When Security and Profits Don’t Mix

It looks like ArmorGroup North America will be down one lucrative contract next year. The US State Department is reportedly severing its relationship with the private security firm following an investigation into allegations of lewd, drunken behaviour and sexual misconduct by ArmorGroup contractors protecting the US Embassy in Kabul. I have long argued against outsourcing military jobs – such as guarding embassies – to private security firms. The reason is simple. The military exits to protect and serve the national interest whereas PSCs operate for one reason and one reason only; to turn a profit.

Taking Aim at PSC Reform

The media has had a field day with the ArmorGroup North America story. But the sensationalist headlines decrying ‘mercenaries’ out of control often ignore the underlying cause of such abuses. Having worked as a private security advisor in hostile environments since 2002, I can say confidently that the majority of contractors on the ground are competent and strive to do their jobs professionally. Scandals are not simply the product of individuals gone awry; they are the result of poor management structures, corporate cultures which place profits above the security of clients and employees, and above all, lack of external oversight.

One area which clearly illustrates how PSCs and the military operate to different standards is alcohol consumption. The British military bans alcohol in all operational environments and strictly enforces its dry policies. Some PSC’s by contrast have no rules against drinking or turn a blind eye to contractors who flaunt those that do exist. No one working in a warzone should consume alcohol – period. Tasks in hostile environments usually entail long hours and can only be done properly if contractors lead what is essentially a monastic life. Down time should be spent honing skills through training, keeping fit and resting up for the next shift – not getting pissed. I’ve seen contractors misplace their weapons (leaving them in the toilet or on top of vehicles) because they were hung over or in some cases – still drunk. It’s beyond unacceptable.

Another area where some PSCs fall short of military standards is saying ‘no’ to clients. If a diplomat in a hostile environment wants to engage in unnecessary high risk activities, such as shopping on streets that are targeted by suicide bombers, a military Close Protection team (bodyguards) can take up the issue with their superiors back home who can then go across to the diplomat’s bosses and nip the scenario in the bud. No such chain of command exists in the private security world; hence why so many PSCs instruct their advisors on the ground to ‘give the client what they want’ rather than risk losing a contract. Reforms prompted by unacceptable incidents are another area where some PSCs fail to respond as effectively as the military. Due to negligent discharges and unlawful shootings by some contractors, there are now private, operational CP teams in hostile environments who are forbidden by their employers from carrying weapons with a chambered round. Could you imagine a general ordering his frontline troops to do that?

In The Circuit, I argued for three key reforms to clean up the private security industry: first, limit PSCs to servicing only commercial contracts; secondly, require PSCs to perform due diligence on all employees to ensure they have the skills and mindset to do their tasks effectively; and finally and most importantly, externally regulate the industry.

Limiting PSCs to commercial contracts would not bar ex-servicemen and women from working military jobs. What would change is the management. I would like to see the US State Department and DoD and the British FCO and MoD hold a database of ex-military and law enforcement individuals who could be hired for tasks such as guarding embassies and providing close protection for diplomatic staff. The military and foreign office security managers would then be directly in charge of their teams on the ground. Not only would this system graft military/government command structures onto tasks and enforce higher standards – it would also be more cost effective. Cutting out the often astronomical management fees of PSC middle-men would likely save a bundle.

Of all the reforms I’ve been urging, external regulation is the most important. At present, PSCs in Britain are self-regulated. It’s high time the British government did something about it. If PSCs were held to account by a system of external regulation, not only would it dramatically increase professionalism – it would throw light on an industry which currently operates in the shadows. I personally would love it if PSCs were forced to disclose all incidents involving employees in hostile environments dating back to 2001; from negligent discharges, to contacts with civilians, to the number of private contractors killed, wounded and kidnapped on the job. I’m sure the figures would be eye-popping, more so than any headline about ‘rogue mercenaries’.

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. To read more posts by him, please visit www.bobshepherdauthor.com.