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Anticipating Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict

Since the end of the Cold War, the amount of private military and security companies (PMSCs) involved in armed conflicts has increased rapidly. In armed conflicts, the PMSCs carry out tasks that used to be performed by governmentally armed forces. These include non-coercive as well as coercive activities, ranging from military training and intelligence analysis to offensive combat and interrogation of prisoners (Tonkin, 2012, 1). Meanwhile, it remains unclear to what extent PMSCs increase the severity of armed conflicts (Lees and Petersohn, 2021, 1). It is clear, however, that the activities of PMSCs in armed conflicts impact European land forces and their objectives. In Libya, for instance, Russia has backed the Libyan National Army (LNA) with PMSC forces, among other things. Allegedly, Russian leaders hoped this could help them gain control over oil reserves in Libya, on which several European countries depend. Besides, Libya is located strategically on NATO’s southern flank (Cragin and MacKenzie, 2020). This is just one example of a country where foreign PMSCs and European armed forces are involved in a conflict. The question is how European land forces can anticipate the presence of foreign PMSCs in armed conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Therefore, this article will focus on the operational rather than the legal and ethical aspects of the activities of PMSCs in armed conflict.

When dealing with PMSCs in armed conflict, it is important to understand the differences between PMSCs and mercenary categories. Although there is some overlap between PMSC personnel and mercenaries, contemporary PMSCs are registered corporations instead of freelance mercenaries. Besides, PMSCs are tied to a home state, either formally or informally. In this regard, state accountability distinguishes PMSCs from mercenaries. Furthermore, whereas mercenaries tend to work for the highest bidder, PMSCs tend to claim they are hired by legitimate actors, including businesses, international organisations, national governments, and NGOs (Tonkin, 2012, 30-31). When it comes to national governments in particular, strong states, as well as failing states, hire PMSCs. There can be a wide range of reasons national governments decide to hire PMSCs. One important reason for a state hiring a PMSC, however, is operational. The US, for instance, has claimed PMSCs are beneficial in operational terms, because it allows their overstretched military to transfer some of their activities and increase their total force (Tonkin, 2012, 37).

Additionally, it can be faster for the military to hire PMSCs than to develop capabilities internally, and PMSCs might know specialised fields that some military services do not have. Namely, PMSC personnel tend to have worked in the military and security sector before (Tonkin, 2012, 36). Moreover, the solutions that PMSCs can provide can be more cost-effective for the military (Tonkin, 2012, 38).

            For European land forces to anticipate PMSCs in armed conflict, it is important to understand the wide range of activities PMSCs carry out. Although each PMSC can provide a different selection of activities, they all tend to carry out actions considered key military responsibilities. The PMSCs’ most contentious activities include their engagement in offensive combat, guarding military objectives, and armed security (Tonkin, 2012, 39). These activities can impact a conflict’s strategic and tactical setting and, therefore, on the action plans of national land forces. Other activities PMSCs carry out fall into the category of military and security expertise, such as intelligence collection and analysis, the maintenance of weapons systems, and the provision of strategic or technical capabilities and training (Tonkin, 2012, 45). The technical expertise of PMSCs can be highly diverse. For instance, PMSCs have assisted with mine clearance in Namibia and Mozambique, while another US firm helped Hungary meet the required standards to join NATO (Tonkin, 2012, 47). Finally, PMSCs can provide military support in the realm of logistics, such as transport, provision of food, or the repatriation of bodies (Tonkin, 2012, 51).

            Since the combative activities of PMSCs are most relevant to the strategic and tactical setting of an armed conflict and have an impact on the activities of land forces, it is important to assess why PMSCs get involved in certain conflicts and how they influence them. PMSCs need an invitation from a party to a conflict, as opposed to the UN, for instance, which can intervene without consent. This suggests that PMSCs tend to be hired in severe conflicts, where national governments highly demand military services. Besides, PMSCs might be drawn to the most severe conflicts since these yield the highest profits. Conversely, it has been argued that PMSCs cause conflicts to be more severe because of their ruthlessness or their effective combat performance (Lees and Petersohn, 2021, 2).

Furthermore, it has been argued that when there is a lack of competition, PMSCs can purposefully underperform, allowing them to remain present in a conflict for a longer period and maximise their profits (Akcinaroglu and Radziszewski, 2012, 795). Then again, it can also be in PMSCs’ interest to terminate an armed conflict as soon as they can, for instance, when they are tasked to operate in an area where natural resources can be extracted (Akcinaroglu and Radziszewski, 2012, 815). National land forces can use information on these market dynamics to assess how PMSCs will act in an armed conflict and how their actions can influence the course of a conflict.

In short, it can be helpful to national land forces that are involved in an armed conflict with foreign PMSCs to understand their nature, the wide range of actors that hire them, their activities, and how they can influence armed conflicts. Knowing by which actors PMSCs are hired, what background their employees have, whether they are hired to engage in offensive combat or logistical support, and whether they have an interest in prolonging or terminating an armed conflict can provide useful information for the operational decisions of national land forces, particularly to European land forces that are involved in armed conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, in which high amounts of foreign PMSCs are present as well.

Written by Gilles de Valk



Akcinaroglu, Seden and Elizabeth Radziszewski. “Private Military Companies, Opportunities, and Termination of Civil Wars in Africa”. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 57:5 (2013), 795-821.

Cragin, Kim R. and MacKenzie, Lachlan. (2020). “Russia’s Escalating Use of Private Military Companies in Africa”. Institute for National Strategic Studies, 24 November, 2020. [online] Available at:[Accessed 12 August, 2021].

Lees, Nicholas and Ulrich Petersohn. “To Escalate, or Not to Escalate? Private Military and Security Companies and Conflict Severity”. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, (2021), 1-24.

Tonkin, Hannah. State Control over Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.