Masked Russian special forces troops pose at an unidentified location. Russia's multiplicity of special forces and airborne units means it has a wide variety of former troops available on the contract market. Photo: Spetnaz Alpha / Wikimedia Commons

Few are more familiar with the private military contractor, or PMC, sector than Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

Despite his strong advocacy of private, rather than national militaries, and his passionate criticism of US defeats in recent campaigns – detailed in Part 1 of this interview – Prince considers himself a US patriot.

Given this, he is concerned about America’s eroding capabilities in unconventional conflict – capabilities that could, feasibly, contain combat before it spirals up to the state-versus-state level.

While the CIA effectively managed proxy wars in the 1970s and1980s using non-state assets, Prince reckons America’s competitors are now more effective players on the global gray-zone chessboard than is the US. 

Pawns in the game include such usefully deniable assets as Moscow’s non-flagged soldiers, active in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, and Beijing’s “Maritime Militia,” active in the South and East China Seas.

“The Chinese and the Russians have been using a hybrid capability to constantly up the amount of pressure that they can exert and the influence they can garner, while still falling just below the threshold of response by the United States,” he said. “That’s an effective use of hybrid capability and until the United States gets smarter and more synched to respond to those things, that model of foreign policy will, I think, continue to be exploited by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Photo: Erik Prince

From Russia, without love

The most high-profile of current Russian PMCs is engaged in this “below-the-threshold” activity.

Wagner Group – or Gruppa Wagnera, named after the fighting name of its Russian founder and, in turn, the composer of many martial operas, Richard Wagner – “can effectively extend the reach of Russian state-directed foreign policy while operating as a commercial entity. They’re really not a direct arm of the government,” Prince said.

Wagner is one of the most shadowy and dangerous PMCs on earth. Reporters who have attempted to cover it have met grim fates, and as of this December, it has been sanctioned by the EU for human rights abuses.

Prince reckons the firm is effective and wide-ranging, both geographically and operationally.

Citing Wagner presence in both north and sub-Saharan Africa, Prince said, “they provide a spectrum of services.” While a useful cloud of opacity shrouds their sponsorship and direction, they operate in resource-rich locations.

“The Wagner guys are performing as a resource-seeking company. I don’t know that they have any state sponsorship per se, they might have some government contracts here and there,” Prince said. “But when they go to the Central African Republic, or they go to Mozambique, or they go to Syria, they are seeking hydrocarbons, they’re seeking gold, they’re seeking minerals.”

It is strongly alleged by media that Wagner has also been engaged in the coal-rich, Russian-speaking Donbass republics that have broken away from Kiev’s governance. It was a potential resource grab in Syria that led to the biggest news storm ever to break over Wagner.

That happened when the PMC, highly unusually, raised its head above the threshold – triggering a kinetic US response.

In February 2018, a battlegroup of pro-Damascus forces, complete with armor and artillery, and led or manned by – reports are contradictory – Wagner contractors, advanced on an oil field near Khasham, on the Euphrates. The area was held by Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the United States. In the clash that followed, rolling US air strikes decimated the attackers. The number of Russian contractors killed is unknown; estimates range from the tens to the hundreds. 

“They were going after an oilfield which had been producing up to 400,000 barrels a day. They wanted to capture that oil production and sell it,” Prince alleged. “There were some US Special Operations Force guys at that base, and they weren’t leaving. They hammered the hell out of them.”

That rare clash has not been repeated. However, Western-facing operations originating from the Russian domain are not limited to Wagner’s warriors – and these cloudier activities are exerting a far greater dollar price.

“When you look at the ransomware attacks that continue to plague the United States, and the West, about 60% of those are traced back to actual IP addresses in Russia,” he said.

Prince, who likes to reach back into history, seizes on to a parallel.

“Effectively, Russia is behaving as the old mythical pirate port of Tortuga, where the pirates would come back for re-provisioning,” he said. “You have ransomware gangs operating from there, that are garnering tens of millions of dollars of earnings by plaguing the West.”

Arguing that “the West has been slow on the uptake in terms of defending itself and in preventing those kinds of very real, very expensive attacks,” he cited successful breaches of cyber security on energy pipelines and beef processors: “The litany is long and continual.”

But are these hybrid war operations? Or simply cyber criminals at work? Prince concedes that much is opaque.

“These kinds of cyber ransomware attacks in some cases are maybe sponsored or encouraged by a state, but in many cases, it’s just criminals operating in a truly ungoverned gray area,” he admitted.

Even so, the military risks are real and the US Armed Forces may not be handling them effectively.

In a high-profile resignation in September, the US Air Force’s first-ever software chief, Nicolas Chaillan quit. According to a US Air Force publication, he was frustrated with bureaucratic inefficiencies and silos dividing different areas of the armed forces.

‘He said, ‘Well, we are losing, we have lost, we’re not going anywhere, and I’m quitting,’” Prince said. “That was a pretty amazing statement.”

Transitioning that learning from the military to the private sector, Prince added, “Large organizations have to be on their game, and they depend on the private sector. They’re not going to depend on the government.”

While Prince is wary about labeling cyber security firms PMCs, when it comes to offensive use of cyber capabilities he – like many Americans – points the finger across the Pacific.

Russia-backed separatist fighters in Ukraine. There is considerable opacity about the identify, origin, leadership and payment of many of these unflagged troops. Photo: US Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

Chinese strengths …

“China is another one that’s been very, very offensive and effective with their cyber attacks to steal intellectual property from defense contractors,” he said. He adds, “Or, really, any tech.”

While US industries have long bewailed Chinese theft of IP, Chaillan, after his resignation from his US Air Force position, warned Americans that China is winning the AI race – a race whose ramifications extend beyond the industrial space and into the security arena. Chaillan told Forbes that the convergence of physical and virtual “is the next defense battle ground for the US and especially China in the next 10 years.” 

China has been successful not just at capturing tech, but also capturing terrain – notably in the South China Sea. There a deniable, PMC-style force has, Prince alleges, been operating with extreme effectiveness: China’s so-called “Maritime Militia.”

While Beijing may ostensibly say, “’That’s just a fishing fleet!’ the reality is, it’s very much under the control of the CCP, or the PLA,” Prince said of allegedly state-controlled fishing fleets, which deploy to sensitive waters. “They’ve used that to seize and occupy islands belonging to the Philippines and I think that’s a trial run for what they would do to some of the smaller Taiwanese islands – to see what the threshold of responses from the United States is going to be.”

He warns that this kind of force is exactly what the Pentagon’s conventional assets – notably, its nuclear submarine, naval aviation-centric blue-ocean fleet – are unprepared to respond to.

“Is the US going to send an aircraft carrier in to try to retake an island that was garrisoned by 100 Taiwanese soldiers?” he asked. “Probably not! So China advances their places, their chess pieces on the map.”

And he claims that it is US ineffectiveness, rather than simply Chinese aggression, that is at play in contested Asia waters.

Prince, in 2014, founded and listed Frontier Services Group, a security, aviation, and logistics company partially owned by CITIC Group, a Beijing-owned fund. That offered him the opportunity to travel in, and meet senior executives, in various sectors across China.

One of those was the CEO of a state-owned enterprise in the harbor and dredging sector that had been engaged in Beijing’s build-up on disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea. 

“He said it had never been part of [Beijing’s] strategic plan or even wish-list to build those islands,” Prince recalled. “But they found the Barack Obama administration to be so easy, so vapid on the matter, that they just went for it.”Once the assets were in hand, any pretense of non-state intervention was ditched.

“They promised, ‘Well, they’re just commercial and we’re not going to militarize them,’” Prince said. “Of course, now they’re militarized with radars, and missiles and aircraft and all the rest.”

The fait accompli represents a major – and bloodless – strategic win for China.

ASEAN is virtually toothless, while American counters have been largely restricted to “freedom of navigation” operations – which do nothing to challenge actual occupation/ownership of the bases.

Prince is scathing about American failures to formulate proportionate responses. This inability at creative, below-the-radar counters is particularly problematic given the flashpoint status of the Taiwan Strait.

“Unless the United States gets more innovative in their own options to push back hard, in an unconventional way that does not involve an aircraft carrier and the risks that it takes to escalate into a nuclear war, then that kind of salami slicing will continue aggressively,” he said.

Yet while Beijing may have been effective at operating offensively in the cyberspace and the South China Sea, Prince sees defensive vulnerabilities emerging as China expands its global reach.

A Japanese Coast Guard vessel chases a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands in November 2011. It is widely alleged that Beijing is weaponizing fishing fleets for strategic ends in disputed waters. Photo: AFP /Japan Coast Guard / Jiji Press

… Chinese weaknesses

With Beijing’s Belt-and-Road initiative spanning multiple unstable regions in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere, the problem arises of physically securing assets and personnel. In this area of operations, Beijing is hampered both by its lack of long experience in overseas ventures and its bureaucratic modus operandi.

“I would say I’m not overwhelmed, or impressed by their [security] capability at all,” Prince said. “It continues to be a huge vulnerability for them.”

One problem seen in BRI activities on distant shores is overt Sinicization.

“I would say it’s an operational paradigm deficiency,” he said. “They take everything with them from China: When they build a mine, or an oilfield project or something, they take the laborers, the cook, the guy who cuts hair. And so it really enrages the locals, because they’re not getting the employment, their crops aren’t getting purchased.”

In this, he offers some rare praise for Western practice.

“One thing the West has had to do a good job at, is community relations,” he said. “Because, you know, that Western company not only has to answer to shareholders, but other civil society groups that monitor if they’re not being a good citizen.”

Prince’s observation is that African countries are “reaching out for Western development and Western capital.” But, he says, “The Chinese do ‘black bag’ diplomacy very well – and they will pay off the senior officials in a country, and load up the debt on that country.”

Prince – like other critics of Chinese BRI activities – thinks hostility is mounting. “These are very, very sensitive areas, right, and this is causing some local resentment,” he said.

In Pakistan, 14 Chinese have been killed in two separate attacks this year – one bomb blast, one gun attack – and protection appears inadequate.

“They hire some of the normal Western guard services that have local affiliates in those countries,” he said. “And in a lot of cases they’re trying to develop Chinese guard services.”

The latter are problematic as the habitual rules of engagement that work within the Chinese domestic environment will not transition to the more lawless frontier spaces that BRI traverses.

“The idea of Chinese guard services being armed is a very alien concept: They are literally gun shy,” Prince said. Citing policing practices in China, he said, “One guy can carry the pistol, the other guy has to carry the magazine, and they have to call back to headquarters to ask permission to hand the magazine to the guy with the gun. This is in the middle of a shootout!”

He warns that Beijing may collide with the same problem that led to Western defeat in Afghanistan: Over-reliance on corrupt local players.

“A lot of [Chinese security efforts are] almost government-to-government; these deals that they make depend on local military forces,” he said. “When you are making that deal, it is with a military force that doesn’t really exist – because the men are not paid on time, they have barely any training, there’s no accountability for the weapons – so it’s no wonder that at the first sign of any kind of real attack, those guys run, and then you’re left with an unguarded asset that you’ve spent billions of dollars on.”

Afghan security personnel and militia fighting against Taliban stand guard in Enjil district of Herat province on July 30, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

The morality of the mercenary

While he discussed Chinese, Russian and US capabilities, Prince declined to discuss the broader competitive landscape of the PMC sector.

“Basically, so what you’re asking me is to give market intelligence to all my competitors, right?” he asked, laughing.” Pretty much for free?”

It is a field in flux, but unquestionably, there was a time when the sector was swimming in cash.

In 1997, Prince founded Blackwater, which would go on to become arguably the leading PMC in the West after the US waded into a two-front, long war against Islamic terrorists and local insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.

In those physically dusty and morally fuzzy struggles, Washington wielded a professional military that was smaller in manpower terms than the conscript forces that had fought the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, it also controlled the treasury of the world’s richest economy.

To fill the gaps of its over-stretched military, Washington outsourced services, ranging from personal security to ration delivery, to Blackwater and multiple competitors. That supposedly freed up the public sector military to do the fighting – albeit with questionable strategies.

While that struggle was underway the dollars flowed in, in tranches of tens of millions, to the private sector.

Blackwater would guard US diplomats and diplomatic compounds in Iraq – and in the US, even deployed rescue teams during Hurricane Katrina. But it won notoriety when a group of contractors were killed in Fallujah in 2004, leading to a costly battle in the city being fought by US Marines. Infamy followed in 2007 when Blackwater contractors killed 14 Iraqi civilians, raising questions over the ethics and accountabilities of PMC use – questions which remain unanswered.

Though profit-seeking military forces may be as old as conflict, they have likely never faced as many legal and ethical questions as they do today. On the moral questions hanging over the sector, Prince is florid.

“Take cancer,” he said. “Doctors have to do difficult things, like cutting out cancer, and radiation, and chemotherapy. And we thank them for trying to heal a bad situation.”

He extended his argument to conflict geographies, citing the deployment of South African PMC Executive Outcomes to Sierra Leone to take on the hyper-violent Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, militia, in 1995.

“They were not even driven by jihad, there were just criminal gangs who had perfected ‘long sleeve’ or ‘short sleeve’ amputations, or locking people in churches and burning them,” Prince said.  

Having suffered such depredations, local civilians cheered arriving contractors. 

“You know what? If they want to call us mercenaries for doing that – fine! I wear that title with pride!” Prince said. “And those credentialed senior military officers and so-called defense experts typing on their computers, throwing scorn on people who solve problems like this – well! I’d say they should go interview the people that have been rescued from that kind of affliction.”

He reaches back into history to offer one more example of a PMC that fought in the greatest war in history, with US government backing, and won the plaudits of perhaps the most iconic figure in that struggle.

“Since this is the Asia Times, I think it’s appropriate to point out the most famous, and some of the most effective, private military contractors of the last century,” he said.

The “Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company” was manned by American PMCs who deployed to Nationalist China, which lacked air assets, eight months before the United States officially joined the war against Japan in December 1941. Its personnel came from US uniformed services; they joined under an executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Once battle commenced, the CAMC became known as The Flying Tigers. “They racked up kill ratios that were lauded even by Winston Churchill,” Prince said.

The unit represents “a recent and very practical application where a national power could not do something – because of politics, in this case,” Prince said. In the absence of national response, the Flying Tigers, “did a hell of a good thing.”

To read the full, unedited text of Prince’s interview with Asia Times, please click here.

While many consider modern PMCs to be dangerous and unaccounantable ‘dogs of war,’ Erik Prince likes to compare them to the World War II ‘Flying Tigers – contracted US airmen who fought for Nationalist China before the US declared war upon imperial Japan. Photo: Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation