The expansion of the roles taken on by private sector security companies in support of national military deployments has been quite extraordinary over the last 30 or so years. It is that perhaps which has prompted Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm Blackwater, to suggest the effective privatisation of the United State’s 17-year war in Afghanistan. But there is nothing new about the use of private contractors on military operations around the world.
Even a cursory glance at the history of the British military reveals that the origins of just about all of our great regiments and corps were built on the foundation of private individuals or companies, and much of our enabling capability around the world came from contracted support. As Kim Sengupta noted in his interview with Prince, a large chunk of the British empire, including its jewel – India – owed its roots to companies such as the East India Company, which operated well outside the control of the British government and employed its own security forces or army.
But it hasn’t always been a pretty story. Thirty five years after the Battle of Waterloo – and a decade after the disbandment of the “state-owned” Royal Waggon Train in 1833 – private contractors in the Crimea found it impossible to get enough stores up into the hills, so horses starved on the plateaux while hay and corn lay rotting in the port. Security was poor; there was no coordination, no command grip – no leadership. Ships arrived badly loaded with no manifests, and some were turned around still loaded; a situation not helped when, in November 1854, a storm damaged 21 vessels, including eight within Balaclava Harbour, and sunk several outside it. In the spring of 1855, military control was re-exerted and cheating contractors were purged. The end result was the formation of an all-military Land Transport Corps, the Hospital Conveyance Corps and, prior to the Boer War, the Army Service Corps in 1891.
In operations in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century the resulting supply system of regimental transport, supply columns and parks, railheads and technical transport for artillery ammunition, engineer equipment and medical supplies were all under state – ie military – command and control. But the army was still supported by local labour and contractors; 5,000 civilian personnel with Lord Roberts’s columns during the long haul from Bloemfontein in February to March 1900, and 7,000 in General French’s march in the Transvaal later that year. Contractors still carried dispatches, constructed fortifications, gathered intelligence and provided scouts.
And the reality today is that deploying, sustaining and delivering military intent wouldn’t happen without contractors. …