Trump and the Return of Private Military Contractors

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by David Isenberg

In 2005 the Marine Corps University published a paper entitled “The Professional Military Services Industry: Have We Created a New Military-Industrial Complex?”

To consider that question now, more than a decade later, is the equivalent of asking if the Pope is Catholic. The United States has not only created such a new complex, but it has also systematized, legalized, normalized, and, in all important aspects, accepted it. Yet, with the advantage of hindsight, America has never really had a deliberate, thoughtful debate over whether this was a good thing. Frankenstein’s monster was created with more forethought than the contemporary private military and security contracting (PMSC) industry.

Yet, when it comes to PMSC the train left the station decades ago. It just took the passage of many years, and multiple wars, starting with the U.S. involvement in the Balkan wars in the 1990s and then, much more prominently, with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, for the public to begin to understand just how far the neoliberal phenomenon of outsourcing and privatizing functions that once upon a time were considered “inherently governmental” had gone.

Military Adjuncts

The PMSC sector is the U.S. military’s American Express card; it dare not deploy without it. Or, to use a more morbid pop culture reference, consider the first Alien movie, when they try to remove the facehugger from a crewman’s face, only to realize that trying to do so would kill the patient. The PMSC sector is now so intertwined with the service and support components of the U.S. military that the U.S. military would have to be rebuilt from scratch in order to do without it.

As the MCU report put it:

For the foreseeable future, the continued worldwide growth of contracted military services is a forgone conclusion. Military and political considerations such as the increased complexity and specialization of modern weapon systems, self-imposed and host country troop limitations and the high-technology battlefield, will require even greater reliance on contracted military services in the future.8 The issue however, is that the U.S. unintentionally developed the military services industry out of practical necessity due to a shortage of available troops and inhouse technical skills and capabilities. The infrastructure was created ad hoc in response to short-term imperatives, rather than long-term national strategic intent. Absent from the debate were the long-term consequences and national security implications of the professional military services industry as it continues to grow globally and disperse beyond the reach of U.S. control

If Eisenhower were giving his famous Farewell Address today, he would have to revise it and call it the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Contracting complex, to be accurate.

Looked at another way, private contractors are an increasingly powerful part of what Mike Lofgren characterized in his excellent book as the “Deep State.” As he wrote, contractors “now have such impunity that they can threaten and intimidate their own paymaster, the very government that created them. And they get away with it!…there is literally nothing that the Deep State does not contract out to the corporations that provide campaign donations to the political figureheads nominally in charge of the whole enterprise.”

A recent report by the Center for a New American Security noted that today “DoD employs 1.4 million military personnel and 770,000 civilian employees plus more than 800,000 part-time reserve personnel. DoD employees are augmented by a large number of contractors. Estimates put the number of private-sector contractors providing services to DoD at around 750,000.”

Especially interesting, given the presumed cost-effectiveness of using private contractors, the report’s author, Robert Hale, former Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer, wrote that “In my experience, DoD sometimes uses contractors in order to satisfy political pressure to limit the number of federal civilians even though contractors can cost more than federal civilians.”

Yet “professional services contractors,” which is the preferred euphemism, are present in every major U.S. combatant command.

Although U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011 contractors are hardly gone from there. Although many are aware that both U.S. military forces and, concomitantly, contractors, have returned to Iraq to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), they are not aware of just how many that involves.

According to the Government Accountability Office, “As of mid-2016, U.S. Central Command reported that there were 2,485 DOD contractor personnel in Iraq, as compared with a force management level of 4,087 U.S. troops in Iraq.” Of course, that was just Iraq. Add in Afghanistan and other CENTCOM locations and total DoD CENTCOM contractors totaled 42,694. Needless to say, contractors in Afghanistan far outnumber U.S. forces there. And such numbers exclude contractors working for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and various intelligence agencies.

In Africa, the U.S. military is heavily dependent on private contractors to support Special Operations Forces as well as conventional U.S. military forces in various counterinsurgency campaigns.

Beyond the Pentagon

But, in fact, contracting presence in the U.S. government is far larger than just supporting the U.S. military or protecting State Department personnel. There are very few, if any, U.S. departments of the government that are not heavily dependent on private contractors. The intelligence community has used private airlines for the purpose of rendition, transporting prisoners from their home countries to CIA “black site” prisons and other locations. The CIA has used private psychologists to devise torture techniques and issued contracts to companies to help carry them out.

According to a 2015 analysis by journalist Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence, about 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is spent on private contractors. In September he reported that five corporations together employ nearly 80 percent of the private-sector employees contracted to work for US spy and surveillance agencies.

Unlike U.S. military personnel, if a contractor, even those working for the U.S. government, gets wounded, killed or kidnapped, most people don’t care.

Contractors are also heavily involved on the homeland security front. In fact, Lora Ries, who was hired by the Trump transition team to help remake the Department of Homeland Security, has a long history of lobbying for homeland security contractors.

The U.S. government is enormously dependent on contractors in the realm of cyber operations. If the National Security Agency, for example, had to do without contractors it would have to shut its doors. Whatever the truth of the alleged Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential elections, such cyber operations represent a future bonanza for cyber contractors. Thomas Bossert, Trump’s designee to serve as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said that “We must work toward cyber doctrine that reflects the wisdom of free markets, private competition and the important but limited role of government in establishing and enforcing the rule of law, honoring the rights of personal property, the benefits of free and fair trade and the fundamental principles of liberty.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development is particularly dependent on contractors to do its work. In FY 2015 its obligated contract funding reached $4.8 billion—a $1 billion increase, or 26 percent increase, from the previous year. USAID projects have long been an inviting target for various kinds of fraud and abuse. It was far from a rare exception when in 2015 the former president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of USAID contractor Louis Berger Group Inc. (LBG) was sentenced to 12 months of home confinement and fined $4.5 million for conspiring to defraud USAID of billions of dollars in contracts over a nearly 20-year period

The Trump Era

Nobody knows for certain at this point about how a Trump presidency feels about the PMSC sector, but so far the omens are good. You can be sure industry cheered when Politico reported that Trump, who had hired his own private security and intelligence teams to work alongside the Secret Service during the campaign, will be keeping “at least some members” of those teams. Moreover, the new administration plans to increase and upgrade the military in various ways.

Trump may reject the idea of nation-building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. But if the United States wants to continue being a player in the region it will have to be involved in the reconstruction of Syria, which would be a future bonanza for the private sector.

More interestingly, a president who campaigned on the basis of having a secret plan to beat IS may find that he has no alternative to using contractors even more heavily. After all, Trump made fighting terrorism a pillar of his election platform.

The likelihood of Trump having some thoughtful, well-crafted strategy to fight IS, al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups is unlikely, to say the least. That means he may lean heavily on advisors such as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Pentagon chief James Mattis. Flynn was former intelligence director for the Joint Special Operations Command, which turned into a highly efficient killing machine in the Bush administration and continues as such to this day.

As Bloomberg reported, Flynn has extensive dealings with various private contractors through his own consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, which in recent months has competed for federal contracts to supply overseas military bases, fly diplomats in and out of conflict zones, and provide cybersecurity and technology for defense and intelligence agencies. As for Mattis, he should be well aware of the problems PMSC can cause. He played a key role in combat operations in Iraq during the First Battle of Fallujah, aka Operation Vigilant Resolve, in April 2004, which was caused, in part, by the highly publicized killing and mutilation of four Blackwater USA private military contractors.

Still, the PMSC sector will be cheering. With Special Forces stretched to the breaking point, private contracts will be in high demand.

The Prince of Contractors

Warzone adventurer and author Robert Young Pelton was among the earliest people to write about PMSC in his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in The War On Terror. He knows PMSC companies, like the former Blackwater, particularly well, being in litigation with its cofounder Erik Prince. He said:

I predict that there will be a dramatic escalation in using the private sector to perform logistics, security, intelligence and training. With the men Trump has selected we will be ramping up quickly in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Uganda, Kenya, and many other spots. All will require the revolving door of ex-military contractors for support.

Despite denials, Erik Prince has appeared to have kept busy in working on third party logistics and security contracts (South Sudan), aviation (Malta), logistics (East and Central Africa) and other private and military/intel projects in North Africa, Somalia and the Middle East (some exposed in embarrassing detail by The Intercept, New York Times and the court cases.) His successful support of some candidates and with his sister, Betsy DeVos being selected for a cabinet position in the new administration, I am sure his eight years of quiet patience will soon be rewarded. Now he can pitch his “relief with teeth” private brigades as part of the global solution rather than the problem. Prince just announced that he is expanding to Asia to support China’s “One Belt One Road” which will put him in business smack in the middle of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

According to Pelton, who keeps in touch with many of Prince’s ex-employees, Prince still appears to be involved in something that mimics deep-cover activities, hiring ex-military and former Blackwater employees to support projects in areas of interest from Abu Dhabi and Juba to Mombasa and Djibouti and western China. These projects now include security operations, rough and ready air support in “difficult environments,” forward-operating bases, and medevacs in hostile environments. This is a major change from Prince’s original plan of investing in emerging markets. To be fair, Prince was investigated by over seven federal agencies and lambasted for his ideas of forming small violent groups of mercenaries to solve difficult international security problems.

Media outlets have continually exposed his rogue military projects in embarrassing detail. A recent document dump from a disgruntled employee to the Intercept revealed numerous proposals to fight Boko Haram, support Libyan General Haftar, and deliver Close Air Support and armed patrol planes to numerous foreign governments, all with an eye towards avoiding controls on the export of defense-related products. According to the Intercept, Prince is again under federal investigation, which may quietly disappear as the new administration takes over. Another hallmark of Prince’s relationship with the U.S. government is his ability to pay millions in legal fines rather than be prosecuted for federal crimes.

With the disappearance of a hostile Democratic administration, the stars may be realigning for Prince. The man in charge of the new improved version of Blackwater—now called Constellis, a merger of Triple Canopy, Blackwater, and other security companies—is none other than Jason DeYonkers. An old college friend from Michigan who managed Prince’s financial portfolio from 1998 to 2002, DeYonkers helped during the early days of creating Blackwater and led the 2010 buyout of Xe Services when Prince left the country for the UAE. Prince’s original army for hire became a division of Constellis Holdings in 2014 along with his major competitor Triple Canopy. DeYonkers is a member of both Academi’s and Constellis’s board of directors. It is not hard to imagine that new business opportunities under the Trump administration are just one phone call away.

Quite conveniently, as the administration changes, Constellis is up for sale as a far larger and more capable company than Blackwater. With more than 8,000 staff, most of whom are former military or law enforcement officials operating in 25 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, it will be well-placed to assist a new aggressive “gloves off” foreign policy. True, Prince may stick to serving his Chinese government patrons and pursuing developing markets in Africa, where he is rapidly building air mobility assets exactly where JSOC aims to fight transnational terrorist groups. As Pelton points out, Prince could continue to provide convenient cutouts for various military and civilian clients under what looks like a version of the CIA’s National Resources division. It’s a good bet that the man who insisted he would become a school teacher will find a receptive audience for his many military ideas in Trump Tower.

Although all of this is great for Erik Prince and the PMSC industry more generally, it’s not likely to make America great again. The 2005 MCU report concluded thusly:

President Eisenhower’s warnings of 1961 remain true today. We must “guard against unwarranted influence” and “misplaced power.” The revolving door between government and industry is swinging freely and billions of taxpayer dollars are involved. Like sovereign nation-states, for profit corporations will pursue their own self-interests. The self-interest of this industry requires conflict to succeed. U.S. National Security and Foreign Policy is too important to outsource. It is the ultimate Inherently Governmental Function.

Photo of Erik Prince courtesy of Miller Center via Flickr

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David Isenberg

David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq. His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.

2 Comments

  1. An interesting article David. As I am not aware of the incoming government’s plans and ideas, it will be interesting to see what path is followed. I have always believed that in Africa, Africans need to provide solutions. It will be interesting to see if Africans are used to end conflicts in Africa in the future. We however remain hopeful

  2. President Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex, but did nothing to curb its excesses during his administration, and indeed aggravated cold war tensions with Russia with U-2 over-flights, an act of war, but one he thought he could get away with impunity. If Grumman could be persuaded to build aluminum canoes and ships after WWII, perhaps the women of America, who gave Obama a pass out of political correctness and a mistaken belief he might cut the rations of the MIC, can hold up some signs demanding they manufacture affordable pre-assembled homes for a change. The nation is certainly ripe for its Lysistrata moment.

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