Paramilitary: The King’s Own

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November 11, 2021: Russia and Turkey have, since 2012, each founded unusual PSCs (Private Security Contractor) or, more accurately PMC (Private Military Contractor) firms. The Turkish and Russian PMCs were unique in that both were started at the behest of national leaders and were, in effect, a special military force serving the national leader. In Turkey, president Erdogan called on a trusted military advisor and retired general, Adnan Tanriverdi, to start SADAT, a PMC that would get most of its business from the Turkish government, which would be its primary customer. SADAT organized the Syrian Arab mercenaries that did most of the fighting for Turkey in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus backing Azerbaijan against Armenia. In 2014 president Putin of Russia asked retired special forces brigade commander Dmitriy Utkin, to form a similar PMC, the Wagner Group. “Wagner” was Utkin’s code name in the special forces.

Wagner and SADAT were both used to train foreign forces as well as intervene in areas where their country did not yet have an official military presence. While SADAT used lots of foreign mercenaries, Wagner personnel were nearly all former Russia soldiers or police. This meant that SADAT had a larger number of armed personnel on the payroll. Both Wagner and SADAT came to be seen as extensions of the Russian and Turkish military, reporting directly to the national leadership. Both countries have a long history of similar groups. The Russians had Cossacks and various other private militias working for the national leader. The Turks had their Janissaries and various less-effective mercenaries.

The modern PMCs first appeared in the 1960s as British special operations veterans formed security companies for dangerous assignments in places like Africa and the Middle East. Some of these jobs were done with the approval of the British government, but most of these early PMC efforts were at the behest of foreign governments. By the 1990s PMCs evolved into the more acceptable, and legal PSCs.

The United States has used military contractors successfully for centuries, but the heavy use of PSCs is a more recent development for use in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003. For example, from 2010 through 2013 there were about 105,000 contractors (on average) in Afghanistan and as recently as 2017 there were still over 20,000. That number was gradually reduced so that by mid-2021 there were none. During that period most contractors were foreigners with essential technical skills but at least a quarter were security specialists. Before most American troops left Afghanistan in 2014 there were as many as 28,000 (in 2012) foreign security contractors there. Most of these contractors were guarding American bases. By 2021 there were only about a thousand foreign security contractors and most of these are guarding the embassy. There was a similar situation in Iraq but the contractor presence was more critical in Afghanistan where the local population did not have the education, skills, and experience to replace a lot of Western combat support.

By the late 20th century, it had become customary to use lots of contractors for supply and service tasks, in effect running overseas bases used by American troops and government officials. It was also found practical to also employ contractors to handle some of the base security. These civilians were armed and known as PSC (Private Security Contractors). A lot of them were used in Iraq after 2003 and continued to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq to guard bases, convoys, embassies, and anything or anyone the Islamic terrorists want to attack. In Iraq PSC strength peaked in 2009, with 15,279 PSC personnel. By 2013, after most American troops had left, there were still over 3,000 PSCs there, mostly protecting embassy personnel and foreign aid officials. Another 3,000 such civilian contractors were doing non-combat jobs. At that time the U.S. employed about 18,000 PSC personnel worldwide. The 11,000 or so in Afghanistan not only provided security but also trained Afghan police and assisted in destroying opium and heroin production. All this PSC activity received little media coverage and even less interest by reporters regarding the ancient origins of PSCs and military contractors in general and how the United States and most other industrialized nations had been using them for centuries.

Instead, the media and entertainment industries decided that military contractors were the new bad guys and expended considerable effort inventing and publicizing anything evil about contractors that could be passed off as plausible. This led politicians to demand that many contractor jobs be given back to government employees. This was called "insourcing" and once the implications of this were clearly explained (more expensive, less competent), enthusiasm for it quietly disappeared.

The problem, from the beginning, is that the media either didn't understand the use, and history, of military contractors or just ignored that reality. The fact of the matter is that contractors have been around for thousands of years and have become more common again since the 1960s for the simple reason that they are cheaper and more effective than using troops or government employees. Ordering insourcing didn't change that fact of life, as the politicians quickly learned.

The presence of so many civilian contractors in the combat zone was first noted by the mass media in Iraq. There were indeed a lot of contractors there and by 2009 there was one civilian contractor for each member of the military in Iraq. That meant that half the American force was civilians. Yet this is not the first time this has happened. In the 1990s, half the American peacekeeping force in the Balkans were civilian contractors. No one noticed it back then. In past wars the percentage varied. During the 1991 Gulf war contractors were only about two percent of the force. That was because the U.S. troops came to liberate Kuwait and leave. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States, had bases and plenty of civilian workers, most of them foreigners, they allowed U.S. forces to use for the operation. The American troops basically lived "in the field" as they would in a conventional war, while local civilians took care of many support tasks.

In the Vietnam War, where U.S. troops were there for a long time, contractors were 16 percent of the force. In the Korean War it was 28 percent, during World War II it was 12 percent, 4 percent in World War I, 17 percent for the U.S. Civil War, 15 percent during the Mexican-American War and during the Revolutionary War it was 18 percent. It was not just the U.S. that was using contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan but many other nations around the world have been doing the same thing. It's particularly popular in Europe, but even Russia and China began picking up on this after the Cold War ended in 1991. And this has been going on everywhere for a long time.

This current trend is a return to the past, when many of the "non-combat" troops were civilians. Another major change in modern times is the shrinking proportion of troops who are trained and equipped to primarily fight. A century ago, most armies comprised over 80 percent fighters and the rest "camp followers (support troops) in uniform." Today the ratio is reversed and therein resides a major problem. Way back in the day, the support troops were called "camp followers," and they took care of supply, support, medical care, maintenance, and "entertainment", that last service is where the term "camp follower" got a bad name. Most of these people were men, and some of them were armed, to defend the camp if the combat troops got beat badly and needed somewhere to retreat to. The military is using a lot more civilians now. In an age when most troops are highly paid volunteers, it's cheaper to hire additional civilians, on short term contracts, than it is to recruit and train more troops.

The U.S. military has been hiring contractors more frequently since the 1960s, but does not give a lot of publicity to the program. This was mainly because some of the contractors, especially those in medical jobs, get paid far more than someone in uniform doing the same job. But most of the civilians, hired to do what was previously done by soldiers, are making as much, or less, than the troops (including benefits).

Some American generals have suggested dispensing with expensive contractors because they believe these people are much more expensive than soldiers would be, doing the same work. That is not always possible, as some of these contractors are technical specialists, as in electronics and communications, for which the military has no counterparts. This has always been the case with medical personnel and with the explosion in new tech since the 1950s the need for highly skilled personnel has grown enormously.

The military has always had a lot of civilians around but more of them are now doing jobs in combat zones or out in the field. Many of the PSCs are retired military or have served for a few years. They know the drill and what they are getting into. This is what the Russians noted and successfully copied.

One of the great revolutions in military operations in this century has been in the enormous increase in support troops. This came after a sharp drop in the proportion of camp followers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that it was common for an army on the march to consist of 10-20 percent soldiers and the rest camp followers. There was a reason for this. Armies "in the field" were camping out and living rough could be unhealthy and arduous if you didn't have a lot of servants along to take care of the camping equipment and help with the chores. Generals usually had to allow a lot of camp followers in order to get the soldiers, especially the officers and key technical people who handled artillery and engineering, to go along with the idea of campaigning.

Only the most disciplined armies could do away with most of those camp followers and get the troops to do their own housekeeping. The Romans had such an army, with less than half the "troops" being camp followers. The Romans system fell from use over a thousand years ago and was not re-invented until the 18th century, when many European armies trained their troops to do their own chores in the field, just as the Romans had. In the 19th century, steamships and railroads came along and made supplying the troops even less labor intensive and more dependent on civilian support "troops." The widespread introduction of conscription in the 19th century also made it possible to get most of your "camp followers" cheap by drafting them and putting them in uniform for a few years.

Since the 1950s conscription has fallen out of favor, but volunteer troops are too expensive to be used for a lot of support jobs, so more and more of these chores are contracted out to civilians. Even if you're in Iraq or Afghanistan you often won't even notice a lot of the contractor civilians. They often wear army combat uniforms, without any rank insignia. Some are armed. They work for the army without being in the army. But the truth of the situation is that the military has been going back to the past to find the future.

Generals who try to get rid of civilian contractors soon face resistance from subordinate commanders who will point out that more troops assigned to support jobs will mean fewer available for combat. Now the contractors have proved useful to allies as well, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan, areas where there is not enough local talent to support, or sometimes operate, high-tech equipment.

Russia, and most other European nations, has also used contractors in the past but with the arrival of the industrial revolution it was possible to implement large-scale conscription which, in effect, put most contractor personnel (or at least their jobs) in uniform.

 


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