Higher Wages of War: A Look at the Private Military-Industrial Complex

(Photo Credit: Maxime Dore)
(Photo Credit: Maxime Dore)

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In 400 BC, Artaxerxes II was set to take over the Persian throne, but his younger brother, Cyrus, said “Over my dead body.”

Oh, how right he was.

With the promise of riches, Cyrus created the Ten Thousand, a large band of Greek soldiers-for-hire he would use to try to usurp his brother. While the Ten Thousand were victorious at the Battle of Cunaxa near modern-day Baghdad, Cyrus died that day, leaving the group without a leader, thousands of miles from home, and out of a job.

These days, such royal familial squabbles would more likely play out on the Twittersphere than on the battlefield. But one aspect of warfare from Cyrus’ era that endures is the mercenary – or private military contractor, as we call them today.

Outfits like Constellis, Aegis, and the Wagner Group have breathed new life into one of the oldest professions in the world, putting the value of the global private military market at more than $250 billion.

History Repeats Itself
PMCs and mercenaries have been standard military practice pretty much since the Ten Thousand:

  • When Alexander the Great invaded Asia with his Macedonian army in 334 BC, he also hired mercenaries from what is now modern day Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
  • Though it’s an economic powerhouse these days (bank failures aside), Switzerland used to be one of the poorest countries in the world, forcing natives to look abroad for work. The Swiss Guard – those blue and orange-clad pope protectors – began as a group of mercenaries fighting in the Italian Wars during the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • The British crown hired roughly 30,000 German Hessians to fight in the American Revolution. King George III paid the German state of Hesse-Kassel the equivalent of about 13 years of tax revenue for their services.

Unsurprisingly, hired swords and guns weren’t big on moral values. They’d fight your war as long as you were paying, but when that was all over, they’d go rob merchants on trade routes, ransack a village, or hold a city hostage because their allegiances lay with the highest bidder, not any particular homeland.

It wasn’t until the 1800s and the Napoleonic Wars that the earliest nation-states began establishing massive publicly funded militaries driven by a sense of patriotism rather than profit. By the end of World War II, the military-industrial complexes of the US, Russia, and the UK were so huge that mercenaries weren’t really needed.

Back to the Old Ways
But now, as global tensions mount and open conflicts erupt, private soldiers are having a resurgence.

”There’s been a bit of an erosion of what I’ll call the monopoly of force by governments and the rise of private militaries, particularly in the post-Cold War era,” Dr. Christopher Faulkner of the US Naval War College told The Daily Upside. “I couldn’t make a legitimate claim to whether we have more now than we did in the Medieval period, but I would suggest that the industry is booming now in a way that it hasn’t looked since before modern-day nation states formed.”

A 2021 study from Brown University found that nearly half of the $14 trillion the US spent on 9/11-related wars went toward PMCs. Faulkner, who is an employee of the Department of Defense but shared his opinions with The Daily Upside as a private citizen, said the accepted thinking is that while PMCs may cost more in the short term, they cost less in the long term because the military doesn’t have to provide them with ongoing financial support like health benefits.

Also, governments can’t rely on themselves for innovation even when it comes to warfare. The private sector has vast capabilities and resources that the public sector just doesn’t. Though not a PMC, Faulkner pointed out that Elon Musk’s SpaceX regularly receives DoD funding to explore advances that federal agencies cannot. Last year, SpaceX was awarded a $102 million contract to research the use of rockets for transporting military equipment and humanitarian goods around the world.

Mercs or PMCs
While they share some similarities, mercenaries and PMCs are not the same:

  • Mercenaries are simple: They are for-profit soldiers not part of a nation’s military. They don’t have political ties, are not part of any official company, and are usually paid off the books. While the UN outlawed mercenaries in 1989, they still exist, but their presence is much more covert.
  • In the West, at least, PMCs belong to specific companies like Northrop Grumman or Constellis. They also have certain political allegiances. You won’t see Academi – formerly Blackwater – working for North Korea. And they operate through traditional financial channels. For example, there are public records of the DoD awarding DynCorp $42 million in 2021 for aviation maintenance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • For every US soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was at least one PMC. They are mainly hired for support services that include everything from intel gathering and security to weapons training and transportation, jobs that facilitate actual combat. There definitely have been instances of the US and the UK hiring privately for combat positions, but those are rare cases.

Military or police experience is a plus for anyone looking to be a PMC, but there are plenty of jobs that don’t require either – translators, drivers, IT technicians, cooks, and accountants.

Show Me the Money
Outside of any personal philosophies, one of the main reasons someone would work as a PMC is the money:

  • Being an Army soldier comes with plenty of benefits – affordable health care and education, better rates on home loans, free room and board when you’re active, retirement and pension options, and up to $50,000 in enlistment bonuses. But the salaries are paltry. A staff sergeant with eight years of experience is making roughly $50,000 a year, according to the Army’s website.
  • Silent Professionals, a service that connects private security and military contractors with employers, has multiple high-paying jobs posted on its site. A listing for a residential security guard in Annapolis, Maryland, pays $10,000 to $12,000 a month, a construction surveillance technician in Iraq pays $106,000 a year, and a cyber security coordinator in Washington D.C. could earn more than $150,000 in salary with health, dental, and vision benefits.

“You can be making a lot of money with what are temporary contracts, and some folks prefer that,” Faulkner said. “It got to the point where the dollar amounts were getting too high to say no to.”

Plausible Deniability
Today, the private military sector is evolving yet again. One group can fit the description of both mercenaries and PMCs… and possibly a crime syndicate.

If you were to ask Vladimir Putin about the Wagner Group, he’d likely say, “The What-ner Group? Never heard of ‘em.” That’s because, like much of the world, mercenaries are illegal in Russia. But if the Kremlin doesn’t even recognize their existence, it’s a tree falling in the woods scenario.

Formed in 2014, the Wagner Group is led by the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has an incredibly close relationship with Putin and has even catered dinners for the Russian president. The group has conducted missions in Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and of course, Ukraine. Much like mercenaries of olden times, Wagner has been accused of torture, murder, and looting.

What was once just a few hundred mercs has grown into tens of thousands. However, a dearth of former special forces recruits now have the Wagner Group making some odd recruitment choices. It’s reportedly recruiting prisoners, many of whom were convicted of violent crimes, into its ranks for six-month terms in exchange for cash and reduced sentences. British Ministry of Defense intelligence says thousands of those convict soldiers are about to be released into society.

Whereas the standard Russian infantryman might be making $1,000 to $1,400 a month, Faulkner said a Wagner soldier was likely making three to four times as much. The catch is they are typically deployed to hot spots like Africa and Asia, or Ukraine.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much the Russian government has funded Wagner. In addition to the payments made by the Kremlin to Prigozhin’s catering business, Wagner rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to blood diamond operations, gold mines, and oil fields in the countries they’re stationed in. Such diverse and nefarious funding sources allow these modern-day mercenaries to spend $100 million a month to wage battle in Ukraine.

“The Wagner Group is far from something like Blackwater. It’s not really private. It’s directly connected to the Russian government,” Faulkner said. “Russia’s criminal code bans mercenaries and PMCs, but it’s a facade of a law. It exists but the idea of it having any teeth is really more of a byproduct to give the central government full control over the industry.”

Unlike old soldiers, PMCs don’t just fade away.