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Private military firms, also known as private military companies, are private organizations that provide military services to contractees.
They have been around in one form or another since historic times when their members were often called mercenaries, but these days they try to avoid the usage of that term because of its negative connotations.
In practice, the services offered by these firms are similar to those offered by governmental militaries, including the soldiers themselves and the equipment they use, albeit on a smaller scale, both numerically and strategically.
Countries often hire them for checkpoint security, bomb detection, border patrol units, and air support, while individuals and smaller groups hire them to provide security for executives or other VIPs.
Note that they are not to be confused with defense contractors like Lockheed-Martin, which usually provide military engineering services rather than military personnel.
There are three private military firms currently under the employ of the United States government's State Department.
These are Academi – the largest of them – a relatively new company formerly known under the names Xe Services and Blackwater USA, DynCorp International, which was formed in 1946 as an aviation company, and Triple Canopy, a PMC formed in 2003 that comprises plenty of former special operations personnel and law enforcement officers.
These firms provide the bulk of private security contracts handed out by the United States, and their versatile members can act as security guards, K-9 teams, and other defensive roles.
Due to the United Nations Mercenary Convention, mercenaries are often looked down upon in the international community, and while many of the nations with the largest militaries (and therefore the largest military contracts) never became signatories, private military companies nevertheless attempt to distance themselves from the “mercenary” label by only offering security and defense contracts.
Despite their best efforts, they tend to be embroiled in controversy, especially in the case of a slew of accidents brought about by then-Blackwater contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These modern private military firms significantly bolster the forces of armies by taking the more “mundane” security tasks that would otherwise draw soldiers away from where they're most needed – the battlefield.
While their use can at times be controversial and problematic, especially as regards signatory nations to the UNMC, in hard times as war specific measures must be taken to provide support for soldiers.
Private military firms, or at least their members, have been around for centuries, and they're not going away any time soon.
What exactly are private military firms?
The term has come into vogue as of late, being dropped around every time militaristic affairs in Syria and Afghanistan are delved into.
One can get the answer from ancient history, as far back as the thirteenth century BCE when Egyptian Pharaohs used auxiliary troops from foreign nations to bolster his troops. Then, Greek soldiers-for-hires were used by Xerxes in 484 BC.
The Roman Empire hired barbarian troops and trained them into soldiers, to be used for additional combat roles.
Now, private military firms sell their services to militaries, for their contractors to be used as security guards, pilots, and other military roles in war zones and for the protection of important personnel.
In short, these organizations are mercenary groups.
To consider them “mercenaries” though would be to offend the sensibilities of modern private military firms.
Mercenaries are frowned-upon in modern times, and an entire United Nations convention – the UN Mercenary Convention of 1989 – was set up to discuss their regulation.
These days, private military firms such as Academi and AKE Limited provide security services, logistical and intelligence services, pilots for vehicles, supply lines, and training for law enforcement and military agencies.
Contractors who are deployed to battlefields are never expected to directly engage in frontline combat and must act in a purely defensive capacity.
Such is the result not only of mercenary conventions but of public opinion: Academi was once known by the name Xe Services, and even before that it was called Blackwater; the reasons for these name changes were the controversies it was involved in as Blackwater USA, when its contractors, who were attached as security details to various locations in Iraq, opened fire on civilians.
The sensitive nature of private individuals given access to firearms and being enabled for warfighting duties has never left private military companies as a stigma.
Private military firms, however, have been seen to step up their discipline and their capabilities, making them much more viable for hiring in combat situations, if only in defensive or logistical roles.
These modern mercenaries – the term fits even as they wish to avoid its negative connotations – are flexible and efficient, and as their strength continues to grow, so too do their levels of organization.
There may no longer be a soldier of fortune in its historical sense, but with private military firms being more organized and more effective than ever, this point is hardly something to feel sorry about.
From the Varangian guard of the Byzantines to the Italian mercenary groups, all the way to modern organizations such as DynCorp and Academi, proprietors of private military jobs have been around for thousands of years, and have consistently been in demand no matter what kind of war is being fought.
These days, of course, the pay is higher and the equipment is better, and government contracts are shinier than ever.
Unfortunately (depending on your perspective) “mercenaries” have quite frowned upon these days, so private military firms do not serve in direct combatant roles.
What, then, are the possible jobs that one can expect to perform as a member of a private military firm?
The first and least obvious among private military jobs would be as a training officer.
Not all private military contractor jobs involve dangerous, critical duties with deployment in war zones or attachment to individuals in need of security; PMCs also offer training services for military and law-enforcement groups, with fields ranging from combat skills such as firearm training, marksmanship and close quarters combat, to driving, logistics, and intelligence.
One of the best-known private military training centers is run by Academi – the United States Training Center, which was once known as the Blackwater Training Center.
Another job would be as a security guard – albeit a highly-armed one – working at bases and checkpoints in military operational theaters such as Iraq.
This job is essential to the United States Armed Forces because contractors can serve in menial or mundane positions that would otherwise take up resources and personnel which could have been sent to the front lines.
Other security positions include K-9 bomb-and-drug-detection teams, maritime security for naval vessels, and security consultation services such as those of Academi and Triple Canopy.
There are also contracts for vehicle drivers and aircraft pilots – both of the fixed- and rotary-wing varieties.
In short, private military jobs today have a wide range of job opportunities, both in combat and noncombat logistical roles.
It's possible to become a “modern mercenary” without ever having to set foot on violent soil, although firearms training and the like are still mandatory for most.
It can be as exciting as military work, though the dangers apply, and it can also be fulfilling and meaningful as contractors support the dedicated military of their parent nations.
Whatever the case, private military jobs are not all about fighting and killing, but they are all about making a difference.