Erik Prince: Q&A

Blackwater founder and former CEO Erik Prince recently spoke to Asia Times for a two-part, in-depth story: Part 1 can be read here. However, for the full convenience of readers, we also file the raw interview text, below. What spectrum of services can PMCs provide? It’s useful to look back at what was done in the past. Because that will be predictive of what can be in the future, or what will be. Here’s the thing. A contracted capacity does two things: It either fills a gap which the nation state cannot do, or will not do. I will give examples. The US Constitution actually provides for a “Letter of marque and reprisal.” That effectively is a hunting license for a private ship, with a private owner and crew, to go after enemy vessels. It was used very effectively in the American Revolution and even the War of 1812. Nine out of ten ships taken then were taken by privateers, not by government vessels per se. 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. 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. There are other examples of using contracted capacity, because a government may want more plausible deniability. They may want to operate under the threshold of response of their opponents. And that’s certainly what the Russians are doing with the Wagner Group. They can effectively extend the reach of Russian state-directed foreign policy while operating as a commercial entity. I mean, they’re really not a direct arm of the government. They’re there for resources, right? Whether they go to Libya, or Mozambique or the Central African Republic, they provide a spectrum of services. 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, fully formed and functioning, conventional combat units – battlegroups with tanks, artillery, rockets, aviation support. It’s the whole thing. So it is as old as warfare, and it will continue very much in the future, I think. You had probably a gap of less use from World War Two…the pendulum swung in the direction of Westphalian state resources, to organized militaries. So that’s what people are used to. But really, if you look at history, contracted forces are far more common. And we are talking large, standing conventional forces. The book by Philip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles: War Peace and the Course of History” talks about the growth of capabilities, from all the technology available to the individual. Think about what Google Earth does, what it puts in the palm of your hand. Or, a cell phone would be 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. And so those kind of technological advancements empower the individual, and let them operate in a faster decision loop than what the traditional government bureaucracy does. You’re going to see more and more of that. Really, the only thing that can keep up with the private sector is other private sector players. Given the breadth of technologies adopted by state-run militaries today, can PMCs keep up in the technology space? When you see the growth of the tech industry, it’s staggering…it’s wide ranging capability that had been fielded. And what you would have considered signals intelligence 30 or 40 years ago, is now certainly cyber. And because of its prevalence in our daily lives, it also creates vulnerability. And so 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. And so effectively, Russia is behaving as the old mythical pirate port of Tortuga, where the pirates would come back for re-provisioning. You have ransomware gangs operating from there, that are garnering tens of millions of dollars of earnings from ransom by plaguing the West. And, you know, the US has been, I think, very slow to respond to those assaults. China is another one that’s been very, very offensive and effective with their cyber attacks to steal intellectual property from defense contractors – or really any, any tech. And the West has been slow on the uptake in terms of defending itself and in preventing those kinds of very real, very expensive attacks, whether it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack, United States, which I think shut down gasoline supply to 17 states, to shutting down one of the largest beef processors in the world. The litany is long and continual: These kinds of cyber ransomware attac

Erik Prince: Q&A

Blackwater founder and former CEO Erik Prince recently spoke to Asia Times for a two-part, in-depth story: Part 1 can be read here. However, for the full convenience of readers, we also file the raw interview text, below.

What spectrum of services can PMCs provide?

It’s useful to look back at what was done in the past. Because that will be predictive of what can be in the future, or what will be. Here’s the thing. A contracted capacity does two things: It either fills a gap which the nation state cannot do, or will not do. I will give examples. The US Constitution actually provides for a “Letter of marque and reprisal.” That effectively is a hunting license for a private ship, with a private owner and crew, to go after enemy vessels. It was used very effectively in the American Revolution and even the War of 1812. Nine out of ten ships taken then were taken by privateers, not by government vessels per se. 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. 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.

There are other examples of using contracted capacity, because a government may want more plausible deniability. They may want to operate under the threshold of response of their opponents. And that’s certainly what the Russians are doing with the Wagner Group. They can effectively extend the reach of Russian state-directed foreign policy while operating as a commercial entity. I mean, they’re really not a direct arm of the government. They’re there for resources, right? Whether they go to Libya, or Mozambique or the Central African Republic, they provide a spectrum of services. 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, fully formed and functioning, conventional combat units – battlegroups with tanks, artillery, rockets, aviation support. It’s the whole thing. So it is as old as warfare, and it will continue very much in the future, I think.

You had probably a gap of less use from World War Two…the pendulum swung in the direction of Westphalian state resources, to organized militaries. So that’s what people are used to. But really, if you look at history, contracted forces are far more common.

And we are talking large, standing conventional forces. The book by Philip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles: War Peace and the Course of History” talks about the growth of capabilities, from all the technology available to the individual. Think about what Google Earth does, what it puts in the palm of your hand. Or, a cell phone would be 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. And so those kind of technological advancements empower the individual, and let them operate in a faster decision loop than what the traditional government bureaucracy does. You’re going to see more and more of that. Really, the only thing that can keep up with the private sector is other private sector players.

Given the breadth of technologies adopted by state-run militaries today, can PMCs keep up in the technology space?

When you see the growth of the tech industry, it’s staggering…it’s wide ranging capability that had been fielded. And what you would have considered signals intelligence 30 or 40 years ago, is now certainly cyber. And because of its prevalence in our daily lives, it also creates vulnerability. And so 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. And so effectively, Russia is behaving as the old mythical pirate port of Tortuga, where the pirates would come back for re-provisioning. You have ransomware gangs operating from there, that are garnering tens of millions of dollars of earnings from ransom by plaguing the West. And, you know, the US has been, I think, very slow to respond to those assaults. China is another one that’s been very, very offensive and effective with their cyber attacks to steal intellectual property from defense contractors – or really any, any tech. And the West has been slow on the uptake in terms of defending itself and in preventing those kinds of very real, very expensive attacks, whether it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack, United States, which I think shut down gasoline supply to 17 states, to shutting down one of the largest beef processors in the world. The litany is long and continual: 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.

A senior cybersecurity official who headed up, I think, the US Air Force’s cybersecurity efforts, said, “Well, we are losing, we have lost, we’re not going anywhere. And I’m quitting!” That was a pretty amazing statement by this guy. Large organizations have to be on their game. And they depend on the private sector, they’re not going to depend on the government to protect them.

Is a cyber security firm a PMC?

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. And he said, “I don’t want to lead an army of mercenaries.” That’s what he called the US Army – which would have been paid a market wage for their services. 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?” He was saying, basically, that if you’re not being paid a market wage for your services, then you’re a slave. And I think he makes a good point.

Calling a cybersecurity firm, a PMC? That’s probably a stretch. But if the firm is doing offensive cyber in another country, going after some opponents or a nation state or going after a cartel, that probably falls into the PMC bucket. But, you know, certainly all security firms are not created equal. And some obviously are not up to the task if these ransomware attacks are getting through and causing real economic damage.

How does a state effectively defend against these hybrid threats?

The US military has spent trillions of dollars building capacity. But the problem is, it also almost spent too much so that it has been counterproductive. It has created so much bureaucracy and so much redundancy, that it’s almost like an obese triathlete trying to run fast. It’s hard. It’s just that they’ve made it harder on themselves almost by, by overeating. Literally. We can’t operate inside the enemy OODA loop.

Has the US effectively used contractors in the military space in recent years?

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. And so those would have been done by what would have been considered “contracted forces.” Certainly, they were probably less branded, and far more discreet then and paid less attention to than to contracted capability in the last 20 years. But they were very much contracted nonetheless.

How about China and Russia?

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

Is China fielding contracted assets?

The example where you’d see them in China is with their maritime militia. And they ostensibly say “That’s just a fishing fleet.” The reality is, it’s very much under the control of the CCP, of the PLA. And 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: Is the US going to send an aircraft carrier in to try to retake an island that was garrisoned by 100 Taiwanese soldiers? Probably not. So China advances their places, their chess pieces on the map.

How has his process worked?
In my travels in China, I managed to meet the CEO – I think of China Harbor and Dredging – or similar of the state-owned enterprise that did the harbors and bridges and that did those islands they have in the South China Sea. And he said it had never been part of their strategic plan or even wish-list to build those islands. But they found the Barack Obama administration to be so easy, so vapid on the matter, that they just went for it and built those islands. And then they promised, “Well, they’re just commercial and we’re not going to militarize them.” Of course, now they’re militarized with radars, and missiles and aircraft and all the rest. And so I think that salami-slicing strategy worked there. And 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. Isn’t that Newton’s first law of motion? You don’t even know an object even moves until you put something in its way.


What is happening to protect Chinese BRI projects in geopolitically unstable parts of the world?

I would say I’m not overwhelmed, or impressed by their capability at all. It continues to be a huge vulnerability for them. They’ve tried to develop some Chinese firms. But they don’t really understand that mode, I would say an operational paradigm deficiency. 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.

So one thing the West has had to do a good job at, is community relations. 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, wherever they’re operating.

And so consistently, throughout Africa, I have seen African countries reaching out for Western development and Western capital. 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. And maybe they appear to put their hooks in well, but it’s not lasting. These are very, very sensitive areas, right. And this is causing some local resentment. And also, they’re in some pretty geo-strategically high risk areas. They hire some of the normal Western guard services that have local affiliates in those countries and a lot of cases they’re trying to develop Chinese guard services.

But even the idea of Chinese guard services being armed is a very alien concept. They are literally gun shy. I found that, even Chinese police that are armed in China, still they’re very bureaucratic. 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. And this is in the middle of a shootout! Which is why they’re very, very concerned about any kind of unrest amongst the Uighurs or any of the other ethnic minorities. Because their system does not allow them to adapt, to innovate quickly. So they tend to be very expansive with a surveillance state and just try to put a blanket around the whole thing.

That model of depending only on local guard services is kind of their default. A lot of it is almost government-to-government, these deals that they make depend on local military forces. 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 real violence or any kind of real attack those guys run, and then you’re left with an unguarded asset that they’ve spent billions of dollars on.

What is the competitive landscape? What is the market size of the PMC sector?

Basically, so what you’re asking me is to give market intelligence to all my competitors, right? Pretty much for free? (Laughs)

What went wrong in the US Afghan adventure?

Look, what worked in the first four to six months in Afghanistan after 9/11 was small, unconventional warfare units. There were not more than 100 CIA and special forces officers in the country, backed by airpower. And they blended 19th century cavalry tactics with SF guys on horseback with the Northern Alliance Afghans making a satellite radio call to a B-52, orbiting overhead with precision weapons. And they smashed the hell out of the Taliban and whatever Al Qaeda forces showed themselves, and that literally put the Taliban on the run, fearing for their lives. That worked!

Then we moved to the conventional military. In the United States, it’s all about the money. The SF community did extraordinarily well. The airpower backing them also did well. Then the conventional military came arrived, because it’s about being relevant for the budget battle in Washington DC. So the conventional army moves in and replicates the failed Soviet battle plan for the next 19 and a half years! And none of the highly pampered, highly credentialed class of generals, none of them ever called “bullshit” and said, “Stop, let’s go back to what worked.” Or, “Let’s change course, because we’re losing.” Nobody did that.

What was the Prince plan?
My suggestion was, when we were operating there as a company, I had up to 56 aircraft in the country and a couple of thousand guys doing everything from training, to aviation to mentoring. And so I said, let’s just go back to what worked under SOCOM (US Special Operations Command), let’s use SOCOM veterans, but attach them as mentors to the Afghan units. And because they can go as contractors, they’re not going to go for six months and then rotate home, never to come back. I could pay contractors to go and live with, train with and fight alongside them for years at a time. 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.

And you need reliable airpower. The first thing I learned in the SEAL teams was ‘Travel light and call in your might.’ That would have allowed a much smaller Afghan security force to move quickly and to respond aggressively and reliably.

And then the third part – what really disgusted me – all these smart people said, “We have no idea why the Afghan forces collapsed so quickly.” If they’d asked the enlisted man that spent any time with the Afghan troops, you’d understand that 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. Because in previous years, there were cases where an Afghan unit would be surrounded in their base 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. And so these poor Afghans were sitting in the base, and it got so bad that they would have to call a Kabul TV news station, pleading for someone to try to help them and of course, it didn’t come.

The US Air Force stopped bombing in June – and I knew they were, because I had friends that were doing fuel contracts. And I knew as soon as the Air Force fuel contracts went away, the Air Force was not going to be dropping bombs. And they were the only ones that did so reliably – not enough, but at least reliably. And that would allow the Taliban to go from grouping not 20 and 50 men or 200 men, but 5,000-man units. And that’s what quickly overran the country almost without firing a shot – because they play for keeps. And they say, “Look, you can surrender. And we’ll let you live. But if you resist, we’re gonna kill all of you. No questions asked.” And of course, the Afghans took that deal. So it’s just grossly irresponsible, that people say, “Well, we have no idea how that happened so quickly.” They’re either incompetent, or they’re just knowingly lying. So it’s really frustrating.

So all I all I wanted to do was provide mentors in the field attached to Afghan units with reliable airpower, so that they didn’t have to call pleading for help. And, to control the combat logistics. So they got food, fuel, ammunition and parts on time, as well as their pay, right. For the duration of the Afghan conflict an Afghan was seven times as likely to die if they got wounded as an American or NATO trooper. Men will fight harder if they know someone’s going to patch them up. If we just did those three basic things the Afghan forces would still be upright, and I would say more effective today than they were under very conventional leadership. Now, I’m not saying I’m some genius – by no means! All I’m saying is, I’m applying the same method that has worked for centuries, because it is exactly the approach the East India Company used for 200-plus years. Yeah, next door in India. This is not rocket science. This is not innovation. This is actually reading a history book, and doing what has worked in the past.

Democracies now seem unwilling to fight. Have the Russians found a solution?

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. 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.

The reason there was a big dust up in 2017, when 300-some Wagner guys were killed in Syria by the US, was 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. And there were some US SOF guys at that base, and they weren’t leaving. And so they held the line reliably, and they called in air power, which showed up in in droves. And they hammered the hell out of them.

So state players have the resources to crush non state players?
Well, in that case, yes, because they made the mistake of driving into something the US was not going to move off. And they called dozens of aircraft to respond. That is definitely not the case in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in other places where they seek to engage.

Is a PMC, a reliable proxy for a state to employ long term?

Well, let’s answer that question this way. If the genius that decided to send the US Army conventionally to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 – if you could play the tape of the next 19 and a half years for them, and said, “You can send 100,000 conventional soldiers, or you can send 3,000-4,000 contractors for the next decade to sort this out.” Which one would they have gone for? So, I answer that question with a question. Can anyone with a functioning brain look at the US experience in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan and say, “Yeah, that’s great. Let’s do that again.” Of course a PMC would have been a more viable effective option for long term stability.

Why did the US turn your solution down?

I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in May 2017 for an audience of one: I wanted one person to read it. And it worked. President Donald Trump read it, sitting at the Oval Office desk. And I’m told this by someone that was in the room. He called in his National Security Adviser, who had just asked to send 70,000 more troops to Afghanistan. That was HR McMaster, a serving three-star, army, tank officer, armor guy. Trump wanted to end endless wars. And Trump said, “I don’t like your plan, I like this one” – pointing to the Journal article. And he said, “Do this.”

So the next day, I get a call from McMaster’s office: Please come in and brief him on what my thoughts were. And McMaster dumped on the idea from the very outset, because he is a product of the Pentagon – of 25 years of conventional thinking. For the Pentagon it was absolutely, absolutely out of limits, and could not even be considered. I managed to make it to the Pentagon to brief Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said at a Security Cabinet meeting, that my analysis of the root problems were the best he saw, but he just could not accept contractors doing it.

So the problem with President Trump is he surrounded himself with a constellation of very conventional generals, between the National Security Adviser; the Secretary of Defense, who was effectively a 5-star Marine; John Kelly his White House chief of staff was another Marine 4-star, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford another Marine 4-star. And so again, all that conventional thinking. I think if Mike Flynn had been still the National Security Adviser, there would have been a different paradigm pursued in Afghanistan, because he realized that the last 18 years at that point, were a disaster and a different tack had to be taken.

Ultimately, I knew it would be impossible for the Pentagon to stomach that.  When the US went to Afghanistan after 9/11, they went under Title 50 Authorities – which is how the CIA operates versus Title 10, which is how the Pentagon operates.

And when the US went to get Bin Laden in Pakistan, that was under Title 50 authorities, because Pakistan we were not at war with. And so the better approach would have been for the Pentagon to leave, and let the agency 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. What I offered the president was rejected by the very conventional Washington bureaucracy surrounding him.

What is your red line – who would you not work for? China?

Since this is the Asia Times, I think it’s appropriate to point out the most famous and I would argue some of the most effective private military contractors of last century: The Flying Tigers.

You had the Imperial Japanese Army and Air Force terrorizing Chinese cities. And the Chinese did not have an effective air force, the Nationalist Chinese. And so they looked for help. The US was not able to get directly involved. So President Roosevelt signed a secret executive order allowing Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps pilots to take leave of their jobs and go to work for a Shanghai-based company.

The Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company was led by a guy named Claire Chenault, a retired US Army Air Corps pilot. And he paid them very well. And they racked up kill ratios that were even lauded by Winston Churchill, who was saying that the actions of the Flying Tigers were comparable in scope and character with those of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. And we know how indispensable the RAF were in defending British cities from bombing. Same for the Flying Tigers. They operated in combat for 11 months, then the US was in the war. And they were subsumed back into the Army Air Corps carrying on their job. So again, a very real, very recent and very practical application where a national power could not do something, because of politics in this case, but they did a hell of a good thing letting the Flying Tigers do their job.

That being said: I’m an American. My family is American. And I am a big believer in Western civilization. I will do my damnedest to defend it.

How big can PMCs go?

Look back at history, at the contest in India between the French and the British. There were uniformed ground combat forces. There were vessels There was a full spectrum of activity. I bring up the Flying Tigers to show that a private company develops innovative tactics to fight Japanese aircraft. After Pearl Harbor, the first guy the US Army Air Corps talked to was Claire Chennault because he had figured out, even with less agile planes, how to fight effectively against Japanese Zeros. 

Governments do not have a monopoly on innovation and tactical application in the next-phase generation of warfare. I am just pointing to historical references. I’m not going to give you examples of what could be in the future. Wagner fielded full on battalions and battle groups in Syria, for ground combat, to include artillery, and armor and rockets.

Many would say PMC are highly unethical undertakings. What is your response?

Take cancer. 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. People that are able to stabilize an absolutely lawless place – where murder, rape, Islamic terrorism, whatever the evil, whatever the source of mayhem – people there are genuinely thankful we’re doing so right?

My old friends at [South African PMC] Executive Outcomes were hired to stop the Revolutionary United Front from slaughtering thousands of innocent people in Sierra Leone. They were not even driven by any kind of jihad, there were just criminal gangs who had perfected “long sleeve” or “short sleeve” amputations, or locking people in churches and burning them. When the first 60 Executive Outcomes guys arrived and started driving through the city to meet the enemy, they were cheered by the people because somebody had at last showed up to defend them.

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