Paramilitary: Russian Military Contractors

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April 22, 2017: Noting the success the United States had with private security contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia has tried to create a similar capability. That is not working out as expected and the government is still trying to come up with a concept it can make legal yet resistant to abuse by gangsters or corrupt politicians in remote parts of the country. Russia has a century’s long history of “private armies” and governments (communist and non-communist) have grown wary of the concept. A recent example of this can be seen in Chechnya. There Russia applied an ancient technique to keep things quiet by appointing a local politician to head the Chechnya provincial government. The understanding is that the Chechen strongman put in charge will have the support of the national government as long as he keeps things under control. The Chechen leader can do whatever it takes as long as he keeps the nasty stuff out of the news.

This sort of thing goes back thousands of years and includes the ability to recruit a private army. Russia does not bestow this sort of power as much as in the past because it can lead to major armed rebellion. To make this sort of thing work in places like Chechnya Russia has brought back the secret police and expanded special operations troops available for dealing with troublesome criminal and Islamic terrorist groups anywhere, but especially in the Caucasus where Chechnya at the center most regional unrest. Thus the government has enough federal resources to crack down on a misbehaving Chechen leader, but not on several of them. So Russia has sought to expand the number of dependable and skilled combat troops available.

Not enough veteran soldiers could be persuaded to join or stay in uniform so the government has allowed a limited (apparently about ten) private security companies to operate in Russia. Most of these are just providers of skilled security personnel for guarding important commercial enterprises from gangsters and skilled thieves, often in remote locations. But about half these private security companies are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria (about 30 so far) were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.

Meanwhile Russia continues to have problems getting enough Russians to join the military in any capacity. In 2015, for example, Russia changed the rules and made it easier for foreigners to join the Russian armed forces. This meant all you needed was the ability to speak passable Russian and have no criminal record and meet physical and educational standards. These recruits could join for five years as “contract soldiers” in the military or para-military (Interior Ministry) forces. The navy and air force are particularly short of technically qualified personnel and don't care if the new guys speak with an accent as long as they can do the job. Successful completion of the five year contract makes it easier for the foreign soldier to become a Russian citizen. Russia had earlier begun accepting foreigners but only those that could prove some connection to the old Soviet Union. By late 2014 only a few hundred of these foreigners were serving. The new rules weren’t expected to bring in many more recruits, and that was indeed the case. But every new one counts as Russia is desperate to attract enough volunteers to be able to eliminate the use of conscription.

Many other nations seek foreign recruits for the same reasons; not enough locals want to serve. In Russia the situation is far worse. There is a fundamental problem in that few Russian men are willing to join, even at good pay rates. Earlier efforts to recruit women and foreigners have not made up for this. The Russian military suffers from an image problem that just won't go away. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered to one year (from two) in 2008. That was partly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their kids in avoiding military service.

Meanwhile the United States has used contractors successfully for centuries. For example from 2010 through 2013 there were about 105,000 contractors (on average) in Afghanistan and currently there are still over 20,000. During that period most contractors were foreigners with essential technical skills but at least a quarter were security specialists. Before most American troops left Afghanistan in 2014 there as many as 28,000 (in 2012) foreign security contractors there. Most of these contractors were guarding American bases. With American troops now staying in Afghan run bases, there are only about a thousand foreign security contractors and most of these are guarding the embassy. There was a similar situation in Iraq but the contractor presence was more critical in Afghanistan where the local population did not have the education, skills and experience to replace a lot of Western combat support.

By the late 20th century it had become customary to use lots of contractors for supply and service tasks, in effect running overseas bases used by American troops and government officials. It was also found practical to also employ contractors to handle some of the base security. These civilians were armed and known as PSC (Private Security Contractors). A lot of them were used in Iraq after 2003 and continued to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq to guard bases, convoys, embassies, and anything or anyone the Islamic terrorists want to attack. In Iraq PSC strength peaked in 2009, with 15,279 PSC personnel. By 2013, after nearly all American troops had left, there were still over 3,000 PSCs there, mostly protecting embassy personnel and foreign aid officials. Another 3,000 such civilian contractors were doing non-combat jobs. At that time the U.S. employed about 18,000 PSC personnel worldwide. The 11,000 or so in Afghanistan not only provided security but also trained Afghan police and assist in destroying opium and heroin production. All this PSC activity gets little media coverage and even less interest by reporters regarding the ancient origins of PSCs (and military contractors in general) and how the United States and most other industrialized nations had been using them for centuries.

Instead the media and entertainment industries decided that military contractors were the new bad guys and expended considerable effort inventing and publicizing anything evil about contractors that could be passed off as plausible. This led politicians to demand that many contractor jobs be given back to government employees. This was called "insourcing" and once the implications of this were clearly explained (more expensive, less competent), enthusiasm for it quietly disappeared.

The problem, from the beginning, is that the media either didn't understand the use, and history, of military contractors or just ignored that reality. The fact of the matter is that contractors have been around for thousands of years and have become more common against since the 1960s for the simple reason that they are cheaper and more effective than using troops or government employees. Ordering insourcing didn't change that fact of life, as the politicians quickly learned.

The presence of so many civilian contractors in the combat zone was first noted by the mass media in Iraq. There were indeed a lot of contractors there and by 2009 there was one civilian contractor for each member of the military in Iraq. Thus half the American force was civilians. Yet this is not the first time this has happened. In the 1990s, half the American peacekeeping force in the Balkans was civilian contractors. No one noticed it back then. In past wars the percentage varied. During the 1991 Gulf war contractors were only about two percent of the force. That was because the U.S. troops came to liberate Kuwait and leave. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States, had bases and plenty of civilian workers (most of them foreigners) they allowed U.S. forces to use for the operation. The American troops basically lived "in the field" as they would in a conventional war while local civilians took care of many support tasks.

In the Vietnam War, where U.S. troops were there for a long time, contractors were 16 percent of the force. In the Korean War it was 28 percent, during World War II it was 12 percent, 4 percent in World War I, 17 percent for the U.S. Civil War, 15 percent during the Mexican-American War and during the Revolutionary War it was 18 percent. It was not just the U.S. that was using contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan but many other nations around the world have been doing the same thing. It's particularly popular in Europe, but even Russia and China began picking up on this after the Cold War ended in 1991. And this has been going on everywhere for a long time.

This current trend is actually a return to the past, when many of the "non-combat" troops were civilians. Another major change in modern times is the shrinking proportion of troops who actually fight. A century ago most armies comprised over 80 percent fighters and the rest "camp followers (support troops) in uniform." Today the ratio is reversed and therein resides a major problem. Way back in the day, the support troops were called "camp followers," and they took care of supply, support, medical care, maintenance, and "entertainment" (that's where the term "camp follower" got a bad name). The majority of these people were men and some of them were armed, mainly for defending the camp if the combat troops got beat real bad and needed somewhere to retreat to. The military is using a lot more civilians now. In an age when most troops are highly paid volunteers, it's cheaper to hire additional civilians, on short term contracts, than it is to recruit and train more troops.

The U.S. military has actually been hiring contractors, more and more, since the 1960s, but does not give a lot of publicity to the program. This was mainly because some of the contractors, especially those in medical jobs, get paid far more than someone in uniform doing the same job. But most of the civilians, hired to do what was previously done by soldiers, are making as much, or less, than the troops (including benefits).

Some American generals have suggested dispense with expensive contractors because they believe these people are much more expensive than soldiers would be, doing the same work. That is not always possible, as some of these contractors are technical specialists (as in electronics and communications) for which the military has no counterparts. This has always been the case with medical personnel and with the explosion in new tech since the 1950s the need for highly skilled personnel has grown enormously.

The military has always had a lot of civilians around but more of them are now doing jobs in combat zones or out in the field. Many of the PSCs are retired military or have served for a few years. They know the drill and what they are getting into. This is what the Russians noted and successfully copied.

One of the great revolutions in military operations in this century has been in the enormous increase in support troops. This came after a sharp drop in the proportion of camp followers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before that it was common for an army on the march to consist of 10-20 percent soldiers and the rest camp followers. There was a reason for this. Armies "in the field" were camping out and living rough could be unhealthy and arduous if you didn't have a lot of servants along to take care of the camping equipment and help out with the chores. Generals usually had to allow a lot of camp followers in order to get the soldiers, especially the officers and key technical people (who handled artillery and engineering) to go along with the idea of campaigning.

Only the most disciplined armies could do away with all those camp followers and get the troops to do their own housekeeping. The Romans had such an army, with less than half the "troops" being camp followers. But the Romans system was not re-invented until the 18th century, when many European armies trained their troops to do their own chores in the field, just as the Romans had. In the 19th century, steamships and railroads came along and made supplying the troops even less labor intensive and more dependent on civilian support "troops." The widespread introduction of conscription in the 19th century also made it possible to get most of your "camp followers" cheap by drafting them and putting them in uniform.

Since the 1950s conscription has fallen out of favor, but volunteer troops are too expensive to be used for a lot of support jobs, so more and more of these chores are contracted out to civilians. Even if you're in Iraq or Afghanistan you often won't even notice a lot of the contractor civilians. They often wear army combat uniforms, without any rank insignia. Some are armed. They work for the army without being in the army. But the truth of the situation is that the military has been going back to the past to find the future.

Generals who try to get rid of civilian contractors soon face resistance from subordinate commanders who will point out that more troops assigned to support jobs will mean fewer available for combat. Now the contractors have proved useful to allies as well, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan, areas where is not enough local talent to support, or sometimes operate, high-tech equipment.

Russia, and most other European nations, has also used contractors in the past but with the arrival of the industrial revolution it was possible to implement large scale conscription which, in effect, put most contractor personnel (or at least their jobs) in uniform.

 

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