10/23/2012 08:05 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

The Changing State of International Relations: The PMSC Impact

It has long been understood that today's private military and security companies are seen by governments that contract with them as a third option, between doing nothing and sending the troops off to war, and even possibly bringing back a military draft -- albeit against widespread public opposition.

But that view may be both limited and outdated. While the academics who study the issue haven long recognized that the use of PMSC weakens the state's traditional monopoly on the use of force the use of PMSCs by national governments "represents a fundamental change in how military force is created and postured. Subsequently, this may have profound consequences for the conduct of foreign policy and the balance of power in the international system." At least that is the view of David Perry, a political science student working on his Ph.D. at Carleton University.

Last year he presented a paper, Purchasing Power: Is Defence Privatization a New Form of Military Mobilization? at the annual conference of the International Studies Association.

He argues:

"... the use of PMSCs by national governments can be conceptualized as a new form of resource extraction and mobilization that allows states to more easily extract the requisite resources from society to create military forces and deploy them abroad.."

In itself, that is not a particularly novel insight. But it does have some serious implications in terms of the impact on traditional links between a nation's military and the larger civilian society that supports it. Here is one of his points:

"These changes that privatization has brought about to US military force structure appear to have significant implications for the United State's ability to deploy military forces abroad. Singer, for instance, contends that heavy reliance on contractors has effectively allowed the US government to deploy its All Volunteer Force without fully mobilizing its Reserve and National Guard components. The lack of reserve force mobilization is even more notable since the United States has conducted two simultaneous wars since 2001, despite seeing the number of active duty American military forces decline to their lowest levels since the Korean War. In Singer's estimation, bypassing reserve mobilization by contracting violates the principles of the Abrahams Doctrine, instituted by the US military after Vietnam to prevent military deployments without substantial societal support."

He also writes:

"In particular, compared to military forces, the American Congress has: less budgetary control over PMSCs; a reduced oversight function; no ability to exert control through the personnel system, structure chains of command, or approve promotions; and a much reduced role in debating expeditionary deployments. Thus, in the United States, defence privatization reduces 'the capacity of Congress to play its constitutional role as a veto point.'"

In addition:

Compared to the military, PMSCs enjoy less extensive media coverage, government's release less information about their activities, and details of their contracts are often withheld due to concerns about proprietary information. As a result of this reduced transparency, privatization 'erode[s] the processes through which public consent is offered by reducing public interest in or concern about the use of force by their leaders.'"

And, as others have previously noted the use of PMSC reduces public concern over the human costs of war because contractor casualties are significantly under-reported.

Perry concludes that:

"First, the use of private actors may have significant implications for contemporary understandings of the role of public opinion in employing military force. Second, by reducing the social check on executive control over military force, privatization may significantly alter the way democracies go to war. By bypassing constitutional veto points over the use of force and reducing social consent over decisions to go to war, defence privatization challenges some versions of the democratic peace thesis and explanations for democratic effectiveness in war. Third, defence privatization suggests that contemporary understanding of power in international relations must be updated to account for this new, private supplement to state's military forces. Even very recent scholarship, for instance, fails to include PMSCs when analyzing America's hard power assets. Finally, by changing military force structure to make it more expeditionary, defence privatization may change the cost benefit calculus undertaken by states when deciding how to act in the international system. Thus, privatization may facilitate an offensive grand strategy."