20 December 2018

How great powers use retired special operations forces’ (SOF) expertise. Is military privatization a solution?

Daniel Ilie

If the military privatization project proposals have a solid “Business case” , the politicians accept the implicit costs, risks and benefits, and the society admits the legitimacy of private security firms as important players in the areas of defense and security, then we will most likely see legal private armed forces (which will exploit retired SOF operational experience and abilities) that will no longer be labelled ”mercenaries”.

Image source: Mediafax

America’s stance

Just over a year ago, some US officials feared President Trump might be on the side of Erik Prince, a former US Navy SEAL member and founder of controversial Blackwater security company (renamed at least twice, now called Academi) in his repeated efforts to persuade the US administration of the need to "privatize" the war in Afghanistan. Against the backdrop of the US President's frustrations about the seemingly weak results of the US strategy in Afghanistan, which were also confirmed in the 40th Quarterly Report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released at the end of July 2018, trying to exploit this opportunity, Prince started past August a new campaign to promote his bold idea of ​​"privatizing" the war in Afghanistan.

Overall, he wants to replace, with significantly lower costs, claims Prince, the missions the US military are conducting in Afghanistan, with advise and accompany Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) activities in support of their efforts to deter and defend against internal and transnational threats to stability, conducted by private security companies employing mainly veterans former SOF.

Private security companies would work, according to Prince’s plan, for a US special  envoy for ”war” in Afghanistan, who should report directly to the US president. In September, The Military Times[i] published a comprehensive article outlining the sketch of Prince's $ 5.5 billion annual plan.

But who is Erick Prince[ii]? As he presents himself, he is an American entrepreneur, philanthropist, military veteran, and private equity investor with business interests in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America in the field of logistics, aviation, production, natural resource development and energy, and Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Frontier Services Group, since 2014. He is the founder and chairman of Frontier Resource Group, a private equity firm, active across the African continent in areas such as exploration, mining and energy development. Prince is the founder of Blackwater, a global private security company, which he sold in 2010 after successfully growing the company over the course of more than a decade into the premier provider of global security and logistics solutions to the United States Government and others. In addition, the business man purchased Presidential Airways in 2003 and grew it from a one-plane operation into a global logistics and aviation business with over 70 fixed and rotary wing aircraft operating in Africa, the Middle East and North America, that he sold in 2010. He served in the US Military as a Navy SEAL officer until 1996 and is the brother of US Secretary for Education, Betsy DeVos.

Looking at the hundreds of billions of dollars (nearly $ 1 trillion) spent in the last 17 years with the war in Afghanistan, such solutions appear to be effective, at least in terms of financial costs. But the question is, has anyone even been conducting a thorough cost-benefit analysis in this regard? According to The Military Times, Prince claims that he can execute this mission with an annual budget of $3,5 billion for contractors, aircrafts, logistics warehouses and the field hospitals, and another $2 million for the 2,000 US SOF, who would, according to the plan, remain in the lead of the new mission, would provide the unilateral capabilities [most likely under the umbrella of the US Operation Freedom's Santinel] to execute direct actions (one of SOF’s missions[iii]) and would pursue quality assurance by the outsourced elements. We may therefore conclude that, in fact, it is not even about a total "privatization" of the US contribution to Afghanistan, but rather a significant reduction in the footprint of its own military forces in the theater of operations.

The idea of ​​"privatization", although interesting and worth considering, to a certain extent, will have to face many moral but mostly legal barriers. We have to remember that the US is part of a NATO-led Coalition in Afghanistan and operates under a security agreement, the so-called Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) signed between NATO and Afghanistan. Broadly, SOFA specifies the legal framework in which a country's armed forces operate in a foreign country, determining how the host nation's national laws apply to the staff of the foreign country while stationing and operating in that territory. One of the most important issues addressed by such an agreement is that of the host country's right to exercise criminal jurisdiction over foreign personnel operating on its territory but without affecting or diminishing the inherent right of defense of the parties under the law of war.

According to NATO SOFA[iv] in force, "Afghanistan retains the right to exercise jurisdiction over NATO contractors and their employees.” Will the US Government accept that its citizens, who work for the achievement of their geo-political, geo-strategic and economic objectives, to be subject to such provisions in the event of replacing the footprint of their armed forces by such private military companies? Many of the former and current US officials have been opposing to such an idea of privatizing the armed forces, for almost ten years now, calling on arguments like the ones just mentioned. In the case of US contractors, as former US Ambassador to Afghanistan (2005-2007) Ronald Neumann[v] states, they cannot be under any American jurisdiction in this theater of operations, "There is no procedure to have them [American contractors] under US law. "

As a former NATO military, when it comes to private firms that could take on the roles of the armed forces, I am tempted to think in terms of military capability that, at least in theory, should be meant to carry out a particular mission in order to to get a certain effect. And, according to NATO, the latter will have to include the following notions: Doctrine, Organization, Training, Material, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, Interoperability, which Allies use them under the acronym DOTMLPFI. They are essential to the accomplishment of the missions and obviously raise a multitude of questions to which those who will eventually analyze and decide what will be the status of such private security companies will have to find answers. Below I will list just a few.

If and what doctrine will be used by private security companies when it comes to conducting strategic, operational and tactical military actions? A recent article published on a RAND[vi] blog concludes that the private security companies do not operate on a doctrine basis, but rather on company policies and procedures.

Will these companies contribute to the strategic planning process? What operational planning process will they implement and use?

At present, even if the main mission of the coalition forces deployed in Afghanistan is to provide train, assist, and advice support to army corps like level structures, and only those conducted by SOF could be to counsel, as appropriate, at the tactical level, any mission that requires leaving the operating base is based on the approval of a concept of operations (CONOP).This is basically a plan that clearly and concisely describes what the commander of the force intends to accomplish and how he will do so by using the resources at his disposal. It encompasses the rules of engagement in combat, describes each movement the troops will make, specifies the support that troops will benefit to conduct missions, establishes the force protection measures and the operation security measures, it explains how the communication links and their secrecy will be done, the way of cooperation and synchronization with the other actors (the blue forces) of the theater of operations, it describes the support plan, it establishes contingency measures, it analysis and establishes measures to mitigate the risks to force and to mission, the consequences management measures, etc. Who will then have the authority and will take responsibility for approving such a plan?

What would be the place and role of a private security company in the command and control architecture (C2) from the strategic level to the tactical when it comes to organizing the mission?

What model of training will be adopted as long as private security companies do not comply with a doctrine, but rather with their own procedures?

Which equipping strategy will be applied as long as the armaments control rules imply a multitude of restrictions on private firms and where, at any rate, the operation and the provision of the integrated logistics support throughout the lifecycle of technical systems, along with technological advances, will remain two complex and resource-intensive activities? How will they have access to sophisticated military equipment, weapons and munitions? How will their right and obligations to wear uniform be regulated, as well as the right to wear and use weaponry?

I was writing in a previous article[vii] that “for SOF, the difference between a successful operation and a failed one is, most of the times, a matter of accuracy of the available intelligence”. If a private security company wants to replicate, at a similar competence level, the execution of the special operations, will this, for instance, have access to military intelligence? If so, are there any procedures already in place for civilian access to classified information at the level required by the specific and sometimes strategic importance of missions? Or, do we also privatize the military intelligence, maybe?

How will, for instance, the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and close air support (CAS) capabilities be generated and operationalized (manned with specialised personnel, equipped, trained, maintained and operated)? If you actually owned the respective platforms, it would take you a long time to find specialists to use them, or to train and maintain other potential operators. Not to mention the moral and, above all, legal issues related to the use of intelligence collection technologies, such as, for example, listening to and recording phone calls? Existing Afghan capabilities will be used, someone might answer.

Well, one of the reasons why the war in Afghanistan lasts more than 17 years is that the ANDSF lack such capabilities and, among other things, they need support even in this area.

The latest SIGAR quarterly reports and General Lieutenant (US) Kenneth McKenzie Jr.[viii], who is about to be appointed as the new commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), say it.

Regarding the leadership, hierarchy and staff, the military personnel in general make an oath by swearing the homeland's faith, swearing to defend it at the price of supreme sacrifice, and committing itself to obeying the constitution, laws and military regulations. Will staff in private security companies make such an oath? If so, to whom? To the one with whom he has a contract of employment, to the client with whom the company has signed a service contract? Is that enough? How do you force a civilian who is not technically in a war situation (Afghanistan mission is, however, a stabilization and reconstruction one) to execute a mission, even at the cost of life? Is it sufficient only a consistent life insurance to guarantee a decent living for one’s successors, afterwards? How will he bear the costs when, because of him, the mission ended with a failure of serious consequences? Would you pay cut him, fire him, prosecute him to a court-martial? Based on what laws will he be judged? Are all of these sufficient measures?

And these are just a few of the many questions that decision-makers will have to identify answers to eventually make a decision on the opportunity of "privatizing" the war in Afghanistan, in this case.

To some of these questions the founder of Blackwater has provided some interesting answers, at the beginning of September 2018, briefly, in an interview exclusively for The Military Times. Here’s what Prince proposed:

  • The end of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. Prince believes his private security company will replace the conventional NATO forces [in fact the entire coalition forces] in the theater of operations, and the NATO-led mission will not be necessary anymore. It is not known, however, if members of the coalition agree with this proposal, obviously each of the contributing countries in fact pursuing a strategic interest when they decided to be part of the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan;
  • The replacement of the current contributors to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan: those approximately 60,000 participants in the theater of operations (23,000 multinational force members and 27,000 contractors) will be replaced with a footprint of less than 6,000 contractors (60% former US SOF members and 40% former NATO SOF members) and 2,000 US SOF members. Prince hopes, therefore, that the mission will no longer be altered by multiple national limitations and caveats;
  • Command and control (C2): the 2,000 US SOF that would augment the 6,000 contractors “would remain the lead element and provide US unilateral direct-action capabilities, and provide quality assurance over any contracted elements”, said Prince;
  • No rotations: the civil contractors will continue to stay with the Afghan units they are about to counsel, for three years, giving up on troops rotational cycle, specific to military units. The members of the new private forces from Afghanistan would have 30 days off after each 90 days spent with the Afghan partners. [It remains to be seen if such personnel costs will actually decrease, if they will still be paid and be discounted for their transport costs on their days off];
  • A private air force: around 2,000 contractors will operate an aviation fleet with MEDEVAC, CAS, and helicopter air assets and run two western-style combat surgical hospitals that would also treat wounded Afghan soldiers [Without such capabilities, the success rate in attracting, recruiting and retaining SOF veteran staff will be very low];
  • A fraction of the costs:  Prince said he could execute this mission on a annually budget of roughly $5,5 billion. Specifically, $3,5 billion for the contractors, aircrafts, warehouses for logistics and the field hospitals; about $2 billion for the 2,000 US SOF [I just think that only a neutral and comprehensive audit process could confirm if these costs were correctly estimated];
  • Accountability: the contractors and the military forces would both be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Afghan law. [It is to bee seen if, especially for US SOF soldiers, the US administration will accept such a proposal]. Each aircraft would also have an Afghan crew member who would be the one to fire munitions, not the contractor. “A JAG (Judge Advocate General) element, similar to what’s assigned now for US Forces, would have jurisdiction over the US and foreign contracted personnel. Any investigation and trials would be conducted in Afghanistan. Any incarceration would be their home country of citizenship or US as acceptable”, says Prince.
  • Long-term care in case of injury: Prince thinks the contractors will be covered by the Defence Base Act Insurance, which covers the full medical treatment, evacuation and lost wages.

The ideas are not bad and deserve to be taken into account but, as I have already mentioned, the analysis of the opportunity of possible "privatization" of the war in Afghanistan will have to be much deeper and include all the stakeholders interested in the outcomes of such a project, and in terms of strategic interests it should have a very strong "business case”. The problem is that in any project, the different stakeholders have and follow their own "business case”. One of them is Prince, a successful entrepreneur (even if controversial) who in recent years has repeatedly advocated his point of view trying to influence in his favour a final decision.

Russia’s stance

All this time, the Russians seem to have studied and found some solutions to the above questions. And the existence of a company such as Wagner Group, a private security firm that was active in Ukraine and Syria, deployed in the so-called "Gray Zone", even with its latest failures in Syria in 2018, seems to prove this.

In an article called “Continuing War by Other Means’: The Case of Wagner, Russia’s Premier Private Military Company in the Middle East”[ix], Sergey Sukhankin mentions that Russian military writers and theorists have developed an understanding of private security firms that differ essentially from the Western perspective, namely, in contrast to Western views, for Russia, these firms occupy a position equal to the regular armed forces in the battlefield and are playing an increasingly important role in a conflict zone. Moreover, it seems that the state is, in fact, the main stakeholder interested and coordinating the activities of private security companies.

According to the article, Wagner Group has a supreme commander, former head of the GRU, has access to training techniques and resources used by Russian military forces, operators are equipped with state-of-the-art infantry weapons (some reports mention that they had T-72 Tanks, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and 122 mm caliber D-30 howitzers). Prior to their deployment in the theater of operations, the staff go through a comprehensive 2-month training phase on the Molkino Training center of the GRU's 10th Special Forces Brigade (the recent modernization of the site was funded by the Russian Defense Ministry).

The C2 architecture, accompanied by clear and defined roles and responsibilities within the Wagner Group, follows a model inspired by the Russian Armed Forces structure with an organizational structure allowing it to perform offensive missions or operations usually performed by regular armed forces, allowing Moscow to continue to rely on irregular assets of war and to be able to frequently use the leverage of "plausible deniability".

Instead of a conclusion

Only a day after US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (who opposes the creation of a private military force in Afghanistan) asked the international community Monday December 4, 2018 to help end the war in Afghanistan, USCENTCOM's upcoming commander (US Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr.) confirmed to congressmen that he has no idea when US troops might retreat completely from Afghanistan arguing that the ANDSF are still largely dependent on the coalition's support for their combat missions across the country.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, US President Donald Trump defended the continued US military presence in Afghanistan as critical to national security and promised to visit US troops stationed there “at the right time”[x].

In such a context, where even the US President has refined his stance on the presence of the US in Afghanistan, and in a situation where a number of politicians, diplomats and non-governmental organizations (eg the Human Rights Watch[xi]) are firmly opposing any “privatization” projects for the war in Afghanistan, the chances of success of such a project appear to be rather low.

Looking closely at the situation and noting the results that were not very satisfactory after the US contribution of more than 17 years in Afghanistan, which required a total cost of nearly $ 1 trillion, Prince immediately saw the business opportunity and, as any visionary entrepreneur, he has been trying to take advantage of it to the most.

The different way in which Russia sees and tests in combat private military companies like Wagner Group (which has expanded globally and is already present in Sudan and the Central African Republic) can give us some insights into the role that such actors might play in the future in the defense and security areas.

If the military privatization project proposals have a solid “Business case”, the politicians accept the implicit costs, risks and benefits, and the society admits the legitimacy of private security firms as important players in the areas of defense and security, then we will most likely see legal private armed forces (which will exploit retired SOF operational experience and abilities) that will no longer be labelled ”mercenaries”.


[i] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2018/09/05/heres-the-blueprint-for-erik-princes-5-billion-plan-to-privatize-the-afghanistan-war/

[ii] http://www.fsgroup.com/en/team.html

[iii] http://www.fsgroup.com/en/team.html

[iv] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_116072.htm?selectedLocale=en

[v] https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2017/08/06/erik-princes-private-air-force-in-afghanistan-faces-many-legal-hurdles/

[vi] https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/08/is-it-a-good-idea-to-privatize-the-war-in-afghanistan.html

[vii] https://monitorulapararii.ro/fortele-pentru-operatii-speciale-in-campul-de-lupta-modern-1-6072


[ix] https://jamestown.org/program/continuing-war-by-other-means-the-case-of-wagner-russias-premier-private-military-company-in-the-middle-east/

[x] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/11/27/president-trumps-full-washington-post-interview-transcript-annotated/?utm_term=.fd769292f607

[xi] https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/03/privatizing-war-afghanistan-endangers-civilians