Earlier this week, a federal jury convicted four Blackwater Worldwide guards in the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. For many, these guilty verdicts bring closure to an ignominious chapter in the Iraq War, but in reality this is only the beginning. Eisenhower’s old “military industrial complex” created products; today’s military industry provides services, including lethal services like Blackwater.

America increasingly fights its wars with corporations. During World War II, contractors accounted for only 10 percent of the military workforce compared to 50 percent in the Iraq war—a 1:1 ratio of contractors to military personnel. This ratio was even higher in the Afghanistan war. In 2010, the U.S. deployed 175,000 troops and 207,000 contractors in war zones.

Ratio of U.S. Troops to Contractors in War Zones (as of March 2010)

Contractors are also paying the ultimate price, accounting for one-quarter of all U.S. fatalities in the past decade of war. In the first two quarters of 2010 alone, contractor deaths represented more than half—53 percent—of all fatalities.

Percent Breakdown of Fatalities in Iraq
Percent Breakdown of Fatalities in Afghanistan

A decade of war has expanded the industry from a multi-million to a multi-billion dollar affair. From 1999 to 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contract obligations—for both security and non-security functions—increased from $165 billion to $414 billion. In 2010, DOD obligated $366 billion to contracts (54 percent of total DOD obligations), an amount seven times the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget.

Not all wartime contractors kill or train others to kill: Armed contractors accounted for just 12 percent, or 11,610, of the overall contracting force in Iraq in 2010 and 14,439 in Afghanistan—a minority of all contractors. But even though they are fewer in number than their unarmed brethren, their actions resonate disproportionately louder, owing to the nature of their work. 

To many, outsourcing lethal force in foreign lands smacks of mercenarism. Despite this, the U.S. will likely grow more dependent on Wall Street to wage war in coming years. Most wars now are irregular in nature, protracted in length, and resource intensive. They require a lot of “boots on the ground” because you cannot control terrain or win hearts and minds with air strikes. America today has a strategic choice today: 1) avoid all wars in the future, 2) institute a national draft, or 3) use contractors. I doubt a presidential or congressional campaign would survive options 1 and 2.

The reliance on contractors has unleashed a new norm in international relations that will not dissolve despite some recent reminders of bad behavior. Nor will it evaporate once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite will occur: Contractors will help fill in the security vacuum left by U.S. forces. Private Military Companies (PMCs) will also rush to Iraq, should the U.S. expand its mission there. The market may also grow, become more competitive, and develop into a free market for force—where the means of war are available to anyone who can afford it. Already private military companies of all stripes—including companies founded in Russia and China, places with scant regard for human rights—are seeking new opportunities in conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.              

New consumers of private force are appearing worldwide, seeking security in an insecure world: oil and mining companies guarding their drill sites against militias, shipping lines defending their vessels against pirates, humanitarian organizations protecting their workers in dangerous locations, countries fighting civil wars and guerrillas fighting back. Few would welcome an unbridled market for force in world affairs, yet it is already developing. 

Other fears exist too. Private military companies will increasingly use military robotics like drones that are becoming evermore available and advanced, making even small companies lethal. Companies are already engaging in cyber warfare, offering clients offensive “hack back” capabilities against intruders. These cyber mercenaries are currently illegal in many countries, like the United States, yet have a growing market from people and organizations that need to protect critical information. And what’s to stop a private military company from starting an armed conflict that others must finish? For example, a client hires a company to stage an armed humanitarian intervention in a war-torn country to save innocent lives, but the company’s actions backfire and make the situation worse rather than better, necessitating an emergency follow-on intervention by the United Nations or the United States.  

A new type of warfare has been unleashed in the world, where anyone who can afford the means of war can wage it. A world with private war will mean more war. The Blackwater verdicts signal not the end of armed contractors but a reminder that an new and fearful reality has already arrived.