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What is a Private Military Contractor?

A Private Military Contractor (PMC) is a specialist hired by governments or corporations to provide military services. Often staffed by ex-military personnel, PMCs operate in conflict zones, offering support ranging from strategic planning to combat operations. Their role is controversial, raising questions about accountability and ethics in warfare. What implications does their growing presence have on international conflict? Explore with us the shadowy world of PMCs.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Private military contractors often keep small fleets of turboprop or piston powered aircraft for use with underdeveloped third world runways.
Private military contractors often keep small fleets of turboprop or piston powered aircraft for use with underdeveloped third world runways.

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.

Private military contractors recruit heavily from special forces and talented ex-military, ensuring that staff are highly trained before their employment begins.
Private military contractors recruit heavily from special forces and talented ex-military, ensuring that staff are highly trained before their employment begins.

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.

Blackwater USA is a private security firm with ties to the Iraq War.
Blackwater USA is a private security firm with ties to the Iraq War.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a private military contractor?

Private military contractors carry out the same duties as the military, but without the same degree of oversight.
Private military contractors carry out the same duties as the military, but without the same degree of oversight.

A private military contractor (PMC) is a private company that provides armed combat or security services to governments, international organizations, and corporations. PMCs offer a range of services including tactical combat operations, strategic planning, intelligence gathering, and security detail for high-risk zones. They are often staffed by former military personnel and operate under contracts that outline specific tasks and rules of engagement.

How do private military contractors differ from traditional military forces?

Private contractors often hire people with prior military experience.
Private contractors often hire people with prior military experience.

Private military contractors differ from traditional military forces in that they are private entities hired by governments or organizations, rather than being part of a nation's armed forces. PMCs operate on a contractual basis, providing flexibility and specialized skills without the long-term commitment of maintaining a standing military. They are also subject to the laws of the hiring country and international law, but their legal status can be more ambiguous than that of regular military personnel.

What roles do private military contractors play in conflict zones?

In conflict zones, private military contractors may engage in a variety of roles such as personal security for diplomats and business executives, training of local forces, logistical support, and direct combat operations. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, contractors have been integral in supporting U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with contractor personnel at times outnumbering U.S. troops in these countries.

Are there any regulations governing the operation of private military contractors?

Yes, private military contractors are subject to regulations both at the international level and within the hiring country. Internationally, the Montreux Document provides guidelines on the legal obligations of states regarding PMCs. Domestically, countries like the United States have specific laws such as the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) that extend federal jurisdiction to certain crimes committed by contractors abroad.

How big is the private military contractor industry?

The private military contractor industry has grown significantly over the past few decades. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the global security services market, which includes PMCs, was estimated to be worth $240 billion in 2019. This growth is driven by increased demand for military and security services in conflict zones and the privatization of military functions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Markerrag

@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.

Logicfest

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?

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    • Private military contractors often keep small fleets of turboprop or piston powered aircraft for use with underdeveloped third world runways.
      By: vlabo
      Private military contractors often keep small fleets of turboprop or piston powered aircraft for use with underdeveloped third world runways.
    • Private military contractors recruit heavily from special forces and talented ex-military, ensuring that staff are highly trained before their employment begins.
      By: oswe
      Private military contractors recruit heavily from special forces and talented ex-military, ensuring that staff are highly trained before their employment begins.
    • Blackwater USA is a private security firm with ties to the Iraq War.
      By: bogdanserban
      Blackwater USA is a private security firm with ties to the Iraq War.
    • Private military contractors carry out the same duties as the military, but without the same degree of oversight.
      By: Oleksii Nykonchuk
      Private military contractors carry out the same duties as the military, but without the same degree of oversight.
    • Private contractors often hire people with prior military experience.
      By: Pavel Bernshtam
      Private contractors often hire people with prior military experience.