By John Newsinger
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 407

The privatisation of military power

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Over the past 15 years a creeping process of outsourcing has been taking place inside the military. John Newsinger argues that the use of mercenaries and contractors undermines democracy.
Issue 407

The Iraq war will be seen as a turning point in the history of warfare. Not because of the illegality of the invasion or the unprecedented incompetence of the occupation, important though these were, but because it was the first modern public-private war. In the 1991 Gulf War there had been 541,000 US troops and only 9,200 private contractors in theatre; by the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were 140,000 US troops and 21,000 private contractors and by 2010 the number of private contractors outnumbered the US troops in the country (146,000 troops and 173,000 private contractors).

The waging of war had been privatised. War had become a hybrid affair waged by a public-private partnership. Outsourcing had taken place on such a massive scale that both the US and the British state were completely dependent on the private sector to put and maintain armed forces in the field. Indeed, so vital are they that the US contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of the giant Halliburton Corporation, had a team permanently embedded at the British Joint Forces Headquarters.

Training, logistic support, maintenance had all been outsourced to private companies the prime example of which is, of course, Halliburton. Soldiers were trained by private contractors, supplied with food, ammunition and equipment by private contractors, that equipment was maintained by private contractors and their bases were run by private contractors. And increasingly private contractors were becoming involved in the job of fighting, killing and being killed.

At one time, there were an estimated 48,000 armed contractors, mercenaries, working for the US and British governments and for private companies in Iraq. In fact, the number was certainly higher because no accurate count was ever even attempted and sub-contracting meant that even some of the contractors had no idea how many armed men they had working for them.

The companies providing mercenaries were in the main British and American, followed by South African. They provided armed guards for military bases, for convoys, for reconstruction efforts, for oil fields, for VIPs (Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was protected not by US troops but by the US mercenary firm Blackwater, as was Tony Blair on his visits to Iraq) and for private companies. Private contractors were involved in torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, something for which they were never prosecuted, unlike the soldiers involved (they were also employed at Guantanamo). Private contractors were employed to train both the new Iraqi Army and the police. Even the protection of the “Green Zone” in Baghdad was outsourced.

A South African company protected the staff of the British Department for International Development, while the Foreign Office had its staff protected by British companies, Control Risks and ArmorGroup. According to New Labour minister, Kim Howells, between April 2003 and December 2005 alone, the Foreign Office spent £110 million on private security in Iraq. Indeed, this former Maoist was to later praise the “valuable contribution” these mercenaries had made “to the work of Her Majesty’s Government”.

In 2007 British mercenary companies won a contract worth $548 million to protect US Army engineers engaged in construction work. Whereas it would once have been unthinkable, inconceivable, to have soldiers protected by mercenaries, it had become commonplace. There were huge profits to be made. According to the managing director of one company, the Iraq war boosted the earnings of British military companies from £200 million before the invasion to over £1 billion, “making security by far Britain’s most lucrative export to Iraq”.


The privatisation of war had begun under Thatcher in Britain and under Reagan in the United States. It was an aspect of neoliberalism, kept from public opinion in both countries, but positively salivated over by corporate interests.

In Britain it began with the privatising of servicemen’s housing and the outsourcing of catering, but was already beginning to be extended into other areas that were once considered to be core state functions when the Tories lost office in 1997. Much the same was true in the United States under Reagan and the first Bush. In both countries the privatisation process was enthusiastically pushed forward by their successors, Clinton in the United States and Blair in Britain.

The Blair government was absolutely committed to privatisation wherever it could get away with it. The military inevitably became a prime candidate. There was, of course, no public debate instead it was to be denied and accomplished piecemeal along the same lines as the privatisation of education and the NHS.

In April 2000 there was a joint British-US Conference on “Privatising Military Installations, Assets, Operations and Services” at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire. Here the chief executive of Halliburton, at the time a certain Dick Cheney, actually praised the British for being ahead of the US in the extent to which they had adopted the “changes in culture, attitude and style of operation that are required for successful privatisation efforts”.

According to an authoritative academic study written by Elke Krahman, New Labour was prepared to open up to privatisation what were still considered to be “inherent functions of the state and national armed forces” in the US. The result was that under Blair “the UK armed forces have become one of the most privatised militaries in Europe and in comparison to North America”.

In February 2002 Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, published a Green Paper, “Private Military Companies”, making it clear that New Labour was not only privatising training, logistics and maintenance, but was also embracing mercenaries as legitimate and essential partners in a neoliberal world. This return to the 17th century was part of a “modernisation” agenda. He came under pressure from some of the bigger mercenary companies, particularly ArmorGroup, to introduce some regulation of the business.

ArmorGroup, under its chairman Malcolm Rifkind MP, in 2004 became the first mercenary company to be listed on the Stock Exchange. It wanted respectability and was worried both about being undercut by smaller firms and that its conduct was likely to attract bad publicity. It was pointed out to Straw that even nightclub bouncers were regulated. Not being particularly bright, Straw promptly gave responsibility for the licensing of mercenaries to the body that licensed bouncers! (ArmorGroup was taken over by G4S in 2008. G4S has for a number of years including this year provided security at the Labour Party Conference.)

How effective were the mercenary firms in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is worth looking at the performance of the best known, indeed notorious, Blackwater mercenaries. The company had been founded by Erik Prince, a far-right Christian fundamentalist and the heir to a billion dollar plus fortune. The company began manufacturing shooting range targets, then moved into providing training for soldiers and police, before becoming a fully-fledged mercenary company.


Its first contract for protecting the CIA headquarters in Kabul was awarded in 2002 and after that more and more business came its way. In 2002 Blackwater had contracts worth $3.1 million, rising to $25 million in 2003, $48 million in 2004, $352 million in 2005 and $593 million in 2006. By 2008 Blackwater had earned $1,262 million for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq it provided protection for installations and convoys and for US civilian personnel. It did not provide bodyguards in the conventional sense, but heavily armed military escorts, including sniper detachments, armoured cars and armed helicopters.

Blackwater was known for its ruthlessness when moving clients by road; indeed this was one of its selling points. Iraqi civilian vehicles that came too close to its convoys were fired on, they were rammed and forced off the road and the mercenaries claimed an absolute right of way on every occasion and in all circumstances, setting up road blocks and opening fire on Iraqis completely at their own discretion.

They had a shoot first and drive on ethos, leaving any dead and dying, often perfectly innocent civilians bleeding in the street.


This behaviour seriously contributed to the alienation of the Iraqi people from the occupation and indeed, according to one British mercenary, many of the attacks on Blackwater convoys were actually carried out by ordinary Iraqis provoked beyond endurance by their conduct.

Blackwater’s methods were generally shared by other US mercenaries to some degree, and a blind eye was turned to the effect they had on Iraqi opinion and sympathies. This was despite complaints from the US military. They kept their clients alive and that was what mattered. This toleration ended on 16 September 2007 when a Blackwater convoy of four armoured vehicles got trapped in traffic in Nisour Square in Baghdad and opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing 17 people and wounding another 20. Blackwater guards later testified that people with their hands up and people trying to shield their children with their own bodies were shot down.

This massacre could not be covered up. The Iraqi puppet government demanded the expulsion of Blackwater from the country, but even if the Americans had been so inclined, this was not possible because they could not be replaced at short notice. Blackwater continued to operate in Iraq until the end of 2009.

It continued to be employed in Afghanistan where its mercenaries have been used in covert operations by the CIA and in drone operations. In a cunning attempt to escape from its damaged reputation, Blackwater has changed its name to Xe Services, to Academi and most recently to Constellis Holdings. In this most recent incarnation it has returned to Iraq, courtesy of the Obama Administration which awarded it the contract for protecting the massive US Embassy in the country.

American mercenaries were not, of course, alone in shooting up Iraqi civilians. In 2005 mercenaries working for the British company, Aegis, had posted film of themselves on the internet firing on Iraqi civilian vehicles and finding it great fun, indeed positively hilarious.

One can only presume that Paul Boateng, the New Labour Baron who was a non-executive director of the company, a position that he interestingly combined with being a leading figure within the Methodist Church, would not approve of such conduct. But it paid well. By 2008 Aegis had earned $798 million for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The trigger happy behaviour of the mercenaries employed in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the only problem they caused for the US military. The relentless pursuit of profit led to practices that seriously compromised the military effort.

In Afghanistan ArmorGroup was awarded the contract for protecting the Shindad air base and in order to maximise profits promptly sub-contracted the work to local Afghan warlords. Unfortunately, its new partners had close links with the Taliban who benefitted both financially from the deal and through the collection of intelligence. Another mercenary company, USPI, was awarded a contract to protect road building in Helmand in 2005 and once again sub-contracted the work to local warlords whose extensive criminal interests included drug trafficking!

The need to maximise profits also saw the mercenary companies put their own staff in danger. The death of four Blackwater mercenaries escorting a convoy through Fallujah in Iraq on 31 March 2004 was the direct result of cost-cutting incompetence. Their contract specified the use of at least two armoured vehicles each with a three man crew. The third man operated the rear machine gun. Instead two unarmoured sports utility vehicles with two-man crews were sent into an area known to be extremely dangerous. Another convoy only avoided a similar fate by ignoring the instruction to proceed via Fallujah.


This episode actually seriously compromised the US military effort in Iraq, because President Bush ordered a full-scale reprisal assault on Fallujah, overriding the commanders on the ground who warned that such an attack would actually strengthen rather than weaken the resistance. It did.

On another occasion in November 2006 another mercenary firm, Crescent Security, had a team of seven protecting a convoy that stretched for over a mile of road. Five of the mercenaries were captured by insurgents and subsequently killed. Once again this was cost-cutting in clear violation of military advice and contractual obligation.

What were the advantages of employing mercenaries as far as the US and British governments were concerned? One advantage was that dead contractors were not counted as military casualties. With public opinion in both countries sensitive to the toll of dead and wounded in unpopular wars, this was a big plus. Figures for the number of contractors killed are inevitably incomplete, but in Iraq by the end of 2006 there had been at least 917 fatalities. One company, Titan, had had over 200 of its employees killed by the end of 2007.

The emergence of public-private neoliberal warfare into the full light of day with the occupation of Iraq has still not really registered with most people, but this is certainly the shape of wars to come.

It is an inevitable consequence of the dramatic increase in corporate power that neoliberalism presaged. It is a global phenomenon with even China having a market for private security. Security at the Beijing Olympics was outsourced! The danger that these developments pose for bourgeois democracy seem to have completely passed by British politicians of all parties.

The fact that there are in existence today private companies that are heavily armed and have in their employ large numbers of people trained in the use of violence does not seem the least bit threatening to these people. Rather than seeking to dismantle this rise of private armed power, senior politicians from both the Conservative and Labour parties are more likely to go and work for them as board members and well-paid consultants. Private military power is a threat to us all.

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