Shadow Wars and The Modern Mercenary

Characteristics of Shadow Wars

1. States matter less. Today’s “great powers” aren’t just countries, they’re multinational corporations as well as the super-rich. The Fortune 500 are more powerful than most countries, most of which are fragile or failed states. … few of the “great powers” are states. Corporations are involved in conflicts like Ukraine.

2. Mercenaries are back. This industry was dormant for centuries, and then resurrected by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, where half of America’s military personnel were contractors. Now Russia, Nigeria, the Emirates, and corporations use mercenaries. Locke discovers that mercenaries are fighting on all sides of the Ukraine war, drawing out the war for profit.

3. Deep States exist. Deep States are networks of elites who can sometimes rule behind governments, across sectors, and beyond borders for their own benefit. Shadow War reveals some of the connections between Wall Street and K Street, and how national interests can be manipulated for shareholder profit. Some deny this, but it’s not new.

4. Warriors are masked, and may not fight for states. Shadow War takes you to the frontlines of the Ukraine war. Soldiers are rare. Militias, mercenaries, criminals, spooks, and refugees litter the landscape. Sometimes it’s unclear who the enemy is.

5. Economics can be weaponized. Shadow wars utilize all instruments of national power, not just military ones. Economics is a favorite cudgel of Putin. Forget World War II bombers. Putin turns off the gas to Europe when he doesn’t get his way, plunging the Europe into an energy crisis. What’s being fought for in a shadow war it isn’t terrain, it’s energy and industry.

6. Clandestine operations are key. In the information age, plausible deniability is more powerful than tank divisions. The Russian military could invade Ukraine outright yet Putin chooses to use mercenaries, proxy militia, and “Little Green Men“ (Russian soldiers without Russian insignia on their fatigues). How can you rally the world to fight a war that may not exist? You can’t. It’s a brilliant strategic defense by Putin.

7. Hearts and minds don’t matter. Forget the failed counterinsurgency strategies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, shadow wars aren’t about “the people.” The fight in Ukraine isn’t a continuation of the Orange Revolution. It’s about dueling oligarchs and other things.

8. Lie, a lot. Some of the best weapons do not fire bullets. Putin understands the power of propaganda and the fickleness of the news cycle. Even when his proxies blew up a civilian airliner, the world quickly moved on, thanks to an army of cyber trolls who misdirected, reframed, and denied the obvious.

9. “Winning” has changed. You do not have to conquer in the traditional sense. Super technologies and battlefield triumphs guarantee nothing in a shadow war. Cunning and boldness are decisive. Tom Locke’s greatest asset is not the firepower at his fingertips (and he has a lot), but his brain.

10. People still matter most. While in the field, I learned quickly that trust between people is the difference between success and failure. But betrayal is a touchstone of shadow wars, too.

___ Sean McFate

In the excerpted piece above, McFate focuses on Russia’s ongoing shadow wars. Putin’s current wars across Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and the northern Levant receive a lot of attention. But shadow wars are taking place everywhere, with almost every political, corporate, and criminal entity on the planet participating in some way, if only in defence mode. The tools of shadow war range from sophisticated cyber attack and cyber espionage to assassinations and military attacks — as in the Russian examples.

Shadow Wars Lend Themselves to the Use of The Modern Private Mercenary

Shadow wars benefit from ad hoc fighting forces, often of the mercenary variety. In the video below, former mercenary and current National Defense University professor Sean McFate discusses the nature of the modern mercenary, and some of the uses to which modern mercenaries might be put.

More on the modern mercenary from Sean McFate:

… there is a range of terms used to describe these firms, further confusing the issue: private military contractors, private security companies, private military companies, private security/military companies, private military firms, private security contractors, private military corporations, and military service providers.

… The United States’ insatiable need for security in Iraq and Afghanistan fueled the growth of today’s private security industry. This also gave the United States market power as the consumer-in-chief to shape business practices and norms during the industry’s formative years, as it grew from a multimillion-dollar to a multibillion-dollar market.

… There are two kinds of PMCs: mercenary and military enterpriser. Mercenary companies are private armies that can conduct autonomous military campaigns, offensive operations, and force projection. At present, there are no large mercenary firms, but they have existed in the recent past. For example, the now-defunct firm Executive Outcomes, based in South Africa, conducted independent military campaigns in Africa during the 1990s. In 1993, the Angolan government hired Executive Outcomes to defeat the rebel group National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), retake oil facilities in the harbor town of Soyo, and train government soldiers for $40 million a year. Two years later, Sierra Leone’s government hired Executive Outcomes to defeat the Liberian-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF), retake the Kono diamond area, and force a negotiated peace for $35 million. Executive Outcomes provided its own combat units, air forces, global supply chain, and so forth, to defeat the enemy. The United States has shunned strong PMCs, and consequently, they are absent from today’s market for force.

… When the United States invaded Iraq, few imagined at the time that it would also introduce a new norm in modern warfare: the privatization of war. __ Sean McFane in The Modern Mercenary

It would not take much to convert a security firm such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) into an actual mercenary company, if management were willing to make a few critical changes in recruitment, training, rules of engagement, and deployment. The mercenary forces engaged by Russia to fight inside Ukraine, Syria, and other foreign Russian wars fall more into the traditional role of “mercenary companies,” although they are often run by Siloviki insiders connected to the Russian government.

In fact, the distinctions between an ordinary group of private citizens, armed vigilantes out to cull a herd of violent criminals, and a well-trained mercenary force engaged in shadow warfare, do not have to be clear or stark. In an ad hoc society, private individuals can peel away from one occupation to temporarily merge into another. When that job is done, persons may rejoin a prior project or enterprise, or move into a new one.

Tools of warfare may range across a broad array of telecomputing, telecommunications, economics, energy, other infrastructure, or more traditional tools of war. Aims and goals of shadow warfare will also range across broad domains of human endeavour. Shadow war has an interest in you, whether or not you have an interest in shadow war.

Dangerous Children learn about the tools of the shadow war trade, just as they master the tools of several dangerous trades, vocations, and professions. But such training is meant to be of the “just in case” variety, rather than as preparation for a life of shadow war. Dangerous Children are typically sent on trajectories of creation, innovation, and constructive production, rather than perpetual violence or threatened destruction.

Adjacent to the Russian Sphere of Influence, New Nations Wish to Avoid Entanglement in Putin’s Wars

Poland doesn’t need Syrian refugees [or Russian agents of influence] the way Germany [apparently] does. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t need them at all.

Nor, unlike Germany, should Poland or the Czech Republic feel a need to atone for past crimes against humanity. They were not the perpetrators of such crimes; among nations, Poland was the main victim.

Without Germany, there would have been no Nazi occupation of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Without the Nazi occupation, there likely would have been no Iron Curtain behind which Poland and Czechoslovakia suffered for more than 40 years.

Germany has done enough harm to the Poles and the Czechs. It should not now be coercing them into accepting immigrants who, almost inevitably, will include radical Islamists. __ New Europe Wants to Find Its Own Path

The author of the piece above is concerned about “New Europe” being bullied into submission by “old Europe.” But the concern should apply just as strongly or moreso toward the biggest bullies in the neighborhood — the belligerent human slavers who rule Muscovy.

Brave New World

Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved by shadow wars and the modern mercenary — even cyber-attack enabled modern mercenaries. Shadow wars and threats of shadow wars induce oppositional forces that can grow into something far more powerful than the original instigator of the shadow war. There are only so many skilled combatants who can engage in a clever shadow war — and far fewer skilled strategists and tacticians of shadow war. The weapons and underlying ideas of shadow war are still in early development, for the modern era. Many surprises are in store for the future.

The most potent philosophers, strategists, and tacticians of shadow war are still in the pipeline.

These concepts of shadow war are important, since they are pieces of the future puzzles that we must face. Small pieces, for most of us, but potentially important. But they are not important enough to constantly obsess upon, as doomers are wont to do. If you cannot constructively engage with the concepts, it is better to ignore them for the most part, although many-eyed tendrils of shadow war are likely to be keeping watch on you.


Russia: Wars Without End provides more information on Russia’s shadow wars, hybrid wars, wars to expand its sphere of influence, economic wars, religious wars, et.

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1 Response to Shadow Wars and The Modern Mercenary

  1. Matt Musson says:

    My ex-roommate was shot down over Vietnam by American mercenaries who were manning Chinese made equipment. And, he was rescued by a Korean mercenary group.

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