Department or Program

Political Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Stacie Goddard

Additional Advisor(s)

Paul MacDonald


This thesis examines the use of private military contractors (PMCs) in small-scale military missions, using the case study of American counternarcotics and counterinsurgency aid for Plan Colombia as an example. During the early 2000s and beyond, the United States relied heavily on private companies to support its assistance package to the Colombian government. Political limits on U.S. involvement in the country led U.S. officials to attempt to preserve operational flexibility in part by transferring casualty risks away from the military and toward employees of private companies. This use of contractors as a risk-transfer mechanism, however, increased the overall risk the United States faced in Colombia in three ways. First, it introduced moral hazard on the part of the government agencies involved. Second, it transferred control over risk from a highly risk-averse entity (the government) to a relatively non-risk averse entity (PMCs). And third, it placed profit incentives near the tip of the so-called U.S. spear in Colombia, undermining safety precautions and resulting in extra and unnecessary casualty risks for personnel involved.

Unlike other analyses of the risks produced by contractors in war, my approach focuses on how the operational concept behind privatization of certain tasks generates risk. While many scholars have studied the risks inherent in using private companies on the battlefield, my research analyzes the way in which government decisions about when, where, and how to use contractors create additional casualty risks.