Are private military contractors any different from mercenaries?

  • Alican Tekingunduz
  • 16 Oct 2018

The global market for mercenaries and private military contractors is worth more than $100 billion, and the lines that differentiate the two are blurry.

A private contractor gestures to their colleagues flying over in a helicopter as they secure the scene of a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, July 5, 2005. ( AP )

Private military contractors (PMC) play a major role in the fields of gathering intelligence, training security ambitions, technical and technological support and transporting needs in conflict zones and all around the world.

Mainly the US-based firms along with private military contractors from the UK are serving all around the world especially in conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

Most of time the relation between PMCs and mercenaries or freelance soldiers fighting for money, is questioned by global public opinion.

However, mercenaries are banned by international laws while PMCs are considered legal. 

Geneva Convention

The use and recruitment of mercenaries are legally forbidden by the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.

A mercenary is defined as any person who is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict. Recruitment of people, for a private gain, is also forbidden. According to the 1989 international convention, people who are not members of any armed forces of a party to the conflict would be considered mercenaries and that mercenaries should be considered as an offence to all states and that they should be prosecuted or extradited.

However, only 35 countries ratified the convention which entered into force on October 20, 2001. The countries with large militaries, especially the US, Russia and the UK, have not ratified it because of their active use of PMCs. 

The industry is worth in excess of $100 billion and has grown exponentially, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, thanks to their strong relations with political establishments.

Poor records of information for the sector, insistence of big countries’ rejection banning international laws, human rights violations and profit off war pose a major threat to world peace.

Are PMCs and mercenaries different?

Both private military contractors (PMC) and mercenaries work for money. Mercenaries are individual soldiers who can be hired by whoever pays them while PMCs recruit these people in an organisation. 

Mercenaries don’t have any tie to a company or state and title, they only fight for money. However, private soldiers are working for a recognised company that is registered with authorities of a country where their operations are based out of.

The PMCs serve as the intermediary between professional soldiers and the governments.

Professor Sean McFate from Georgetown University and author of the upcoming book The New Rules of War spoke to TRT World about the private military industry as a former industry insider. 

Almost all private soldiers are among ex-soldiers or a national police force, because of their pre-requisite training and relevant experience, like Sean McFate’s working for private contractors in Africa after previously serving as a US Army paratrooper.

McFate said, ”The private military industry and mercenaries are a word of mouth business, owing to its illicit nature. Because of this, the industry is organised by language group and shared experiences.”

He added, “If you have the skills to be a private military contractor, then you can be a mercenary too. The skillsets are the same. The only difference is who is the client [state or non-state]. But even this differentiator is debatable.” 

In this September 26, 2013 file photo, Joseph Hunter, centre, a former US Army sniper who became a private mercenary, is in the custody of Thai police commandos after being arrested in Bangkok, Thailand. Hunter, already serving a 20-year term for plotting to kill a DEA agent, went on trial in New York at the US District Court in Manhattan in April 3, 2018, on charges that he plotted to assassinate a real-estate agent for an international crime boss.(AP)

As compared to conventional mercenaries, PMCs have access to much more complex and heavy military equipment like tanks, helicopter and planes, while mercenaries have light arms. 

Mercenaries are generally deployed for frontline combat while PMC soldiers can serve a variety of areas: security, logistic, transportation, gathering intelligence, network and combat.

Both wear a mix of casual civilian clothing and special operation uniforms, while the income of a mercenary is greater than that of PMC workers.

PMCs can cooperate with mercenaries and recruit them despite a UN ban on mercenaries.

“When a client hires a company, often that company will hire or make sub-contractors in a war zone to help execute missions. These are nick-named “subs” in the industry, and there is often little accountability for them. In fact, typically the client is not aware of their existence, or the extent of their operations” said McFate. 

A British contractor ArmorGroup, providing airbase security for the US in Afghanistan, had sub-contracts with two Afghan military companies named ”Mr White” and “Mr Pink.”

Many PMCs also appear to be freelance in terms of the multi-ethnic composition of private soldiers, who sell their services for money.

Countries usually prefer the use of PMCs for several reasons: a lack of human resources in the armed forces, their perception of being more cost efficient, nepotism and/or good contacts with the governments, to avoid responsibility for the acts committed by PMCs, to avoid the control of democratic institutions and to intervene in the internal affairs of a country, mostly foreign. 

The lack of information makes it impossible to know the market volume of the private military sector. Thus, it is impossible to know how many people are recruited in this sector. 


Even though PMCs are bound by the laws of the country out of which their operations are based, the legality of their actions comes into question when they operate in territories outside their parent country.

For example American contractors in Iraq would not be bound by local laws and they might not necessarily be subject to US laws either since the jurisdiction might not apply.

This results in a lack of accountability as compared to regular soldiers who can be court-martialled if any of their respective military laws are violated.

McFate underlines enormous accountability and transparency concern of PMCs. “However, to be fair, many national militaries in the world also suffer from corruption and impunity. This does not give an excuse for the private military sector, but people should be aware that controlling organised violence has been a challenge throughout history,” he added.

In 2004, Muslim prisoners were tortured by the US’ contractor, CACI International, at infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. However, CACI International, evaded punishment and it continued extending contracts, worth $23 million, with the US. 

This image shows naked detainees with bags placed over their heads placed into a human pyramid as Spc. Sabrina Harman, middle and Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., above, pose behind them in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq.(AP)

Ex-employee of Aegis, the British military contractor, posted a so-called “trophy video” that showing Aegis members shooting with machine guns at a civilian car in Iraq. After the incident, Aegis conducted investigations, however, the contractor said it was a “legitimate” operation. 

Blackwater, now called Academi, has one of the most chequered histories among private contractors. 

In September 2007, some Blackwater soldiers allegedly opened fire on civilians in Baghdad; 17 civilians were killed and many others were wounded in this incident. 

Blackwater employees defended themselves by saying that they opened fire against a “car-bombing” by an insurgent group. 

But, the passengers of the targeted vehicle included a couple and their child, according to investigations and witnesses. 

Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, is escorted into the hearing room by a Capitol Hill police officer prior to giving his testimony before the House Oversight Committee hearing, Tuesday, October 2, 2007, which is examining the mission and performance of the private military contractor Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan.(AP)

Growing threat

McFate says that the mercenary world is growing and far more dangerous than people know. 

“This is by design, since mercenaries sell plausible deniability and lethality in the shadows” he added.

McFate also emphasises uncertainty of the size of the private military industry by saying, “One of the chief selling points of mercenaries is their secrecy. Mercenaries can offer more secrecy than government spies or special forces.

McFate gave an example, “In February, 500 mercenaries hired by Russia almost wiped out a group of elite US soldiers in Eastern Syria. The Americans came from Delta Force, Rangers, Green Berets, Marines; they called in B-52s, F-22s, F-15s, AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters and drones, and it still took them four hours – four hours – to beat back the 500 mercenaries. This was America’s finest.”

It begs the question, what happens when non-elite troops not backed by the US Air Force have to fight 1,000 or 5,000 mercenaries? What happens to countries that are not military superpowers?

“The mercenary threat is a significant concern,” he concluded.