Is Erik Prince, the ex-Blackwater CEO, right? Should the United States use Defense Base Act contractors to fight ISIS? On his blog for Frontier Services Group, Mr. Prince wrote a post entitled, “Chairman’s Column – Thoughts on Countering ISIS,” which I’ve reproduced in full below:
As someone who spent many years operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other underdeveloped countries facing existential security threats, I was recently asked about my reaction to President Obama’s plan for fighting ISIS.
My immediate response is that the President’s current plan seems half-hearted at best. American air power has significant reach and accuracy, but ultimately will be unable to finish the job of digging ISIS out of any urban centers where they may seek shelter amongst the populace. Clearing operations ultimately fall to the foot soldier. The Iraqi army is demonstrably inept after billions spent on training and equipping them. Providing them more gear is a high risk endeavor. When ISIS first attacked, the Iraqi army folded, quickly providing ISIS with five heavy divisions of US weaponry (tanks, howitzers, armored vehicles and even helicopters) and three logistic support units’ worth of equipment and munitions. The Kurds, once a lean and strong fighting force that routinely rebuffed Saddam’s forces, now find themselves outgunned, under-equipped, and overwhelmed. But they do fight, and they fight bravely. The Kurds’ biggest problem is the US State Department blocking them from selling their oil and from buying serious weaponry to protect their stronghold and act as a stabilizing force in the region.
Unfortunately, the DOD has mastered the most expensive ways to wage war, adding only very expensive options to the president’s quiver. Flying off of an aircraft carrier in the north end of the Persian Gulf may be a great demonstration of carrier air power suitable for a high tempo war, but the costs will quickly become staggering, far higher than they need be for what will quickly become a counter-insurgency effort.
As I explain in my book, “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror,” the private sector has long provided nations around the world with innovative solutions to national defense problems in a variety of ways, from the kinetic to the background logistical support necessary to keep militaries humming. If the old Blackwater team were still together, I have high confidence that a multi-brigade-size unit of veteran American contractors or a multi-national force could be rapidly assembled and deployed to be that necessary ground combat team. The professionals would be hired for their combat skills in armor, artillery, small unit tactics, special operations, logistics, and whatever else may be needed. A competent professional force of volunteers would serve as the pointy end of the spear and would serve to strengthen friendly but skittish indigenous forces.
The American people are clearly war-fatigued. Defeat was already snatched from the jaws of victory by the rapid pullout of US forces in 2009. Afghanistan will likely go the same way after never truly defeating the Taliban. Now the danger of a half-baked solution in Iraq is that if ISIS isn’t rightly annihilated, they will portray their survival as a victory over the forces of civilization; thus, there is no room for half-measures. The longer ISIS festers, the more chances it has for recruitment and the danger of the eventual return of radical jihadists to their western homelands. If the Administration cannot rally the political nerve or funding to send adequate active duty ground forces to answer the call, let the private sector finish the job.
Mr. Prince’s message is simple: defense contractors are the cheaper option for combating terrorists, both financially and politically. Not surprising, those comments have garnered media attention. For instance, the Washington Post published at article entitled, “Let contractors fight the Islamic State, Blackwater founder Erik Prince says.”
But is Mr. Prince right? In my opinion, yes. And, more likely than not, the United States agrees. Consider the May 2013 Congressional Research Service report, “Department of Defense’s Use of Contractors to Support Military Operations: Background, Analysis, and Issues for Congress,” where the CRS did a good job of explaining the importance of defense contractors:
DOD has long relied on contractors to support overseas military operations. Post-Cold War defense budget reductions resulted in significant cuts to military logistics and other support capabilities, requiring DOD to hire contractors to “fill the gap.” Recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that in the Balkans, have reflected this increased reliance on contractors supporting U.S. troops–both in terms of the number of contractors and the type of work being performed. According to DOD data, contractors, on average, represented just over half of the force in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
As of March 2013, there were approximately 108,000 DOD contractor personnel in Afghanistan representing 62% of the total force. Of this total, there were nearly 18,000 private security contractors, compared to 65,700 U.S. troops. Over the last six fiscal years, DOD obligations for contracts performed in the Iraq and Afghanistan areas of operation were approximately $160 billion and exceeded total contract obligations of any other U.S. federal agency.
(Note: I first published this post on Navigable Waters: A Maritime, Longshore, and Defense Base Act Blog.)