The Return of Erik Prince: Trump, military contractors and the further privatization of war


In 2005 the Marine Corps University published a paper entitled The Professional Military Services Industry: Have We Created a New Military-Industrial Complex? To consider that question now is the equivalent of asking if the Pope is Catholic.

The United States has not only created such a new complex, it has systematized and normalized it. Yet the country has never really had a real debate over whether this was a good thing. Frankenstein’s monster was created with more forethought than the contemporary private military and security contracting industry.

The private military train left the station starting with U.S. involvement in the Balkan wars in the 1990s and then, much more prominently, with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the industry has become so intertwined with the service and support components of the U.S. military that the armed forces would have to be rebuilt from scratch without its help.

“The continued worldwide growth of contracted military services is a forgone conclusion,” the Marine Corps report predicted a decade ago:

The issue however, is that the U.S. unintentionally developed the military services industry out of practical necessity due to a shortage of available troops and in-house technical skills and capabilities. The infrastructure was created ad hoc in response to short-term imperatives, rather than long-term national strategic intent. Absent from the debate were the long-term consequences and national security implications of the professional military services industry as it continues to grow globally and disperse beyond the reach of U.S. control.

Private contractors are an increasingly powerful part of what Mike Lofgren characterizes as the “Deep State.” Contractors, he wrote, “now have such impunity that they can threaten and intimidate their own paymaster, the very government that created them…There is literally nothing that the Deep State does not contract out to the corporations that provide campaign donations to the political figureheads nominally in charge of the whole enterprise.”

A recent report by the Center for a New American Security noted that the Defense Department today “employs 1.4 million military personnel and 770,000 civilian employees plus more than 800,000 part-time reserve personnel.” Meanwhile, the number of private-sector contractors providing services to the Defense Department has hit about 750,000.

Private contractors were always sold on the grounds of cost-effectiveness but the report’s author, Robert Hale, former Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer, wrote that they are used “in order to satisfy political pressure to limit the number of federal civilians” even though they can cost more. Nonetheless, “professional services contractors,” the preferred euphemism, are now present in every major U.S. combatant command.

U.S. forces officially pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011 but contractors and troops are still there. In mid-2016, the U.S. Central Command reported that there were 2,485 contractor personnel still in Iraq and “a force management level” of 4,087 U.S. troops, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Add in Afghanistan, where they far outnumber official forces, and other Central Command locations and there are more than 42,000 defense contractors deployed abroad. (That number excludes contractors working for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and various intelligence agencies.) In Africa, the military is heavily dependent on private contractors to support Special Operations Forces as well as conventional U.S. military units in various counterinsurgency campaigns.

Beyond the Pentagon

By now, there are few, if any, sectors of government that are not heavily dependent on private contractors. The intelligence community has used private airlines for the purpose of rendition, transporting prisoners from their home countries to CIA “black site” prisons and other locations. The CIA has used private psychologists to devise torture techniques and issued contracts to companies to help carry them out.

According to a 2015 analysis by journalist Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence, about 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is spent on private contractors. In September he reported that five corporations together employ nearly 80 percent of the private-sector employees contracted to work for US spy and surveillance agencies.

Contractors are also heavily involved on the homeland security front. Lora Ries, who was hired by the Trump transition team to help remake the Department of Homeland Security, has a long history of lobbying for homeland security contractors.

The government is enormously dependent on contractors in the realm of cyber operations as well. If the National Security Agency, for example, had to do without contractors it would have to shut its doors.

Whatever the truth of the alleged Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential elections, such cyber operations represent a future bonanza for cyber contractors. “We must work toward cyber doctrine that reflects the wisdom of free markets, private competition and the important but limited role of government in establishing and enforcing the rule of law, honoring the rights of personal property, the benefits of free and fair trade and the fundamental principles of liberty,” Thomas Bossert, Trump’s designee to serve as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, has said.

The Trump Era

Nobody knows for certain how the Trump presidency will deal with the private military sector, but so far the omens are positive, if you’re in the industry anyway. Politico reported that Trump, who had hired his own private security and intelligence teams to work alongside the Secret Service during the campaign, will be keeping “at least some members” of those teams.

Trump says he reject the idea of nation-building” in the Middle East and elsewhere. But the future “reconstruction” of Syria would be a bonanza for the private sector, and the Trump administration is likely to try to get on that gravy train.

More interestingly, a president who campaigned on the basis of having a secret plan to beat the Islamic State and terrorism more broadly will find that he has no alternative to using contractors even more heavily. Trump doesn’t appear to have any thoughtful, well-crafted strategy on terrorism of his own, so he will likely lean heavily on advisors such as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

As Bloomberg reported, Flynn has extensive dealings with various private contractors through his own consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, which in recent months has competed for federal contracts to supply overseas military bases, fly diplomats in and out of conflict zones, and provide cybersecurity and technology for defense and intelligence agencies. And with Special Forces stretched to the breaking point, private contracts will undoubtedly be in high demand.

The Prince of Contractors

Robert Young Pelton was among the earliest people to write about private military contractors, in his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in The War On Terror. He is particularly familiar with the former firm Blackwater, having been involved in litigation with its cofounder Erik Prince. He recently predicted “a dramatic escalation in using the private sector to perform logistics, security, intelligence and training”:

With the men Trump has selected we will be ramping up quickly in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Uganda, Kenya, and many other spots. All will require the revolving door of ex-military contractors for support. Despite denials, Erik Prince has appeared to have kept busy in working on third party logistics and security contracts (South Sudan), aviation (Malta), logistics (East and Central Africa) and other private and military/intel projects in North Africa, Somalia and the Middle East…With his sister, Betsy DeVos, being selected for a cabinet position in the new administration, I am sure his eight years of quiet patience will soon be rewarded.

Indeed, the stars may be aligning for Prince. The new, improved version of Blackwater is called Constellis, which is currently up for sale. It has more than 8,000 employees, most former military or law enforcement officials, and operates in 25 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Constellis will be well-placed to help out with a newly aggressive “gloves off” foreign policy and the firm is led by Jason DeYonkers,  an old college friend of Prince’s from Michigan who for years managed his  financial portfolio.

All of this is great for Erik Prince and the private military sector, but it doesn’t bode well for the country in general. “Like sovereign nation-states, for profit corporations will pursue their own self-interests,” the Marine Corps report concluded. “The self-interest of this industry requires conflict to succeed. U.S. National Security and Foreign Policy is too important to outsource. It is the ultimate inherently Governmental Function.”

[A version of this story originally appeared at]

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