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Part 1: Profit comes with a price
By David Isenberg

The unfolding scandal of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharib and other Iraqi prisons, and the involvement of personnel from private companies in the jails, has cast a new wrinkle on the subject of private military companies.

But it is hardly the first one. Even before the killing and desecration of the corpses of four members of Blackwater USA in Fallujah at the end of March, which helped trigger an offensive by US Marines into the city, setting off the bloodiest fighting of the war, the past several months have seen increased attention and publicity paid to the activities and role of private contractors in Iraq; specially those providing security and military functions.

Much of the coverage of these firms, generally called private military companies (PMC) has been heated and more than a little sensationalistic. It is almost an unwritten rule nowadays to characterize PMC as corporate mercenaries, despite the fact that they have almost nothing in common with the image of mercenaries depicted in popular culture, or the mercenaries of the last days of the colonial era, such as "Mad" Mike Hoare and Bob Denard.

Indeed, PMC are hardly new. The history of warfare is inextricably linked with individuals going off to fight or provide combat services for someone outside their community. Almost anyone can name examples from history, Greek and Roman recruitment of hired units, European free companies during the Hundred Years war, Italian Condotierri, Hessians in the American Revolution, Swiss mercenary units including the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, which continues to this day, the Dutch and English East India Companies, to name a few

The current PMC sector, by even the most narrow interpretation, dates back at least 15 years to when the then little-known South African firm, Executive Outcomes, started gaining world attention for its battlefield prowess against Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola.

One US Department of Defense (DoD) guide notes:
The use of civilian contractors for support within the US military is not new. Up to World War II, support from the private sector was common. The primary role of contractors was simple logistics support, such as transportation, medical services, and provisioning. As the Vietnam conflict unfolded, the role of the contractor began to change. The increasing technical complexity of military equipment and hardware drove the Services to rely on contractors as technical specialists, and they worked side by side with deployed military personnel. Several factors have driven this expanded role for contractors:

  • Downsizing of the military following the Gulf War.
  • Growing reliance on contractors to support the latest weapons and provide lifetime support for the systems.
  • DoD-sponsored move to outsource or privatize functions to improve efficiency and free up funds for sustainment and modernization programs.
  • Increased operating tempos.
    Today contractor logistics support is routinely imbedded in most major systems maintenance and support plans. Unfortunately, military operational planners have not been able to keep up with the growing involvement of contractors.
  • Another paper, prepared for a military conference, noted:
    The notion, much less the requirement, of placing contractors on the battlefield is the cumulative effect of reduced government spending, force reductions/government downsizing, privatization of duties historically performed by the military, low retention rates - particularly in high technology positions, reliance upon increasingly complex technology, higher mission requirements, low military salaries, and recruitment shortfalls all within a booming economy and budgetary surplus projections.
    It is true, however, that the PMC sector has been undergoing a significant quantitative and qualitative shift over the past decade. Many of the original firms have been bought up by larger, established contractors, thus fixing their image, at least in the public's mind, as just another military-industrial contractor, with all the attendant bad press that the sector often gets, ie, scandals about contracts awarded to Halliburton or its subsidiary Kellog, Brown and Root.

    And since the September 11, 2001 attacks there has been a notable increase in the formation of new PMC. But it is Iraq that has focused world attention on the role of PMC to new heights. Though not noticed nearly as much as their post-major combat operations, PMC were prominent during the war itself. The services relied on civilian contractors to run the computer systems that generated the tactical air picture for the Combined Air Operations Center for the war in Iraq. Other contract technicians supported Predator unmanned aerial vehicles and the data links they used to transmit information.

    The US Navy relied on civilian contractors to help operate the guided missile systems on some of its ships. When the army's technology-heavy 4th Infantry Division deployed to Iraq in 2003, about 60 contract employees accompanied the division to support its digital command-and-control systems. The systems were still in development, and the army did not have uniformed personnel trained to maintain them.

    The army depends entirely on civilian contractors to maintain its Guardrail surveillance aircraft. With relatively few planes packed with specialized intelligence-gathering systems on board, the service decided it was not cost effective to develop its own maintenance capability.

    Security, or lack thereof, in Iraq has created an enormous demand for PMC services. At least a dime to 15 cents of every dollar spent is for security, according to the inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

    PMC employing personnel from several countries, such as Britain, Nepal, Chile, Ukraine, Israel, South Africa and Fiji, are doing a wide variety of tasks in Iraq, but the common link is helping, in one way or another, to provide security.

    Many, though not all, PMC personnel, who are hired as independent contractors are not merely ex-military, but former members of elite units, usually in the special operations forces community (SOF). Why SOF?

    It is true that having a special operations background doesn't make one invincible or an expert in all things. But what it does mean is they are highly professional and disciplined, and have the skills and dedication to their mission to work under adverse conditions. In contrast a young army soldier or Marine, recently graduated from his or her basic training and specialty school is just that: young and inexperienced. They are highly dependant on their leadership to guide and direct them through the extensive learning curve that accompanies armed conflict. In contrast, SOF personnel generally adhere to a higher standard without needing extensive leadership.

    It is worth noting that many of the actual security teams operating on the ground frequently are composed of former and retired senior non-commissioned officers. This level of experience contributes to a more relaxed environment, sometimes mistaken for a lower level of competence by conventional military commanders, that simplifies operations. It contributes to a "no babysitting required" operational environment. Leaders simply do not have to spend unnecessary amounts of time ensuring basic tasks have been performed. Weapons maintenance, hydration, communications checks, all the little things that when done by rule and inspection rather than as a matter of course takes time and make for rigid professional relationships.

    Many of the civilian contractors doing logistical and reconstruction work have hired PMC to provide protection for their personnel. Washington Group International, an Idaho construction and engineering firm, for example, employs twice as many security guards as it does other sub-contractors, although many of them are assigned to protect the power lines the company repairs. At one point it had 350 employees setting up power lines around Fallujah - and more than 700 security personnel.

    Bechtel, the US engineering company with the master contract to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure, won't let its employees move from one worksite to the next without guards armed with assault rifles and wearing bullet-proof vests.

    Bechtel initially hired Olive Security, which was on the ground in Iraq early in the conflict serving British television news crews. The contract since passed to ArmorGroup, a larger and more established company that, among other things, provides security for US embassies in the Middle East and its naval base in Bahrain. There are 100 personnel from ArmorGroup to protect the 164 Bechtel employees in the country. Security costs during Bechtel's planned 18 months in Iraq will exceed $40 million.

    Other firms that have been in the news include:

  • Computer Sciences Corporation unit DynCorp International FZ-LLC (DIFZ) has been prominent for its hiring of police officers in the US to train police officers in Iraq. DynCorp was awarded a one-year contract worth up to $50 million in April 2003 from the US State Department to support law enforcement functions in Iraq. It is to provide up to 1,000 civilian advisors to help the government of Iraq organize effective civilian law enforcement, judicial and correctional agencies. Under the contract, CSC's DynCorp International will provide technical advisors with 10 years of domestic law enforcement, corrections and judicial experience, including two years in specialized areas such as police training, crime scene investigation, border security, traffic accident investigation, corrections and customs. It pays $75,000 to $153,600 to those it has hired on year-long contracts.
  • Titan is providing translators to support both reconstruction efforts, and as recently revealed in the scandal over torture and inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners, and military interrogation, in Iraq.
  • The Steele Foundation has provided protection for construction firms. Two of its agents died in January fighting off an attack by guerillas against a convoy. Steele employs around 500 agents in Iraq, about one-third Westerners and the rest Iraqis.
  • Some security companies have formed their own "Quick Reaction Forces", and their own intelligence units that produce daily intelligence briefs with grid maps of "hot zones". One company (Blackwater) has its own helicopters, and several have even forged diplomatic alliances with local clans.
  • In Iraq, Blackwater personnel guard L Paul Bremer is the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US occupation civilian administration, among other duties. In August 2003, Blackwater was awarded a $21 million no-bid contract to supply security guards and two helicopters for Bremer.

    Blackwater has also, on at least one occasion, performed above and beyond the call of duty or contract. In April an attack by hundreds of Iraqi militia members on the US government's headquarters in Najaf was repulsed not by the US military, but by eight Blackwater commandos. Before US reinforcements could arrive Blackwater Security Consulting sent in its own helicopters amid an intense firefight to resupply its commandos with ammunition and to ferry out a wounded Marine.

    The same night, Hart Group, Control Risks and Triple Canopy were all involved in pitched battles. The Hart position was overrun. Abandoned by nearby coalition forces, the firm's employees had to leave one of their comrades dead on a rooftop on which he and four colleagues had been fighting after their house had been captured.

    One of US-based PMC Custer Battles' assignments involves guarding Baghdad's airport, a duty it shares with the US military.

    The South African-owned firm, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, has a $476,000 contract with the British Department for International Development's (DFID) which involves providing bodyguards and drivers for its most senior official in Iraq and his small personal staff. Meteoric also landed a big contract to train a private Iraqi security force to guard government buildings and other important sites formerly protected by US soldiers.

    SSA Marine was awarded a sub-contract last year for security at the port of Umm Qasr in Iraq to Olive Security, a United Kingdom-based company. The USAID-approved sub-contract of six months commenced last October 15 with the arrival of a team of 40 veterans from the Brigade of Gurkhas at the facility.

    Another British-owned company, ArmorGroup, has an $1.54 million contract to supply 20 security guards for the Foreign Office. That figure will rise by 50 percent in July. The firm also employs about 500 Gurkhas to guard executives with the US firms Bechtel and Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR). KBR alone has 24,000 employees there and flies another 500 out of Houston every week.

    In August 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority awarded one of the largest security contracts - to defend oil sites and pipelines in Iraq - to a little-known Johannesburg, South Africa-based company called Erinys, headed by a South African, Sean Cleary; a former senior official in pre-independence Namibia.

    Erinys is barely a year old, and although its website names five managers and directors, most of whom have been affiliated with Armor Holdings, a Florida-based security company and Defense Systems Limited, a British company which merged with Armor in 1997, its ownership structure remains opaque.

    The award was worth some $40 million. The Iraq contract calls for an audit of the security requirements of each region, and the vetting, training and hiring of the estimated 6,500 guards needed to do the job. Erinys is thought to employ 14, 000 Iraqis as watchmen and security guards to protect the country's oil fields and pipelines. The Florida-based AirScan Inc was awarded a $10 million contract for helicopter surveillance of the pipelines.

    It is fair to say that currently there is a glut of PMC in Iraq. Last week, the Pentagon released to Congress a list drawn up by the Coalition Provisional Authority of 60 PMC operating in Iraq, with an aggregate total of 20,000 personnel.

    It is not easy to keep track of PMC casualties. Coalition forces do not track civilian contractor deaths. Rather, they leave that up to the companies.

    In an article in Salon, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution wrote:
    From a survey of industry insiders as well as hometown press reports that sometimes announce the deaths, estimates are that between 30 and 50 private military contractors have been killed in the fighting in Iraq, with tens more killed in accidents. Assuming the rough ratio of killed versus wounded that has held among US troop casualties (1 to 6), this means that upward of 200 to 300 private casualties have gone unreported on the public ledger. That is more than the entire 82nd Airborne Division lost in Iraq over the past year.
    But by anyone's standard it is clearly a dangerous place to work. One measure of the danger comes from the US Department of Labor, which handles workers' compensation claims for deaths and injuries among among contract employees working for the military in war zones.

    Since the start of 2003, contractors have filed claims for 94 deaths and 1,164 injuries. For all of 2001 and 2002, by contrast, contractors reported 10 deaths and 843 injuries. No precise nation-by-nation breakdown is yet available, but labor department officials said an overwhelming majority of the cases since 2003 were from Iraq.

    As of early April, San Diego's Titan Corp has lost at least 13 employees - including four Americans - since the defense company began providing interpreters to the US Army in Iraq, according to published reports. Nine of the 13 killed from July through December were Iraqis, although not all of the deaths were combat-related.

    One of the new conventional wisdoms regarding PMC is that there is very little, if any, control or accountability over them.

    In reality, however, there is more supervision than commonly thought. For example, the rules of engagement are not different for security contractors than coalition forces military personnel. In fact, PMC personnel are often held to an even higher standard by their employers. It is common on being hired to be handed a complete copy of the rules of engagement set forth by the theater commander and prepared by the regional judge advocate general office, which the employee has studied and signed. They are also briefed on any changes or updates to the rules and during each operations order and convoy brief the rules of engagement are reviewed by the convoy leader or team leader.

    The US government does have some mechanisms for oversight, though admittedly not enough and not the right kind. In the US, PMC contracts worth over $50 million entered into by the government are meant to be reported to Congress. Companies must comply with a set of arms sales and services rules called the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, and the Pentagon can cancel a contract if it is not fulfilled.

    But issues of control and accountability have been enough of a concern that members of Congress sent a letter, initiated by Senator Jack Reed, to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying that security companies need to be properly screened and must operate within guidelines set up by the US government.

    It's been reported that the Coalition Provisional Authority wants to tighten controls over the increasing number of PMC in Iraq. A draft authority document on vetting and registering the security firms would require security companies to list all employees working in Iraq, and to provide copies of the contracts under which they are working and the serial numbers of their weapons. If the company sought to increase its weapons cache after its initial registration, it would have to coordinate with the Ministry of Interior, the draft states. Weapons could be carried by employees only while "on duty" and would be stored in an armory or "secure facility" otherwise.

    The authority now restricts the weapons private security teams may use to small arms with ammunition as large as 7.62mm and to some other defensive weapons. It should be mentioned that such a limitation in terms of weaponry runs counter to the popular perception in the media of PMC constituting some extraordinarily well-armed force with massive firepower. For example, they don't have grenades or .50 caliber machine guns, etc.

    A December 31 coalition rule spells out the circumstances under which security firms can use deadly force, including self-defense, the defense of people or property specified in their contracts, and the defense of civilians.

    The proposed rule would also give PMC the right to detain civilians and to use deadly force in defense of themselves or their clients. "Fire only aimed shots," reads one proposed rule, according to a draft obtained by the New York Times.

    Also, under the new rules, firms must have insurance cover, which many smaller operators lack. There will also be mandatory guidelines covering their operations, and they will need authorization from the Iraqi interior ministry. To get this, they will have to show a record of operating in similar situations.

    TOMORROW: Myths and mystery

    David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

    (Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

  • May 19, 2004

    The Iraq gold rush (May 14, '04)

    The secret world of corporate mercenaries
    (Dec 20, '03)

    Security for sale
    (Aug 14, '03)

    There's no business like security business
    (Apr 30, '03)


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