Force for Hire: The Private Market for Special Operations Forces

Photos Credit: US Navy

By: Taylor Clausen, Columnist

Uniformed military forces today are widely considered to be the primary individuals tasked with employing the use of state-sanctioned force. However, in the history of warfare, the soldier has rarely had this monopoly. Mercenaries – today called private military contractors – have continuously been employed by states for a variety of reasons. In the first book of modern political science, The Prince, Niccoli Machiavelli issued a stark warning for rulers who chose to employ such forces.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy.[i]

Despite the long-held belief that soldiers for hire are not only useless but counterproductive, states have continued to employ them well into the present day. Several high-profile incidents regarding private military contractors have captured the front pages of newspapers, including the bizarre event in Syria where Russian mercenaries attacked an established US Marine base in Deir Ezzor, Wagner’s (a Russian military provider firm) activities in Ukraine, and the UAE’s employment of Latin American contractors in Yemen.[ii],[iii],[iv] This begs the question, why are so many nations ignoring the advice of Machiavelli?

In the age of near-peer competition, private military contractors provide deniability and a way for governments to cloak the extent of their involvement in conflicts, not just to other actors but toward their domestic audiences as well. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trace the loyalties of these corporations to a particular nation state – as the individuals employed, where the company is incorporated, and the employing actor often differs. Congress should take an interest in where its current and former special operations reservists are employed by requiring those service members to disclose their work by military contractors.

The United States’ use of mercenaries is synonymous with their use in the Iraq war, most infamously by Blackwater, a firm that provided private security services to high ranking US officials and diplomats.[v] But originally, private contractors were brought on to supplement the needs created by an insufficient force structure, as was noted by several military analysts at the time.[vi],[vii] While originally branded as a cost saving measure, the U.S. quickly found that the pace of their use could not keep up with measures to ensure their accountability. When a myriad of human rights abuses surfaced, Congress and the Department of Defense became aware of two critical issues. The first was that they had no idea how many contractors were employed.[viii] The second was that the typical rules of engagement of which service members must follow did not apply to private citizens.[ix] As a consequence, the United States displayed that private military contractors could provide governments force without regulation or reporting requirements while the ensuing burden of enforcement to rein in their use would fall upon the international community.[x]

America adversaries were quick to emulate these capabilities into their own plans for projecting national power. Russia’s mercenaries, the infamous little green men, have effectively provided deniability in their low intensity conflict with Ukraine, hid the extent of their involvement with insurgent groups in Syria, and as well as a significant presence in Africa.[xi] As the press has continued to uncover the extent that mercenary forces have been employed, Russia has killed many of its own nationals who have attempted to link these forces back to the Kremlin.[xii] One explanation may be that that the cost of employment of mercenary forces is causing domestic trouble. When scores of Wagner contractors were killed in Syria it became an issue during Russia’s faux “presidential election.” Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on reports of Russian casualties saying the Kremlin only tracks data on the country’s armed forces.[xiii] The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, recently marked the 29th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan by holding a minute of silence in memory of Russians killed in the war and for those “who died in Syria.”[xiv] When asked about this moment of silence, Putin’s spokesperson responded with “I don’t understand why a mourning period should be declared.”[xv] Furthermore, Grigory Yalinsky – a candidate who opposed Putin in the recent election stated, “If there has been mass deaths of Russians citizens in Syria, then the relevant authorities, including staff of the Russian armed forces, have a duty to inform the country about this and decide who bears responsibility,”[xvi]

Mercenaries can certainly provide deniability, but not for an indefinite period while concurrently employed in three regions of the world. Russia’s recent experience of relying on Wagner highlights the capabilities and drawbacks of using such forces – enhanced deniability, cloaking of deployments, and consequences to a domestic audience for their overuse. The example of Wagner highlights a case where state interests are hierarchically aligned, Russian nationals fighting for a Russian firm on behalf of Russian interests. However, mercenary forces pose a challenge to state oversight as nationality of contractors does not always align with the nationality or interests of the state that is employing their use.

A recent BuzzFeed report detailed just how complicated the use of mercenaries can be in today’s conflicts.[xvii] It appears that a U.S.-based company called Spear Operations Group was hired by the United Arab Emirates to assassinate members of the Al Islah political party in Yemen. It did this by recruiting former members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group as well as the CIA’s Special Activities Division. However, one member that carried out the assassinations was still in the Navy Reserve. According to one SEAL who was interviewed, there is no legal requirement that they disclose their activity of engaging in contracting with such mercenary groups unless on active duty.[xviii]

The fact that special operations reservists, trained by the United States, are being employed by foreign governments for interests that may or may not be aligned with the U.S. shows the brave new world that private military contractors pose to the conventional understanding of employing force in the 21st century. The fact that the market is so strong and consistent for such services that provide deniability and cloaking of state intent, between democracies and authoritarian governments alike, disprove Machiavelli’s reasoning that mercenaries are useless. However, he may have been correct in that they are dangerous. The confluence of so many interests concentrated into a single operation could have severe blowback effects for many of the nations involved. Finally, Congress will have to weigh the benefit that such services provide the executive branch to carry out secretive operations around the world and the right of the public to understand where its nation is employing force and who is involved.


[i] Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).

[ii] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria,” The New York Times, July 13, 2018, sec. World,

[iii] Adam Taylor, “What We Know about the Shadowy Russian Mercenary Firm behind an Attack on U.S. Troops in Syria,” Washington Post, February 23, 2018,

[iv] Emily B. Hager and Mark Mazzetti, “Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight,” The New York Times, January 19, 2018, sec. World,

[v] James Risen, “Before Shooting in Iraq, a Warning on Blackwater,” The New York Times, June 29, 2014,

[vi] Peter W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell University Press, 2007). Pg. 244

[vii] Michael O’Hanlon, “Iraq Without a Plan,” Brookings Institution, January 1, 2005,

[viii] Singer. Pg. 245

[ix] Rebecca Weiner, “Private Military Contractors Come with Strings Attached,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Winter 2005,

[x] International Committee of the Red Cross, “The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies,” Publication, International Committee of the Red Cross, December 1, 2015,

[xi] Neil Hauer, “Russia’s Favorite Mercenaries,” The Atlantic, August 27, 2018,

[xii] Ivan Nechepurenko, “3 Russian Journalists Killed in Central African Republic,” The New York Times, July 31, 2018,

[xiii] Stepan Kravchenko, Henry Meyer, and Margaret Talev, “U.S. Strikes Killed Scores of Russia Fighters in Syria, Sources Say – Bloomberg,” Bloomberg, February 13, 2018,

[xiv] Henry Meyer and Stepan Kravchenko, “Mercenaries Hurt in U.S. Syria Strikes Treated at Russian Defense Hospitals,” Bloomberg, February 14, 2018,

[xv] Meyer and Kravchenko.

[xvi] Kravchenko, Meyer, and Talev, “U.S. Strikes Killed Scores of Russia Fighters in Syria, Sources Say – Bloomberg.”

[xvii] Aram Roston, “A Middle East Monarchy Hired American Ex-Soldiers To Kill Its Political Enemies. This Could Be The Future Of War.,” BuzzFeed News, accessed December 17, 2018,

[xviii] Ibid

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