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What is a Private Military Contractor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A private military contractor is a company which offers services which related to the military, using a force of trained civilians, many of whom are ex-military. Private military contractors entered the public eye in the early 21st century, when a number of firms collectively comprised the second largest force in Iraq. Some people are concerned about private contractors, as many of these companies perform the same duties that the military does, but without the oversight which is built into most national militaries.

Essentially, any private military contractor is a mercenary firm. These companies offer highly trained personnel along with equipment such as weapons, armored vehicles, aircraft, and other necessary tools of the trade. When contracted, these companies travel to a site such as an embassy, an area of low intensity conflict, or a private facility where bodyguards are needed.

Some contractors simply operate like glorified security companies, offering security with the extra beef of military training. Others are more like special forces, providing a range of services, some of which may be marginally legal. Many governments actually subcontract work to private military contractors, and these companies may be seen in a range of locations and situations in a quasi-official position.

Most private military companies were founded by ex-military men and women who wanted to offer high quality defense and security services. In some cases, these companies are actually part of larger defense firms, while in other instances they are entirely independent. A private military contractor tends to recruit heavily from special forces and talented ex-military, ensuring that many staff are highly trained before their employment even begins. In order to work for this kind of contractor, someone must demonstrate strength, physical agility, quick decision making skills, and a heightened sense of awareness and place. Many of these requirements mirror those of national militaries.

Unlike a government military organization, a private military contractor does not have a strictly enforced hierarchy which includes considerable oversight and supervision. These companies are also not accountable in an international court of law in the same way that a military force is. They tend to offer more flexible services than militaries do, which is one reason why military contractors were seen in such abundance in Iraq. However, these firms have also been accused of overstepping their boundaries, and some nations have expressed unease with the continued lack of regulation of these organizations.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Apr 04, 2014

@Logicfest -- don't know the answer to either question, but here is another one. How much does it cost to bring in those contractors? Could it be that it is actually more cost effective to put some of those groups in charge of certain things than it would be to bring the military in for those functions?

The cost effectiveness might answer your first question. As for the second one, it could be that what contractors can and can't do is spelled out very specifically in their contracts. That's how things work with companies charged with making military equipment, for example. The government specifies exactly what it wants and then private industry submits proposals in hopes that what they offer will be accepted.

By Logicfest — On Apr 04, 2014

Two questions. First, how did it become commonplace to use private military contractors rather than the actual military conflict zones? Second, what kind of oversight do these contractors have?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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