21st Century Condottieri: Avoiding Mercenary Wars

The 21st century has already seen a proliferation of mercenaries, paid for by nations and non-state organisations. There are advantages to this proliferation, but also great risks both short and long-term. Mercenaries have clear advantages, and an appeal to politicians of countries weary or wary of war. However, the use of mercenaries risks undermining norms and laws which have made conflict manageable.
We will define a mercenary as anyone who fights in a conflict without being a uniformed member of any nation’s armed services, while being motivated by the opportunity for profit, rather than ideology. It should be noted that there can be people who meet most of these criteria, and may fire shots in anger in a conflict, but could be defined as, for example, bodyguards or trainers (though the job of “trainer” has been used as a cover for mercenary intervention, for example in Nigeria).
Mercenaries have been involved in several high-profile international incidents in the last few years. South African and Ukrainian mercenaries (often called “trainers” helped the Nigerian armed forces inflict defeats on Boko Haram. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries were reportedly killed by US air power in Syria with remarkably little diplomatic blowback. Russians serving the same organisation, Wagner, are allegedly also operating in Eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian intelligence sources, and in the Central African Republic. There are Latin American mercenaries operating in Yemen.
The advantage of a mercenary over a uniformed soldier is that far fewer people care if a mercenary dies. There is the perception that mercenary work is less honourable than soldiering, that they know what they are signing up for, that they are expendable. With this perceived expendability comes deniability: the public are less likely to complain if the deaths of mercenaries are unexplained or if government involvement is denied, something unthinkable if a nation’s soldiers are killed. With this deniability comes the ability to use mercenaries in geopolitically sensitive areas. If the US Air Force killed three hundred uniformed Russians in Syria it would likely trigger World War Three, which is why there are not three hundred uniformed Russians on the field in Syria. Mercenaries indirectly controlled by the Kremlin can be put in the line of fire with reduced risk of fallout should things go wrong. Finally, mercenaries can bring the expertise of professional soldiers without the long term costs: mercenaries can be used for a period of weeks or months or years, but when a contract is up they do not have pensions and medical costs to maintain.
If we take these qualities we start to see why the 21st century may belong to mercenaries. The Pentagon recently released a paper announcing their new strategy for containing Russian and Chinese geopolitical ambitions, including a renewed focus on the “heavy metal” parts of the US armed forces, i.e. tanks, strategic bombers, large infantry formations and a refreshed navy. This represents a move back to the old days of the Cold War, in which the US and NATO prepared to counter a Russian invasion of Europe with armed might, coupled with preparations for a conventional conflict with China in the South China Seas in concert with Pacific allies like Japan and Australia. However, the point of the Cold War was that it never warmed up to armed conflict between the Great Powers because they were deterred by the enormous conventional and nuclear forces ready to be deployed by the other. This has not changed. China and Russia cannot defeat the US in open war, nor do they necessarily want that level of disruption to the status quo. The US’s power is declining relatively and is struggling to check both countries: Russia holds heavy influence over the outcome in Syria and continues to challenge NATO countries while China is striving to make the South China Sea inhospitable to the US Navy. What this means is an arms buildup by all three powers (and by NATO, Japan and others).
What this also means is a move away from the small wars of the first two decades of the 21st century. The US has failed in Afghanistan and the future of Iraq is still in doubt. Yemen is ravaged by unending low-level conflict and several African countries are struggling with Islamist insurgencies, such as Mali and Nigeria. These conflicts are not going away just because the US has different geopolitical priorities. Nor will they stop being important to the great powers. Look at Yemen – this conflict jeopardises the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, through which flows a third of all global trade. At the same time, China and Russia have their own geopolitical interests: Russia in Ukraine, Syria and Central Asia and China along its proposed One Belt One Road (OBOR), which passes through such fractious countries as Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the US, Russia and China focus on a potential World War Three, Eurasia and Africa will likely be neglected by uniformed forces of these countries. Mercenaries are likely to fill the gap.
Mercenaries often have an impact outweighing their limited cost, useful when defence budgets are spent on aircraft carriers rather than the types of small-footprint light infantry useful in propping up weak governments in the face of insurgencies. They are expendable too. The West is tired of nearly 20 years of war for little gain. The Russian population has as little tolerance for the deaths of its young men, and Putin grew up during the costly Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and will therefore be keenly aware of the political and military costs of such adventures. Beijing is aware of the distrust it engenders, something even the US has largely avoided (by dint of being on another continent to Eurasian countries it is viewed as a less perennial threat), and will be wary of throwing its weight around. Mercenaries allow the West to continue peacekeeping operations as well as its long and multi-headed war on terror, as Erik Prince argued in his plan for Afghanistan. They will allow China to support OBOR nations without risking Chinese lives or making its neighbours tolerate Chinese boots on their territory. They will allow Russia, as we saw in Syria, to compete with the US at danger-close range without provoking a general war. They also allow Putin to continue his Eurasian campaigns without needing to fly Russian servicemen home in body bags, undermining his domestic popularity, and therefore his political survival. Compared to the US military, at war since 2001, the Russian and Chinese armed forces lack real combat experience. Mercenaries fill this gap, as they did in Nigeria, when aged South Africans, blooded in Apartheid bush wars, were able to inflict defeats on Boko Haram.
It is not just the great powers which will be using mercenaries. Small but wealthy countries will make increasing use of them. We have already seen the use of Latin American mercenaries in Yemen. In an era of increasing great power competition it may be increasingly difficult for countries to depend on one major partner for security. Take Qatar, sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a small military. It has some military support from Turkey to protect its independence, but may need to use hired soldiers if Turkey’s support wavers (for example in exchange for Iranian cooperation in Syria).
There are dangers in the rise of mercenaries in the 21st century. The deniability of mercenaries means fewer protections for civilians. As the Atlantic asks, “what happens if a Canadian, for example, kills an Afghan civilian while fighting as a contractor under the leadership of an American?”. Is the Canadian under by Canadian, American or Afghan jurisdiction?
The use of mercenaries also means conflicts for immoral such as purely economic reasons become more common. At least (though by no means only) superficially, conflicts have had benevolent intentions: protecting South Vietnam or South Korea from communism, or Kuwait from Iraq, or Iraqis from Saddam or Afghanistan from the Taliban. This is because civilians must either back or be apathetic towards a war if it is to continue. A war for immoral reasons, for example the naked pursuit of resources, would not be tolerated if soldiers wearing the Stars and Stripes or Union Flag were involved; it would clash too violently with the US’s or UK’s self-image. Mercenaries could engage in such conflicts. They are already perceived as mercurial and amoral, and their expendability means there would be less outcry, less of a desire to ‘bring our boys home’. Mercenary forces are also often multinational, meaning domestic political pressure from any one country might not be sufficient to stop mercenary deployment.
The laws of war already prohibit mercenary use in most instances, but we must be careful precedents are not set as the US strives to retain influence as its unique hegemony declines. Consider drone warfare: when the US was the only country with armed drones, it was happy to bend and break international law with targeted killings. This precedent has now been set and legally defended by US administrations. It is going to be hard to complain when China, Russia or Pakistan starts doing likewise. It might not be too late with mercenaries: they have been used already but are still regarded as a legally ambiguous and certainly not comparable to a legally justified military action using uniformed troops.
For the sake of international stability and the application of the rule of law to something as chaotic as war, however tempting it is, the West should be very careful when it comes to deploying mercenaries. China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030. It is not in the interest of the US to allow the proliferation of soldiers for pay, only to realise it does not have the biggest wallet. The best way to avoid fighting mercenary wars, and losing mercenary wars, is to work now to prevent the proliferation of mercenaries.
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Source: 01 Intelligent Fusion

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