Event Summary: ‘The Modern Mercenary – Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order’


On 22 October, the Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host ‘The Modern Mercenary – Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order’. Featuring Dr Sean Mcfate, expert on strategy, the future of war and international relations.

Dr Mcfate opened by stressing the opaque nature of the private military industry. He argued that this industry is often just as impenetrable by the public eye – if not more so – than national intelligence communities. As well as describing mercenaries as having the ‘second oldest profession’, Dr Mcfate noted that the industry was ‘catapulted’ in the 1990’s by a ‘decade of war’.

Dr Mcfate argued that armed contractors can have a disproportionately high impact on operational outcomes, and that contractors made up 50% of the western military presence in Iraq, compared with 10% of the allied forces in WW2. Given that the figure was 70% in Afghanistan, Dr Mcfate contended that the world is moving into a new age of ‘contractual warfare’.

Discussing forward trends in the private military industry, which roughly values at $100bn, Dr Mcfate stated that ‘contractors are not going away’, due to – among other factors such as price and availability – an increasing demand for their services. He argued that the industry is ‘indigenising’, in that private military companies are no longer a US/UK based phenomenon, but are now being established across the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Indeed, Dr Mcfate accepted the possibility that there may soon exist ‘Merc States’, for which the economy is primarily based on private military contracts and ‘guns for hire’.

Looking to the future, Dr Mcfate considered what impact the unavoidable increase in the use of private military companies will have on global security. He said that today, ‘anyone who can afford war can wage it’. Moreover, he noted that inherent in the use of mercenaries is the possibility of conflicts being started, expanded or intensified more than may have otherwise been the case.

In closing, Dr Mcfate drew attention to contemporary international relations and world politics being defined by ‘polycentric interests’. He said that this, coupled with security becoming ‘commoditized’ through the profit motive and market forces, creates risks and dangers for future global security.


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