If you happen to visit Vatican, the first thing you will see there is not masterpieces of art and architecture and even not the pope. The first thing you will see there is mercenaries guarding the entry to the city state. Of course, no one considers the Swiss Guard that is tasked with "guaranteeing the safety of the Supreme Pontiff in his residence, during liturgical celebrations and on his trips," as mercenaries, although they were considered as such in the Middle Ages. Now people oftener seek such services with private military companies.
A private military company is primarily a commercial organization providing services in the military and related spheres. Private military companies participate in armed conflicts, guard facilities and individuals, escort cargos, train personnel, gather intelligence, optimize logistic chains, give consultations, and more recently offer various services in the cyberspace.
The first private military company in the present-day meaning, Watchguard International, was founded in the United Kingdom in 1967. Half a century has passed and the number of private military companies all over the world has neared 500 and continued to rapidly grow. According to some estimates, more than $100 billion in services are provided in this sphere. Almost all militarily developed countries have private military companies. In some countries, their activities are legal and regulated by national laws, in others they are in "grey zone" with ensuing consequences.
The main customers of private military companies are states and large companies. Advantages of private military companies are apparent. First of all, they are highly professional and therefore effective. Secondly, a customer can always steer clear of the perpetrator who often has to accomplish delicate and sometime really dirty tasks. Thirdly, losses in manpower of private military companies are not publicized. Finally, using private military companies allow to easily bypass various restrictions imposed by national and international laws.
The activity of private military companies in the USA is governed by the Department of State and is under firm control of the CIA. The larges American private military companies are Academi (former Blackwater), Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) and DynCorp. The state, as a rule in the name of the Pentagon, is the main customer of services of private military companies. For example, 90% of Academi's contracts are state orders. Today, American private military companies are largely used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the states where regular units of the US Armed Forces are present. Regular personnel of the American army is being gradually replaced with private military companies.
A totally different situation is coming to shape in Africa, which is a huge and a very attractive market for private military companies. Private military companies from European countries have long successfully been there, especially on the territory of their former colonies. China, which is broadly entering the region in the economic sphere, has taken a major part of the market.
American private military companies don't play a leading role in Africa. America's main private military company in Africa is MPRI headquartered in Equatorial Guinea. Starting from mid-2000-s this company took part in a number of programs of creating rapid reaction forces on the continent that are capable of accomplishing peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Joint forces consisting of 10 battalions were expected to be created by 10 countries, with Nigeria's army being the leader. It is Nigeria where MPRI was actively involved in reforming armed forces. However, the plans didn't come to reality, and a major part of the funds provided by the USA was simply stolen.
In 2008, the Pentagon formed the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in order to boost the swiftness and quality of control and bolster interaction between branches of the US Armed Forces in the region. American private military companies began to coordinate their actions with the new command. South Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Mali and Uganda were considered as priority states in the military cooperation sphere.
Great Washington's attention to the African continent couldn't have failed to result in broader activity of American private military companies. Along with providing military training and consultative services, it is possible that private military companies will be directly engaged in armed conflict underway in Somalia, Sudan and Libya.
It is likely that MPRI will remain the core company in implementing these plans. Unlike in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, private military companies, if they take part in armed clashes, will have to operate in the conflict zone without the presence of regular NATO troops. This to a large extent changes the tactics of combat actions and demands higher standards. However, MPRI is sure that it will be able to solve personnel-related issues.
Many sober-minded African politicians fear that US interference in African conflicts may repeat their sad experience in Asia that resulted in uncontrollable growth of terrorism.
Time will show the extent to which they were right. And it won't take long.