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Caroline Batka
Jan 24 2024

The terminology used for referring to contractors that provide security and defense services is key because it reflects the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the conceptual and normative understanding of their roles and functions as well as their differences and similarities to other non-state actors involved in war.  Contractors’ regulation, their status within the entities that hire them, and perceptions of them influence the terminology that is used to refer to them.  Improving contractor terminology may enhance the efforts of ICoCA and other entities that aim to guide and oversee contractor behavior.

In this post, Caroline Batka, a senior military analyst at Comenius University, discusses the importance of terminology for referring to the contractors that provide security and defense services.





This blog post expands on themes described in my article that was published in Defense & Security Analysis in October 2023 entitled, “What’s in a name? Confucian considerations for referring to U.S. military contractors.”  Beyond the points in the article, I would like to emphasize that communication must evolve to reflect the changes in security and defense outsourcing.  Establishing and consistently using terminology for the broad spectrum of contractors engaged in security and defense is needed to strengthen oversight and understanding.

There is a Wide Spectrum of Non-State Actors in Security and Defense

Beyond the tidy confines of state military combat, many different types of private organizations and individuals are involved in warfare and security. The terminology for contractors working in defense and security operations has implications for their legal authority, legitimacy, and the codes of conduct and regulations that guide them.  Terminology for non-state actors in war has been problematic for some time.  The public, policymakers, researchers, and the media continue to use “mercenary” and “private military and security company” (or “PMSC”) interchangeably when the terms actually have specific meanings that are tied to their make-up and regulation.  Research has also highlighted the political and nationalistic nature of contractor and mercenary terminology.  

The range of non-state actors involved in defense and security continues to widen as contractors, mercenaries, military volunteers, foreign service members enlisted in national armies, militias, and warlords take on new roles in emerging types of warfare.  As expert Sorcha MacLeod stated in her UK House of Commons testimony in 2022 on The Wagner Group and beyond: proxy Private Military Companies: “It is helpful perhaps to think about these kinds of actors on a spectrum or continuum.”  As these non-state actor groups continue to branch out in their own roles and functions, they also overlap with each other in activities and proximity.  

It is not only the fog of war that veils differences between these groups but also misinformation, lack of public information, and conceptual confusion that blur the definitions of these non-state actors. Further complicating matters, contractors also continue to adapt their offerings to respond to market demand. The emergence of warfare in cyber, economic, biological, and chemical, and hybrid realms have changed the norms for how actors engage in conflict.  Moreover, defensive posturing and military and nonmilitary actions that operate on the precipice of war referred to as “gray zone operations” and “measures short of war” further cloud the lines of warfare and the roles of associated stakeholders.  This ambiguous and dynamic nature of warfare poses challenges for defining contractors and guiding their appropriate engagement.

There is a wide range of terms used to refer to the organizations hired on contract to provide security, defense, and support functions.  Denominations like “mercenaries” and even “private military companies” and “private security companies” can be offensive to some organizations and individuals working in this field because the terms can connote greed, a lack of ethics, and historical scandals in warfare.  Stakeholders have differentiated private security companies (PSCs) from private military companies (PMCs) by the activities that they perform.  However, making this distinction is challenging because a number of these organizations serve in similar, overlapping roles. As I describe in my Defense & Security article, “PMC” is commonly-conceived as a broad term for all types of security and defense contractors whereas “PSCs” are usually conceived as armed contractors who provide security services or combat support.

Since many contractors perform both security and military activities, some stakeholders use the all-inclusive term “Private Military and Security Companies” or “PMSCs”. Though, even this broader term is not clear because there is such a wide range of contractors that provide military and security support services, and the criteria determining those included in this category of contractors are ambiguous. For example, in some cases, organizations providing base support and logistics services are not considered PMSCs, and in other cases they are.  In addition, organizations providing management consulting in security and defense realms as well as organizations researching military doctrine and strategy are not typically considered contractors based on those activities.  However, in some ways, such organizations may meet the criteria for PMSC categorization in that some individuals working for these companies may be armed, on the frontline, and/or are engaged in security and military activities either indirectly or because of extenuating circumstances.

The next sections discuss the cases for using the terms “ PMSC”, “PMC”, “PSC”, and “Contractor.” 

The Case for “PMSC”, “PMC”, and “PSC”

The terms “PMSC”, “PMC”, and “PSC” are the most commonly-used terms in the international academic and regulatory fields.  ICoCA uses “PSC”. Other key stakeholders like the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the European Parliament use the term PMSC. Notably, however, the European Parliament also uses the term PMSC to refer to the Wagner Group.  The term PMSC is also used in key documents like the Montreux Document, which is a voluntary multi-national agreement among 59 countries whose signatories commit to following certain standards of conduct for contractors who work in defense and security.

As such, “PMSC” is commonly associated with companies that provide direct defense and security services.  One of the positive aspects of the term PMSC is that it is typically used to refer to the narrower spectrum of defense and security services, including, per the Montreux Document, “armed guarding and protection of persons and objects, such as convoys, buildings and other places; maintenance and operation of weapons systems; prisoner detention; and advice to or training of local forces and security personnel.”  Another benefit of the term is that it is usually only used to refer to companies that sell services and is not typically used to refer to companies that sell assets.  The term “private” in PMSC may also be beneficial in distinguishing private companies from state-owned companies and partially-state funded organizations.

The Case for “Contractor”

As an umbrella term, “contractor” may be preferable over terms like “PMSC” and “PMC” because it may be used to refer to the wider continuum of security and defense service providers.  In some instances, the term “contractor” may also reduce the stigma associated with “PMSC” because it aligns those working in security and defense outsourcing with the broader population of more-accepted government contractors.  

“Contractor” may also enhance terminological accuracy in certain cases.  In “PMSC”, the terms “security” and “military” may help describe contractors’ functions or the entities that hire them.  However, the security and military descriptors are not always reflective of the wide range of contractors serving in a functions and roles that indirectly support security and defense aims, including base support, telecommunications, surveillance, logistics, training, construction, maintenance, and translationMoreover, contractors serving in peacekeeping and natural resource protection may not be hired by security or defense entities.  

Lastly,  the term “contractor” may be beneficial because it easily lends itself to combination with more objective terms to describe specific roles and characteristics (e.g., armed contingency contractors, and drone support contractors). This is important to note because using the term contractor may also remove some levels of specification in certain contexts.  Some may associate “contractors” with construction workers.  In addition, some may think of contractors as working domestically and PMSCs as working on an expeditionary basis. 

U.S. Department of Defense Case Study

Further complicating the terminology issue, different entities often have their own naming conventions for defense and security contractors. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) uses the term “contractor” to refer to organizations, “contractor personnel” to refer to groups of employees, and “contractor employee” to refer to individual employees providing outsourced services.  Beyond those general terms, DoD also uses several more specific terms to refer to certain contractors and relationships.  These specific terms include Contractors Authorized to Accompany the Force (CAAF) and non-CAAF, Theater Support Contractors, External Support Contractors, System Contractors, and contractors with habitual relationships.  DoD’s terminological scheme is not perfect; there are gaps and inconsistencies in the terms and their use. However, DoD’s contractor terminology underscores the need for specificity in terminology that describes roles, functions, and eligibility for services and treatment in warfare.  This includes issues like access to medical treatment and prisoner of war status.

Challenges remain in differentiating contractors from other actors in war and in reconciling terminology across the U.S. Government and the international community.  My current research on the EU’s use of contractors has highlighted the variety of contractor types involved in security and defense, including companies with partial public funding, NGOs, and academic organizations.  These entities have various relationships with the organizations that hire them, which range in level of formality, duration, and type. 

“Contractors with habitual relationships” 

Given the array of forms in defense and security outsourcing, “contractors with habitual relationships” is a key term to note. DoD uses the term “contractors with habitual relationships” to describe military and contractor partnerships that are based on regular collaboration for specific needs and systems.  Long-term public-private partnerships have emerged in a number of different fields.  Bátora (2023) created the term National Defense Entrepreneurial Firm to describe Vesper Group, a contractor with a habitual relationship with the Swedish government.  Vesper Group provides intelligence and security services and is primarily made up of former Swedish service members and agents.  However, the notion of contractors providing habitual services to state governments in close partnership is not unique to the Swedish or the DoD case studies.  Variations of habitual contracting relationships exist in a number of different circumstances as contractors are increasingly enmeshed in public activities of all sorts. For example, one mechanism for rapid outsourcing is In-Q-Tel, which is an American not-for-profit venture capital firm that invests in high-tech companies to support U.S. intelligence agencies with information technology and other intelligence capabilities. In short, In-Q-Tel offers the US intelligence community quick access to emerging technological capabilities.  Like the US intelligence community, DoD and other agencies are working to set up their own mechanisms for quicker contracting in the face of great power competition.  Another example to note is Federally-Funded Research and Development Centers, which are public-private partnerships that provide a wide range of research and development services to the US Government, including but not limited to homeland security, defense, and energy as well as justice, medical, health, scientific, treasury, Internal Revenue Services, veterans affairs issues, and Social Security Administration.

Self-Identification and Self-Regulation

Some of the key regulatory entities, like ICoCA, use terminology to describe contractors regardless of how they refer to themselves.  ICoCA offers the following definition of the term “PSC”, which is its preferred term: “Private Security Companies and Private Security Service Providers (collectively “PSCs”) – any Company (as defined in this Code) whose business activities include the provision of Security Services either on its own behalf or on behalf of another, irrespective of how such Company describes itself.”  The definition of PMSCs from the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the ICRC also include similar phrases about self-identification.  The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces states that private military and security contractors should be used to include “all private businesses that provide military and/or security services, regardless of where they function, how they operate, or how they self-identify.”  The ICRC states that: “Private military security companies are private business entities that provide military and/or security services, irrespective of how they describe themselves.” Defining contractors regardless of how they self-identify may reduce some biases in communication by tying terminology to specific criteria.  Experts have promoted this type of approach, which essentially lists military and security services that must be subject to reporting, regulation, and control regardless of the type of company that offers them.

There is no clear data to reflect the discrepancy between those companies that meet the criteria for being considered “PMSCs” or “PSCs” and those companies that self-identify as such.  Research is needed to understand the quantity and type of organizations contracted to provide these services in order to understand the extent to which they are regulated and overseen.  

Additional Considerations in Defense and Security Contractor Terminology

The terms PMSC and contractor could potentially be used together, in a scheme where contractor describes the broader field of both direct and indirect defense and security contractors (e.g., including logistics, support services, etc.) and PMSC is used to focus on only direct defense and security contractors.  However, even if such a scheme were established, questions about categorization would continue to arise as the nature of the contractor service field changes in roles and functions and the line between direct and indirect engagement in security and defense becomes less and less clear.  Regardless of their specific roles, all contractors in security and defense are capable of violating human rights law.  However, contractors whose roles and functions involve the use or the potential use of force and deal with vulnerable people may have an increased likelihood to commit human rights violations over other contractor types.  As terminology evolves, it may be helpful to consider the access to weapons that contractors wield on their person, including firearms, batons, and pepper spray. On an even more complicated level, development of a new terminological scheme should also consider contractors’ access and input to the use, formation, and maintenance of larger weapons systems, intelligence, and military and security strategy and management.  Expanding the specified contractor vocabulary could help document and potentially even prevent ongoing and future issues with human rights violations and fraud, waste, and abuse in different vectors of defense and security outsourcing. 

Last but not least, many stakeholders have used the term “legitimate security providers” to differentiate some security actors from others.  In the security and defense contractor field, there are a lot of opt-in networks and codes of conduct that offer training and certification and seek to develop shared community values.  These networks aim to distinguish and develop legitimacy.  Just as the definition of contractors should tie contractor types to their activities, terminology should also tie legitimacy to those actors meeting specified standards.  In addition to pointing to the need to define legitimacy, the use of the term “legitimate security providers” also points to the need to reconcile the multiple layers of existing terminology for the spectrum of non-state actors in security and defense. It is not enough to simply create a new term or even a handful of terms.  As policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders develop terminology for contractors, we must also aim to consistently and precisely communicate within a broadly-accepted and understood terminological system that recognizes the range of non-state actors in security and defense, the range of contractor types, their potential to do harm, their authorizations, their training, their efforts to abide by specified standards of conduct, and their eligibility for services and treatment in warfare.






The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).