Guns-in-hire: What would mean for the future wars?

        The realm of statehood is witnessing a strange phenomenon among the on-going conflicts in Ukraine and in Africa.Private Military Companies or shortly known as PMCs, are being sighted unusually as many companies and governments started relying more on these non-state entities to protect their interests (commercially and politically). The most infamous cases would be Wagner of Russia and Constellis (previously known as “Acedemi”, “Black Water”) of the USA. Despite the state’s strict control over the right to maintain legitimate military forces, Why the role of PMCs isstill being beneficial among the state-actors? How PMCs are being regulated? What would mean if the guns-in-hire were high in demand on the global market?

Once upon a time there were mercenaries….

            Before the emergence of sophisticated PMCs, Proto-PMCs were widely known as “mercenary groups”. Dating back to Ancient Greece, mercenary groups of rug-down hoplites, most notably, “Ten Thousand” would be fighting against their fellow countrymen in the interests of foreign sovereigns.  Through the era of renaissance, ambitious minor nobles in Europe would wage micro wars against each other to expand their territories or resolve the dispute with their blood brethren through violence. Nobles would be keen to place their hands on renowned Swiss-German “Landsknecht” or merciless Italian “condottiere”. Despite its usefulness, the reliability of its functions was tightly related to financial capability. Italian thinker Nicollo Machiavelli heavily criticized the employment of mercenaries. From his magnum-opus, The Prince, he pointed out that their undisciplined formation,questionable royalty, and its malaise effect (banditry and chaos) ravaged the Italian Peninsula. The frequency of armed conflicts and a need for a standing army led to the wide range of military reforms. Adolph Gustavus’s reforms and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army would leave significant legacy that shaped the modern army. Thus, the age of mercenary was slowly waning down. When the French Revolution occurred, The French government enacted a universal military conscription system known as “levee-en-masse”. As a result, many continental European countries followed the suit of French conscription system, and the role of mercenaries is severely diminished until the Cold War.

The problem of waging war as a nation-state

         Even though several attempts such as Hague Convention of 1907 to regulate warfare, the collision of the great powers’ interests did not cease. The universal adoption of the draft system and the massive scale of industrialization fueled the machines of the great powers for the pursuit of their respected interests. Yet,the exponential human casualties and immense drainage of resources (the Great War and WW2 claimed millions of lives across the world. The UK, for example,repaid their last batch of debts from WW2 to the US only in 2006. Also, the combination of more than 15 countries cost 1 trillion dollars)devastatingly affected the livelihoods of millions of people due to the industrialization of the military conflict. The reliance on pure hard power leads to the grimy scenario of destruction. Aside from mass destruction, it requires tremendous efforts andtime to mobilize its economy and population. Plus, it is putting its status and territorial integrity at its own risk.Therefore, the problem of waging war is undesirable and has unbearable costs.Though the state militaries are still being employed to protect its interests,the mercenaries gradually became a “hidden dagger for sale” for various nation-states and groups.  Although the role ofmercenary groups is quasi-defunct, the practice of mercenary was slowly being revived. For instance, the UK employed “Blacks and Tans” to suppress the Irish insurgents in 1920 and the USA would send “FlyingTigers” to China to combat the Japanese airforces.  The decolonialization, the establishment of the UN, the cold war and the interconnected nature of global market paved a new age for mercenaries. The conflicts influenced by the US-USSR strategical rivalry would escalate as many infant nation-states became battlegrounds of various interests. The guns-for-hire became a significant tool for a superpower,regional powers, and others. The most illustrating example would be Katanga crisis of Congo in 1960s when Katanga separatists employed foreign mercenaries to perform the military service for them.

Hybrid Warfare

Engaging the hostile forces in a manner of traditional state-on-state war became an obsolete way (as previously mentioned cost more financial support) to a certain extent. The pressure from the international community and globalization  required the different and peculiar methods for warfare. This leads to emergence of a concept called “hybrid warfare” during the 2000s. Then what makes“hybrid warfare” hybrid? According to the MCDCand NATO joint war center, the hybrid warfare is a type of warfare that harness the non-military resources such as information (hired trolls  spreading misinformation on internet to demoralize or divide the public opinion for example), economical (Russian gaspolitics and Western sanctions), political (donations for rival candidates campaign in a target country), diplomacy (persuading the international community),crimes (mostly non-state actors) and synchronizing with non-regular (militias, terrorist groups and PMCs) and regular military forces to cut the target’s strategic capability by attacking the weak points. Compared to traditional warfare, it is as if the war is not being proceeded or covertly proceeded. It is a blending of somberness and brightness to confuse your enemy whatever it is a day or night. As the US maintains the strongest military power in the world, Hybrid warfare can be the only way for powers such as Iran, Russia and China that are aspiring to challenge the lengthy U.S presence across the world. The mercenary groups,however, could be a one of the ways from hybrid warfare to challenge the what President Putin famously said “Unipolar system under the guise of rule-based order”

From frowned and illegal “Mercenary groups” to legit “Private military companies”

   The nature of modern market economy gradually turned the mercenary groups into “private security companies”. With the facades of “legality”, the PMCs became more approachable and less-negative oriented. The activities of the PMCs ranged from consultations and training to providing military assistance. Starting from the 1980s, the number of PMCs gradually increased from mere 50 to astonishing 1150 PMCs across the globe. It may be attributed to the end of the cold war as the numbers of PMCs were constantly soaring on a global size from that point.  According to Statista,a large portion of services offered by PMCs were heavily related to maritime security services and the current size of the market was 200 billion dollars in 2016. The fruits of the PMCs such as  less cost, less effort as it does not have to rally the public opinion, fast deployment are attracting potential customers.  Despite the international attempt to ban on the employment of “mercenary” in1989 (the signatories were lower nonetheless), PMCs are being slowly weaponized.  In 2020, When Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out, Azerbaijani government was employing Syrian mercenaries to combat the Armenian forces according to the UN. During the 2014 Crimean crisis, the Wagner group became a spearhead of Russian hard power on this on-going conflict.When the Ukrainian conflict occurred in 2022, Most of the heavy fighting were carried out by Wagner’s private contractors with the co-operation of the Russian Military. Not only the Wagner Group played significant role in Ukrainian crisis, but it also proved its capability in Syria and in several African countries such as Central African Republic.  Renowned PMCs expert Sean McFate pointed out that American’s most well-trained  and well-equipped elite formations with superior air support were struggling against 500 Wagner mercenaries in Syria.However, the PMCs can pose certain risks directly to the establishments. When the Black Water company personnel killed 17 civilians in Nissur square in 2007,it negatively damaged the US government’s reputation to certain degree.  When Yevgeny Prigozhin was marching with his troops to Moscow directly due to the feud with Russian military, his actions intentionally or accidentally challenged Kremlin’s authority. As a result, Yevgeny Prigozhin died from “mysterious” jet crash.  The problems of employing PMCs imply several disadvantages: degrading legitimacy and stability, competition with state-controlled military and usurpation of failed state. Sean McFate also warned that the PMCs would not vanish and the high demand for PMCs may create alternative type of war.Nonetheless, PMCs are still posed to play a vital role as the frequency of armed conflicts disrupting becomes more prominent. The hidden double edged can only be mastered by a wielder who could know its functions. Therefore, the future of the world order can be determined by the consumers of the PMCs.