Private military contractors (PMCs) play a significant role in military operations around the world. PMCs can benefit militaries by providing support in logistics, security, technical assistance and fill other support roles as militaries fight in international conflicts. PMCs also assist the military in positions ranging from tactical operations to strategy planning. The US increased its use of PMCs during the cold war, as armies were downsized but global tensions increased perceptions of the need for intervention globally.
PMCs present several problems. A chief problem is with oversight and transparency surrounding PMCs. As a private organization, PMC contractors are not subject to the same levels of oversight that US soldiers are. This lack of oversight for PMCs is controversial as PMC actions damage the international credibility of the US military. For example, interrogators at Abu Ghraib were largely contracted from private military corporations, and reportedly lacked professional training in interrogation. The legacy of Abu Ghraib continues to damage the reputation of the US military both at home and abroad.
It is unclear exactly who is responsible for holding PMCs accountable for abuses. They are civilians and not under the jurisdiction of the military legal system. However, any crimes committed abroad are unlikely to be prosecuted in their home country. Brookings reports that contractors are rarely held accountable via the laws of the country they operate in, as many operations take place in failed states.
Lastly, PMCs operate in a legal grey area in international humanitarian law. They are not members of the military, but they are not exactly civilians either. Unlike other civilians, they participate in and actively support military operations, making them combatants. They occupy a murky halfway position between soldiers and civilians. According to Brookings, this means contractors are not protected by the Geneva conventions, and “fall into the same grey area as the unlawful combatants detained at Guantánamo Bay.”
PMCs have become a mainstay of US military operations, with 274 billion dollars allocated to defense contracts in 2015. For all of their benefits they continue to raise questions that governments need to address as PMCs gain an increasingly important role in US military operations.