The expansion of the roles taken on by private sector security companies in support of national military deployments has been quite extraordinary over the last 30 or so years. It is that perhaps which has prompted Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, to suggest the effective privatisation of the United State’s 17-year war in Afghanistan. But there is nothing new about the use of private contractors on military operations around the world.

Even a cursory glance at the history of the British military reveals that the origins of just about all of our great regiments and corps were built on the foundation of private individuals or companies, and much of our enabling capability around the world came from contracted support. As Kim Sengupta noted in his interview with Prince, a large chunk of the British empire, including its jewel – India – owed its roots to companies such as the East India Company, which operated well outside the control of the British government and employed its own security forces or army.

But it hasn’t always been a pretty story. Thirty five years after the Battle of Waterloo – and a decade after the disbandment of the “state-owned” Royal Waggon Train in 1833 – private contractors in the Crimea found it impossible to get enough stores up into the hills, so horses starved on the plateaux while hay and corn lay rotting in the port. Security was poor; there was no coordination, no command grip – no leadership. Ships arrived badly loaded with no manifests, and some were turned around still loaded; a situation not helped when, in November 1854, a storm damaged 21 vessels, including eight within Balaclava Harbour, and sunk several outside it. In the spring of 1855, military control was re-exerted and cheating contractors were purged. The end result was the formation of an all-military Land Transport Corps, the Hospital Conveyance Corps and, prior to the Boer War, the Army Service Corps in 1891.

In operations in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century the resulting supply system of regimental transport, supply columns and parks, railheads and technical transport for artillery ammunition, engineer equipment and medical supplies were all under state – ie military – command and control. But the army was still supported by local labour and contractors; 5,000 civilian personnel with Lord Roberts’s columns during the long haul from Bloemfontein in February to March 1900, and 7,000 in General French’s march in the Transvaal later that year. Contractors still carried dispatches, constructed fortifications, gathered intelligence and provided scouts.

And the reality today is that deploying, sustaining and delivering military intent wouldn’t happen without contractors. The construction and maintenance of camps in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan; the provision of telephones; routine air, road and rail transportation, including flights between the UK and the theatre; bulk fuel, food, water; maintenance and upgrading of vehicle fleets and aircraft; all this and more have been and are still being sublet to contractors. The stark truth is that not even the might of the United States can manage a conflict today in places like Iraq or Afghanistan; they have found the private sector to be convenient, reasonably effective and, most importantly, affordable.

Governments have also allowed contractors to take on broader aspects of security, including combat and protection services. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan we have seen an unprecedented increase in both the scale and role of private sector companies providing everything from force protection (including civil service guarding), pre and post-conflict advisory and training services (including evaluation), to protective security and security consultancy, including demobilisation and security sector reform. Contracts in Iraq enabled tracking and preventative and protective security for all the non-military players involved in reconstruction in the country, including the UN, and they also protected military personnel on a daily basis. With the freedom to carry weapons for close protection and escorting, they could, and did, fight when necessary – although that usually only involved returning fire when attacked while they manoeuvred to extract themselves, often calling for regular military back-up.

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In the 1990-91 Gulf conflict there was perhaps one private contractor for every 50 soldiers; the numbers today are closer to one in 10. Private security companies were easily the second biggest provider of capability after the US in Iraq in the years after 2003. Security for everything from oil installations to ministry buildings and embassies rested in their hands. The UK Foreign Office alone spent £110m on protection for diplomatic staff, ministers and construction workers between 2003 and 2005.

Essentially there are two imperatives, two principle pressures, which I would sum up as the “Business Imperative” and the “Operational Imperative”. In simple terms, the principle driver must always be the latter, the Operational Imperative, because the implications of coming second on the battlefield are in a significantly different league to doing so in corporate business. However, and not far behind, the realities of resource constraints is a major driver.

The issue of course is how far this can all be taken. In Oman back in the 1960s and 1970s, the British provided high-quality UK military personnel who gave top-level direction – led by General John Akehurst (who wrote a book called We Won a War), plus quality ‘loan service’ military personnel in key adviser positions in Omani military units – as well as large numbers of contractors who worked as integral members of the Sultan’s armed forces. One of my older brothers was one of those contractors, servicing Hawker Hunter fighters. This wasn’t without its difficulties, but essentially it all worked well.

However, Erik Prince is, in my view, pushing the envelope too far. Further movement in the selected use of contractors is always on the cards, but a steel core of military capability must continue to operate throughout the process, particularly command and control ensuring common purpose and unity of effort. 

And I don’t think a total privatisation of the war in Afghanistan has any chance in the halls of the Pentagon. Over and above everything else are the legal and liability issues. These include the acceptability of the whole idea to the Afghan government and the ability to expand the status of forces’ agreement to cover civilians engaged in combat operations: will they operate under the Law of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Conventions, or something else? And what is their “ethic”, their underlying ethos?

Finally, how on earth do you write a contract that clearly lays out what the success criteria are?! Key performance indicators should be for the boardroom, not the battlefield.

Major General Tim Cross CBE is a retired British army officer and military logistics expert. His operational experiences range from deployments in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and Cyprus with the UN in 1980, to the Balkans in 1995, 1997 and 1999, and the Gulf in 1991 and 2002-03. 

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