by Anna Pukas
January 7, 2013
Afghan President Hamid Karzai
surrounded by privately-hired
heavily armed bodyguards
It sounds like a radically modern idea.
With the Royal Navy now downsized to a mere
shadow of its former glory how do you protect commercial shipping, not to
mention human cargo, in pirate-infested waters?
Answer: bring in a private navy.
And in a couple of months that is precisely what corporations or indeed
governments will be able to do when
Typhon, a privately owned and run British maritime
force, goes into operation.
Set up by British businessman Simon Murray,
Typhon will provide an armed escort for shipping off the east of Africa
which has long been plagued by Somali pirates.
Murray, 72, plans to provide at least three
so-called "mother ships" to accompany shipping convoys wanting to take the
shortest - but also the riskiest - route from the Horn of Africa through the
Mozambique Channel down to the Cape of Good Hope.
With a former Royal Navy commodore and an ex-commander on board as heads of
operations the venture seems destined for success.
After all, since almost every other public service has been privatized - the
railways, telecommunications, gas and electricity - privatizing a branch of
the armed forces seems a natural progression, a move in step with the march
of the modern world.
Private armies already operate in at least 50 countries from South America
to the Middle East. President Karzai of Afghanistan's bodyguards are
provided by a private company not his own state. In Nigeria private forces
guard oil platforms. Iraq is awash with private security firms with around
48,000 operatives. The Americans alone employ about 20,000 of them.
The US army has even used a private firm's
Apache helicopters to fly special forces personnel to the location of a
The Libyans guarding the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya's second
city, when the building was torched last September were employed not by the
Libyan state or even by the Americans but by Blue Mountain, a British
Indeed about 70 per cent of private military or
security firms are British or American.
security firm G4S, better known for
providing routine bank and airport security, took over
Armorgroup, which supplied 9,000 guards to
protect non-military supply convoys in Iraq. With more than 625,000
employees in 125 countries, G4S is now the second biggest private employer
in the world.
WHAT started as a niche industry has become in the past 10 years a huge
global business worth £120billion a year. But it is by no means a 21st
century business. In fact the idea of a fighting or defence force for hire
is not modern at all.
The first military force to bear the name the British Army came into being
in 1707 with the union of England and Scotland and grew out of regiments
raised by individual members of the nobility to fight in the service of the
sovereign in any of the innumerable conflicts of the Middle Ages and
Renaissance era. The army's origins can still be detected in regimental
The rank of "private" still used today originally meant a soldier who was
hired or conscripted into service by a nobleman raising an army.
A privateer - a term ironically often confused
with pirate - is a private individual or ship authorized by the
government to attack foreign shipping during wartime. Privateering was a
good way to mobilize ships and trained sailors without having to spend money
as the privateers were paid from the profits generated by captured cargo and
The first representatives of the East India Company set up shop in 1600.
More than 250 years later it was the realization that it had grown powerful
enough to have its own army and navy that prompted the British government to
dissolve it and take over running the subcontinent.
Some of the earliest recruits to the French Foreign Legion formed in 1831
were Swiss and German mercenaries. (Simon Murray is also a former
The rebirth of the private army, which is not
quite the same as a mercenary force (mercenaries fight; private armies also
provide security), came in the early Nineties. The collapse of the Soviet
Union triggered global insecurity and, coupled with a reduction in the size
of many armies, left a gap to be filled by guns for hire.
Not that they would accept that description.
The private army industry is desperate to erase
the taint of the mercenary and even shies away from the term "military",
preferring "security". But they participate in all stages of war. In Abu
Ghraib, the now notorious Baghdad prison where Iraqi detainees were
tortured, all of the translators and nearly half the interrogators were said
to be private contractors rather than regular military.
Private armies are also involved in humanitarian work, protecting aid
agencies working in war zones while TV journalists - especially those from
the US - reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan have started employing private
Financially the advantages of private armies are clear. They cost less to
hire than the army costs to keep. They can be more adaptable.
When it comes to combating Somali pirates the
Royal Navy is not only hopelessly overstretched (six warships covering 2.5
million square miles of ocean) it also lacks the right ships.
"You get the ridiculous situation where we
have £1billion destroyers trying to sort out pirates in a little dhow
with an outboard motor costing $100 and rocket-propelled grenades
costing $50," says Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David
The cost of Somali piracy was estimated in 2011
to be £4billion.
That cost is ultimately borne by all of us in
higher prices for petrol and imported goods.
For those employed in private armies - private soldiers in the strictest
sense - the rewards can be great. In the early days after the invasion of
Iraq private security guards could earn £1,000 a day. The downside is that
more private military personnel have been killed or wounded there than
servicemen from any national army.
In the end the resurgence of the private armies is a direct result of the
biggest change in commercial practice: