Bravo Romeo Delta

A response to some of the more pernicious nonsense rambling around the notion of contractors, mercenaries, and whatnot is long overdue. This tangential outburst associated with the Kos Kerfuffle has covered a lot of turf, much of it partisan in nature.

Rather than spending valuable electrons explaining why it is that stupid people are stupid, I wanted to give a thumbnail sketch of what, exactly, is up with all this 'mercenary' stuff.

Mercenaries have a really, really long history. The Vatican, for instance, is guarded by members of the Swiss Guard, who were first hired, as mercenaries, as ceremonial guards of the Vatican state almost five centuries ago.

The use of mercenaries over the next few hundred years declined for several reasons, some of which had to do with the industrialization of warfare. With industrialization it became increasingly difficult for a marauding army to live off the land - you can pillage food, but ammunition is a bit trickier. Mercenaries, particularly is the days before high-tech logistics had been developed, generally lacked the infrastructure to support combat operations. At least combat operations against large, well-armed, well-provisioned opponents.

With this there was a bit of a transitional period, in which things like state-sanctioned privateering, letters of marquis, and volunteer regiments cropped up. These sort of warfighting units would seem strange to those of us who are more familiar with the structure of the military in the post World War II era. Nonetheless, we have seen elements similar to traditional to these units in places like Angola where a large number of Cuban and East German "volunteers" fought. But, unlike the volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, who fought largely out of a sense of mission, but without the sanction of the state, these latter day volunteers fought, essentially, as expeditionary units hiding behind a diplomatic veil.

The most common image associated with mercenaries in the modern mind stems from much of the mercenary activity in sub-Saharan Africa following the wave of independence granting seen in the 1960s. By and large, these formations were rather small infantry units comprised of relatively dubious sorts led by extravagantly flamboyant leaders. And, by and large, these folks were much more effective at blustering and holding up bar counters than the practice of modern mechanized warfare. Like it or not, in the age of jets and the atom bomb, it's in really no longer possible to outfit a band of random guys for high-intensity combat (see also Iraqi army).

The folks were pretty much imprisioned, hunted down, killed, or retired by the early 1980's - for the most part because Africa went from a state of high chaos to the merely rampant chaos we see today.

With the stabilization of Africa, and particularly with the end of South African involvement in Angola and Namibia, plus the end of Apartheid a new generation of Private Military Contractors (PMC) came to the fore. Comparing these sorts with the folks who were crashing around in the '60s is like assuming that a Sherman tank and a M1A2 Abrams are equivalent because they are both tanks. Or that a VW bug is essentially equivalent to a Mars Rover, because they have wheels and move about.

Among other things, this newest generation of PMCs tends to be much more careful in who they choose to work for - among other things, checking out this code of ethics of the PMC industry association gives some important insights. The big deal is that the model upon which genuine PMCs operate has changed from one of direct warfighting to one of peacemaking. In the case of the now-defunct Executive Outcomes, they put down a 30-year long civil war in no time flat. Similarly, another PMC put an end to fighting in Sierra Leone, before the government defaulted on the contract, and then the UN was eventually called in a great deal more cost and manpower for a much less decisive resolution. A most telling example is this link from another (relatively) large PMC, Sandline (you may also want to check out their whitepapers on PMCs):

The general lack of governmental support for Private Military Companies willing to help end armed conflicts in places like Africa, in the absence of effective international intervention, is the principal reason behind Sandline’s decision. Without such support the ability of Sandline (and other PMCs) to make a positive difference in countries where there is widespread brutality and even genocidal behaviour is irretrievably diminished.

Now, then, do Halliburton, Kellog, Brown and Root, Vinell, Dyncorp, Blackwater, and so on fit in? Well, the short answer is badly, if at all.

As you can all remember from the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, Clinton supporters were rabbiting on about how current wars are fought with the last administration's military, so we should thank Clinton for our success in Iraq, despite claims that Clinton cut down the military. Well, that turned out to be truer than those folks really suspected.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States fielded 18 divisions of 4 brigades each. By Iraq, we had 10 divisions of 3 brigades each. That folks, is what we call a drawdown. Among other things, it became readily apparent that it didn't make a lot of sense to go through things like basic and so on to get people for KP and a lot of other support tasks formerly delegated to uniformed personnel.

Among other things, the military doesn't have to eat basic training, drug testing, housing, and general administrative overhead for someone to mow the lawn. When they're uniformed personnel, that becomes an issue. Moreover, if you're hiring outside contractors for things like water purification, then you don't need to keep a full wartime roster of support staff on hand, you can outsource when needed - combined with the delegation of things like civil affairs and whatnot to the reserves, one can cut back numbers radically without sacrificing as much combat power.

As much as there has been no small amount of fun poked at Halliburton and KBR for their ads on TV depicting them doing things like feeding personnel, that kind of thing, and keeping the troops in Pepsi is a lot of what these guys do. Other tasks that have been undertaken by American subcontractors include training of foreign troops and police. In fact, the compound in Saudi Arabia that was hit some months ago was owned by the Vinnel Corporation, which has been training foreign nationals for the US for several decades. Since the US had been asked to pull its uniformed forces out of Saudi (root causes, anyone?), the US chose to honor its commitment by having former US soldiers, in the employ of a private company, continue training of the Saudi army and counter-terrorism forces.

Other tasks that are a bit less benign include the spraying of cocoa fields in Colombia by DynCorp. Again, since it is often difficult for the US to do these sorts of things in an official capacity, and due to concerns about the money being dedicated to various efforts and being lost through corruption, ineptitude, and other forms of sheer incompetence.

Another example that combines these two items above is the fact that DynCorp also provides personal security for the Afghan President Hamed Karzai. In a country beset by ethnic and tribal sectarian violence, the notion that he might not want to associate the security apparatus with a tribe loyal to him - which would hinder peaceful transfer of power, while avoiding the problems of having uniformed foreign nationals providing protection.

One thing we are seeing in places like Iraq is that the PMCs are being hired to provide security and perimeter protection, particular for non-US military installations. Perimeter security is a pretty thankless and manpower intensive job, so it's not too surprising that you might want to hire out standing the watch.

One of the other things that comes up quite often in these discussions, is the amount of money these folks get paid. Those Who Are Hysterical Idiots like to toss around the notion that these folks get paid $1,000 per day. Or, at other times, they like to suggest that the soldiers are money-grubbing SOBs because they get paid three times what they did in the military, or some such other specious nonsense.

My mixed metaphor and flawed analogy generator is overwhelmed by this feat of stupidity, but let's take it apart one item at a time.

A company may charge $1,000 per day, but not pay the employee anywhere near that. Anyone who has ever actually had to do any sort of departmental budgeting knows about all the overhead, rent, and other ancillary costs above and beyond salary that get paid to a contractor, temp, or even full-time employee. I've run into circumstances where a consultant got paid about 20% of what was actually assessed in fees - which would bring the $1,000 per day down to a more likely $1,00 per week.

Bringing us to our next question - what about the 300% increase over military pay? The military, more so than the private sector devotes precious little of the money allocated to each soldier to actual take-home pay. For a variety of historical reasons, the military may provide housing or housing allowances, medical care, food, training, sick leave, et cetera to it's soldiers, so if it takes x many thousand dollars to keep one soldier in the field for a year, and an equivalent amount of money to keep a contractor in the field for one year, the amount of money that goes to the contractor will be higher, simply because he has a higher take home package in exchange for a weaker benefits and perks package.

Another big factor to keep in mind is that the military can bring folks on board for as long as needed, and then let the contract run out. For anyone who is recruited, they are pretty much stuck with this manpower for four or six or however many years that person is signed on for. Those of you familiar with business practices over the last few decades have clearly seen that keeping large standby inventories of anything - including manpower, is seen as increasingly inefficient. This will naturally drive towards outsourcing of support and security missions.

On the other hand, the direct application of direct lethal force (within the Westphalian context) is still pretty much the sole province of the US government. The government, as a whole, is rather uncomfortable with the whole hired guns concept. For example, if a US citizen leaves and fights for, let's say, a Ukrainian outfit, they are in absolute jeopardy of losing their citizenship (don't ask me about why John Walker Lindh kept his). Similarly, a number of Private Military Contractors will only take former US military personnel and current US citizens on board.

So, at any rate, that's a brief look at the world of Private Military Contractors.

For those of you who would prefer this in a 'fiskier' format, click here.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at April 27, 2004 01:52 AM

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