Guns for Hire: Honors Research Explores Use of Private Military Companies

LEXINGTON, Va. March 29, 2023 — “Is there a pattern in behavior of states that use Private Military Companies (PMC) as military providers?” asked Nick Schaefer ’23, an international studies major, minoring in national security at Virginia Military Institute, in his senior thesis titled, “Picking up the Slack: Why Non-Democratic Regimes Rely on Private Military Companies to Fight Their Wars” during Honors Week, held March 20-28.  

Schaefer stated that if a state’s military organizational practices are good, they will have a good military, and if they are bad, they will have a bad military, either by accident, or by design. Non-democratic regimes, personalistic regimes (one person holds all the power), and military dictatorships, all who have increased threats of a violent coup followed by a violent transition of power, instill measures to prevent a coup from taking place, which is called “coup proofing.” They purposefully maintain a poor state military incapable of pulling off a coup. “Enter the PMCs,” declared Schaefer. He continued, “PMCs are private entities with resources and power to provide various military services such as logistics and support, advising and training, and fighting on the frontlines. PMCs can be employed by an independent third party or by the state government.”  Student presenting during Honors Week at VMI, a military college in Virginia

Schaefer hypothesized that is if a state engages in military organizational practices that are harmful to its military, it will use PMCs in combat operations. Two case studies he discussed were Russia, a non-democratic regime, who has hired the Wagner Group to engage directly in combat in the war in Ukraine; and Mexico, a democratic state, who only uses PMCs in non-combat support roles in their battle against the drug cartels.  

Schaefer concluded his presentation stating that states that have poor military organizational practices are more likely to hire PMCs for combat operations, while states with effective military organizational practices may employ PMCs, but relegate them to roles away from combat, such as logistical operations, and advising and protective details. “These findings can be used to better understand our next war. Understanding how our enemy may fight will give us an opportunity to better prepare for it.”   

Col. Spencer Bakich, professor of international studies and Schaefer’s advisor said, “This thesis looks at a fascinating question—one that hasn’t yet been examined in the security studies literature. Schaefer’s work strongly suggests that regimes that have systematically weakened their military organizations (either intentionally or not), will have need for PMCs in a fighting role.  On the other hand, states that have strong, professional military organizations lack this need, and use PMCs in strictly support and training capacities.  Schaefer has done fantastic work on this project over two years.  It is wonderful to see this project culminate.” 

Schaefer is from Leesburg, Virginia, where he attended Loudoun County High School. He is the son of Caroline and David Schaefer. He is a VMI EMT, a cyber captain, and a member of the military skills club. After graduation, he will commission into the U.S. Army as an infantry officer with a military intelligence branch detail. 

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing

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