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Sean McFate discusses his book The Modern Mercenary

On September 14, 2015, The Institute of World Politics welcomed Dr. Sean McFate for a lecture on his recently published book, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. Dr. McFate described the importance of the private military industry in different countries of the world to maintain social order and peace. He also explained that in this industry there is so much said, but very little known, because it is a very opaque industry compared to the military or the intelligence community. 

Dr. McFate began his lecture by outlining that he would be talking about the past, present, and future of the private military industry, from his own point of view. He pointed out that in 2010, the Pentagon allocated $366 billion to contracts, about 54% of total Department of Defense spending. Moreover, he mentioned that although contractors were only 15% of the industry, they paid big prices in terms of lives lost. Nevertheless, the exact number of deaths is difficult to estimate because the U.S. government does not track such data, and companies underreport because it is bad for business. He argued that the United States used contractors because the all-volunteer military could not recruit enough troops to sustain long wars, and he mentioned that contractors brought benefits and risks to the industry. 

He continued his presentation by talking about the present stance of the private military industry. He mentioned that in his book he talks about four trends that are happening right now with this industry. First we see that the industry is not going to go away anytime soon. He stated that officials in the Department of Defense sometimes see contractors as cheap Army reservists who will just go back to their country of origin and integrate back into society when they are done. He argued that the use of contractors has been well established, as they have been used for over ten years – in other words, contractors are here to stay.

The second trend that Dr. McFate mentioned is that the industry is going native. For example, some Ugandan contractors were hired to help in Afghanistan; when they are done with their job there they will go back to Uganda and start a company in Uganda so they can be contracted by other people.

The third trend concerns the proliferation of the industry. There is new demand and new supply incrementing every year, and many different people using private military contractors for many different reasons. For example, fragile states, tyrannical regimes, NGOs, multinational corporations, and opposition groups are just a few that are starting to hire private military contractors. Also, the supply industry is growing, in the sense that former Soviet republics and Latin America are providing people who are interested in working in these types of jobs. Additionally, the industry is proliferating across all five domains of war, these being: (1) Land, (2) Sea, (3) Air, (4) Space, and (5) Cyberspace. 

The fourth trend that Dr. McFate discussed was the industry’s bifurcation. The industry is essentially divided into two groups, one being mercenaries and the other one being military enterprises. Mercenaries, Dr. McFate said, “are just what you think they are.” He defined them as profit warriors that work for the highest bidder, such as a group contracted by the Nigerian government to fight against Boko Haram.  On the other hand, military enterprises are organizations like DynCorp or Blackwater, which create or help create forces and can augment military forces, but are not independent militaries.

Dr. McFate closed his lecture by talking about where the private military industry is going to be in the future. At first, he mentioned that this mercenary warfare idea is pretty old in history. Even before Machiavelli, they already had mercenary groups operating in Florence. He explained that having warfare with mercenaries is more beneficial than having a standing army just for the simple fact that mercenaries are cheaper and more efficient at their work. Dr. McFate proceeded to outline several trends in the future of the private military industry, including new power shifts, more mercenaries, new super powers, more war, contract warfare, and neo-medievalism. 

Dr. Sean McFate, Ph.D. is an expert on grand strategy and war. He is a professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adjunct social scientist at the RAND Corporation. He worked in Africa for several years for DynCorp International, a company that provides international security services. There he created unique programs such as building Liberia’s army “from the ground up” after its long civil war and Charles Taylor’s exile. He trained Burundi’s Presidential Guard to prevent a genocidal threat in 2004. He also worked on programs in South Sudan and Eastern Europe. From 1992 to 2000 he was an U.S. Army officer, serving as paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Dr. McFate holds a B.A. from Brown University, a M.P.P. from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).