150 PMCs, $400 Billion In Revenues By 2030: Why Private Military Firms Are Flourishing At Lightning Speed

Fading interests among the young for a career in the military is increasingly becoming a global phenomenon. Many countries are now facing a situation of acute shortages of soldiers to keep their armed forces in shape.

Among other things, the just revealed instances of a score of Indians and Nepalese being misled by human traffickers to work for the Russian armed forces fighting in Ukraine prove the growing use of mercenaries and private military companies (PMC) in wars in various parts of the world to cope with the dwindling numbers of fresh recruits into the regular military services.

The official spokesperson of the Indian Foreign Office informed last week-end that several Indian nationals have been duped to work with the Russian Army, that two of them have died, that  20 of them have managed to contact the Indian authorities of their plights, that New Delhi has taken up the matter with Moscow for early discharge of such Indian nationals, and that strong action has been initiated against agents and unscrupulous elements who recruited them on false pretexts and promises, with the federal investigation agency (CBI) busting a major human trafficking network after conducting searches in several cities and collecting incriminating evidence in this regard.

Incidentally, there are reports of four Nepali men appealing to the Indian government to rescue them from Russia, saying they were fraudulently sent to the country to work as helpers in the army but were instead forced to fight in the ongoing war against Ukraine.

That Russia, or for that matter Ukraine, is finding it hard to have enough nationals willing to fight the war is widely known. Because of the shortage of regular soldiers, Russian President Vladimir Putin was forced last year to call up the reserves, something not seen since the Second World War.

In fact, Russia has now made refusal to comply when summoned, surrender to the enemy, and desertion criminal offenses carrying a ten-year prison sentence. This reportedly triggered protests across the country, leading to the torching of recruitment centers.

Somehow, Putin is said to have managed the situation by showing leniency and opting for more contract soldiers, who, at least in theory, fight voluntarily in return for pay. To entice many such volunteers, the government is spending money on advertisements promoting the benefits of swapping the job of a taxi driver, fitness instructor, or security guard in a supermarket for that of a warrior.

“You are a man. So be one” is said to be a standard theme in such advertisements.

Similarly, many young persons are evading recruitment by hiding at home or trying to bribe their way out of the battle in Ukraine. Reportedly, the Ukrainian army is struggling to find new recruits to send to the front. Ukraine’s military officials openly admit that their army is too small and made up of too many exhausted and wounded soldiers.

With the war entering its third year, Ukraine’s most urgent and politically sensitive challenge is now whether it can muster enough new soldiers to repel an enemy with far more fighters at its disposal.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is reportedly considering legislation that would increase the potential pool of recruits by about 400,000, in part by lowering the enlistment age from 27 to 25. But the proposal seems highly unpopular.

However, as pointed out above, the military as a career is also losing its appeal in other parts of the world.

US Struggles Too

In the United States, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard all missed their recruiting targets last year, while the Marine Corps and Space Force narrowly met theirs. The National Guard is also seeing shortages at all ranks and in all states.

In 2023, the Army and Air Force fell short of their respective goals by around 10,000 recruits, while the Navy was under 6,000. It has been reported that the number of active-duty personnel has fallen by 39 percent since 1987.

In the fall of 2022, Joint Advertising Marketing Research & Studies (JAMRS), a program run by the US Department of Defense, polled people of ages 6-24 about their likelihood to join the military and why or why not.

When asked, “In the next few years, how likely is it that you will be serving in the Military?” 2% replied, “Definitely,” and 7% replied, “Probably.”  Conversely, 32% replied, “Probably not,” and 58% replied, “Definitely Not,” amounting to 90% of young people who are unlikely to consider the military as a career path.

Similarly, a poll by the research institute Echelon Insights of 1,029 likely voters, conducted between October 23-26, 2023, found that 72 percent of those asked would not be willing to volunteer to serve in the armed forces were America to enter a major conflict, compared with 21 percent who would.

No wonder why Stephanie Miller, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, has been quoted to have said, “One of the biggest challenges we have is just that propensity to serve.”

China In Grey Zone

Even China is said to have problems with voluntary enlistment in its armed forces. As a veteran Indian officer recently wrote for EurAsian Times, the ‘single child’ population of China is opposed to voluntary enlistment. The motivation of these ‘single children’ to ‘sacrifice for the nation’ is questionable. Overall, things do not fall into place. Hence, frontline units cannot be professionally rugged or fighting fit.

“Very importantly, the immediate seniors of these shaky youngsters are also single children with no battle experience. Hence, the PLA constantly has new soldiers due to high turnovers without adequate expertise, motivation, or leadership in cutting-edge units.

There are credible reports that Chinese soldiers have abandoned posts and run away in challenging situations in United Nations missions. Recent wars have also proven that the man on the ground is essential and that technology alone will not win battles,” he wrote.

China’s single-child norm may be seen as a factor in the population decline in countries like Russia and others in Europe, one reason why a career in the military is losing its sheen. But, according to scholars, there are other factors.

In the United States, it is said that lack of competitive pay compared to private and commercial opportunities, “substandard living conditions for entry-level service members, and abysmal healthcare”  for both active duty and veterans do dissuade the young from joining the military. Of course, some veterans do not think the tough life in the military, as presented in the media, is true, but this perception prevails.

This perception is all the stronger when people believe that such tough lives in the armed forces are not worth the cause when the U.S. seems to have lost the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or, for that matter, Afghanistan.

Some military planners also attribute the reduction in recruits to conservative criticisms of the military’s efforts to recruit from diverse demographics, including LGBTQ+ communities. American conservatives believe that this is nothing but politicization or ‘wokeness’ in the military, arguing that the focus has shifted towards inclusivity rather than on its primary job — war-fighting on the basis of competence.

They ask questions as to why a white male would want to join the military if promotions are based on skin complexion rather than skill or whether he would be made to feel guilty for the past injustices committed by his ancestors against other minority groups.

It may be noted that “DEI”—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—is a volatile point of contention in the American military. Critics say that DEI threatens national security because competence and merit do not matter much in one’s career. When the country does not have enough competent manpower, it will lose wars.

It is against this background that the increasing utilization of the mercenaries and PMCs in wars may be seen. When nations are finding it hard to recruit their own nationals, hiring private persons and corporations is clearly an option.  As we argued in a previous EurAsian Times article, the Russia-Ukraine War has ignited the ‘Dirty Battle’ of foreign mercenaries, private armies, and crazy volunteers.

Wagner Military Group
Wagner Military Group

Both Russia and Ukraine admitted soon after the outbreak of the war that foreign soldiers were fighting for them. Ukraine said that some twenty thousand (20,000) people from fifty-two (52) countries had applied to fight in the newly formed International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

They reportedly included Americans, Canadians, and several European nationalities. On its part, Russia claimed that some sixteen thousand (16,000) men from the Middle East and Central Asia had applied to fight for Russia.

But then, what is happening in Ukraine is the latest manifestation of this phenomenon of what is said to be the “privatization revolution” in wars.

PMCs have been used during the Gulf War, the Balkans conflicts, the Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War. And here, if the Russians used the Wagner Group, Americans hired their own private military contractor. Even the United Kingdom has the London-based Sandline International, which earned notoriety for its involvement in conflicts in Papua New Guinea in 1997 and had a contract with the government under then-Prime Minister Julius Chan.

In fact, it is estimated that there are more than 150 private military companies worldwide that offer their services in around 50 countries. The size of the industry is quickly evolving: “By 2020, 223 billion dollars’ worth of services were sold, an amount estimated to double by 2030.”

Even otherwise, as wars have been waged in impoverished, politically unstable, non-secured, and resource-endowed areas, many transnational and global companies tend to employ private security companies to protect their workers and investments in these areas.

If the major powers do get involved directly in these countries, contractors allow their militaries  to concentrate on their  core functions, fighting wars, by removing responsibility for “the more mundane operations, which are no less important to maintaining operational efficiency and handing that responsibility to outside agents.”

These services include food services, materiel management and distribution, communication and information systems, land equipment maintenance, health services, transportation, construction engineering services, power supply and distribution, water supply and distribution, waste management, roads and grounds, fire services, environmental management, and ammunition support.

Then, there are independent military companies that offer their services to provide military expertise (including strategic planning, intelligence gathering, crisis management, risk assessment, security consulting, de-mining, or training of local law enforcement) to state militaries.

There are also “Military-provider companies” that offer their clients tactical support during military operations, including direct participation in hostilities.

In sum, the profound transformation in the privatization of forces that has occurred is here to stay for the foreseeable future, particularly when there are not enough soldiers to fight wars.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com