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Guns for Hire
16 March 2003

Private Military Companies (PMCs) have come into their own. Britain ranks among the big four in this field – the others are the USA, South Africa, Israel – a move prompted by budgetary cuts and a recruitment and retention crisis that is changing the military landscape for the UK armed forces.

Since 1990, manpower levels in the British Army have dropped over 30%. Many of the feeder schools for the public school officer class, such as Wellington College near Sandhurst, have long since ceased to fulfil their traditional role - perhaps because of the loss of support and subsidies for running cadet corps. The questionable interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq too have not sparked a rush to enlist, and the traditional fall-back, the Territorial Army, is facing a retention problem because experienced officers are disillusioned by the Iraq campaign. It is reported that 80 per cent of army training now involves private contractors because of the loss of internal capacity (The Observer, 26 October 2003). The use of contractors in non-combat roles inevitably leads to their deployment in front-line work, particularly as the distinction between non-combat and combat is often quite blurred.

A few incidents have brought this surging market into the limelight. An early player was Sandline International, a commercial company headed by a former British Army officer dealing in military equipment, training and manpower. It became embroiled in 1998 over its supply of arms to Sierra Leone – work it claimed was known to the Africa Desk at the FCO and the British High Commissioner. The Times offered its stamp of respectability to PMCs: “this is a ‘scandal’ to be kept in perspective...Mercenaries have been used down the ages, often openly and effectively; the condottiere of Renaissance Italy were held in high respect. They could have a modern role” (5th May 1998).

In December 2003, The Guardian reported that “while the official coalition figures list the British as the second largest contingent with around 9,900 troops [in Iraq] they are narrowly outnumbered by the 10,000 private military contractors now on the ground” (10th December). The UK company Global Risk International is reported as supplying hired Gurkhas and Fijian paramilitaries to guard key installations and individuals. Civil society bodies in Fiji have expressed their concern: “Global Strategies has recruited our soldiers and plans to recruit a further 600 as mercenaries for a mercenary purpose. But what is worse is that it has done so and continues to do so in breach of the Fiji Military Forces Act and regulations”.

Another PMC, Erinys International, whose ownership structure includes UK’s Defense Systems Limited, is charged with guarding Iraq’s oil fields. Genric Ltd, located in Hereford and Plymouth, has set up a unit outside Basra providing armed site security and armoured vehicle hire. In Saudi Arabia, “employees from Britain’s BAE Systems provide support and training for the Saudi air force and navy” (11 August, Financial Times). This is the tip of the iceberg - several hundred of the smaller fry PMCs are listed in a report provided by the Foreign Secretary to Parliament (Ninth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, 2001-2002). Other large UK PMCs include the Control Risks Group, amongst whose directors is General Sir Michael Rose, former head of the UN protection force in Bosnia. Rose regarded Muslims with ill-concealed contempt during his Balkan stint (see Salaam book review Unfinest Hour - Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms ). Among the other prominent UK-linked PMCs are Rubicon International, Olive Security and Janusian Security Risk Management.

Who is accountable for the actions of a privately contracted soldier not operating in the traditional command and control hierarchy? To which set of rules of engagement and military judicial code is a mercenary force accountable? According to a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly, a private maintenance firm contracted to go to work for the Royal Navy refused to go to the Gulf, forcing the Royal Navy to make other plans. In recent years, employees of one of the largest US PMCs, DynCorp – it provides the security personnel to protect Karzai in Afghanistan - have been incriminated in running vice rackets in Bosnia.

The PNC phenomenon is market privatization run amok. It is removing clarity and transparency in world affairs when this can be least afforded. Take the case of the hapless Briton Simon Mann caught in March 2004 at Harare airport with an aircraft for purchasing arms from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries. Was this a legitimate freight transaction at the behest of a resource-starved Army Air Corps, a covert foreign intervention, or just a gun-runner in action? Mr Mann is reportedly a cofounder of Sandline. The aircraft, a Boeing 707, is owned by Logo Logistics, a British company. Theresa Whelan, on the Africa Desk at the US State Department states the new policy:"The use of contractors in Africa...means that the US can be supportive in trying to ameliorate regional crises without necessarily having to put US troops on the ground, which is often times a very difficult political decision". The time has come for the UK army command to stand and defend the family silver.


  • Fijian objections to the activities of Global Risk International
  • Government Green Paper: Private Military Companies: Options for regulation, February 2002,0.pdf
  • List of contracts assigned to Private Military Companies (PMCs) and Private Security Companies (PSCs) by the FCO and DFID
  • Simon Mann in Harare 14 March 2004, The Observer and also The Christian Science Monitor, 15 March 2004

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