Krieg and Rickli – Surrogate warfare: the art of war in the 21st century?

This week we are looking at the topic of Surrogate Warfare in an article by Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli. The article is available here. The piece covers ideas of surrogacy in warfare thorugh all sorts of interesting means, from mercenaries and militias to drones and satellites. We hope you enjoy the article. Let us know what you think in the comments.


In this article, the authors note the modern tendency towards ‘surrogate warfare’, in which States externalise the burden of war in order to distance themselves from the violence exercised by their surrogates (5). While the authors argue that surrogate warfare is ‘probably not the panacea for fighting wars in the twenty-first century’ (15), they do concede that surrogate warfare is going to become more common as risks and conflicts are not likely to recede any time soon (15).

I found this article interesting, though somewhat lacking in analysis, and I was left wondering how much of it is really ‘new’. Furthermore, I struggle to find the actual argument put forward by the authors who focus primarily on explaining what surrogate warfare is, and why it’s so prevalent. They don’t propose any solutions, nor even any remedies or genuine responses – or even make a sufficiently strong case as to why surrogate warfare might be a bad thing. Surrogate warfare may not be the panacea, but then the world is a very different place to it was in the time of Carl von Clausewitz.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I thought this article was a little misplaced, in that whilst it was really interesting it did not seem to fit well as an academic journal article. As it gives a very thorough overview of states using surrogates in their acts of war, it seemed that this would be a better fit for a textbook chapter. I struggled to find anything that felt truly ‘new’ in this article, it felt as though a history lesson on state use of mercenaries and militias was being put together with some thoughts on modern warfare technologies and PMC’s and given a gloss of conceptual paint under the term ‘surrogate warfare’. I’m sure this would be really interesting to scholars of security and war studies who want a new perspective spin linking current conceptions of PMC’s to historical views of mercenaries, but it didn’t really chime with me in any way. That said, if I were teaching on mercenaries and PMC’s, I would definitely recommend this to my students as a primer document full of great information.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


UPDATE: Added 22/04/2019

In this paper, the authors argue that the Westphalian era of nation state sovereignty is over, and the motif of 21st-century war is the practice by governments and other groups of ‘surrogate warfare’ as a means of distancing themselves from their employment of force around the world, whilst still allowing them to do so in order to achieve their geopolitical aims. The authors use ‘surrogate warfare’ as an umbrella term for ‘all forms of externalization of the burden of war to supplentary as well as substitutionary forces and platforms’, including (but not limited to) the Cold War staple of the ‘proxy war’.

Surrogate warfare is not new. ‘Since Ancient times, empires and states have entrusted auxiliaries, substitutes and proxies, at least partially, with the execution of military functions on their behalf.’ Arguably, the history stretches even further back – the God of the Old Testament, despite his omnipotence, utilised the Israelites to achieve his geopolitical aims of clearing the Promised Land. It may well be that the Westphalian period may have been but a historical blip, although the paper’s authors argue that there are some elements of our contemporary surrogate wars are unique. They are uniquely ‘globalized, privatized, securitized and mediatized’.

The author’s conclusions are well-argued. Though the line that ‘surrogate warfare is a return to… the cabinet wars of the medieval and early modern ages’ reminded me of a previous paper’s talk of using royal marriage to ensure peace and makes me wonder if some political scientists are looking a little too fixedly backwards, the four elements proposed as unique to 21st-century war are all certainly present, although how unique they are is less certain. For example, one could argue that the ability to control the success or failure of operations through the successful manipulation of the media was perfected with Hearst and the Spanish-American War of 1898, and what we see now is a difference of degree rather than kind. Most interesting is the ‘securitised’ aspect, as authors write that ‘threats have given way to risks as the drivers of security policies in the “global North”’.

The reality of surrogate war can be best shown with a recent example. President Trump made waves with the surprise announcement of the impending withdrawal of US troops from Syria. However, this amounts to only around 2,000 soldiers. Remaining in Syria will be the 60-75,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces, primarily the Kurdish forces who were instrumental in turning the tide against IS. Also presumably remaining will be some 5,500 US contractors, of whom almost 3,000 are US citizens. On the one hand, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of US troops and declared the war against IS over. On the other, he’s only moving some 2% of the US’ overall force, including its surrogates, out of theatre.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think.

Singer – Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry

This week, we consider Peter Singer’s keystone piece in the study of private military contractors (PMCs). It is important to distinguish them from mercenaries, who are usually individuals employed to fight, whereas a PMC usually has a corporate business structure and are employed to provide a whole host of military-related services, from intelligence gathering and analysis, combat support, and providing security.

Although this is the first post in a series of comments to pieces on the theme of ‘Industry and Security’, this will be the final post of 2017. We are taking a break over Christmas, and will be back posting in January. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and contributing to posts, and we look forward to more fascinating discussion in the new year.

On to what we think of the article…


This excellent article explores some of the many issues surrounding ‘privatized military firms’ (PMFs) operating within warzones across the globe. According to the author, these PMFs represent the ‘new business form of war’ in which market forces play an increasingly important role in the global military, and political landscape. Indeed, it could be argued they change the landscape completely, for with the rise of PMFs so State accountability takes a back-seat, and war loses any remaining ideological  motivation it may have previously had.

One particularly interesting question for me, is the recruitment and retention of soldiers / operators / employees (call them what you will!) within these PMFs. While the author raises the question of responsibility and the problematic of balancing ‘getting things done’ with having a good human rights record, there is also then the issue of responsibility when it comes to the actual training of these troops in the first place.

Here in the UK, the National Health Service pays to train doctors and nurses, and yet once they have been trained, these same doctors and nurses are effectively free to go and work wherever they so choose. This same problematic would seem to arise with the modern-day PMFs. If an militarily advanced Western State invests hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in training high quality soldiers, what happens when these same soldiers decide to work for a PMF? What can States do to stop these same expensive soldiers one day coming back and fighting for the ‘enemy’ further down the line? Where does responsibility for these soldiers begin and end? And how on Earth can you hope to hold a PMF, and its ‘employees’ to account?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article is a little bit older, so the question is of course what relevance it still has for the present-day situation.  The article came at a time where much of the debate on global conflicts centered on warlords and civil wars in the Global South, while current analysis of warfare has a very different focus. However, it is one of the earliest articles describing the role of private military companies in security practices, and as such has been very important for that field. For people interested in more articles on this subject, I would recommend the work of Anna Leander.

I appreciate how the author points out the larger historical trends towards privatisation of government services, the transformation of type of conflicts, and the effects of the end of Cold War on military systems. It creates a clear picture on how private military industry has developed. I think a larger discussion on the influence of globalisation would have also fit well into this picture, as well as an analysis of the changing structure of the international arms trade in the 1990s. Considering it is written in 2002 however, it is remarkable how many of the implications and problems mentioned – such as a lack of oversight, imperialism by invitation or human rights violations – have also occurred during the US invasion of Iraq, which saw a high amount of private military contractors too.

I find the concept of Private Military Industry as used by the author very slippery however. Singer purposefully talks about “industry” instead of corporations to include actors offering other types of military services, as well as the overall industry instead of subsections.  But what falls under this exactly? When does something become corporate, only when it is registered as an official company? That is a very Western view on what falls under the private sector as it ignores the informal economy, and thus does not necessarily apply worldwide. Does this include all actors involved in war working for a profit? Smuggling is a huge component in many conflicts, and it often cannot be precisely determined whether resource extraction and sales are the cause of a conflict or just a means to finance conflict – when do profit-oriented motives of warlords turn them into private military actors? Defence companies have always played a large role in warfare, from supplying weapons to maintaining and sometimes operating them (as the author rightly points out), but then what are the new developments? Where does the military-entertainment complex fit in here? Of course, a lack of an airtight framework is one of the lacunas that Singer points out, but he does not really criticise the concept or define it more closely. If everything is private military industry, the concept is analytically meaningless.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


The idea of the corporate warrior fascinates me no end. It is a clear example of the state monopoly on violence crumbling, and the increasing capabilities which powerful individuals can have at their finger tips.

Most of the discussion about private military companies focusses on a corporate-industrial-military complex, however a couple of years ago there were discussions about the potential for their use for humanitarian reasons. During the lightening ISIS advance, a large group of the Yezidi group were trapped on Mount Sinjar. At the time, it was politically difficult for any state to deploy military forces for a humanitarian intervention. However, financially powerful individuals could have organised their own humanitarian intervention through the use of a PMC.

This would have been a unique moment. The fact that it is even possible shows that the state monopoly on violence is long gone. The ramifications of this could be that financially powerful individuals could use PMC power not just for their own security, but to realise their political ambitions as well. Potentially, this could result in a larger number of civil wars, rebellions, or even annexation and fiefdoms and created all using PMC power and purely because somebody with enough money and desire wanted it. What then will become of the international system when some big players do not play by the rules of traditional statehood? Or quasi-states are created purely as a toy for the rich and powerful?

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.