The rise of the private-sector military
In era of shrinking armed forces, America turns to private firms to carry out foreign military aid.
Faced with more overseas commitments and fewer resources, the US is increasingly relying on private military companies to do some of its most difficult international jobs.Skip to next paragraph
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These aren't the mercenaries who parachute into hot spots, guns blazing, for cold cash. But they're controversial nonetheless.
Over the past 10 years, private military companies, or PMCs, have quietly taken a central role in the exporting of security, strategy, and training for foreign militaries.
In the process, PMCs are raising questions about the privatization of foreign policy, and whether a profit-seeking company can be accountable with limited government oversight. Oftentimes the companies are training armies in turbulent areas. And, once granted an export license, they are minimally supervised.
"The worry tends to have less to do with the people involved than it has to do with the policy in place," says Deborah Avant, a George Washington University expert who is writing a book on PMCs. "It's a tool for foreign policy in a less public way - and that is not a good thing in the long term."
Most recently, for example, the State Department approved a license for a US company to help bolster security in Equatorial Guinea, an African country of half a million people that is run by a military dictator and has no US embassy.
Former four-star generals
Defenders the PMCs note that they are staffed mostly by retired military officials and have eased the pressure on US troops, which are increasingly burdened by foreign interventions and peacekeeping missions.
And PMCs dovetail with a larger US policy of encouraging military-to-military ties, in the hope that a professional army can stabilize a fragile democracy.
Thus in some countries, the military firms may be tools of nation-building, not destruction. In Nigeria, where the US recently restored military aid after an era of dictatorship, some aid will pay for a private firm to train a more responsible military.
Because PMCs are not categorized by the US government, and they have received little public attention, it is difficult to determine their scope.
But the industry has been expanding for the past 10 years, and is thought to be worth several billion dollars. During the 1990s, PMCs trained militaries in some 42 countries. Analysts estimate that there are as many as 20 legitimate companies in the US, the largest of which claims to do about $25 million a year in overseas business.
Smaller organizations, which sometimes provide overseas security, are thought to be more numerous, but are hard to track - little more than a company president and a Rolodex full of names.
While some of the companies, particularly those from South Africa and Britain, have been labeled "mercenaries," and have indeed provided firepower for hire, the US firms have far better reputations, and often work hand-in-hand with the Pentagon. Their ranks include former four-star generals.
In the US, the training services are sometimes paid out of the annual foreign aid bill, doled out to friendly or promising countries that may have unstable governments or militaries, such as Nigeria and Colombia. Other times, companies are hired directly by the host country and approved by the US.