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Armies for hire

Mario A. Laborie Iglesias
Lieutenant Colonel.Spanish Strategic Studies Institute (Ministry of Defence) Leading Analyst
Mario A. Laborie Iglesias

Mario A. Laborie

Last May, the international media announced that the private security services company "Reflex Responses" had been hired by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in order to form a battalion consisting of 800 foreign soldiers. The contract, worth 500 million euros, specifies that this force will be used for special operations missions inside and outside the country, to defend the oil pipelines and other infrastructures from possible terrorist attacks and to quell internal revolts. If there was still any doubt, this announcement confirmed how multinational companies exporting security-related services are increasingly involved in areas that have to date been classified as inherently a matter for states and reserved for regular national armies.

The shift away from the state and the privatisation of services has been boosted by the dynamics of globalisation and on the grounds of economic efficiency. Almost all the Armed Forces in the countries around us have not been immune to these changes. The large reduction of troops in recent decades, drastic reductions in defence budgets, particularly in Europe, together with the increasing number and complexity of military operations abroad have made it imperative to resort to private security companies. As a consequence, the private security market is currently experiencing a golden age.

Indeed, all Western armies today require support to a greater or lesser extent from contractors to carry out their missions. The catalogue of services offered by private companies includes all military tasks, ranging from those related to direct combat to purely logistical work. These companies are extremely flexible in their operations, able to create customised solutions for each specific situation, act quickly, and knowledge of the theatre of operations, operational experience, work confidentially and advertise themselves as a cheaper alternative. Outsourcing facilitates the Armed Forces' specialisation in the areas that are their raison d'être, freeing personnel and resources from work that could be done efficiently outside the military structure.

However, despite these advantages, these companies' activities have a distorting effect on national armies that warrants careful analysis. On a practical level, there is evidence that the contractors' activities can to some extent interfere with decision-making and compromise the combat actions of regular forces in armed conflict scenarios.

But at a higher level, most of the fears that arise are related to the privatisation of some tasks that are "state-inherent", i.e. intrinsically linked to the public interest. While it is true that there is no consensus on which areas should not be privatised because of their unarguably public nature, what is widely accepted is that there is nothing more inherent to States that the legitimate use of armed force. Indeed, as Max Weber wrote, the state would not exist as such if it was unable to retain a monopoly on violence. Within the democratic paradigm, the State is the only agent that can be trusted with the proper control and authorisation of the use of force, which is the justification for its monopoly by legitimate governments and their basic task, above and beyond any other that they may have.

Accordingly, the army, as the armed organisation that guarantees the legitimate application of force according to the principles emanating from the democratic state, is undoubtedly the institution that is most affected by the work of these companies that see security in terms of a business area. In theory, the Armed Forces only outsource tasks that are not essentially military tasks, as military tasks are deemed inherently governmental. However, in practice, the line has become blurred between essentially state activities, which should under no circumstances be outsourced, and the commercial activities that may be entrusted to the private sector. The example of Abu Dhabi speaks volumes - an armed force, trained and equipped by a private company, is placed at the disposal of the country's government, replacing the army. Although this is an extreme case, there is no doubt that this is a trend that seems to be taking shape on a global scale.

In conclusion, in the current situation, in which economic factors seem to prevail over other considerations, hiring private security companies offers new possibilities that cannot be ignored.  However, which tasks should not be outsourced is a matter for careful consideration, as the potential short-term benefits may conceal long-term disadvantages. Any action that weakens the role of the armed forces within the democratic state increases the likelihood of other agents challenging the primacy of the "public" sphere over the "private". Robust regulation of this market is therefore essential.