The age of the mercenary

I think I’m getting a couple of predictions right. One is that the legacy airlines will get out of the coach class business. A recent article in the Wall St. Journal pointed out that as airlines shrink not only the size of seats in coach but also how many of them they install, their profits go up. So just draw the obvious conclusion. (My last post on this phenomenon is here.)

Another is that modern warfare will be privatized. This argument, which I first made in my 2005 bestseller, Neither Shall the Sword, suggested that state armies are great for fighting other state armies but not so good at the everything else called “fourth generation warfare.” Because the only state armies that the United States is going to fight are very weak — think Iraq, Grenada, and so on — we can shrink our national military forces but we still need something else to fill the gap, and I argued that the best we can do is use market forces to fill this gap for us.

Lo and behold, as we say in the prediction business, it has come to pass.  As former US Army paratrooper and later mercenary Sean McFate reports in an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “In Iraq half of the personnel in war zones were contracted, and in Afghanistan it was closer to 70 percent. America may fight future wars mainly with contractors.” So we need to get thinking about how best to manage this process to serve the national interest. McFate and I came to the same conclusion: “Multibillion dollar industries don’t just evaporate, and outlawing private security forces won’t work. Relying on the market is the best way to avoid a return to the medieval chaos of armies for hire.”

In other words, except for a small public component to operate our nuclear deterrent force, and perform a few other missions, the government should run the league but not field a team (as I wrote back in 2005 — and “bestseller” should be considered in its relative sense.)

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12 thoughts on “The age of the mercenary

  1. ” McFate and I came to the same conclusion: “Multibillion dollar industries don’t just evaporate, and outlawing private security forces won’t work. Relying on the market is the best way to avoid a return to the medieval chaos of armies for hire.””
    Your prediction about the airline industry was pretty impressive. I think it was a close enough call that you can put it in your win column.
    Also it seems to me that ISIS can be thought of as a Multibillion dollar industry that, although it may look medieval, hasn’t returned to the medieval practice of becoming a army for hire.
    I think in the context of your prediction, the relationship of ISIS to the rest of the Middle East can be thought of as an example of your second prediction. It is an army that holds a position inside a hotly contested market.
    Maybe you can put this second prediction in your win column. Also, the way things are going, you will have a model (perhaps a sick one) for how an army made up of market forces works. It will have a loose structure, strong brand, and hold a position based on its customers instead of a geospatial location.
    On the other hand, isn’t the British military a market-based-army that has just, for now, lost its place in the market?

  2. I mean, Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy. Unlike the US, the “private” sector is a part of its structure. Which just means that there is no corporation on British soil that the Queen doesn’t approve of.
    The US got around that “problem” of exclusion by making corporations people. Now, the private sector is also a part of the structure, of the Nation State, of The United States of America.
    So now you are saying let’s go to war (at least in the position our discussions about war take, i.e. 4GW) and the first step is to figure out how to manage it considering this new structure, a cultural which is slowly making the decision for change, and a possible changing of position in the world as the US loses its status of the #1 economy in the world.
    I would say that is very futuristic thinking.
    Futuristic thinking is a position many hold on the Web, and I think you do as well as any of them in that position.

  3. I disagree for a few reasons. First of all, I think we must remember that war is an expression of political will. Will has to be demonstrated through commitment and an expression of will is hard to outsource. State armies are good at fighting the armies of other states mainly because they are built that way. In a world where you build forces to counter the most dangerous expected threat, we build our forces to counter state threats. Perhaps we need to re-think how we build our forces as opposed to outsourcing our forces. My next point is tied to my first point on war as an expression of political will. Outsourcing military force is dangerous because it allows us to more readily employ forces without the supporting political will. We are more likely to get involved in activities we are only half serious about seeing through and that is dangerous. Finally, as we’ve seen through the recent Blackwater trials, private armies bring challenges with accountability and in low level conflicts, accountability is arguably more important than ever.

    • Alex,

      Thanks for the note. Those are legitimate concerns, whether war is “an expression of political will” or not. Privatization is happening anyway, however, so we had better learn how to employ it.


      • “whether war is “an expression of political will” or not.”
        Good point. In a OODA loop there is no “political will”, only the force in the gap between the position of most advantage and the orientation of most advantage.
        As the HBO series “Vice” showed, those on the north side of the border have lost their orientation in the labor force needed to grow its food and now they are trying to decide which side of the border has the advantage.
        I am guessing Vice was showing an example of the political will “problem” Alex was talking about.

      • Chet, I think we get in trouble when we disconnect war from our political will. My point is contractors on the battlefield make that easy for the executive branch and should be avoided or used with care. To an extent they are the product of looking for savings in the context of a lean and very expensive all volunteer force.

  4. An Orientation is mass. When it is together and with an advantage, position makes it energy. The OODA loop is how energy distributes itself in the universe in quantum physics.
    At least I can call it quantum physics, because, as it was explained to me, if you say you know what quantum physics is, then you don’t know quantum physics 🙂

  5. To define war then, in the context of a gap between an Orientation of an advantage and a Position of advantage, war would be a lever inside the gap and between Orientation and Position.
    Move the lever one direction and it is war–move it in the other direction and its peace.
    As a gap can move in three dimensions (near and far, deep and shallow, and narrow and wide), there are three positions and two directions in each position that feels the advantage behind the lever.
    Perhaps as an analogy: one can make the path through the gap long or short, the ceiling to get out high or short, and the pressure applied while going through the gap large or small.
    One direction or another usually produces many results, both positive and negative, which in engineering means little else but direction.

  6. One point that has become patently clear to me over time is that people look at Boyd’s OODA loop in a similar way as the blind men and the elephant. Their personal orientation drives what they see in the loop and the conclusions they draw. Larry and I are operating from very different orientations!

    • The point I was trying to make was that I am not operating from any orientation, I am just going through the process and trying to understand what I am actually holding when I regain my sight. I mean, in this age of apps, what seem clear to me is that math being used throughout the loop and, while I am no mathematician, the math also seems to be something more than Newtonian thrust and resistance. To me it is that “math” that ties structure, culture, and position (three essential ingredients of the OODA loop) and makes up the entirely of the OODA loop.
      What seems patently clear to me is that most people get stuck in orientation. I mean, with all the feedback and feedforward in the loop, how is it possible for decisions to be made at all? And then when those decisions are made, how does action take place without a complete meltdown in the process? A meltdown, because destruction and construction seem to go on almost simultaneously.
      George W. Bush might have been the least thinking POTUS in the history of The United States of America, yet he was also the “decider”. Is Decision really the least important letter in the loop, as most people, like GWB, who are caught up in Orientation, seem to Act? And what are the chances, in the context of Boyd, for survival for a country that acts as if it is?

  7. Larry, I agree people get stuck in observation and become indecisive. But, no decision is a decision as the environment never remains static and moves on without you. If you make decisions however, the environment reacts to the decisions you make. That can be thought of as seizing the initiative. I don’t think Bush was a non-thinker. He just did not agonize over trivial details. He made decisions and lived with the consequences, something all leaders must do. Decisiveness is a leadership trait for a reason.

    • “Larry, I agree people get stuck in observation and become indecisive.”
      I agree with the “observation” part, but disagree with your indecisive narrative.
      Bush was the “decider”. To people who focus too much on Orientation comes decisions that are made easily. That is one of the advantage of Orientation. You decide much by what you Observe.
      You know, as Boyd would probably point out, speed is a part of maneuverability, just not the only part. So the speed in Decision doesn’t always (but most of the time) make up for the bias, which is coming as feedback from Orientation. Bias hides, with the help of the feedback, much that is in the data coming from Observation. Without unbiased data it is hard to make an accurate decision.
      When I say Bush was not a thinker, I was talking about a position within the OODA loop. If, but unlike Bush, there is actually thinking after the Decisions have been made, you get to bring your Orientation with you.
      This is something Bush never did. I went to High School with Born-again Christians, and kinda understand the position as to where Bush was coming from.
      As you might agree, so much of the faith comes from what is Observed.

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