11/03/2010 04:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing The Rules With PMC

I recently mentioned a paper by retired Marine Corps Colonel T.X. Hammes and suggested it as recommended reading. If you haven't done it I hope you do. But as it turns out this is not the first time he has written on the subject.

In 2008 he wrote a chapter, "Armed Groups; Changing the Rules"in the book Armed Groups: Studies in National Security, Counterterrorism, and Counterinsurgency, published in 2008 by the U.S. Naval War College.

His writing strikes me as prophetic, in a sort of Charles Dickens-like Ghost of PMC Future way. Either that or he has a potential career as a writer of cyberpunk science fiction.

Regardless, he makes an underappreciated point, namely that now and especially in the future private military contractors will not just be a Western phenomenon

PMC spokesmen have reassured us that responsible companies are working with governments to devise effective regulations to control their operations. This is in fact true. However, while the United States has moved to increase the accountability of such companies through regulations and contracts, these methods have yet to be seriously tested. Further, much as the shipping industry avoided regulation by registering under flags of convenience, we can expect PMCs to do the same. If regulations interfere with how they wish to operate, they will move their corporations to other countries or even dissolve and start again as different legal entities in different countries.
The sudden presence of these companies in numerous conflicts presents some interesting challenges for the international community. In the more-than-350 years since the Treaty of Westphalia, we have developed diplomatic, economic, and military techniques for dealing with crises created when nation-states use armed forces--or even threaten to use them. We do not have such mechanisms in place when nation-states or even private individuals employ armed contractors. If China had announced it planned to send significant numbers of soldiers to Sudan to assist with security and construction, there would at least have been dialogue in the United Nations. Yet open-source reports have placed the number of Chinese security forces working for Chinese companies at over 20,000 men--or two divisions worth. More recently, open-source reporting indicates the Chinese will send significantly larger numbers of both construction and security personnel to Angola. Chinese companies will in effect have multiple divisions forward deployed in Africa. It is admittedly nearly impossible to confirm these contracts, yet these events simply did not show up in international discussion. This is particularly interesting given the fact China has just signed a 10-year contract with Angola to provide oil at $60 a barrel. While the contractors are not an official branch of the Chinese government, their presence clearly puts China in position to "resolve" any disputes with the Angolan government over that contract. Thus, by the creative use of private companies, negotiations between nation-states have moved outside the international system. The rulers of these countries find the Chinese particularly appealing because they do not pressure their hosts about human rights or governmental reform.
Of course, "governments" of resource-rich areas can employ PMCs to seize and hold the rich areas of a country while simply ignoring the rest. We have already seen this with local militias and the "blood diamonds" but have not seen it applied in a systematic way. We may be seeing the first signs of this in Africa. Sudan has hired Chinese firms to provide security for its oil facilities. These firms not only provide reliable security, weapons, and training for Sudanese; they have no comments on how Sudan chooses to conduct its internal affairs. Similarly, Chad may have entered talks with private companies to circumvent the requirement that a percentage of the oil revenues be held in trust for the general population.
Using private military companies, a very small minority can control a country. While small minorities have often seized control of governments, it requires effective security forces to keep such governments in power. In many parts of the world, such forces imply are not reliable so a prudent government must pay some attention to the majority. If they hire an effective PMC, rulers will no longer need to negotiate with the majority to maintain power. Instead, they can rely on contracted security. Worst case, they will focus the PMC on protecting the wealth-generating parts of the country. They have no reason to bother with the poorer regions and may simply abandon those areas to poverty and lawlessness. The net result is more under- or ungoverned spaces in unstable parts of the world.
Another intriguing use for PMCs is to establish forward operating bases and forward-deployed forces. In the same way the British used the East India Company to establish bases and regiments in India, China can use commercial entities throughout the world. Chinese PMCs already have a major ground presence in Africa, Chinese commercial entities are building ports along the shipping lanes from the Middle East to China, and China has the potential to offer naval PMCs to provide security against pirates along major shipping routes. As an example, in March of 2006, Somalia negotiated with a Chinese naval firm to train and equip a Somali coast guard. Such naval PMCs will obviously need maintenance and support facilities, which the companies will build. In effect, the PMCs can establish a chain of naval facilities near the choke points of the sea routes.
To date, Western media and legislatures have focused on the operations of Western private military companies. Yet the true potential for providing very large, well-trained, and well-armed private militaries lies with China. India and other high-population, low employment countries can be expected to follow in China's footprints.