Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Managing a global military/security profession… some of it private

By Deborah Avant Best Defense guest columnist With the American military drawn down in Iraq and Afghanistan we’ve seen less attention to the controversies surrounding private military and security companies (PMSCs). The latest issue of Parameters is bound to provoke a bit more — particularly the pieces by Colonel Scott Efflandt, arguing that contractors are ...

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia

By Deborah Avant

Best Defense guest columnist

With the American military drawn down in Iraq and Afghanistan we've seen less attention to the controversies surrounding private military and security companies (PMSCs). The latest issue of Parameters is bound to provoke a bit more -- particularly the pieces by Colonel Scott Efflandt, arguing that contractors are challenging the U.S. military's jurisdiction over the military profession, and Christopher Spearin, claiming that PMSCs could be part of the Special Operations network.

By Deborah Avant

Best Defense guest columnist

With the American military drawn down in Iraq and Afghanistan we’ve seen less attention to the controversies surrounding private military and security companies (PMSCs). The latest issue of Parameters is bound to provoke a bit more — particularly the pieces by Colonel Scott Efflandt, arguing that contractors are challenging the U.S. military’s jurisdiction over the military profession, and Christopher Spearin, claiming that PMSCs could be part of the Special Operations network.

Efflandt’s argument is an extension and twist on one I made ten years ago. Even then, though, the alignment of interests between civilian leaders and the military (that Efflandt worries is interrupted by contractors) was complicated not just by the PMSC industry but a larger system of global military and security professionals. Over the last several decades, there has been increasing transnational agreement on what constitutes military and security professionals. The United States has been at the center of spreading these norms through security organizations (like NATO), peace missions, joint training, and educational exchanges — and with some results as demonstrated by both

Carol Atkinson and Rachel Epstein. Efflandt complains that the third party certification process (embodied in an International Code of Conduct for private security providers and PSC standards) has moved PMSCs outside the jurisdiction of the military. But the certification process pulls those who provide security services into this larger framework. Given that private security companies work for a wide variety of other clients including extractive industry companies, NGOs, and beyond, certification holds the potential to expand the relevance of this transnational framework to private security professionals and their non-state clients.

Granted, as others participate in transnational military and security professions the "share" of U.S. military influence is smaller. But this is a larger process involving other militaries as well as PMSCs. And given that the U.S. military initiated and supports this framework, it is typically assumed to operate to the U.S. advantage. The new certification processes promise to spread this influence further. And remember, if the U.S. military contains the only worthy professionals it either must provide global security on its own or rely on unprofessional forces for help.   

Christopher Spearin’s analysis of connections between Special Ops and PMSCs is not as new as it may appear. In the last twenty years contractors have often provided advice and training — often working in tandem with Special Operators. The African Crisis Response Initiative, for instance, (predecessor to ACOTA) had privately delivered components from the outset.

The experience of using PMSCs in the last decade, though, has revealed that while they may share expertise and networks with military forces, using PMSCs sends a different message than using the military, they operate differently than the military, and their control requires a different logic. While PMSCs are likely to fill in wherever the U.S. military needs help in the future, they never replace U.S. forces; their use changes procedures and often leads to unanticipated consequences. Planning for the interaction of different types of nodes is something the United State could do better.

Deborah Avant is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and author of The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security. She launched and manages the Private Security Monitor, an annotated guide to regulation, analysis and data on private military and security services.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.