With a defense budget now totaling ~686-billion dollars a year – which is about the size of the next 8 largest defense budgets combined (figure) – why does the U.S military see the need to use mercenaries? Why, in spite of having the largest military budget in the world, is it still unable to accomplish things far smaller mercenaries assumingly can? Is it a matter of damage control for when things go "awry" during combat?

Examples include but are not limited to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Where mercenary groups such as Blackwater and others are not only involved in combat and trailing operations, but where private contractors are also heavily actively involved in logistics and support.

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    It would be useful to have some examples of US use of mercenaries - do you mean PMCs or something else? The use of the term mercenaries to describe PMCs is somewhat ... contentious politically speaking and the US government officially denies the use of mercenaries. Commented May 15, 2019 at 15:36
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    @CoedRhyfelwr: The main reason the US doesn't "use mercenaries" is that the US uses a different definition of the word than most of the rest of the world. If the US used the definition from the Geneva Conventions 1977 Amendment Art. 47, which is the definition used by most of the world, then they are definitely using mercenaries. Commented May 15, 2019 at 17:09
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    The protocol definition seems to exclude the possibility of domestic mercenaries, which doesn't make much sense to me: "a mercenary is any person who [...] is neither a national of a Party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a Party to the conflict." So by this definition, any Blackwater employee who was a US citizen or lived in the US wouldn't count as a mercenary in a conflict in which the US was involved, which seems...odd.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:28
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    And (c) is odd, since it implies that a mercenary must not only be motivated by private gain (reasonable) but also must be paid more, and substantially so, than the members of the armed forces of the party that hired them. Given that cost has sometimes been a reason to hire mercenaries, this seems an odd part of the definition. For instance: the US hires some people in Syria to fight and pays them according to cost of living in Syria. They're paid less than US soldiers of equivalent performance, so by the Geneva definition they're apparently not mercenaries!
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:33
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    @barbecue - I think you missed the point. It's not that mercenaries can't be paid more than regular military members, it's that the definition from the Protocol Addition implies that to be considered a mercenary they must be paid more.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 19:34

7 Answers 7

  • The US public opinion is highly sensitive to casualties among US troops. They are much less concerned about casualties to contractors, especially if they are not US citizens.
  • At times the US government has more money than available troops.
  • At times deploying contractors is easier under domestic US law. Legal oversight is mostly designed with the official armed forces in mind.
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    mercenaries = no string attached hired worker even if they are US citizen, it fit the conservative moral. If mercenaries die, they don't count as troop casualties, but "someone that doing their job".
    – mootmoot
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 16:28
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    Also if you by a local merc they can gather intel and execute there mission blending in better.
    – Muze
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 16:41
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    @Muze Military contractors are usually not locals.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 17:35
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    And let's not forget "Those mercenaries committed war crimes? Not our problem!" Commented May 15, 2019 at 20:17
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    To add to your point about "more money than available troops": Money is a measure of how willing the politicians are. Troops is a measure of how willing the public is.
    – DrSheldon
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 17:19

The reason is the same for any country, not just the US. And it is rarely money. It can be roughly grouped like this:

  • public opinion damage control: the population of a country cares about the death of their military personnel. This is especially true for the military conflict with no clear goal for a population (whom are we saving in the conflict in X?).
  • possible to distance itself from dubious deeds: our army have not killed a civilian/have not destroyed that hospital. Some random people did, we have no idea who are they.
  • you can attack other countries without technically declaring the war: similar to previous case, but here you deliberately try to destroy something that you technically can't do. For example in Syria, Russia and the US are technically not fighting against each other, but they have a conflict of interest.
  • no need to support after the conflict: it is important for a country to show its support for the military even after it is no longer needed. Not only does this cover medical expenses after accidents, but also finding jobs when the person has stopped serving. With mercenaries you no longer need to do this. Also, the public opinion for a guy who lost his leg saving the country is different from a guy who lost a leg getting 20k.
  • can quickly get people with necessary skills when/where they are needed: if country X fights in country Y, it is very helpful to have people who speak Y's language and know a lot about the customs of that country.

I just want to mention that contrary to the popular belief mercenaries are not necessarily cheaper than the official military people. Depending on the secrecy of the operation and the skills required, the mercenary can be paid way more than the army personnel.

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    I've downvoted this answer. A State Military can try to distance from dubious deeds, but it will still stain the body; Would also derail Status of Forces Agreements. The US already attacks countries without declaring war. It isn't about the difference between how much they are paid, but how much it costs to make that soldier, and the opportunity cost of not having that soldier somewhere else. Consider the System of Systems Commented May 16, 2019 at 12:31
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    @DrunkCynic It stains the military in the eyes of the rest of the world, certainly. However the military will steadfastly claim themselves that they have done nothing wrong. Blackwater's actions are a classic case in point - they irrevocably damaged the US military's reputation in Iraq, but you won't find the regular US military claiming to have learnt lessons from it, and the US government still disclaims all responsibility for the actions of Blackwater personnel.
    – Graham
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 15:46
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    @Graham "It stains the military in the eyes of the rest of the world, certainly" But when you have enough stains in the eyes of the rest of the world already, a few more don't make any difference.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 15:59
  • @alephzero Perhaps, but I don't think that's their reasoning. This is a long-standing problem for the USA and its armed services.
    – Graham
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 17:03
  • @DrunkCynic I think you misunderstood my point: 'State Military can try to distance from dubious deeds'. Of course it can, the question how believable is this for a general population. The answer from officials will be the same: 'our guys have done nothing wrong, some other guys have done it'. And there is no way to prove them wrong. Also 'US already attacks countries without declaring war'. Can you point some examples of major strong countries which were attacked by US. Commented May 16, 2019 at 22:33

Military Personnel are the most expensive component of the military. It takes hard dollars to train up a soldier, and put them on the field.

Congress has set limits on the total service allotments; how many troops each branch is authorized to have.

There are instances where the operational requirement exceeds what the military can deploy.

It is cheaper in the long term to use Private Military Companies in the short term, for a very narrow set of missions, thus freeing up troops for other activities.

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    "Military Personnel are the most expensive component of the military." Not that this can't be true, but...looking at the 2019 military budget, operations and maintenance comes before personnel by about $130 billion.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:17
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    @Obie2.0 from your own link, personnel pay and benefits combined come to $268.5B, with Operations & Maintenance at $283.5B. We do not know how much of "Operations" is housing, feeding, and providing medical care to personnel, and the extent to which that amount covers provision of those services to contractors. Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:35
  • It all depends on how you look at it. That latter amount includes programs that benefit personnel but aren't direct payments and training, such as healthcare. Most portions of the military budget can be said to benefit personnel indirectly, though: e.g. money invested in tanks and guns protects soldiers from dying (just like healthcare).
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:42
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    Money, +1. You don't have to give contractors benefits or pay them disability. You also don't have to pay to send their kids to college if they die.
    – Mazura
    Commented May 15, 2019 at 18:46
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    @Obie2.0 Operations and Maintenance includes training flights for aviators, underways for sailors, every exercise the military takes part in, and much more. Commented May 15, 2019 at 19:54

Mercenaries is not the preferred term. Contractors is--since it does not carry such intensely negative connotations--unless we speak of contract killing. Contractors accurately describes the diverse group of civilians and military reservists who provide services during America's conflicts. The U.S. has been using contractors throughout its history; for example, there were many during the Civil War. Using contractors or being a contractor is not bad per se-- take for example a Just War. Contractors tend to work for relatively short periods of time, generally one or two years. Many of them have everyday jobs, and many are not American. Using local contractors can be a good way to earn the loyalty of the local population by creating jobs.

One might see a gate guard from Albania in Iraq or a cook from Sri Lanka in Afghanistan. Both are being paid by Uncle Sam, and both are contractors. Both will generally work for one or two years. But most of the cooks and laborers, for example, will be local. The companies that hire them are sometimes domestic.

Contractors who conduct war in the battlespace, who might be termed mercenaries, are used by the United States for many complex reasons:

  1. It is very difficult to foresee the numbers of people and the skill sets that will be needed in a conflict, no matter how likely such a conflict might be and how well one knows the human terrain. That certainly was the case during the lead-up to the second invasion of Iraq. People with special skills can come in as contractors very quickly, and they do not need to go through the long process of military training. It is not that they generally tend to be civilians. In point of fact, many contractors are military reservists. The United States can go into a country without declaring war and bringing in an army--it does it all the time.

  2. Everyone likes being a contractor because the money is so copious. The happiest people are those who supply contractors and made sure that the U.S. keeps using them. Northrup-Grumman is a good example. American-citizen contractors make a lot of money, but the people who manage the programs and own the companies make more, even incredible mountains of loot. It's a cash bonanza, a permit to print. Everyone involved benefits greatly.

  3. The wars can continue longer, which is another way of saying that the U.S. can maintain a presence longer, because not as many soldiers are dying. Contractor deaths are not as visible, and contractors usually have a smaller footprint and cause less heartache to the locals.

  4. Yes, the presence of contractors can be denied, one imagines, but how often is that really needed?

  5. In short, it is all about money. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States was attacked on 9-11 and anything that resembled an intelligent response was overtaken and determined, at least to a significant degree, by people who wanted to get rich--it was like the Wild Wild West around Crystal City in Arlington. The war was mostly paid for by debt. It became vendor driven. The United States then prosecuted war based upon what was really individual self-interest, and that meant getting as much money as fast as one could no matter what. Doing the less expensive thing that might work was often taken off the table. Not interested. And this accounts for the length of the U.S. involvement in several conflict zones. Nobody wants it to stop, and remember that being in a combat zone means that you will not have to pay taxes for that month.

  6. Doing the most expensive thing possible by using contractors was the method of choice in a de-centralized scheme in which hyper-self-interested bureaucracies were allowed to compete for turf and budget. If the money is not spent, then the organization is not important--and your people will not get that money next fiscal year. Some say it goes like this: the enemy leadership, let's take the example the Senior Taliban Leadership, had no business sticking their little noses in the fight between U.S. entity X and U.S. entity Y. Afghanistan was a stage set and the locals were props in a drama between titans. Contractors were important characters in the story, folks who got things done, at least in the short term, without ending the cash bonanza. So here is another reason to use contractors, which, I am sorry to say, rings true: they will prolong the gravy train without winning the war and ending the champagne sparkle in everyone's eyes back in D.C.

  7. Congress wrote a blank check, and that spawned run-away contractor spending. Such flows of money to the private sector under the table and on the table were made convenient by the insularity and buddy systems of Washington D.C. itself. The friends of the friends got wealthy through using contractors instead of using the military for everything, active or reserve. It was all done right in front of everyone's faces. It's all in the news. Many significant contracts were done without competition for projects that never got finished.

  8. On 9-11 the U.S. had a large pool of people with security clearances who were not in government service anymore, and those people were therefore very valuable. They could step into important jobs as contractors because they had already been cleared.

  9. There are some folks who are valuable to have in war, but they are too old or otherwise unable to join the military. They can be brought in as contractors.


Because of economics and lack of political will for conventional armies

First, fun fact: for much of human history, armies were private. So this notion of private mercenaries seems less charged if we remember that this is the status quo ante.


As fatigue of lengthy wars such as the ones you alluded to take their toll on the voters, the relationship between the state and its recruitment base can be strained. Should the US institute a draft, that could potentially result in severe backlash. Contracting private soldiers would bypass this dangerous political juncture altogether.


Normally economic framework can help find the right balance between public/private provision by considering wages, material costs, administrative costs, diversity of tastes and distributional issues. Obviously, things are a little more complicated when we're talking about mercenaries, but this framework is still key.

Essentially, there are benefits from engaging the private sector. The state has a monopoly on force, as it probably should. However, this creates problems. In the absence of competition, Big Green isn't inclined to save costs as it would be in a competitive market. While the mercenary market is not the most saturated market in the world, even a small number PMCs can deliver more on the dollar than state alternatives -- take Executive Outcomes, Blackwater and Wagner Group. Executive Outcomes did not service superpowers like the US in your question, but the point stands that Blackwater did. And it did for a lean green reason.

From the mechanistic point of view, this outcome is natural; soldiers like any other rational market actor, will try to get the most for their productivity. Oftentimes, PMCs pay better. The inconvenient truth is that occasionally all that tax-payer money that went to training your special forces operative is now a free agent. Eventually states must accept the fact that PMCs have some of the best trained units per dollar.


Most of the civilians employed by the US military are in maintenance and support roles.

This has increased dramatically in recent years, largely because the weapons systems have become very complex. Training recruits to maintain that equipment takes a lot of time (and money). It has proven to be far more cost effective to hire retired maintenance people who have completed their enlistment and have already had years of training, or to hire civilians already trained by the weapons system provider in the case of a new weapons system like the F35.

Also true of setting up the information systems that the US military relies on. Those systems tend to change rapidly, and it's far simpler to hire trained civilians than to train enlisted soldiers who will leave in a few years.

For the past several decades, civilian contractors have staffed the cafeterias and commissaries on military bases. Those roles don't involve direct military training, so there is no point in losing a trained soldier to fill either of those capacities. A good deal of logistics support is handled by civilians for the same reason... don't need to go through boot camp to learn how to unload a truck or maintain a warehouse.

Combat soldiers such as those provided by the now defunct Blackwater are typically employed not by the US military but the US State Department for personnel and embassy protection. They are also hired as guards by companies working for the US to provide services both to the US military or other entities.

For example, two of the four people who died in the Benghazi attack were former US Special Forces soldiers employed by the State Dept to guard the ambassador. The same holds true for the people hung from bridges in Iraq early in that conflict - they were ex Special Forces people employed by private companies as guards, those companies providing infrastructure repair.

As for clandestine combat operations... in years past, the CIA ran clandestine operations and employed mercenaries to carry those out. The U2 flights over the Soviet Union and China in the late 1950's were flown by civilians. Later SR71 flights were flown by USAF pilots, but those flights didn't typically penetrate another nation's airspace, so plausible deniability wasn't needed.

Whether or not the US military employs civilians for clandestine combat roles today is not at all clear. Bear in mind that such activities fall under the command of the Joint Special Operations Command, who typically do not make their operations public. Special operations require a high level of intense training. The soldiers who retire from special ops: SAS, GSG9, SEAL, US Army Delta Force typically do so because the rigors of their duty has taken a high toll on their bodies, and they can't keep up any more, so they retire and take on the less rigorous jobs of protecting diplomats or private company operations. No longer the best choice for a difficult combat operation.

And keep in mind the consequences to a mercenary. By the rules of war that most major nations adhere to, any soldier captured out of uniform, or anyone captured who can't prove that they are a member of a recognized military (as in no dogtags) are subject to execution as spies. One example of that was the Germans dressed in US MP uniforms who went behind US lines during the Battle of the Bulge to create confusion. Around 80 of them were captured, all were shot.


Military business is just a matter of extracting money out of a population. Make them afraid of something and they'll work and pay taxes to get protected.

Your question could also be "why do owners of mercenary companies have strong bonds with political leaders and media owners?" because they are all the same team of 1% of people extracting the money of "their" life stock, aka population. Through ancien times to now it always worked like that and it will until the 99% will really care and debate about something else than superbowl.

Mercenaries companies is the most simple and fastest way to get a legal structure to make money in this field. No research, no investment, you hire once you get the contract. You can then hide large rewards for the corrupted politicians who sign the contract through operational fees abroad... That's a perfect business, of course it works!

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