Cutting Out The Middle Man

A Better Way To Outsource Military Tasks


Only an industry spawned from the military could give rise to the array of acronyms used to describe security companies. There’s PSC – Private Security Companies. PMC – Private Military Companies. And CSC – Commercial Security Companies—the acronym I believe is most accurate because all security companies exist for one reason only. To turn a profit for their shareholders.

No matter which acronym you prefer, the profit motive makes commercial security companies a poor substitute for a professionally trained and managed military. But as much as I’d like to put the outsourcing genie back in the bottle, it’s not going to happen. Tight defence budgets keep slashing headcounts for active duty personnel, leaving the military no alternative other than to outsource tasks when troops are stretched. And for political elites, private security companies have become an all too important fig leaf for concealing the true human and financial costs of ill-conceived interventions in foreign lands.

I’ve written at length about why commercial security companies are a bad deal for tax payers. And they will continue to be as long as the industry is self-regulated. The foxes minding the commercial security hen house have drafted codes of conduct and guidelines, but in the absence of external oversight and enforcement, they’re worse than useless. Just look at the number of contractor deaths that are swept under the rug. Or dig a little deeper and examine the managerial ineptitude and sheer greed which led to those deaths.

That’s why it’s crucial to distinguish between the contractors carrying out tasks on the ground, and the security company executives back home. The executives in their plush offices are primarily concerned with maximizing profits in order to secure themselves bonuses, raises and promotions. The contractors by contrast are often former service members who are using the skills they learned in the military to make an honest living and put food on their tables. The contractors’ aren’t awarded fat bonuses. In fact, their daily wages have been slashed to the bone since the boom years of the early noughties. Few contractors have access to company sponsored pension schemes. Many aren’t paid for travel, or travel days. And most can forget about reimbursement for visa costs.

As professions go, security contractor ranks up there as one of the worst in terms of risk-reward. And let me be clear – contractors often face far greater risks than their military counterparts. Contractors are often assigned tasks that do not match their individual skill sets. And even when they do, they often lack the correct equipment and/or support management to carry out tasks professionally, because the company’s thought process is towards penny pinching to protect its profit margin.

I cannot overstate how important it is for the contractor to have the correct skills for their assigned task, especially in hostile environments. The self-regulating security industry has gone to great lengths to obscure this need by requiring contractors to undergo an SIA (Security Industry Association) training course, or a comparable variant. These SIA courses are undertaken at the contractor’s expense in finances and time, last only days to a few weeks not months, and have shockingly low failure rates. Weigh that against months and months of military training, and what you have is a recipe for a tick-in-the-box certification that impresses clients who don’t know any better while allowing commercial security companies to hire the cheapest contractors they can find, as opposed to those best suited to the job.

For too long, commercial security companies have gotten away with looking after their bottom line to the detriment of their contractors trying their hardest to operate as professionally as possible. Skill set mismatches are only the tip of the iceberg. In the military, when a commanding officer makes an outrageous request, subordinates can send a complaint up the chain of command. In the commercial security world, contractors are told to “give the client what they want”, no matter how dangerous or ill advised. In the military, when an operation in a hostile environment goes pear shaped, there’s a robust support system in place to come to the rescue. In the commercial security world, on the whole, the lads and lasses on the ground are left to fend for themselves.

Things have only gotten worse as the market for commercial security has tightened. I’m aware of companies that have taken on dangerous contracts more ethical companies wouldn’t touch. For example, running convoys along routes where there was a high probability the contractors would be ambushed and killed. I know contractors who took those jobs because they had families to support, bills to pay and no other employment prospects brewing. I’m also aware of companies telling contractors that if they didn’t yield to outrageous client demands, they could be easily replaced by another contractor sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

These abuses have flourished thanks to a toxic mix of tightening defence budgets and self-regulation of the commercial security industry. But those same conditions also hold the key to reforming how military operations are outsourced to commercial security contractors and by extension, how the industry is policed.

Commercial security companies and their proponents argue that they offer the same level of professionalism as the military at a fraction of the cost. I’ve already listed several examples of how commercial security companies are not and never will be as professional as the military. As for cost – I agree. Employing a contractor for a specific task for a limited time will almost always be cheaper than employing a full time soldier with benefits. But employing a contractor through the middleman of a commercial security company is not the MOST cost efficient alternative.

Rather than outsource a task to a commercial security company, the military can cut out the middle man altogether by maintaining its own database of contractors which it then hires directly as needed. The cost savings are obvious. A commercial security company turns a profit by pocketing the difference between what they charge the client –in this case, the military – and what they pay the contractor. When the military hires the contractor directly, there is no mark-up on the contractor. Or equipment for that matter (if indeed the security company actually supplies the contractor with the very same equipment they’ve charged the client for).

Cutting out the middle man would also ensure the military secures the right contractors with the correct skills for the job. Moreover, those contractors would be backed up by a robust support system and a chain of command which keeps them bound and sound to carry out an operation to the best of their abilities.

Even if the MoD and DoD implement this one simple change, there’s still the matter of commercial to commercial security contracts. Such as looking after aid organizations in hostile environments or protecting oil and gas installation as an example. But I believe if the military reforms the way it outsources tasks, it would set the stage for a broader reform of the commercial security industry; one that would finally replace the deeply flawed self-regulatory regime with an external regulator.

This has been my pet subject since I wrote and published my first book, The Circuit, over a decade ago. I argued then as I do now that self-regulation is a debacle and that the only way to ensure a high degree of professionalism among commercial security companies is to create an external oversight body with the authority to draft and enforce regulations.

In Britain, this external regulatory body would be headed by a serving MP with no financial ties to the industry. This MP along with a team of experienced, diverse professionals who’ve served in the military and worked on The Circuit, would draft rules and regulations based on their operational experience. Any commercial security company with executives based in Britain, regardless of where it’s incorporated or books its profits –would be required to adopt these rules and regulations or be barred from doing business. To enforce these standards, the team would investigate complaints and perform regular audits. If a company is found to have committed fraud and/or abuse, the regulatory body would have the authority to fine the company and ban its top executives from the industry for life. Starting with the CEO.

This external regulatory body would also foster a culture of transparency by maintaining a public data base of contractors killed or wounded on the job. This includes any contractor working for a British company, or a company headed by a British national incorporated in another jurisdiction.
I believe Britain’s MoD and the US DoD could immediately start hiring contractors directly and in doing so catalyse some long overdue reforms. Whether the will exists to do this is another question. I’m dismayed by the number of retired senior officers who have sold their souls for lucrative positions with unethical commercial security companies. But I do believe there are good, serving officers who are fed up with business as usual. True leaders who have the vision and will to cut out the parasitic middlemen who jeopardize operational success for the sake of profit and unnecessarily endanger the lives of the hard grafting contractors on the ground.

Published by: bobshepherdauthor

Bestselling author Bob Shepherd has spent nearly forty years operating in conflict areas around the world. A twenty year veteran of Britain’s elite 22 SAS Regiment with nearly two decades of private security work to his credit, Bob has successfully negotiated some of the most dangerous places on earth as a special forces soldier and a private citizen. Bob comments regularly on security issues and has appeared on CNN International, BBC, SKY News, and BBC Radio. He has also authored numerous articles and books including the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller The Circuit. In addition to writing and lecturing, Bob continues to advise individuals operating in hostile environments. For more of his insights on security and geopolitics visit

Categories Afghanistan, British Defence, British Security, DoD, Foreign Policy, Iraq, MoD, NATO, PMCs, Private Security, private security, PSC Reform, UK Armed Forces, UK Politics, UncategorizedLeave a comment

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