Private military companies (PMCs) and their role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are a hot topic in the news right now, and the Russian Wagner Group is at the forefront of that discussion. However, Wagner is not alone, as evidence demonstrates the role of US PMCs on the Ukrainian battlefield.
Despite Washington’s silence regarding the activities of US PMCs in Ukraine and its refusal to acknowledge that these companies are taking part in US combat operations in the Ukraine war, Russian sources claimed that there are signs that some of these companies support the Ukrainian armed forces, including Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), Cubic Corporation, and Forward Observations Group.
In this regard, Sons of Liberty International, which describes itself as a nonprofit organization that offers free services to vulnerable populations in order to protect them from terrorist and rebel groups, has pointed out that members of its staff have been in Ukraine since March 2022 in order to offer guidance, training, and supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces engaged in combat with Russia, including the Special Forces, National Guard, and Ground Forces. Services offered by Sons of Liberty International included artillery and sniper instruction, small unit tactics, combat casualty care, and leadership development. In addition, it offered advanced training in nighttime combat operations and anti-tank missile systems.
Indeed, Washington’s use of PMCs to aid Ukraine in its conflict with Russia is neither exceptional nor indicative of a new pattern of engagement. To advance its strategic vision and interests related to its national security, the United States has long set a model for widespread reliance on PMCs.
Perhaps the War Powers Resolution, which was passed in 1973 and mandates that the US President obtain congressional approval before deploying any American forces, has pushed the US executive branch to rely more heavily on outside contractors. Relying on PMCs allowed Us presidents to get around the limitations put forth by this law.
Moreover, in 1985, the US Army implemented the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), which paved the way for the widespread use of civilian contractors during times of war and other emergency situations. This program covers all pre-planned contracts for engineering, construction, and logistics, which range from truck repair to the building of entire foreign bases. Applying this program has increased Washington’s authority and sway across a range of fields without heavily involving its armed forces. For instance, Washington employed MPRI to train and counsel the Croatian military at the beginning of the 1990s, which ultimately helped the Croats accomplish the US objective of pressuring the Serbs into talks. Many US military companies took part in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and at certain points, the combined strength of these companies’ workforces surpassed that of the US military.
In connection therewith, a 2021 Brown University study revealed that nearly half of the $14 trillion the US spent on wars associated with September 11 went to PMCs. Additionally, US military firms currently hold the largest market share in the global market for private military and security firms, valued at $224 billion. In the near future, the US industry’s annual sales value is anticipated to rise by more than $80 billion, reaching a value of $457 billion.
Several factors have contributed to the growth of US reliance on private military companies, including the abandonment of mandatory conscription in favor of voluntary conscription, which reduced the size of the armed forces; the modesty of human capabilities as a result of salary restrictions within the army; the technological capabilities provided by these companies, particularly in the drone sector; and the PMCs’ offering greater opportunities to maintain the secrecy of information pertaining to the operations they conduct away from the oversight of Congress and the eyes of the American public. Additionally, relying on PMCs is the best way to protect the United States’ reputation and image while avoiding direct interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Washington also seeks to balance the roles of its rival Russian and Chinese PMCs in the various arenas that may affect Washington’s influence and interests.
Washington’s reliance on PMCs aids in a number of gains, chief among them the ability to overcome the limitations of human capabilities and competencies within the ranks of the US armed forces and the avoidance of oversight and accountability with regard to the operations carried out by these companies. Even in cases where members of these companies are found guilty, the guilty verdicts result in either judgments that do not correspond to the crimes committed (as was the case with CACI) or a presidential pardon (as was the case with Black Water). Other benefits of using PMCs include the flexibility of their work, which allows them to quickly adapt to changing conditions on the ground by avoiding legal and administrative red tape, and cost savings, particularly in relation to their noncompliance with entitlements similar to those due to veterans on the one hand and their reliance on local contractors with lower wages and limited privileges on the other.
In short, the United States relies heavily on PMCs and uses them in a variety of settings, which has transformed them into a “parallel army” in some ways. There are no signs that Washington will lessen its reliance on PMCs in the future. As a result, the US PMCs’ involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian war does not signify an exceptional response, but rather a continuation of this kind of engagement in a number of different arenas.