Post-Cold War conflicts have become contests between powerful armies and inferior forces that use violent and nonviolent means meant to wear down, rather than vanquish opponents 

Some analysts contend that the age of unquestioned Western military superiority has ended. They point to Iraq where the U.S., the world's only superpower, finds itself in a protracted conflict with an inferior enemy force and Israel's campaign in southern Lebanon last summer.

 After decades of failed attempts by Arab states to fight Israel with conventional armies built on the Western model, actors like the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas and Hezbollah have come up with a new strategy. It blends violent and non-violent means intended to exhaust, not defeat a superior military force.

Boston University military historian Andrew Bacevich says that although this new way of warfare does not pose a threat to the West, it can prevent conventional armies from achieving decisive results.  "These are the methods we see on display day after frustrating day in Iraq. It's ambushes, suicide bombing attacks, assassinations and the intimidation of the population. It includes propaganda and efforts to rouse the population to engage in popular resistance. It's a way of warfare, which poses an acute challenge to a conventionally organized Western nation state trying to defeat it," says Bacevich. 

He adds that the battlefields and frontlines of such conflicts are hard to define and that wars that are expected to be short often become open-ended.

Cunning and Nimble Adversaries

Some experts, among them Max Boot, a Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, say the West is losing the battle in the war on terrorism to adversaries that are as agile as they are cunning. 

"Our enemies are very nimble, very networked, very quick to adapt. They are able to run this global insurgency with command and control, propaganda, recruiting, financing - - so many elements depending on this new technology.

We are having a hard time keeping up. What we have been seeing is the limits of the conventional military and conventional government, which is not adapted to the kind of challenge that we face today," says Boot.

He contends that U.S. armed forces are burdened with a bureaucratic structure that worked well in the Cold War, but not today. He says one way to transform the Pentagon is to further outsource its operations.

The use of private contractors increased significantly after the end of the Cold War. Nearly all of the international civilian police officers the U.S. have sent to the Balkans in the 1990s, have come from the private sector.

Hired Guns

Robert Young Pelton, author of the book: Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, says proponents of contracting military tasks contend it is cost-efficient. He says their jobs range from training soldiers and police officers to providing security to construction companies, diplomatic missions and NGOs.

According to Pelton, "The idea of outsourcing traditional military tasks is a part of the surge mentality that was formed after the Cold War.  If you had a task, like Somalia or Bosnia, you don't want to build the military operation and keep paying those people for 20 or 40 years, so you outsource it. This is supposed to be a short-term, one time need."

Pelton says privatizing military operations has accelerated since the U.S.-led military action in Iraq. He notes that America's largest partner in Iraq today is not Britain, but the more than 100-thousand private U.S. contractors that operate there. And that the companies recruit from around the world -- from Nepal and Israel to Nicaragua and South Africa.

Analyst Max Boot says private contractors could even be used as combat soldiers. He notes that Blackwater USA, a top U.S. security corporation, recently offered several thousand recruits for hire in hotspots in Africa.  "Companies like Blackwater or others are able to be more flexible, more adaptive than the U.S. government. And, for example, in Darfur [in Somalia] we [i.e., the United States] are not going to make a massive military commitment," says Boot. 

"It would make a lot of sense for somebody, whether the U.S. government, NATO or the U.N., or Bill Gates or George Soros to simply hire somebody like Blackwater to go in there, clean it out and stop the ethnic cleansing, which they could probably do more efficiently and cheaply than any U.N. blue helmets that might ever arrive." 

Military Tradition

But other experts, including Richard May, a military analyst at the Center for Defense Information, argue that private armies owe allegiance to no country or government and are unregulated.

"As we transition more to these private companies, we become much more at their whim. They can start charging us whatever they want. They can start pushing their agenda a little more. By relying on these private military contractors, we are undermining the cohesiveness and the unity of a strong military with the defense of the state as its main goal. These contractors' main goal is to get paid, not the defense of a country," says May.

Military historian, Andrew Bacevich notes the U.S. military reflects American values and historical experience.  "It's an expression of Western culture -- American culture -- of Western history, of American history," says Bacevich.  "And so it's not simply bureaucratic stubbornness that limits the amount of change that the military can undertake. It comes from all kinds of other factors."

Bacevich argues that over-reliance on private contractors could affect U.S. military operations. While he agrees with calls to streamline America's military, Bacevich says change should encompass the traditional values of the armed forces -- including tolerance and respect for the rule of law -- principles that distinguish U.S. intentions from those of its adversaries.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.