Before Christmas, as war drums sounded louder on the Ukraine border and across the Taiwan Strait, Asia Times Publisher Uwe Parpart and Northeast Asia Editor Andrew Salmon sat down – at a distance of 13,000 km – with Erik Prince to explore whether there is a continuing strategic role for private military contractors.
Prince, a former US Navy SEAL officer, founded private military contracting firm Blackwater in 1997, but left his leadership role in 2009 and sold his holdings in 2010. In 2012, he founded Frontier Resource Group, a private equity fund investing in natural resource opportunities in frontier markets and geoscience projects – of which he remains the managing partner. In 2014, he followed suit by founding and listing Frontier Services Group (500 HK), an Africa-focused security, aviation, and logistics company partially owned by CITIC Group, an investment fund owned by the People’s Republic of China.
He left Frontier Services in March of this year and now describes himself as an investor and an author on military affairs. He denies political ambitions but will not deny being one of the most high-profile critics of the US military’s failed ventures of the past half century, most notably the 2002-2021 period.
2021 showcased the inability of the West to win small, long wars, and now, on the eve of 2022, the perils of far more existential big, fast wars loom over East-West relations.
These risks pose grave questions.
In the wake of the US humiliation in Afghanistan, and with fears rising of a potentially apocalyptic conflict breaking out over the flashpoint Taiwan Strait, how can conflict be better managed – or even better, effectively obviated?
In a world in which state-run militaries seek ever-bigger budget allocations, while generals and their staffs war game with expensive conventional weapons and deadly strategic arms, conflict management tends to fall within the realm of deterrent strategy.
But what if conventional weapons and tactics fail – as happened in Afghanistan? What if deterrence falters – as it may do over Taiwan?
Unconventional thinkers argue that there are better ways to operate.
These ways include containing – and mastering – conflict at the tactical level; deploying local and/or proxy forces with maximal efficiencies; and transitioning conflict from conventional battlegrounds into the hybrid space.
One such thinker is Prince – perhaps the most aggressive advocate of private sector militaries in the Western hemisphere. Not coincidentally, he is also an outspoken critic of the Pentagon’s conventional warfighting, processes and policies.
Those policies – of prioritizing US forces and tactics over local forces and tactics; of big-war, conventional-unit primacy; and of dollar overspend and related bureaucratic bloat – have led to military defeats and foreign policy disasters for Washington, ranging from South Vietnam, to Somalia to Afghanistan.
Prince insists that conflict can be more effectively conducted using a hybrid model that deploys smaller, nimbler and more localized units. This style of warfare, he reckons, is best managed and fought by unconventional players – be they intelligence agencies, special operations units or private military contractors (PMCs).
Such grey-area forces offer plausible deniability and operate under the threshold of the enemy. That potentially contains conflict and obviates a big-war, state-to-state response.
The obviating of even a conventional big conflict is likely good news for the US military. A study this month from the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School revealed that in 18 realistic Taiwan war scenarios gamed by the US military, the US lost to Chinese forces, 0-18.
When it comes to PMCs, beyond the public image of teeth-gritted, shoot-from-the-hip dogs of war, Prince reckons that private sector players have extensive roles to play on an increasingly sophisticated conflict chessboard. These roles extend from security of personnel and facilities, through cyber offense and defense, to battlegroup-level combat.
And for all his criticism of the US strategy in Afghan, he believes that Washington was effective in proxy struggles in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as in the swift overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. Based on this, he argues forcefully that the CIA, rather than the Pentagon, should have managed the conflict in Afghanistan.
Prince describes himself as an American patriot. But surveying the current scene, he believes that Russia and China – in terrain grabs and resource wars – are being more effective at hybrid, public-private sector operations than is Washington.
Fair pay for foul play
America’s first lost war was South Vietnam, and Prince opens his case for the primacy of military market forces by citing the architect of that defeat.
“When General William Westmoreland, who was the commander of US forces in Vietnam, became Chief of Staff of the US Army he was sitting before Congress, and Congress was debating whether the US was going to go to an all-volunteer force, from an all-draft force,” Prince said. “And [Westmoreland] said, ‘I don’t want to lead an army of mercenaries’ – that is what he called the US Army, which would have been paid a market wage for their services.”
Having dismissed “Westy,” Prince summons one of the leading voices in market capitalism.
“Milton Friedman said, ‘If you don’t want to lead an army of mercenaries then you don’t want a mercenary butcher, accountant, or barber. Right?’” Prince related. “He was saying, basically, that if you’re not being paid a market wage for your services, then you’re a slave. I think he makes a good point.”
Many, of course, would argue that organized violence is such a serious business, so expansive, and so morally repugnant, that only government can or should hold a monopoly on it.
But what if the state lacks a capability?
In that case, contracted assets meet a need which the nation state cannot, or will not, Prince, said. When it comes to both contracted military skills and their ethical deployment, Prince points to a struggle against colonial over-lordship during which foreign fighting men rode to the rescue of a nascent republic.
“Across the street from the White House, is Lafayette Park with statues at its four corners, of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben,’ Prince said. “They were foreigners – professional military officers – who came and built the Continental Army to gain US independence. These are examples of using contracted force for something a government could not do.”
He also pointed to the “letters of marque” which the revolutionary government issued to private captains – privateers – that authorized their capture of enemy shipping. He did not, however, mention a less successful private force in that struggle: the Hessian mercenaries paid by the British Crown.
Private forces are “as old as warfare,” Prince noted. Indeed, looking back over centuries of conflict, many of the most famed units fought for profit, rather than for tribe, kingdom or state.
Their numbers include: The Norse “Varangian Guard” who protected the Byzantine emperors, the “Free Companies” and “Free Lances” of the 100 Years War; the Condottiere and the Landsknechte who followed them; the Papal Swiss Guard; the European privateers and corsairs who conducted economic warfare on the high seas; the pirate fleets of Japan, southern China and the southern Philippines who raided and slave raided across Asia; and the armies of the Honourable East India Company that secured an empire in South Asia.
But in today’s more ordered world of nation states and global institutions, such forces are less common.
“You had probably a gap of less use from World War Two…the pendulum swung in the direction of Westphalian nation-state resources, to organized militaries,’ Prince admitted. “So, that’s what people are used to. But really, if you look at history, contracted forces are far more common.”
Shifting from past to future, the question must be asked: In a world in which the US military-industrial complex spends hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on the most advanced weapons money can buy, can PMCs offer value?
Prince insists the answer is yes.
The PMC value proposition
“Think about what Google Earth does,” he said. “A cell phone would have been considered ultra-high classified top secret back in the 1980s, in terms of being able to gather satellite imagery, instantly, in the palm of your hand.”
It is not just about power, it is also about pace. With the speed of technological change leaving policymakers and regulators in its wake, Prince reckons private sector efficiencies are the answer.
“Those kind of technological advancements empower the individual, and let them operate in a faster decision loop than the traditional government bureaucracy does, and you’re going to see more and more of that,” he said. “Really, the only thing that can keep up with the private sector is other private sector players.”
Prince maintains that this is also true in the military space, where overspend on technology and equipment can encumber, rather than assist.
“The US military has spent trillions of dollars building capacity – it has created so much bureaucracy and so much redundancy, that it’s almost like an obese triathlete trying to run fast,” he said. “They’ve made it harder on themselves…by overeating. We can’t operate inside the enemy OODA [Observe, Orient, Decide, Act] loop.”
Turning to the US defeat in Afghanistan, he squarely blames the conventional military establishment which took over the conflict after the overthrow of the Taliban government. That campaign had used local proxies corseted by US and UK special forces on the ground, backed by massive US airpower in the skies.
“The SF community did extraordinarily well, the airpower backing them also did well, and then the conventional military arrived, because it’s about being relevant for the budget battle in Washington DC.” Prince said. “So the conventional army moves in and replicates the failed Soviet battle plan for the next 19 and a half years!”
He offered a PMC solution that was more localized than the Pentagon’s strategy, and would have used a few thousand contractors in places of tens of thousands of Western troops. He outlined it in a column he penned in the Wall St Journal in May 2017 for what he calls “an audience of one” – US President Donald Trump.
Trump read it in the Oval Office, Prince said, citing “someone that was in the room.” The president, Prince says, called in National Security Advisor HR McMaster, who was at the time seeking to send tens of thousands more soldiers to Afghanistan, and told him he liked the plan. Prince was subsequently summoned to brief on the plan, but “McMaster dumped on the idea from the very outset because he is a product of the Pentagon – of 25 years of conventional thinking.”
Prince later spoke to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who, according to Prince, was impressed by the analysis, but “just could not accept contractors doing it.” Eventually, it went nowhere, Prince said, due to the “constellation of very conventional generals” surrounding the highly unconventional president.
Prince’s proxy plan
Prince offered his solution at a time when his firm had 56 aircraft in country and “a couple of thousand guys doing everything from training, to aviation to mentoring.”
It was thus informed by local conditions. It had three elements: the embedding of mentors with Afghan units; guaranteed air support; and control of logistics.
The first element would have localized the war by attaching US special forces veterans to Afghan outfits. Unlike regular US units which regularly rotated out of theater, severing contact, the mentors would maintain continuity.
“I could pay contractors to go and live with, train with and fight alongside them for years at a time,” Prince said. “They could go in for 90 days, home for 30, back in for 60, home for 30. But they would always go back to the same battalion, in the same valley, so you have continuity.”
The second element was to ensure air cover on-tap, with mentors equipped to direct it.
“The first thing I learned in the SEAL teams was, “Travel light and call in your might,’” Prince said. “In previous years, there were cases where an Afghan unit would be surrounded by the Taliban, and they would call for help repeatedly and nobody would come. And the US wouldn’t drop a bomb because it didn’t have the forward air controllers, laser precision and all the rest.”
He cited a case where an embattled Afghan unit was reduced to calling for support to a local TV news station – support that never came.
“The US Air Force stopped bombing in June – and I knew they were, because I had friends that were doing fuel contracts,” Prince said. “That would allow the Taliban to go from grouping, not 20 or 50 or 200 men, but 5,000-man units.”
The third element was control of combat logistics. That would have bypassed local corruption and enabled equipment, rations and pay to flow to the men at the sharp end.
“If you don’t pay a man on time and feed him on time, and you don’t give them medevac, and you’re certainly not giving them resupply, or close air support – they’re going to leave,” he said.
Again, he reaches into history to show how workable a similar strategy had once been – in a geographically proximate location.
“I’m not saying I’m some genius – by no means!” he said. “I’m applying the same method that worked for centuries…exactly the approach the East India Company used for 200+ years, next door in India. This is not rocket science. This is actually reading a history book, and doing what has worked in the past.”
Given that Prince’s plan – due to its deep embedding with local units – would have provided reliable information trickle-up, he is scathing about the failure by ISAF to understand ground truths about the weaknesses of the Afghan forces. That led to massive embarrassment for Western governments after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban with such surprising swiftness.
“What really disgusted me [was] all these smart people who said, “We have no idea why the Afghan forces collapsed so quickly,’” Prince said. “It’s just grossly irresponsible…they’re either incompetent, or they’re just knowingly lying.”
Off the books, under the radar
In sum, Prince would have preferred that the CIA had taken the lead in the Afghan conflict, rather than the US Armed Forces – largely due to their ability to hire and deploy private-sector and local assets.
“The better approach would have been for the Pentagon to leave, and let the [CIA] clean it up, just like they cleaned it up in the first place after 9/11, using their unique contracting authorities and their ability to operate and leave some kind of stay-behind presence,” Prince concluded.
Prince’s analysis may be simplifying the role of the gamekeeper – always a trickier job than that of the poacher. But when it comes to proxy wars – a CIA specialty – contractors can feasibly evade the kind of visibility that the high-profile US military cannot.
“A government may want more plausible deniability,” he said. “They may want to operate under the threshold of response of their opponents.”
Washington has used this approach successfully in the past, he noted.
“In the 1970s, and especially the 1980s, there was a lot of covert action activity done by the United States to counter, to push back on Soviet influence – economically, politically, culturally, socially, and somewhat even militarily,” Prince said – a likely reference to campaigns against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and against leftists in Central America.
“Those would have been done by what would have been considered “contracted forces,” he continued. “Certainly, they were probably less branded – and far more discreet – than contracted capability in the last 20 years. But they were very much contracted, nonetheless.”
His vision scans a broad strategic horizon of what the private sector can efficiently supply.
“Whether it’s offensive or defensive; cyber information messaging; propaganda operations; advising and training assets for some government security forces; whether it’s for a border police function; for infantry or counterterrorism or whatever it might be up to fully formed and functioning, conventional combat units – battlegroups with tanks, artillery, rockets, aviation support – it’s the whole thing,” he said. “So it is as old as warfare, and it will continue very much in the future, I think.’
Currently, however, Prince believes, states postured against the US may be deploying such assets more efficiently – be they cyber infiltrators taking down US institutions and companies, or maritime militias leading the charge on disputed Asia seas.
In Part Two of this interview, Prince turns his attention to Russian hybrid capabilities and Chinese strengths and weaknesses in PMC use. Finally, he addresses the ethics of the mercenary.
The raw text of AT’s interview with Prince may be read here.