21st Century Warfare Explained

The author explains the influence of private military firms in the world today.
  • Transcript


Big Think: How has the military industrial complex affected modern warfare?

P.W. Singer: We have an assumption of war, and when we say the word war and warrior and we close our eyes and think about what images come to mind, it’s usually a man in a uniform.  And that means there are a lot of assumptions behind that.  If they’re in a uniform, they’re part of a military.  They’re part of a military.  They’re part of a nation’s states force, governmental force.  They go to war because of politics.  They’re motivated by patriotism.  That’s our assumption. 

When we look at war in the 21st century, it’s very different out there right now.  It’s not just men.  It’s, of course, women but it’s also children.  One of my previous books was on child soldiers.  There are more than 300,000 child soldiers out there.  The organizations that people fight in are not just nation state militaries. 

In many ways, the US military is kind of like the last of the Jedi.  Look at who we are fighting against.  It’s insurgent groups, terrorist groups.  Then also, look at who’s fighting on our behalf, it’s the private military industry.  This industry has grown by immensely, it’s in balance over the last 10 years.  You’ve had private military firms active in over 50 different countries on every continent [but] Antarctica.  And there are several hundreds of them operating in Iraq right now in terms of companies, in terms of numbers of personnel.  By some counts, you have as much as 180,000 private military contractors on the ground there.  That means there are more private military soldiers than public US military soldiers.  And just like in the military, they do all sorts of tasks.  We’ve got companies that handle logistics and supply trains like Halliburton’s.  We’ve got companies that do training and advisory and technical services.  And we have companies at the point end of the spear like Blackwater.  That’s one that a lot of people are probably familiar with. 

Now, the challenge of this is that we didn’t set up a structure for how we were going to figure out when and where it was appropriate to outsource, and then, what were the rules and regulations under which they would operate.  And so, we’ve been getting, in many ways, the worst of both worlds.  We haven’t been getting good business deals out of it because the government hasn’t been a smart client.  You haven’t had enough competition.  You haven’t had enough market fluidity.  And then the flipside is, the legal structures have been very absent.  And so, you’ve had this sort of vacuum in terms of not only which laws should apply but also a lack of will to apply them.  And so, the result is that contractors have been integral to the operation on the ground in Iraq.  You couldn’t have done it without them.  But they’ve also been part of some of the most embarrassing incidents in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib or the Nisour Square shootings.