Academic journal article Parameters

Private Military & Security Companies: A Review Essay

Academic journal article Parameters

Private Military & Security Companies: A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Abstract: Research in private military and security companies has matured over the last fifteen years. This essay reviews past research and identifies three areas needing further attention; progress in these areas is critical for guiding security and defense policies and establishing effective regulations.


Private military and security companies became a topic of research in the early 1990s, and is a matter of great interest for academics, journalists, and practitioners alike. (1) While much progress has been made in studying this diverse industry, the field has many avenues that could benefit from further research. This article reviews past research and suggests a way ahead. It first identifies the major approaches taken thus far; the field has matured greatly; researchers have moved away from studying the industry as a whole, and now focus more on non-state clients and individual contractors and services rather than state-sponsored contracting. Second, the article identifies the field's most pressing research concerns, as well as how they can be pursued. Individual research projects are too often disconnected; establishing formal research networks among interested universities would facilitate cooperation and foster joint projects. Additionally, regular exchanges between practitioners and academics would greatly improve the quality of research output, and help to educate those working with private military contractors.

Prior Approaches

The field of private military and security companies is a relatively young one, though it evolved quickly over the last fifteen years. During that period, five general themes characterized the research: (1) the nature of the industry, (2) normative and ethical concerns (e.g., what should or should not be outsourced, with how much governmental control, and whether the use of armed contractors in lieu of soldiers was ethical), (3) the impact of private military contractors on civil-military relations and states control of violence, (4) non-state contracting, and (5) laws and regulation.

The field is clearly concerned with more than just armed security contractors. Obviously, the potential of armed contractors to use deadly force has given rise to important considerations regarding regulation and oversight. However, non-combat services--such as intelligence, security training, logistical support, and risk assessments--are also part of the industry. In fact, the term "private military companies" has evolved into broader terms such as "private military and security companies" and "private security companies," an evolution which also reflects developments within the industry. For instance, the first private military contractors to come to public attention in the 1990s were Executive Outcomes (South African) and Sandline International (British), both of which offered combat services. (2) However, as mentioned above, the industry now offers a broader range of services. (3) Similarly, academic research once used typologies that categorized types of companies based on their proximity to the battlefield. (4) Nonetheless, while distinguishing between private military companies and private security companies may work in theory, it remains difficult in practice. Contractors or firms develop different profiles based on the types of services they offer and their clients. Most prefer to call themselves "security" companies to avoid negative connotations associated with the term "military."

Research activity in private military contractors has taken place in three chronological periods or waves: (1) from 1998 to 2003, (2) from 2004 to 2009, and (3) from 2010 to 2014. The first wave tried to describe the larger industry of contracting basic military services, and make sense of its evolving role in warfare. (5) Discussion typically centered on the rise of contractors as non-state armies, and the potential end of the state's monopoly on legitimate violence. …

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