Private Military and Security Companies as Tools of Strategy

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By: Nikolai F. Rice, Columnist

Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are the modern iteration of private force. Despite a two-century anti-mercenary norm PMSC proliferation has been facilitated by global political, economic, and warfare evolutions.[i] This article briefly examines why and how the United States, Russia, and China rely on and support the 21st century private force renaissance. The United States is no longer the majority employer of global private force and understanding how adversarial states utilize PMSCs for strategic objectives can illuminate what their strategic objectives are, what additional means they might employ to achieve them, and whether they are willing to escalate peripheral objectives into more expensive conflicts.

The American “Contractor”

The American way of war, with its reliance on overwhelming firepower, requires both a developed combined arms ‘tooth’ and a massive logistics and support ‘tail.’ The logistical demands for an American war necessitate great mobilization of national resources. The structure of the American economy means the state must acquire many of those resources from private suppliers leading the U.S. to contract out many ‘tail’ operations to its constituent economy. The more surprising phenomenon resulting from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was the rise of private military contractors.

The ‘mission creep’ from the aforementioned wars also created successive highly varying operations, goals, and missions. The American private force sector quickly evolved to fill operational gaps that the U.S. military couldn’t or wouldn’t fill for political, logistical, or legal reasons.[ii] Today, PMSCs’ operations and services range from equipping, to training, static security, mission support, to tactically-independent operations. American PMSCs are not inhibited by the same constraints that hampered their mercenary antecedents. Contemporary economics favor incorporation, which allows PMSCs and clients to tap multiple liquid credit and capital streams.[iii] Moreover, modern communications and transportation facilitate PMSCs as global economic actors capable of multiplying their know-how and quickly redeploying their assets to ever-newer conflicts and clients.[iv]

Today’s globalized economy is not, however, so stable or networked that American PMSCs can completely replace modern militaries. Planes, ships, and tanks are too expensive to build and maintain for profit-oriented PMSCs to benefit from proffering them. As any military can tell you: humans are cheaper, more abundant, and easier to transport than other war-making alternatives. Moreover, while the U.S. cannot constantly employ every PMSC, allowing them to profit from foreign contracts gives the U.S. a deep reserve of PMSCs in case of emergency.

The Russian “Volunteer”

Unlike many publicly-traded, profit-oriented American PMSCs, Russian PMSCs are instead client-oriented. Their client is singular, and the monopsonist market structure is meant to solve three problems: command and control, plausible deniability, and fighting proxy conflicts.[v]

Command and control is the most vexing problem for private force employers. There are natural operational frictions between cooperating allies, much less cooperating public-private entities. The Russian solution, like Russian privatization in general, is oligarchy. The major Russian PMSCs are (in)directly linked to Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.[vi] Such oligarchs secure their proximity to decisionmakers by proffering private armies, simultaneously endangering themselves if those armies fail.

This arrangement serves the Russian government with plausible deniability when operations in proxy wars go awry (or especially well).[vii] Moreover, when Russian operations depend on ‘volunteers’ without conventional military support, those PMSCs are provided with much heavier machinery than foreign counterparts. The question going forward is whether the Russian government will cede its virtual monopsony and allow Russian PMSCs to integrate into the global security market. Otherwise, it’s debatable whether Russian PMSC qualify as private forces at all.

The Chinese “Guard”[viii]

The Chinese government has two major foreign policy initiatives that require extensive security measures: the island-building campaign in the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The former is an overt attempt at border revision, the natural domain of national militaries; and though its execution requires novel methods, its defense depends on conventional means. The latter plan may be non-military, but contiguous Eurasian roads inevitably cross insecure territories. One Chinese insurance plan is hiring domestic firms to secure key BRI infrastructure.[ix]

Unlike Russia or the U.S., China hasn’t engaged in a prolonged foreign conflict in several decades. The U.S. and Russia have deployed PMSCs to the proverbial front lines of their contemporary conflicts. China, however, uses security firms for different purposes. Legally at least, most of China’s roughly five thousand security firms are forbidden from exercising lethal force.[x] Chinese security firms are less-developed, less-equipped, and less-expensive than their foreign counterparts, and they provide a convenient security stop-gap in nations with Chinese-built infrastructure but where the People’s Liberation Army has no interest in engaging with potential violent non-state actors.

The BRI’s purpose is to extend Chinese influence through economic tools, not by military means. The Chinese government has expressed little interest in stabilizing Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, or settling a permanent peace between Sunni- and Shia-majority states. China has witnessed the quagmires that are foreign wars of choice in the late 20th and 21st centuries.[xi] Chinese security firms are therefore a tool for ensuring the security of Chinese nationals and national interests abroad without risking or committing national military resources. While the United States and Russia regularly employ PMSCs to support or execute military operations, China’s proliferation of private force is used primarily to support and secure the components of its foreign economic strategy.


Private force actors are an evolving component of many states’ security strategies. How major states employ private force is indicative of their larger strategies and whether they decisively rely on private force to achieve strategic objectives. The question going forward is whether PMSCs will evolve into a prototypic combat actor or retain varying characteristics based upon their nation of origin or the identity of their employers. If it’s the former, then the globalized market for force will become more crowded and competitive; if it is the latter, then adversarial states should study how their competitors leverage private force and how their advantages and operations might best be opposed.


[i] Sarah Percy, Mercenaries the History of a Norm in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1-13.

[ii] Alan Axelrod and Michael Dubowe, Mercenaries a Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies (Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2014), 183-86.

[iii] Anna Leander, “Seen and Unseen: Hybrid Rule in International Security,” in Hybrid Rule and State Formation: Public-Private Power in the 21st Century, ed. Shelley L. Hurt and Ronnie D. Lipschutz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 143-59.

[iv] Sean McFate, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 151-56.

[v] Christopher R. Spearin, “Russia’s Military and Security Privatization,” The US Army War College Quarterly Parameters 48, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 39-49.

[vi] Sergey Sukhankin, “‘Continuing War by Other Means’: The Case of Wagner, Russia’s Premier Private Military Company in the Middle East,” (blog), July 13, 2018,

[vii] Åse Gilje Østensen and Tor Bukkvoll, Russian Use of Private Military and Security Companies: The Implications for European and Norwegian Security (Norwegian Defence Research Establishment), 28-34.

[viii] For an overview of the Chinese security market in particular: Alessandro Arduino, Chinas Private Army: Protecting the New Silk Road (Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2018).

[ix] Charles Clover, “Chinese Private Security Companies Go Global,” Financial Times, February 26, 2017.

[x] Fatoumata Diallo, “Private Security Companies: The New Notch in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative?” (blog), May 6, 2018,

[xi] Helena Legarda and Meia Nouwens, “Guardians of the Belt and Road,”, August 16, 2018,

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