Defence Contractors and Private Military Contractors: Armourers, Mercenaries, and Politics

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes”.

—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Military-Industrial Complex Speech, 1961.

As Galston (2006) remarks, the political feasibility is shaped by particular interests in a society. The place in which such interests play a major role and have a clear impact in society is in the place in which decisions are taken, at least in democratic societies: the Congress or the Parliament, the political arena in which those interests fight against each other to occupy the agenda. The Defence Contractors[1], along with the Private Military Contractors (PMCs), are one of the interests groups with an important impact in policy and decision making in the U.S Congress. But such interests have a negative impact in the American society too[2]. In order to show those negatives outcomes of the lobby by PMCs and Defence Contractors, a brief historical approach of their influence in U.S policy making as interest groups and lobbyists will be made, from the early days of the Cold War to the current times, and then the problems of the influence of the Defence Contractors and PMCs will be discussed.

On the last days of the Second World War and the earlier days of the Cold War, there were strong lobby and even grassroots public relations made by the Aircraft Industry (under the Aircraft Industries Association) in order to avoid a similar situation of a manufacturing collapsing as they faced when the WWI ended. Both lobbying and grassroots activities were made by the firm Hill and Knowlton (H&K) in 1943 (Miller, 1996, p. 298). The objective in this case was, apart from avoiding manufacturing collapse, to obtain a law and regulation that could help the industry to keep on foot, an objective that was achieved thanks to the geopolitical context of the Cold War and the obtained support from the Congress and the Public Opinion due to the factor previously mentioned[3].

Such dynamics of the Cold War clearly balanced in favour of the Defence Industry, allowing them to influence the Policy Making in the U.S., especially on National Security and the Foreign Affairs issues[4]. And the outcome of such a dynamic paved the way to what the then President Eisenhower denominated the “Industrial – Military Complex[5], an industry that would play the most important role in the U.S. Policy making during those times, because of the need for constant innovation for weapons systems, according to Dupre & Gustafson (1962). There was a great need for innovation because of the arms race and the geopolitical competition between the U.S.A., and the Soviet Union, along with the possibility of a Third World War and the Soviet threat.

However, as Gholz & Sapolsky (Winter 1999 – 2000) remark, the presence of such a threat resulted in a checking of the political influence from the contractors due to the primacy of the military expertise[6]. This meant that the contracts obtained by the industry were not safe at all and that they could depend on the political tone of the times. What’s more, the authors show that many defence contractors faced a fall of contract during the Cold War era and even many companies just closed. But still, and as history has shown, the Military – Industrial complex gained a strong influence among the policy and decision makers during the time and despite the change of tides of the Cold War.

Things changed radically in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, following the argument from Gholz & Sapolsky (Winter 1999 – 2000). The industry indeed made a strong lobbying campaign in the congress that provided them a strong political influence and allowing them to gain high-cost contracts. But it’s a kind of “needed” influence to say so, because as Gholz & Sapolsky remark (Winter 1999 – 2000), the contractors need to exert political influence in order to obtain contracts with their usual client: the government. In addition, the high costs in material and human resources required to develop the weapons systems forces the contractors to fight for what is their source of revenues and also for the jobs that they are creating[7]. Nowadays, the Defence contractors still make a strong lobby to favour their interest, spending a huge amount of money on that[8].

Such a “needed” relationship – with lobbying included – is not exempt of problems, with negative effects for both policy making and society. President Eisenhower warned in his 1961 Speech about the problem of the influence made by the Defence Contractors: a strong political influence that could mean a threat to the freedom and democracy itself[9]. Corruption acts are another source of negative impacts for the whole society and the policy making process itself. Such acts are payments to the government made by the contractors to inflate the cost of radars, missiles and other military hardware[10]. The problem does not remain solely on the bribes or payments to increase the cost of the military hardware. The rising costs that the Defence Contractors seek means that the citizens will have to contribute more to the defence budget with the taxes they pay; taxes that are the source of the government to acquire the military equipment and hardware.

Along with the previous statement, the budget designated in areas such as health, education and environment is affected just because the government will buy equipment issued by those contractors with an increased price due to some payments or lobbying activities, forcing the government to pay a large amount of money for the military hardware with money destined for other sectors than defence. Not to mention that such decisions are being made under the table and out of the scrutiny of citizens.

Moreover, the lobby made by the defence contractors can impact other policy issues regarding foreign relations, especially if it deals with their businesses abroad[11]. And the emergence of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) means that a new actor has stepped into the scene[12], with similar problems of corruption, bribing or dealing with Human Rights issues abroad in many countries in which those PMC’s operate, not to mention that some PMCs has been involved in political activities, arms trafficking and have given support to terrorist groups[13]. There is even a Bill (The Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Bill) passed in 1998, in South Africa, in order to restrict PMC activities, but the Bill has suffered a lobby against it by an U.S. group, representing the interest of the PMCs (Mathieu & Dearden, 2007, pp. 750 – 751). PMCs have made lobbies in the U.S congress and other Western Countries to protect their interests against any law or activity of the government that could be a threat, just as the Defence Contractors have been doing.

There are, indeed, problematic aspects of the lobby exerted by the Defence Contractors and the PMCs companies. Aspects comprised from corruption to lack of accountability regarding problems of Human Rights. And the fact is that both actors are less accountable and have gained a strong political influence, not to mention the support from their lobbying activities, increasing their influence capacities among the policy making and even having the capacity to change or to jeopardize other decisions regarding public policy. And as President Eisenhower pointed out, the danger is not only that they could influence in a harmful way the process of policy making, but also that their power could grow in a way that further decision would not be taken by a government neither a parliament elected by the people, but by some corporations that will decide thinking more in their own self profits instead of the profits of the society in general. Or even worse, they can create conflicts abroad, guided by their revenues but having a lack of control from any government, protected by their lobby activities in the Congress. The tragedy here is that such lobbying will remain as long as the international environment forces the U.S., currently the strongest nation in military aspects, to spend on defence issues. Ant the second part of the tragedy is that PMCs will also remain as lobbyist as long as they are used to wage “costless” wars by some countries, or as long as some governments that could not be democratic at all, hires their services.

[1] Known also as the “Industrial – Military Complex” during the Cold War, and labelled that way by President Eisenhower.

[2] And other societies in which they can exert influence abroad or impact them.

[3] The most interesting aspect of this case is that the firm tried to gain not only political but public support, as a kind of unique case.

[4] The Cold War shaped, most of the times, the interests of the US on both aspects, and they were used to go together, either by increasing the defence capacities of the Army, either by providing military aids to the U.S. Allies.

[6] The same authors shows, however, other arguments that states the primacy of the lobbying by the defence contractors to win defence contracts instead of the threat itself as the cause of their strong influence during that time (Gholz & Sapolsky, Winter 1999 – 2000, p. 16).

[7] Currently, due to the defence cuts implemented by the Obama administration, the defence contractors are using again the argument of jobs. See:

[9] See footnote 5.

[11] Like the lobby against the recognition of the Armenian genocide from defence companies to protect their contracts with Turkey, U.S. key ally in the Middle East. See:

[12] Mathieu & Dearden (2007) states that those new actors are part of the war efforts of some countries like the US and the UK.

[13] The Human Rights issue regarding the PMCs is almost uneasy to tackle, due to the lack of accountability by those Companies and the interest of the governments to evade it too (Mathieu & Dearden, 2007, p. 748).

Note: This Article is based on the original work made for the Lecture “Introduction to Public Policy”, which is part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany

*Cover image ‘Private military contractors. Baghdad, Iraq’ by babeltravel

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