The Growing Role Of Mercenaries In Warfare

(MENAFN- NewsIn) By K

Colombo, December 10: With volunteers from Sri Lanka and Nepal
joining the Russian or Ukrainian armies for money, the use of foreign mercenaries in war has again come under the international spotlight.

Earlier, the Russian Wagner Group was under the spotlight, for its role in the Ukraine war and wars in
Africa, the way it rebelled against President Vladimir Putin and finally gave in to him.


Defence writers tend to dwell on standing armies of nation-states, neglecting the mercenaries, though the use of mercenaries is both widespread and has been a major feature in military history.

In his 2019 paper Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today, Dr McFate of the US National Defence University (NDU) defines a mercenary as an armed civilian paid to do military operations or impart military training in a foreign conflict zone. A mercenary is not a member of a regular national armed force but is an auxiliary.

Sri Lankans who had joined the Ukrainian Foreign Legion (UFL) are mercenaries. While the UFL as such is an official body, the participation of Sri Lankans in it in the absence of a bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Sri Lanka, makes it a private affair. Like the Sri Lankans in UFL, the Nepalese joining the war on the Russian side are also mercenaries.

Companies which supply mercenaries are profit-maximizing entities. They are structured as businesses, and some of the large private military corporations have even been traded on Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, such as DynCorp International and Armor Group, McFate points out.

Mercenary groups may be big or small. According to the Indian magazine Outlook, there are five major mercenary groups in the world, the Wagner group, Olive group, Academi, G4S Security, and Erinys.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that the
Wagner Group is a vehicle the Kremlin uses to recruit, train, and deploy mercenaries, either to fight wars or to provide security and training to friendly regimes abroad. Controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group has been used in Africa and Ukraine.

The Olive group has protected oil firms from suicide bombers and other attackers in Iraq since 2003. It recruits mainly from members of UK's Special Air Service (SAS) at high wages. Started by Harry Legge-Burke, the Olive Group is a member of the International Peace Operations Association.

Formerly known as Blackwater, Academi was found in 1996 by an ex-US Navy man. Blackwater is most known for its involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqi citizens in the Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad. The group boasts an army of 20,000 men and a base in North Carolina to boot.

G4S is the biggest private military group in the world, with around 620,000 employees.
It boasts of operations in over 120 countries providing routine support to airport security, night-time patrolling, and so on. It does not involve heavy combat.

Erinys is a UK firm in operation since the beginning of the Iraq War. One of the primary tasks of the firm is to guard the oil pipelines and energy assets in over 280 countries but mainly in post-war Iraq. In its fair share of controversy, Erinys was accused of torturing prisoners in custody. The group also maintains a presence in Africa, Outlook says.

Robert Lawless, writing in the website of the Lieber Institute West Point in March 2022 says that as many as 200 Russian irregular fighters (mercenaries) were killed in combat in February 2022. Another report asserts that more than 40,000 Syrians were registered to join the Russian side in the conflict in 2022.

“Russia reportedly is relying on irregular forces in part as a matter of operational necessity. According to US intelligence officials, Russia faces a significant shortfall in military personnel, exacerbated by perceived operational failures,” Robert Lawless says.

Huge Role in History

The taboo against mercenaries is only a few hundred years old, McFate says. Earlier, mercenary work was considered honourable and was thought to be equivalent to regular soldiering.

“The word mercenary comes from the Latin merces (wages or pay) and is no different than the solde or pay due to fighters, from which the word“soldier” is derived. For much of the past, mercenaries and soldiers were synonymous,” McFate points out.

He further says that much of military history is about mercenaries.
The reason is simple: Renting a force is cheaper than owning it. A standing army means regular payment and perhaps even paying life-long pension and giving living quarters and other facilities.“Why invest in your own expensive standing army when you could just rent one?” McFate wonders.

Military history bristles with mercenary involvements. When Alexander the Great invaded Asia in 334 BC, his army included 5,000 foreign mercenaries, and the Persian army he faced contained 10,000 Greeks. Rome used mercenaries throughout its 1,000-year rule. In 18 th India, James Skinner, a Eurasian freelancer, raised the Skinner's Horse, a cavalry regiment which fought for any ruler who could pay.

The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in Ceylon used mercenaries recruited both locally and from India. They were called Lascarines. The Lascarines were ad hoc fighters recruited for particular campaigns and were discharged upon the conclusion of the campaigns. The Dutch East India Company in Ceylon (VOC) used the Regiment de Meuron, a body of Swiss mercenaries, to fight their wars against the British and Lankan kings. After the British took over from the Dutch, they found it more convenient to use the Regiment de Meuron than requisitioning troops from India.

As Lankan historians, I and Sanath de Silva point out in Warfare in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese kings also recruited mercenaries both locally and from India. While the locals were paid in land, the foreigners were paid wages.

Recent Use

Recent years have seen major mercenary activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq, McFate says. Many of these for-profit warriors outclass local militaries, and a few can even stand up to America's most elite forces, as the battle in Syria shows,” he points out.

“Kurdistan is a haven for soldiers of fortune looking for work with the Kurdish militia, oil companies defending their oil fields, or those who want terrorists dead. The capital of Kurdistan, Irbil, has become an unofficial marketplace of mercenary services.”

“The United Arab Emirates secretly dispatched hundreds of special forces mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. Hailing from Latin American countries like Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, and Chile, they were all tough veterans of the drug wars, bringing new tactics and toughness to Middle East conflicts. The Emirates hired 1,800 of them, paying two to four times their old salaries,” McFate says.

African mercenaries are also fighting in Yemen for Saudi Arabia. They come from Sudan, Chad, and Eritrea.


McFate says that Syria rewards mercenaries who seize territory from terrorists with oil and mining rights. Russian company Evro Polis employed the Wagner Group to capture oil fields from the Islamic State (IS) in central Syria. Ukrainian oligarchs also hired mercenaries. Billionaire Igor Kolomoisky employed private warriors to capture the headquarters of oil company UkrTransNafta in order to protect his financial assets, according to McFate.

Nigeria hired mercenaries to tackle the deadly Boko Haram. The mercenaries arrived with special forces and Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships and drove out the Boko Haram in a few weeks. The Nigerian military could not achieve this task in 6 years!

Even terrorists hire mercenaries. Malhama Tactical is based in Uzbekistan. It works only for Jihadi groups. McFate warns that Jihadis may hire mercenary special forces for precision terrorist attacks.

Humanitarian groups and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as CARE, Save the Children, CARITAS, and World Vision are increasingly turning to the private sector security companies to protect their people, property, and interests in conflict zones, McFate says. Large military companies like Aegis Defense Services and Triple Canopy advertise their services to NGOs.




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