Special Operations Forces & Private Security Companies

By Spearin, Christopher | Parameters, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Special Operations Forces & Private Security Companies


Spearin, Christopher, Parameters


Abstract: This article examines the potential role of private security companies as part of a global special forces network. It reveals three factors that may influence the utility of such companies: (1) the industry's largely defensive focus; (2) the implications of serving a humanitarian and development clientele; and (3) the challenges of retired special forces personnel moving to the private sector.

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Western states frequently use the word "network" to describe contemporary military dynamics. Not only are special forces beneficiaries of this reference, they are often proponents for it. These forces are ideally suited for networks given their "specialness" and flexibility at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. They have a relatively small footprint, whether in the context of budgets, "boots on the ground," or with respect to much larger and more expensive conventional forces.

While these factors are often beneficial, national special forces organizations recognize their quantitative and qualitative shortcomings, especially as they increasingly become a "force of choice." Thus, there is a perceived need to develop a network of like-minded actors. The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has led the way in response to these pressures and, relatedly, to the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. For instance, the objective of 2012 International Special Operations Forces Conference was to solidify USSOCOM's prominence and allow others to "gain a better understanding on how to become active members of that network." (2) Similarly, in 2013, the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), alongside experts and practitioners from other countries, held a conference on "The Role of the Global SOF Network in a Resource Constrained Environment." (3)

While these ventures are, in part, about international interoperability, they are also about reaching out and understanding other, non-national, players such as private security companies. Indeed, these firms participated in the JSOU endeavor. Conceiving them as part of a global special forces network speaks both to the seeming ubiquity of the private security industry and the challenges special forces, especially the US variety, currently encounter. Such a conception, however, also raises some questions. What are the assumed and actual links between these forces and private security companies? Are the ways in which these firms construct security a hindrance or an asset to special forces?

This article answers these questions. First, the article identifies linkages and similarities between these two actors. It underscores why one might think private security companies are appropriate for this network. The goal is not to rehearse the various supply, demand, and ideational rationales contributing to the rise in prominence of both--others have done this sufficiently. (4) Instead, the article illustrates the unique organizational character and people-centric nature of each actor. It also reveals that although companies are increasingly seen as security experts in their own right, there are significant relationships with special forces.

The article's second part is inspired by a recent assessment concerning how nodal security dynamics have to be "imagined before they can be enacted." This article's goal is not to advocate. Instead, it is to consider how firms might enhance special forces given their "strategic interests, tools, resources, and ways of thinking." (5) In so doing, the article moves beyond replacing military forces with private security organizations as was often the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. (6) Rather, it examines the prospects for independent cooperation and interaction and what private presence, made real through contracts with other types of actors, means for special forces.

As such, this second part focuses on three matters. One, it reveals how, because of the industry's largely defensive focus, firms exercise a particular form of territorial control on behalf of corporate clients--a type of control that differs from the approach of special forces. …

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