- Starting in the 2010s, the use of “security for hire” and paramilitary, non-state actors has been on the rise. Given its expanding geo-economic and geopolitical ambitions—best expressed by the Belt and Road Initiative—China, akin to other actors, will need to ensure physical security and protection of its citizens, resources and assets abroad. For this, Chinese businesses and the state will have to expand the use of security mechanisms. While employment of the People’s Liberation Army might not be the best option, reliance on local security providers is frequently associated with multiple risks as well. Thus, in pushing ahead with foreign investments, Beijing would have to increase reliance on private security providers, including those originating from China.
- Despite growing popularity, many private and public agencies feel uneasy over the use of private military and security companies (PM/SCs). Due to definitional and legal ambiguity, private security providers are sometimes considered illicit and legally forbidden entities, such as mercenary groups. At the same time, development of the PM/SC industry is frowned upon by many states—including China—out of concern for the scope of power that paramilitary groups and similar entities could acquire.
- In developing its “security for hire” industry, China is unlikely to fully embrace and follow either the Western (due to its relative openness, public scrutiny and superior capabilities) or Russian (tainted reputation and illegal status) models. Most likely, given the peculiarities of Beijing`s socioeconomic and political system, as well as its paramilitary capabilities, the country is likely to adopt a “hybrid” approach, relying on the development of private security companies (PSCs)—or groups that follow this pattern—instead of developing classic PM/SCs.
- In the future, when developing its “security for hire” industry, China is not only likely to strengthen the PSC aspect but also to put a special emphasis on nonstandard realms, including, among others, cybersecurity and humanitarian missions.
The use of private security and paramilitary entities for achieving specific geopolitical and economic objectives experienced a resurgence between 2011 and 2020, being primarily attributed to Russia`s adventurist actions in the Middle East (Syria and Libya), Central and Eastern Europe (Ukraine) and Sub-Saharan Africa. Having produced mixed results, Russia`s example did, however, draw the attention of other actors to the phenomenon of private military and security companies (PM/SCs). Perhaps, most importantly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) started to demonstrate a much greater interest in the use of PM/SCs in areas where Beijing has developed significant economic and business interests, which are tightly knitted with geopolitical agendas.
This report—the first in a series of publications comprising the project “Guardians of the Belt and Road: The Role of Private Military Security Companies in Securing China’s Overseas Interests”—aims to provide a general description of the global “security for hire” industry. By analysing selected models, speculation will focus on an approach that is likely to be taken by the PRC in its increasing interests in the use of the aforementioned firms and entities. This broad goal will be pursued through the following research objectives:
- Explain the historical background and key milestones in the formation, development and increased sophistication of privatized security services,
- Discuss the legal status and challenges associated with the use of legal PM/SCs, using the United States as an example,
- Analyze the activities of illegal PM/SCs, discussing Russia’s experience.
The report employs a combination of primary and secondary data. In regards to primary data collection, I have interviewed four outstanding US-based experts and practitioners specializing in the PM/SC industry: Doug Brooks (founder and president emeritus of ISOA); Peter Singer (author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry); Sean McFate (senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University); and Erik Prince (founder of Blackwater USA PMC).
Privatizing Force: A Historical Note
The use of private forces and non-state actors has a storied history. Arguably, the first officially recorded case—when mercenary forces served in the army of King Shulgi of Ur—dates back to 2094–2047 BC. In the 5th century BC, Greek mercenaries (so-called “Ten Thousands”) were hired to fight on the side of Cyrus during the Persian Civil War (401–400 BC). Following the unsuccessful Battle of Cunaxa, the mercenaries undertook an arduous journey back home—the story was described in Xenophon`s Anabasis. The use of mercenaries was also common in the Orient: Mercenaries remained an essential part of the Chinese army for more than 500 years, ranging from the late Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) to the end of the Sung Dynasty (960–1279).
During the Middle Ages and early modern times, virtually all European countries and city-states heavily relied on mercenary forces in countless military campaigns and wars. In addition to the massive use during land-based operations, some states relied on PMCs for naval military operations, with the English monarchs extensively relying on this tool of war. According to Peter Singer, contracted military companies (proto-PMCs) were widely used by both sides during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). At this stage, proto-PM/SCs, de facto acting like mercenary formations, were primarily performing military tasks, acting in many ways similar to regular armed forces.
Later, during the age of mercantilism, an important transformation of militarized non-state actors’ roles took place. This owed primarily to the rapid rise of colonialism, skyrocketing of trade and intensification of competition between large trade companies for critical natural resources (mainly precious metals) and commodities. These actors employed non-state actors in pursuit of their business and geo-economic objectives in various regions. Some sources argue that the Dutch East India Company and English East India Company not only employed large quantities of mercenaries on a permanent basis but also used them in offensive military operations (such as the recapture of Calcutta and the Battle of Bhaksar) and even territorial acquisitions (power projection over Bengal).
While mercenary forces were also used in the 19th century, the revival of the phenomenon, in a somewhat different form, occurred in the second half of the 20th century (1960s–1980s) due to decolonization, which led—especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (frequently referred to as the “cradle of PMCs”)—to a series of bloody armed conflicts sparked by a combination of anti-colonial movements and the Soviet Union’s attempt to spread its influence. A genuine revolution and profound transformation in privatization of forces occurred between 1970s and the early 2000s and was related to US participation in four regional conflicts and operations: Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today, the growing popularity and increasing reliance on PM/SCs is typically attributed to the following main (general) factors:
- The post–Cold War “security gap” and changes in the nature of war and armed conflict ushered in an opportunity for private security to expand.
- Major economic transformation (in the West) resulted in the boom of the free-market model and even greater freedom of entrepreneurship, which included the paramilitary and security domains.
- PM/SCs—typically composed of top-notch experts and specialists—generally possess the ability to have a real impact on the pace, dynamics and outcome of limited-scale regional conflicts. This argument is best exemplified by the Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995), when activities of the Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) PMC—which played a decisive role in training and preparing Croat forces—became an undisputed success.
- The emergence of the so-called “new war” phenomenon has also played a major role. Experts argue that, unlike traditional wars, “new war” has a number of important characteristics. First, “new wars”—many of them waged in less economically developed or recently decolonized regions—are characterized by ethnic hatred, tribal violence and anarchy, frequently resulting in grave violations of human rights. Importantly, these aspects are less visible to the international community; unfortunately, international peacekeeping efforts have frequently fell off their declared objectives, producing extremely limited positive outcomes, which gives widened opportunities for non-state actors and the forces standing behind them. Secondly, an explicit emphasis of “new war” is on an economic agenda over a political or military approach. Largely, “new wars” are waged in impoverished, politically unstable, non-secured and resource-endowed areas. Thus, many transnational and global companies tend to employ PM/SCs to protect their workers and investments in these areas. In effect—and this project aims to demonstrate this using the PRC as an example—security concerns play a crucial role in China`s increasing attention to the consideration of using PM/SCs along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- In retrospect, another main factor was the major military transformations after the end of the Cold War: Following the (formal) end of the East-West conflict, Western armies—primarily designed to wage large-scale sophisticated wars—turned out to be less prepared to operate effectively in low-intensity conflict permeated by ethnic or tribal agendas, inexplicit boundaries between combatants and civilians as well as loose military hierarchies. As noted by Christopher Kinsey, “Contractors allow the military to concentrate on its core functions, fighting wars, by removing responsibility for the more mundane operations, which are no less important to maintaining operational efficiency and handing that responsibility to outside agents.” This argument was further developed by Christopher Spearin, who argued that the use of PM/SCs—which perform various functions including food services, materiel management and distribution, communication and information systems, land equipment maintenance, health services, transportation, construction engineering services, power supply and distribution, water supply and distribution, waste management, roads and grounds, fire services, environmental management and ammunition support—allows armed forces to concentrate on their direct responsibilities.
Rapid growth and expansion of the PM/SC industry is driven by yet another essential factor. In addition to its universality and flexibility in paramilitary application, the industry itself has become a gold mine, yielding huge dividends to its main stakeholders. According to some estimates, the global PM/SCs market is worth between approximately $100 billion and $244 billion—although some subject experts claim the number is much lower but still significant. Nevertheless, despite being a lucrative business opportunity and an effective security instrument, many state and non-state actors are hesitant—if not overtly discouraged—to employ PM/SCs in pursuit of certain objectives.
Legal and Definitional Challenges and Misconceptions
One of the first issues with the PM/SC industry is the lack of a standard and universally accepted definition—both among policymakers and academics—that could capture and explain this phenomenon with sufficient depth. The complexity and sophisticated nature of this industry is reflected in the following definition: “Military firms, military service providers, privatized military firms, transnational security corporations, and security contractors … [any] firms offering security- and military-related services.” Another definition describes these entities as corporate bodies operating with a profit motive that “provide services outside their home states with the potential for use of lethal force, as well as training and advice to militaries that substantially affect their war-fighting capacities.” Finally, the US government defines PM/SCs as “persons or businesses … that provide products or services [to the military] for monetary compensation.”
These definitions—representing only a small fraction of the pool of terms that have been generated by both the policy and academic communities—are filled with ambiguity and do not clearly draw a dividing line between legal PM/SCs and illicit versions thereof, including mercenary formations. In many ways, this—and some violations of international laws—taint the public image and perception of legal PM/SCs. Regretfully, the broader public (and even many experts) erroneously equalize PM/SCs and mercenaries—actors that have been banned by the Hague Convention (1907), Geneva Conventions (1949) and so-called “anti-mercenary conventions” consisting of the Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa (1977) and the United Nations Mercenary Convention (1989).
Unfortunately, however, while defining the term “mercenary”—the definition is found in Additional Protocol I, Article 47 of the Geneva Conventions—and classifying this phenomenon, international experts left a great number of gaps that render this category to be equally applicable (under certain circumstances) to legal security providers, including PM/SCs. As argued by John Riley and Michael Gambone, “By outlawing mercenaries, the international community has inadvertently made effective regulation of PMCs all but impossible. More effective regulation would be possible if PMCs were formally legalized and a simple regulatory regime that charged the contracting actor with the responsibility of holding the PMC compliant with international humanitarian law was created.”
An attempt to eliminate ambiguity was undertaken after the introduction of the Montreux Document (2008)—an agreement between signature countries on their obligations to PM/SCs in war zones—which defines PM/SCs as “private business entities that provide military and/or security services, irrespective of how they describe themselves.” In terms of services rendered by entities of this type, the document explicitly mentions “armed guarding and protection of persons and objects, such as convoys, buildings and other places; maintenance and operation of weapons systems; prisoner detention; and advice to or training of local forces and security personnel.” Yet, as far as subject matter experts are concerned, the definition’s ambiguity has not been fully eliminated. The final say on whether an actor can be classified as a mercenary is still to be found in Article 47 of Additional Protocol I, which, as stated, may be misleading at times, especially given the rapidly changing nature of war and armed conflict as.
Some experts, thus, argue that the best way to differentiate legal PM/SCs from illegal mercenaries is to define the former as “permanent business structures that have offices along with other kinds of assets. [PSCs] are companies with a legal personality. In this respect, they are subject to legislation, notably company law. Since they are companies, they adopt business practices including a doctrine represented in the form of company policy or culture, or both. [PSCs] are also business profit driven and not individual profit driven.” In an interview, Peter Singer also underscored that the division between “corporate” and “individual” is the key criterion to be used when differentiating mercenaries from legitimate security providers.  That said, however, other examples—including Russia`s PMC, the Wagner Group—might challenge this approach.
PM/SCs: Typology and Classification
Another challenge associated with the PM/SC industry is the issue of classification and taxonomy of the groups and actors that comprise the industry. The following will address the most commonly used methods to classify PM/SCs in Western literature, adding reflections of interviewed subject experts.
First, organization regards pertinence to specific “business sectors,” which, according to Peter Singer, is reflected by three main types of companies:
- Military-provider firms that supply direct, tactical military assistance, which can include serving in front-line combat;
- Military-consulting firms that provide strategic advice and training;
- Military-support forms that provide logistics, maintenance and intelligence services to armed forces.
In a personal interview with this author, Singer, however, specified that the general framework—which consists of the aforementioned trilateral structure—should be defined as private military firms (PMFs) that are capable of providing a broad range of paramilitary and security-related services.
Second, classification is done by end-user—that is, a consumer of services rendered by PM/SCs—which could include one of the following three macro-entities:
- States using PM/SCs and other non-state actors to take part, on their behalf, in low-intensity conflicts. States have employed both legal (e.g., the US), as well as “shadow” PM/SCs (e.g., Russia).
- International Organizations (IOs), for instance the UN, employ the services of such companies to secure logistics, intelligence services and organizational consulting for its committees. More specifically, the UN collaborated with PM/SCs in East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) relied on services provided by PM/SCs. Importantly—and this will be further explored in the next report—China is entertaining the idea of using its private security firms within the scopes of UN missions as a means to strengthen its positions in resource-endowed, yet politically destabilized, regions.
- Multinational companies and transnational corporations, through various studies, have been shown—irrespective of their areas of activities—including major brands and companies such as Nestlé, Shell, Total and many others, to actively rely on services rendered by private security. The reason for this is simple: when establishing subsidiaries and branches in developing (and frequently politically unstable) countries, headquarters must ensure the physical safety of domestic (and locally hired) personnel, as well as of their material assets. While relying on domestic security providers is not always an option—for a number of reasons, including high levels of corruption and lower levels of professionalism—procuring services of PM/SCs is frequently seen as one of the most preferred options. One example is the Nigerian oil industry, which experienced a boom in foreign investments from the late 1960s onward. Yet, given the challenging domestic situation—extremely high level of terrorist threats, the existence of powerful gangs and insufficient professionalism among domestic security providers—foreign companies started to actively rely on foreign (manly British and US) PM/SCs. From its side, France and its companies—which have been active Western players in Sub-Saharan Africa—also employ PM/SCs when working in African countries notorious for excessively high levels of political risk. For instance, when operating in Niger (endowed with uranium that is critical for France`s nuclear industry), Areva SA (a French multinational group specializing in nuclear power and renewable energy) has actively relied on services rendered by PM/SCs. That said, the use of and reliance on PM/SCs by foreign corporations frequently results in conflicts with the domestic populations that are intimidated by foreign security providers operating in their country. In some cases, a negative perception is formed by a fear of “neo-colonialism”—such instances have not only occurred with respect to Western operators but also with regards to Chinese actions in Central Asia.
Third, classification can be done by the level of engagement in conflict (or prospects thereof):
- Nonlethal service providers (NSPs) are companies that perform various duties, including mine clearance, logistics and supply, as well as risk consulting.
- Private security companies (PSCs) are entities that render services that are primarily concerned with the protections of industrial sites, embassies and humanitarian aid.
- Private military companies (PMCs) are actors that render services in areas such as military training, military intelligence and offensive combat
In a personal interview with this author, Douglas Brooks noted that, with the current realities of the industry, the generalized framework that should be used to define the whole industry is PSCs can perform different functions based on a client`s needs.
Fourth, PM/SCs are organized by a combination of the nature of services provided and the end-user:
- Combat and operational support groups include Executive Outcomes (South Africa), Sandline International (UK), and Gurkha Security Guards, among others. Their services are typically procured by governments.
- Military advice and training companies include DSL, MPRI, Silver Shadow, Levdan, Vinnell and BDM. Services are generally commissioned by governments.
- Arms procurement groups include Executive Outcomes, Sandline International and Levdan. Governments are usually the main end-users.
- Intelligence gathering firms include Control Risk Group, Kroll, Saladin and DynCorp. Governments and large business structures (e.g., multinational corporations) are the main end-users here.
- Security and criminal investigation groups include DSL, Lifeguard, Group 4, Control Risk Group, Gurkha Security Guards, Gray Security and Coin Security. Multinational companies and humanitarian agencies typically act as the main end-users of their services.
- Logistical support includes Brown & Root, DynCorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers. Peacekeeping organizations and various humanitarian agencies typically procure services of these entities.
Fifth, divisions can be set by main categories of activities:
- Military combatant companies provide forces capable of combat. This type of firm comprises a small minority of PM/SCs—for example, Executive Outcomes and Sandline.
- Military consulting firms provide training and advisory services (including personal security and bodyguard services) and include companies such as MPRI, DynCorp and SAIC (all from the US).
- Military support firms render nonlethal aid and assistance (weapons maintenance, technical support, explosive ordnance disposal and intelligence collection and analysis). Examples of such actors include Kellogg Brown & Root, which was conducting activities under the umbrella of the US Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) contract.
Sixth, one of the most comprehensive existing classifications—even though it was coined more than two decades ago—for non-state security providers was given by David Shearer, who used the following method of classification:
- Independent military companies are de-facto PMCs that offer their services to provide military expertise to state militaries. These entities have two main distinctive traits. First is a combination of corporate character (personnel are employed within a defined structure, with established terms and conditions, and work with a degree of organization and accountability to the company) and legality (actors must be legally registered). And second is the willingness (and ability) to engage in combat, where the example of the South African entity, Executive Outcomes, is most frequently used. This PMC conducted successful military operations against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola (1993–1996) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone (1995–1997).
- Proxy companies typically serve as proxies for foreign governments. Bearing some resemblance to the previous sub-type, these companies have two key distinctive characteristics. First, they do not take direct part in hostilities (at least no such records exist). Secondly, they are closely integrated with Western defense interests. For example, as mentioned, MPRI had close ties to the US Department of Defense (DoD).
- Security companies are entities that specialize in the protection of commercial interests. Companies of this type have virtually no part in paramilitary activities, other than being primarily concerned with services related to the “assessment of security risks, perimeter fence guarding or personnel protection, particularly for commercial clients.” Therefore, these entities have been employed in the scopes of missions by various IOs, such as the UN or the International Committee of the Red Cross.
- “Ad hoc” forces are defined as groups that are “more covert and impromptu in the way [they] conduct operations—more a collection of individuals than a corporate entity … resembl[ing] a “network” or recruitment agency.” In the literature, this group is subdivided into three distinct sub-types. The first sub-type includes local fighters who are poorly trained and lack many professional skills—for example, the forces used by Mobutu Sese Seko in former Zaire (1997). The second sub-group involves the use of foreign fighters recruited from other countries—frequently using natural resources (precious metals and stones) as remuneration—through a network of semi-criminal structures. The best example here would be the use of former Soviet military personnel in African conflicts following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The third and final sub-category—mainly encountered in Africa—focuses on the hiring of foreign fighters by neighboring states to take part in domestic conflicts. Multiple instances of this pattern have been encountered in Liberia, Burkina Faso and Angola. One of the most recent cases occurred in Mozambique—following unsuccessful efforts by the Wagner Group—where local authorities opted to rely on paramilitary formations from neighboring states to confront the insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province.
- Privatized states is a phenomenon (also frequently seen in Africa) that occurs when some states rent military expertise from other countries in the form of “joint venture projects.” For instance, the Congo “rented” military expertise from Zimbabwe via the government-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI).
Finally, Russian experts have come up with the following typology for PM/SCs:
- Military-provider companies (kompanii voyennykh uslug)—which offer their clients tactical support during military operations (including direct participation in hostilities);
- Military-consulting companies (konsaltingovyie kompanii)—which consult clients on questions related to strategic planning and the reform of military forces, directly help with training of military personnel, as well as provide guidance on working with new types of weaponry;
- Military-support companies (logisticheskiye kompanii)—which provide auxiliary functions (including services in the information technology and military spheres);
- Private security companies (chastnuye okhrannyye kompanii)—which deal with crisis management, risk assessment, security consulting, de-mining or training of local law enforcement.
Two Models of ‘Security for Hire’
US Model: Strengths, Weaknesses and Considerations for Other Actors
Speaking on the global PM/SC domain, the undeniable fact is: the industry is de-facto dominated by American (more broadly, Western) companies. One study suggested that, out of the world’s 50 largest security providers, 27 originate from the US, one from Canada and another 12 from the UK; moreover, out of the ten largest actors, six come from the US and Canada.
In addition to previously mentioned reasons, it makes sense to additionally identify US-specific factors that have resulted in the boom of its domestic PM/SCs industry.
First, we should consider the military-political factor. The end of the Cold War made it difficult—both from the economic and political perspectives—and even counterproductive to maintain large masses of US forces aboard. On top of that, as argued by some experts, employment of PM/SCs “provided a relatively easy way to avoid public scrutiny while still achieving operational objectives.” In other words, the US government could exercise the benefit of plausible deniability.
Secondly, the information-psychological factor must be analyzed, as reflected in the emergence of the so-called “Mogadishu syndrome.” In 1993, a US-led coalition within the scope of Operation Restore Hope (sanctioned by the UN Security Council) attempted to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief in Somalia and suffered significant military losses—which resulted in the outbreak of public discontent and calls to avoid US involvement in paramilitary operations without direct US interests being at stake. Following the tragic events of Mogadishu, many Americans began to question the necessity of becoming involved in conflicts for humanitarian reasons, especially when American interests are not directly at stake.
Third, we should look at economic-political factors within the PM/SC market. As stated, the industry has become a gold mine, yielding large profits to all stakeholders involved. In the case of the US, large profits go hand in hand with the political agenda. For instance, experts argue that Blackwater Founder Erik Prince has been regularly donating money to the Republican Party since 1989, which has had a positive impact on the development of his business. Also, in the early 2000s, DynCorp managed to hinder the passing of a congressional bill that “would require federal agencies to justify the use of PMSCs on the basis of cost-saving calculations.” Interestingly, even those political forces that stood on liberal-democratic principles did not shy away from promoting PM/SC–related agendas. For example, the end of former US President Barack Obama’s presidency was marked by an “unprecedented use of private contractors.” In this light, by 2015, the number of PM/SC personnel outnumbered uniformed forces 3-to-1 in Afghanistan.
In turn, the growing use and reliance on PM/SCs in paramilitary operations are stipulated by a number of undeniable advantages:
- PM/SCs benefit from the same general advantages as the private sector, which translate into a high level of flexibility, expertise and adherence to supply-demand principle—qualities that are particularly critical when (frequently) cumbersome state-run bodies and agencies demonstrate high levels of ineffectiveness and inefficiency.
- Battle-hardened and wielding significant paramilitary experience, members of PM/SCs demonstrate high levels of proficiency—which is frequently not the case with drafted soldiers—and are not intimidated by complex missions even when suffering heavy losses. (For instance, in 1994, the Belgian government withdrew its peacekeepers from Rwanda after losing ten soldiers in the early stages of the Rwandan genocide.)
- Services and expertise offered by PM/SCs are vast and go well beyond paramilitary functions. For instance, services procured by the DoD from PM/SCs in the realm of computer science and cybersecurity have played an increasingly important role for the DoD, which, in cases where only state resources were used, would have likely resulted in considerable delays.
- PM/SCs provide the advantage of plausible deniability, which can, according to Singer, allow the state to solve its operational issues in other regions without direct participation or implicating itself in these operations.
That said, however, the US PM/SC industry has three primary weaknesses that have been underscored by policymakers, practitioners and academics.
The first weakness involves public scrutiny and oversight. Being completely legal and thus subject to public scrutiny, US (and in general, Western) PM/SCs and all stakeholders involved in their operations are frequently targeted by various forces, including journalists, politicians, subject experts and (in)direct competitors. Indeed, while by far the largest part of PM/SCs’ activities remain out of the news and thus unknown to the general public, any transgression or incident that involves PM/SCs rapidly becomes public knowledge and a matter of heavy criticism. For instance, episodes such as Fallujah (April 2004), the Nisour Square massacre (September 2007) or torture in Abu Ghraib rapidly filled headlines of mainstream media.  This leads many subject experts to argue that the PM/SC industry in the US enjoys full impunity and suffers from a lack of accountability, whereas members of PM/SCs are frequently labeled as criminals and mercenaries. Indeed, such sentiments were expressed even at the highest levels of the US government with then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitting that the provider firms’ singular focus on completing their mission can at times mean they are working “at cross-purposes to our larger mission in Iraq.”
Secondly, the economic sustainability of the use of PM/SCs has been questioned. While some authors argue that the use of PM/SCs leads to optimization and decreasing the budget costs of conducting paramilitary and related operations, others disagree. One study suggests that, by 2012, the US had spent about $232.2 billion on contractors and almost $60 billion had been lost “as a result of waste, fraud and abuse on the part of the contractors.” Undoubtedly, in times of economic downturns this is used by media and political opponents as a tool for information pressure.
Third is the “dependency syndrome” that the US government is developing in respect to its use of PM/SCs (in Singer`s definition, PMFs). As noted by Singer, PMFs “today can provide almost any military service or function, from strategic leadership to piloting jet fighters and cooking. The core question is for what areas should they? More broadly, it is becoming clear that a sort of dependency syndrome has set in, where the Pentagon cannot carry out many of its most basic public responsibilities without firms. To be blunt, the reliance on contractors is far more serious than DoD senior leadership is willing to admit.”
That said, this author`s thorough and detailed research on Russian PMCs and expanding research on China demonstrates that the first and third weaknesses are factors that could—and actually do, in the case of Russia—result in choosing an alternative model for development of their domestic “security for hire” industry.
Russian Quasi-PMCs: Plausible Deniability and Its Drawbacks
In contrast with the US model (and the Western model in general), Russia has taken quite a different approach in developing its PM/SC industry. Emergence of this “murky” realm in Russia (even though it has deep historical roots) should be attributed to the outbreak of two regional conflicts that occurred in Russia`s self-proclaimed sphere of interest: the Syrian Civil War (started in 2011) and the Ukrainian conflict (started in 2014 and in 2022 broke into the all-out Russian-Ukrainian war). While Ukraine marked the beginning of Russia`s quasi-PMC industry, in Syria, Russian mercenaries—fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad—arguably reached the zenith of their success, taking part in all major battles. Later, Russian contractors were involved in a number of other regional conflicts, including in Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mozambique, as well as extending operations to other areas, including the Balkans and South and Central America.
The “Russian model” differs from the contemporary US/Western approach in the following three main ways:
- Legal status: Russian quasi-PMCs do not officially exist; more so, participation in such entities is construed as “mercenary” and is thus punishable by the Russian Criminal Code. While de jure illegal, the existence of these entities—with the Wagner Group being the most well-known—grants the Russian state the luxury of plausible deniability, which in turn allows Moscow to take part in regional conflicts and pursue its geo-economic and business agendas without direct participation. Thus, the lack of legal status and informational opaqueness (inseparable from the former aspect) surrounding these entities results in the (near) lack of verifiable information about casualties suffered by these formations and their exact missions abroad.
- Areas of employment: In addition to the aforementioned functions typically performed by legal PM/SCs, Russian quasi-PMCs are also used in three additional capacities. First, they take part in military conflicts performing functions typically assigned to regular armed forces (including frontal attacks on enemy positions akin to regular infantry formations), which makes them more similar to mercenaries of the past rather than contemporary PM/SCs. Second, members of quasi-PMCs are known to have participated in the youth “patriotic” upbringing both in Russia and abroad (the Balkans) in association with local war veterans. Third, Russian quasi-PMCs are used as weapons of information warfare and psychological pressure against the Kremlin`s opponents. Specifically, at the height of the Wagner Group’s international involvement, Moscow’s highest-ranking officials (including President Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov), on several occasions, deliberately mentioned the growing international outreach of the mercenary formation. This was completely contrary to Russia`s previous behavior in this domain—not only acknowledging its existence (and the Russian state’s use of mercenaries) but also de facto attempting to scare Russia`s weaker and smaller geopolitical opponents.
- Recruitment practices: While Western security providers are known to legally hire foreign experts and service people—many are recruited in Latin America—Russian quasi-PMCs have demonstrated heavy reliance on either ethnic Russian fighters or non-ethnic Russian minorities who are citizens of the Russian Federation. After 2014, following Russia`s illegal annexation of Crimea and Russian-inspired hostilities in Donbas, Moscow attempted to recruit locals. However, these forces—paid far less than Wagner mercenaries—were primarily employed as “cannon fodder” either in lieu of or alongside Wagner forces. Based on Russian sources, this experience did not yield any positive results on the battlefield.
All that said, employment of the Wagner Group has also brought mixed results. While in Ukraine (between 2014 and 2016) and Syria (between 2015 and 2017) the group managed to achieve some visible results, later, when encountering more organized and well-equipped forces—Syria (2018), Libya (2020) and Ukraine (2022)—the quality of their performance plummeted. Moreover, Russian mercenaries` mission in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mozambique) suffered a humiliating defeat when encountering local rebel groups, which resulted in local leadership turning their eyes to contractors from Rwandan and South African PM/SCs. Perhaps, the only relative success achieved by Russian contractors was their involvement in the CAR. Importantly, the Wagner Group did not take part in the fighting, as its functions were reduced to training and consulting local paramilitary personnel, ensuring security of infrastructure and protection of local politicians. Yet, this success is only partial (the country is still divided and the position of the ruling elite is unstable) and contingent on the CAR`s unattractiveness to other major players for geo-economic and geopolitical reasons.
Conclusion: Considerations for China
While a more detailed analysis of the Chinese PM/SC industry—as well as reflections on its proper and most legitimate definition—will be presented in the next report, at this juncture, it makes sense to provide some preliminary insights and ideas about the potential trajectory of development in the industry through the lens of the US and Russian models.
Most likely, the future development of Chinese “security for hire” industry will be profoundly influenced by a combination of the following factors.
First, lack of necessary paramilitary experience and training is an issue. As noted by Sean McFate in a personal interview, the last war won by the Chinese armed forces was the Chinese Civil War (1949), while the last war fought—the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979)—became a bitter disappointment and embarrassment for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Today, according to McFate, even given China’s massive war expenditures, Beijing has shown virtually no signs, at least not on the surface, of being able to qualitatively increase its capabilities in the realms that constitute strengths of contemporary PM/SCs.
Another interviewee, Singer, shared these sentiments, stating that from a military point of view, China’s reputation might be somewhat overrated. Thus, its operational capabilities in the domain of private security and non-linear paramilitary operations—areas that constitute the main strengths of contemporary PM/SCs—could be rather limited.
From his side, Erik Prince presented an even more pessimistic outlook (for China), stating that it would be next to impossible for the Chinese—without the necessary training provided by Beijing’s foreign counterparts—to achieve (in the short to medium term) the same level of operational proficiency currently wielded by US security providers. This means that, in the short to medium interim, to be able to secure its nationals and assets along the BRI, China will likely rely on domestic PSCs (to a lesser extent though and the depth of this reliance will depend on the region) and local security providers. Meanwhile, it is likely that paramilitary cooperation will be mainly done through official channels, with the PLA playing a central role. That said, a combination of “soft power” and the economic side of “hard power” will remain key tools in China’s arsenal.
Second, concerns have cropped up over the boundaries of influence that PM/SCs could enjoy. As stated by Prince, one key obstacle in the development of an effective and efficient Chinese “security for hire” industry—in the interview, he emphasized the PMC-related side—should be attributed to the fact that the current Beijing political leadership is unlikely to favor the existence of private militarized structures in China. Indeed, referring to the Russian example and debates on the legalization of PM/SCs, a somewhat similar concern (highlighted by Prince) was voiced by Moscow, where the state of “public security”—which could be jeopardized through a greater number of armed people not directly controlled by the state—became one of the main arguments against the legalization of PM/SCs.
In his opinion, McFate doubts that China’s political-economic model will permit the existence of truly “private” elements in its “security for hire” industry. Taken into consideration, one could argue that the key role in controlling and monitoring the activities that will be taking place in Beijing`s “security for hire” industry are likely to be performed by the Chinese state. Speaking on the subject, however, McFate hypothesized that, in the future, some Chinese oligarchs, in a bid for greater independence, might be intrigued by the idea of strengthening their own security structures; yet under current conditions, this scenario seems implausible.
Third, the fear of publicity and tainted reputation significantly affects the prospects of the PM/SC industry. Chinese actions at home and abroad are already generating massive waves of criticism, not only in the West but also among Beijing`s Asia-Pacific allies and partners. Yet, given the fact that a large part of the BRI passes through non-Western and non-democratic countries, it appears that China has little to worry about in regard to its questionable practices. Regretfully though, for Beijing, this is not always the case. For instance, even in countries that are economically dependent on China and seemingly maintain excellent political ties with Beijing, instances of mass public anti-Chinese protests and splashes of (sometimes violent) Sinophobia have occurred. For China, which is now working hard to improve its global image as a responsible country—including its environmental, social and governance–related agendas and proclamations—PM/SC-related scandals (akin to the ones indicated earlier that occurred with US security providers) would be a nightmarish scenario that could backfire against the country and its economic and business ambitions along the BRI.
Fourth, given the already indicated gaps in realms associated with the key functions of PM/SCs, China could prospectively concentrate on developing and strengthening other aspects of war and security. Specifically, both Singer and Brooks believe that Chinese entities (conditionally defined as PM/SCs) could concentrate on the cyber domain, developing capabilities in both offensive and defensive aspects. Indeed, given the talk of the emergence of the so-called “Cyber BRI,” as well as the fact that China has de facto become a key provider of cameras and means of intelligence collection in Central Asia, development of capabilities in new domains of war and security—in which information and cyber spaces have already emerged as crucial pillars—is a prospect that must not be ruled out. Another area in which China could increase employment of private security entities is through the UN-mandated humanitarian missions in Africa and Latin America, which could serve Beijing in terms of reputation building and as a tool for increasing its foothold in these strategically vital (from a geo-economic perspective) regions.
In sum, it needs to be argued that, having closely monitored the performance and activities of both the US and Russian models for “security for hire,” as well as given its own strengths, weaknesses and ambitions, the Chinese PM/SC industry is likely to develop its own, and in many ways unique, methods of developing capabilities in this realm.
Sergey Sukhankin, “Mercenaries in the Desert: The Kremlin’s Libya Game,” Fair Observer, October 16, 2019, https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/russia-policy-khalifa-haftar-libya-conflict-middle-east-security-news-99765/.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “Unleashing the PMCs and Irregulars in Ukraine: Crimea and Donbas,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 3, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/unleashing-the-pmcs-and-irregulars-in-ukraine-crimea-and-donbas/.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “Russia’s ‘Security Export’ Model in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Viable Alternative or Path to Nowhere?,” ISPI Dossier (Rome), November 2021, https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/russias-security-export-model-sub-saharan-africa-viable-alternative-or-path-nowhere-32099.
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Janice E. Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); and H. V. Bowen, The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
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 For more information see: Sergey Sukhankin, “The ‘Hybrid’ Role of Russian Mercenaries, PMCs and Irregulars in Moscow’s Scramble for Africa,” The Jamestown Foundation, January 10, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/the-hybrid-role-of-russian-mercenaries-pmcs-and-irregulars-in-moscows-scramble-for-africa/
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 For instance, in an interview, D. Brukes argued that the total global market of PM/SCs—that render professional services—stands at about $15 billion. D. Brouks, interview with the author, May 6, 2022.
 Bruce E. Stanley, Outsourcing Security: Private Military Contractors and U.S. Foreign Policy, (Nebraska: Potomac Books, 2015).
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 To get a better and more complete understanding of Russian PMCs and non-state militarized actors, see the project titled “War by Other Means,” The Jamestown Foundation, https://jamestown.org/programs/russ-pmc/.
 Sergey Sukhankin, “Russian PMCs in the Syrian Civil War: From Slavonic Corps to Wagner Group and Beyond,” The Jamestown Foundation, December 18, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/russian-pmcs-in-the-syrian-civil-war-from-slavonic-corps-to-wagner-group-and-beyond/
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