March/April NFL Topic Overview

Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.


The use of private military contractors (PMCs) is a significant issue for several reasons. The United States has used private groups in war since its inception.[i] Privateers, or private ships licensed to carry out warfare, helped win the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In World War II, the Flying Tigers, American fighter pilots hired by the government of Chiang Kai-shek, helped defeat the Japanese.

The available data suggests that contractor personnel as a proportion of overall force numbers have increased with successive post-Cold War military deployments. Civilian contractors accounted for 1 to 10 of deployed personnel in Bosnia. In Kosovo the ratio was 1 to 2. Statistics for the current Iraq deployment indicate a ratio of approximately 1.5 contractors to each member of the military.[ii]

Despite successes in outsourcing in the armed services, concerns remain about quality and cost.

The resolution is carefully worded. You should make sure you understand each term.

First, find a solid definition of “private military firms.” Debaters might attempt to argue that “private military firms” only include soldiers, while firms that instead send truck drivers, cooks and mechanics are not topical. Debaters should be very careful if they use this definition because there is much solid literature available that defines private military firms in a broader way.

David Isenberg, a navy veteran and a military affairs analyst with the Cato Institute, defines PMCs in this way[iii]:

  • Military combatant companies-firms that actually provide military forces capable of combat are fairly rare and only constitute a minority of PMCs, even though such firms tend to receive the most publicity. Examples include the now disbanded PMCs Executive Outcomes of South Africa and Sandline of the United Kingdom; none are currently operating in Iraq.
  • Military consulting firms-these traditionally provide training and advisory services, though some have expanded into personal security and bodyguard services. Examples include Blackwater, MPRI, DynCorp, and SAIC of the United States.
  • Military support firms-these provide non-lethal aid and assistance, such as weapons maintenance, technical support, explosive ordnance disposal and intelligence collection and analysis. Examples include Halo Group, Vinnell and Ronco of the United States.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you might have to work especially hard to create clash on this topic. Debates on this topic are likely to become muddled because the affirmative may find pragmatic arguments most readily available while the negative may be tempted to make mostly philosophical arguments. It will be your job as a debater to figure out how to create clash in this round. One way to do this is to have prepared blocks against common arguments that make pragmatic arguments applicable to philosophical ones and vice-versa.

A Discussion of the Value Criterion

This debate leaves a great deal of room for creativity for the value criterion.

For the affirmative, there are obvious choices like safety and less obvious values such as efficiency, progress, and legitimate government. For instance, the affirmative can value safety and use “efficiency in wartime” as the criterion, arguing that PMCs make war more efficient and efficient wars lead to less loss of life and quicker peace. The affirmative can also value legitimate government and use “protecting the lives of citizens” as the criterion, arguing that a government’s main function is to protect its citizens and private military firms do this by lessening the number of civilian soldiers needed and increasing the likelihood of winning a war.

The negative has several choices as well. Societal welfare, peace, governmental legitimacy and morality all come to mind as obvious choices. The negative can value societal welfare and use “ensuring social cohesion” as a criterion, and argue that private military firms take away the public’s desire to fight for the country and wear away at ties to society.


Many arguments are available to affirmative debaters.

First, the affirmative can argue that private military firms reduce costs. According to the Heritage Foundation, the competition between firms drives cost down and allows private sector comparative advantage to be exploited.[iv]

In addition, scholars Doug Brooks and Jim Shelvin point out that each new solider “represents and enormous long-term investment in the form of training, salary, and extended benefits,” whereas private firms operate “short-terms contracts with finite costs.”

When a contractor working with a private military firm has completed his or her contract, the company does not have to continue to give him or her benefits. Instead, the contract is done and the worker is owed no more. Brooks and Shelvin maintain that because of this, private firms have lower costs since “most companies rely on short-term contract employees, well paid but requiring no long term benefit costs.”

Also, private military contractors can ease overstretch. As the Heritage Foundation notes, “Battlefield outsourcing reflects the impacts of changes in supply and demands. On the one hand, since the Cold War the U.S. and U.K. have found their armed forces overstretched as they have had to sustain a range of operations. On the other hand, the large-scale downsizing of their armed forces immediately after the Cold War left a surplus of trained military personnel in the civilian labor market. This balance of supply and demand has provided the opportunity to ease overstretch by, in effect, employing former military personnel through the vehicle of private firms.”[v]

Next, affirmatives can argue that the changing nature of warfare makes private military contractors especially useful. According to the Heritage Foundation, the nature of warfare has changed since the Cold War. Increases in the complexity of contemporary military systems have made it less viable for armed services to develop and retain in-house military maintenance capabilities.[vi] The process of recruiting and training for the most demanded positions takes years. Because of the speed at which the military requires the skills, taking from the civilian population is not always possible. Scholars Doug Brooks and Jim Shelvin say that private firms solve this problem by being able to “quickly recruit personnel with the needed expertise from the global pool of former military.”[vii]

The military relies on private military firms for specialized weapons use and to fill in the gaps when army soldiers are not available. Urey says that military obligations overseas have greatly increased in the past decade, leaving the U.S. military in need of assistance because cuts have been made “mainly in the logistical ‘tail’ where reductions were made within the combat service support specialties to preserve the ‘tooth’ of our Army, that being our powerful combat arms structure.”

“The increase in operational tempo, coupled with the manpower reductions previously discussed, have forced the Defense Department to increase its usage of contractors in support of many logistical functions across the full spectrum of operations,” says Urey.

Additionally, because of cuts and the need for advancing military technology, Urey says that it has become “uneconomical or not practical to keep military personnel technologically capable of maintaining, troubleshooting and in some cases, employing sophisticated weapons.” She says that the increasing speed of technology and the need for more troops than the U.S. military can feasibly provide will continue to make private troops necessary.

Colonel Ronda G. Urey with the U.S. Army says that the United States has long recognized the efficiency of using private sector resources for the military. “The Defense Department’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review Report states that the Department of Defense (DoD) will pursue actions to sustain the force more efficiently and effectively by only keeping those functions that must be performed by DoD. Therefore, any function that can be provided by the private sector and is not a core government function should be obtained through new models of public-private partnerships to improve overall performance.”[viii]

Finally, Matthew Uttley, chairman of the Defense Studies department and King’s College London, notes that outsourcing can actually enhance levels of troop morale, cohesion and combat effectiveness within the armed services themselves because it frees up military personnel from mundane civilian-type duties.


First, the negative can argue that using private firms in place of the civilian military may destroy cohesion inside and outside of the military, jeopardizing missions. James Pattison argues that if citizens are willing to defend their nation, it “can develop affinity within the community.” He says people may feel closer to each other by fighting against a common aggressor. “However, when PMCs are employed instead, the potential benefits in terms of communal identity that come from having citizens defend the community are lost. Communal defense becomes not a matter of shared pride in the community, but simply necessary for the protection of the atomistic individual,” says Pattison.[ix]

Second, the negative can make the case that private firms are not monitored well enough by the government. A Government Accountability Office report released in March 2008 said that the Pentagon relies too much on contractors who often work alongside their government counterparts. The report said that relying so much on contractors creates “the risk of loss of government control over and accountability for” government programs.

Poor monitoring may also make PMCs more likely to create controversy. Christopher Shays, a former Republican congressman from Connecticut who is co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, said his team is looking into cases of contractors, of what he called “outright scam artists,” charging foreign laborers to fly them to supposed jobs in Dubai. But instead, contractors dump laborers on air bases in Afghanistan with no job, no identification and no way home. “The bigger problem is that we don’t know who they are but they are inside our installations… This presents a security risk,” said one official.[x]

Next, the negative can argue that using private military forces undermines democracy. According to New York University law professor Zoe Salzman, it does so for three reasons.

First, it undermines the state’s monopoly on the use of force. She says that the United Nations Convention holds its states “answerable” for actions of force. Because private companies necessarily take this force out of their hands, this becomes a problem. She says, “Unlike other businesses… private contractors are engaged in selling the use of force. As a result, by creating a market for violence, they effectively break states’ monopoly on the use of force.”

Second, private military firms increase the executive’s power to wage war without democratic accountability. She says that governments are given a monopoly on the use of force because their citizens hold them accountable. “Private contractors, however, greatly undermine democratic accountability, and in so doing circumvent the democratic reluctance for war. By undermining the public’s control over the war- making powers of the state, private contractors threaten the popular sovereignty of the state,” she says.

Third, it she says that because military force is now “sold as a commodity on the market,” there is a risk that contractors will aggravate situations in order to keep up their profits because they directly benefit from war. She reports that there have “been allegations that Halliburton has run additional but unnecessary supply convoys through Iraq because it gets paid by the trip”- a clear abuse of their power for profit. [xi]

In addition, negatives can argue that PMCs are less efficient because their staff is likely to serve only a short-time in the military. According to the Cato Institute, “Another troubling practice is contractor staff serving short tours, many rarely lasting more than a year. With subsequent staff rotations having little or no overlap, this inevitably results in the loss of lessons learned, know-how and counterpart rapport.”[xii]

Finally, negatives can find literature describing how motives matter in moral judgment. Terry Nardin, professor at the National University of Singapore argues: “[m]otives are a necessary element in judgments of responsibility, of praise and blame, culpability and excuse’ and are ‘relevant in making moral judgments because we have moral duties to act from the proper motives.”[xiii]

In this case, the motive in question is the one motivating experienced military persons to join private firms, and in most cases that’s money. Pattison argues that this is immoral because, “It is problematic if individuals are motivated by financial gain in the context of military force, given that military force harms others.” And third, “Private contractors are more likely to be motivated by financial gain than regular soldiers.”

He says that his objection is due to the fact that, in this instance, as opposed to other instances (like participating in the stock market) that produce financial gain, harming others is involved. “…those using or assisting military force should not possess a particularly problematic motive, and a financial motive (along with, for example, sadism, xenophobia, hatred, and revenge) seems to be objectionable in the context of military force,” he says.[xiv]

[i] David Isenberg, “Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq,” Cato Institute, February 16, 2009.

[ii] Matthew Uttley, “Private Contractors on Deployed Military Operations: Inter-Agency Opportunities and Challenges,” The Heritage Foundation, Heritage Lectures No. 972, June 15, 2006.

[iii] David Isenberg, “Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq,” Cato Institute, February 16, 2009.

[iv] Matthew Uttley, “Private Contractors on Deployed Military Operations: Inter-Agency Opportunities and Challenges,” The Heritage Foundation, Heritage Lectures No. 972, June 15, 2006.

[v] Matthew Uttley, “Private Contractors on Deployed Military Operations: Inter-Agency Opportunities and Challenges,” The Heritage Foundation, Heritage Lectures No. 972, June 15, 2006.

[vi] Matthew Uttley, “Private Contractors on Deployed Military Operations: Inter-Agency Opportunities and Challenges,” The Heritage Foundation, Heritage Lectures No. 972, June 15, 2006.

[vii] “Reconsidering Battlefield Contractors,” Doug Brooks and Jim Shevlin, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Summer 2005.

[viii] “Civilian Contractors on the Battlefield,” Colonel Ronda G. Urey, United States Army War College.

[ix]James Pattison “Deeper moral objections to the privatization of military force,” Journal of Political Philosophy, 18/4: 425-447.

[x] Josef Storm and Malou Innocent, “To Better Afghanistan, Boot the Contractors,” Cato Institute, September 24, 2010.

[xi] “Private Military Contractors and the Taint of a Mercenary Reputation,” Zoe Salzman, NYU Journal of International Law and Politics.

[xii] Josef Storm and Malou Innocent, “To Better Afghanistan, Boot the Contractors,” Cato Institute, September 24, 2010.

[xiii] “Introduction’, NOMOS XLVII: Humanitarian Intervention,” ed. Terry Nardin and Melissa S. Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 1-28 at p. 10.

[xiv] Krahmann, “The New Model Soldier”, p. 255.

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