Issue 44 Erik Prince: Blackwater’s founder Talks guns, Tactics, Logistics, and Politics Iain Harrison 0 COMMENT Photos by RECOM Actual – Rutsen Eagle and Katherine Kirchner It’s hard to find a person with a neutral opinion of Erik Prince. To some, he’s the epitome of the hard-charging capitalist, finding solutions to problems where big government failed miserably. To others, he’s a war profiteer, single-handedly responsible for the deaths of 17 civilians in Nisour Square in Iraq, and whose company was supposedly banned from doing business in that country because of it. It wasn’t, but hey, why let facts get in the way of the narrative? Somewhere between the characters of Hank Rearden and Mephistopheles lies the real Erik Prince, and in order to divine which end of that spectrum someone falls, it’s usually a good idea to observe what they do, rather than rely on what they say. We first encountered Prince at SHOT Show in January 2019, when he was signing copies of his autobiography. A 30-ish double amputee ambled up on prosthetic legs, shook Prince’s hand, and for the next five minutes the two of them cracked jokes, bullsh*tted, and reminisced, while Prince’s staff glanced nervously at their watches, anxious about missing the next appointment. If anyone had reason to resent the globe-trotting venture capitalist, the man who had given his legs while a Blackwater contractor would be a good candidate. Instead, he quietly said, “Best job I ever had,” as the two parted company. Growing up in the Midwest, Prince managed to escape the fate of many sons born to self-made millionaires. In our experience, such scions often mature into men devoid of purpose or responsibility, lacking challenge and content to live off their trust fund. In Prince’s case, he left home to join the SEALs, the start of a career that’d revolve around military operations in both the public and private sectors for the next 27 years, and result in the creation of a company synonymous with the private sector’s involvement in America’s Middle Eastern wars. Following the sale of Blackwater in 2009, Prince moved his operations to the Gulf States and minimized his visibility in the U.S. media. Recently, he’s been back in the news, publicly espousing a strategy for Afghanistan, which relies heavily on a small contractor force to bring an end to the conflict. According to Reuters, he’s also been pitching the idea of a force comprising 5,000 private military contractors (PMC) to overthrow the Maduro regime in Venezuela, which reportedly has failed to gain traction in the Trump administration. We sat down with him to talk guns, geopolitics, and PMCs. RECOIL: What was your first introduction to firearms? Erik Prince: My dad’s dad died when he was 13 during the Great Depression, so he worked his ass off to support the family and was never much of an outdoorsman. I grew up in suburban Michigan and learned to trap muskrats and raccoons as a kid, so you’d see me at 5 a.m. in December out pedaling my bike in the snow, carrying a baseball bat because I didn’t have a gun yet, but eventually I moved up to a pellet gun. The first real firearm I shot was due to my dad having a boat down in Florida during the cocaine wars of the ’80s — the traffickers would grab a boat and murder the occupants, so my dad bought a Mini14 and an 870, and I kinda adopted those. The next gun I bought was at an auction; it was a Ruger 10/22 covered in the Budweiser logo, and I shot the hell out of that thing and have passed it on to my son. RECOIL: Do you have any notable guns in the collection now that you’d never part with? EP: I have a 1901 Naval landing gun, which went around the world with Teddy Roosevelt. The cool thing is that it was a gift from the armorers at Blackwater; they found it in derelict condition and with unbelievable love and painstaking detail, they took that thing apart — every spring, every pin, every piece of metal was restored and made that thing fire again, and they presented it to me. I’m very nostalgic for that gun. RECOIL: How and where do you spend your time these days? EP: (Laughing) I work and fly too much. I enjoyed building and running Blackwater and really enjoyed employing thousands of highly motivated, hard-charging people. Standing around at SHOT Show, it was extremely satisfying to have hundreds of guys say, ‘Hey, thanks, Erik. That was the best job I ever had.’ And so I’m running hard to do that again. Unfortunately, that means I’m gone too much, but I enjoy coming home to Middleburg, Virginia, where my wife runs a great farm, but I spend some time in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Hong Kong. RECOIL: What’s Erik Prince been doing since the sale of Blackwater? EP: I moved to the UAE because of piracy off the coast of Somalia. At the time there were 80 to 90 ships a year being hijacked and the UAE government wanted to do something about that, so I gave some ideas as to build a police unit, which effectively ended piracy and did it for a cost of less than the pirates were taking in ransom per year. It was kind of a passion project, and it showed how cheaply and effectively the private sector can do things if allowed to innovate. I compare that to the U.S. Navy, the EU navies that were dispersed all over the Indian Ocean — if you have a problem in your yard, the smart homeowner doesn’t chase bugs all around the yard with a spray can, rather they find the nest, and that’s what we did. RECOIL: And since then? EP: Since then, I started a private equity fund, I’ve invested in some mining and energy upstream geoscience activities, and I’ve been involved in some more aviation and transportation work in Africa and the Middle East. I’ve been very public about what the United States should do in Afghanistan and a few other of the nagging problems where people continue to suffer because no one can seem to put the fire out. RECOIL: The role of the U.S. military should be to win wars by killing people and breaking their stuff. How does the private contractor fit into that? EP: The U.S. military is designed to win a conventional war, but the problem is when you take a conventional unit and re-task it from a linear battlefield, re-tasking everything from your air defense guy, your chemical weapons specialist, to your artilleryman to now fight an insurgency where the enemy is all around you or nowhere, we have a real struggle dealing with that. I remember a former Special Operations commander describe it this way, ‘In [Special Forces (SF)] units, you equip the man — the guy is the weapon system. In a conventional unit, optimized for that linear battlespace, fighting a nation state — in that case, you man the equipment.’ What does the Army say? Artillery is the king of battle, so you man the artillery, the tanks, the rockets, because that’s what does the large-scale killing on the battlefield. All that firepower doesn’t really apply to fighting guys on motorbikes wearing flip-flops, and that’s where the United States has struggled this past 17 years. Right after 9/11, we had around 100 CIA and SF guys working in Afghanistan in an unconventional manner, and they smashed the hell out of the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Then, when the conventional army rolled in, we largely replicated the Soviet battle plan. RECOIL: So how do you propose getting out of that cycle? EP: The way the U.S. and NATO deploy there is that they send a unit for seven or eight months. The guys spend a couple of months on the ground getting to know the area, and some of them have never been to Asia in their lives. They’re productive for a couple of months, spend the last month or so packing up and ready to go home, then they lift that unit out and send another one to start again to repeat the cycle. We’ve done that more than 30 times now, where you completely rip away any continuity. The one part of the Afghan forces, which fights pretty well is the Afghan Commandos because they’re trained and mentored by their SOF counterparts who do a better job of focusing in small unit tactics, being flexible, and equipping the man, rather than manning the equipment. What I’ve advocated for is replicating that model across the entire regular Afghan army using SF veterans. If I send those veterans back as contractors, they can stay for years at a time on a 90-day rotation, but they go back to the same unit, the same valley, and they get to know the terrain, the good mullah, the bad mullah, and the guys are incentivized to make sure their unit performs well. They’re dependent on the local population for intelligence, and they’re responsible to protect that population from the Tailban or ISIS, so it becomes this intertwined, interlocking dependency that stems from continuity and trust. We also have to provide those guys in the field with the overwhelming advantage of airpower, so that they get lift and medevac and resupply and close air support in a very timely manner, which hasn’t always been the case, especially for the Afghan units. They’ve been lucky to get aircraft tasked inside of 10-12 hours, unless they happen to have an American JTAC with them. So you have Afghans who are dying in the field from what should be nonlife-threatening wounds; you have Afghan firebases routinely surrounded and annihilated where nobody comes after four, five, seven days. Our model would be a very joint program where any of our contractor-provided leased aircraft would be crewed by one professional pilot and one Afghan crewmember. Any weapons release decision remains in the sole authority of the Afghan, so it’s not a contractor dropping a bomb or shooting a canon, only an Afghani citizen. The third component is what I call government support. In this, we’re not trying to fix the government, just the key elements that the military needs to run on. Getting the men paid on time, fed on time, supplied and medevaced. There’s currently a huge amount of ‘ghost soldiers,’ a huge amount of corruption, which bleeds the supplies, and there’s corruption in the promotion process because guys are promoted by their ethnicity or religious affiliation, rather than merit, competency, or bravery. RECOIL: How do you address the problem of ‘Green on Blue’ attacks in this model? EP: I had hundreds of instructors attached to Afghan units for a long time — we built the entire Afghan border police. I had many reports of when we’d get a new crop of students that within two days you could tell if there was a bad egg. When the other Afghan students — who greatly appreciate the fact that they were in a properly run schoolhouse, where they’re getting fed, paid, and the light switches work, and there’s batteries for the radios and a comms plan — they took care of making sure that any bad eggs were removed and sent on their way. The way that mentoring is currently done by the U.S. Army is largely one of drive-by mentoring, where they’re not living on the same base, eating at the same chow hall, and embedded with their Afghan brothers. RECOIL: Because everyone’s paranoid of the prospect of a Green on Blue. EP: Correct RECOIL: If this policy was to be implemented, and let’s face it, it’s going to be a hard sell and an uphill battle in order to get it through Congress as it’s currently constituted. EP: I think it’s an inevitability. Because if they don’t do something like this, you’re going to see the Taliban run over the entire country again. You’re going to see helicopters off the roof of the U.S. embassy like we did in Saigon in ’75. I was 6 years old when that happened, and I still remember that. If we allow the Taliban, who’ve already bragged that they’re going to do to the Afghan president what they did to Najibullah, who have destroyed the concept of women’s rights, the idea of them being beaten for showing a little T&A — that’s toes and ankles — or the idea that if they go to school they’ll get acid thrown in their faces. All of that will continue. The Taliban haven’t changed their ways at all; we see that in some of the areas they govern now already. That helicopter off the rooftop moment will empower every jihadi around the world, so we’ll see more lone wolf attacks, and it will be a recruitment bonanza. And we must not let that happen. RECOIL: How would your plan affect the long-suffering U.S. taxpayer, who’s so far funded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with blood and treasure? EP: Right now, the U.S. taxpayer is spending more than the entire UK defense budget, just in Afghanistan — 62 billion dollars. That’s $5 billion to support the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces), and $57 billion for the U.S. just to be there; we can draw that number way down. We have 15,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 contractors in country right now — you draw that number down to 2,000 active duty and maybe leave a small SOF contingent there for a unilateral direct action capability, and you’d need around 6,000 contractors to do what I just described — mentors, airpower, government support. Everybody else can go. You’d take your burn rate to well under $10 billion per year. Now that’s still a lot, but you’re saving a billion dollars a week and that $10 billion can start to fade away very quickly because with the model of security, which is reliably set in areas with resources — and there’s a lot of resources such as oil and gas and minerals — if you set security in those areas, you can get those mines built and get them producing tax revenue. That’ll also suck away a huge amount of manpower from the Taliban. Without going into relitigating the entire East India Company, when it took over it stopped the burning of mosques and Hindu shrines. They stopped the Muslims and Hindus from slaughtering each other, they stopped widow burning, they stopped private prisons held by warlords, they stopped indentured servitude and put in huge infrastructure, irrigation for millions of hectares of farmland. The East India Company didn’t do everything right, but they got a lot of it right, and they did it because they weren’t just a military organization — they were there to do trade and commerce. Ultimately, it’s commerce backed by a little bit of security that’ll stabilize Afghanistan. RECOIL: Commerce backed by a little bit of security is always going to be interpreted on the U.S. political scene as neocolonialism. How do you get around that? EP: What I’m talking about security-wise is 100-percent reinforcing Afghan sovereignty. All of these mentors and aircraft are under the chain of command of the Afghan government, accountable to the Afghan minister of defense under the Afghan president, and not the other way around. Far, far more sovereign than has been the case for the last 17 years. RECOIL: What do you consider to be the biggest policy failure of the Iraq conflict? EP: Total ignorance of the Iranian subversion. We allowed Quds force officers in southern and central Iraq to do what they did in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Establishing death squads and political officers, which grew into something called the popular mobilization units, which are Shia units, led by Quds officers, paid by the Iraqi army, and horrifically enough, equipped with American equipment, including Abrams tanks, flying the flag of the Quds force and Hezbollah as they went into battle. RECOIL: What would have been the way to counter that? EP: The Iraqi intelligence service, under competent leadership in ’04-’05 asked the U.S. government for the means to run a program to counter and remove that Iranian influence all through the south, and in a direct and very nonnegotiable way, and it was blocked by Condi Rice at the NSC. And I think that was a sliding door moment for the Iraq war, because it guaranteed maximum enmity between the Sunni and Shia and ultimately gave rise to ISIS as well. Look, Iran wants to make sure Iraq is never a strong and capable country ever again, because they never have to worry about another Iran-Iraq war, and they’ve done that by splintering and eviscerating the country again and again since 2003. And they’re still doing so today. RECOIL: In your autobiography, you include a quote from the Lexington Institute, which reads, ‘Civilians are now the equivalent of a new service.’ We’d posit that they always have been, since Roman times, through the Middle Ages, and all the way to camp followers of the Civil War. Why do you think the idea of the PMC is so controversial? EP: In the Vietnam War, the anti-war left went after the troops; this time they went after contractors. The Iraq war, as it grew more and more unpopular, that noise dialed up and up until we were a very easy target for the hard left to go after. This is the same hard left who calls the idea of a wall or a security barrier immoral and murderous. There’s a shrill, irrational element to that, and Americans don’t pay much attention to history. They’re astounded when I remind them that America was founded by companies — Massachusetts Bay, Jamestown, and Plymouth colonies were companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, and they hired guys like John Smith and Miles Standish to protect them. Those were PMCs, full stop. Across the street from the White House you have Lafayette Park — Lafayette, Rochambeau, and Steuben, professional military officers, contractors, mercenaries if you will, formed the Continental army. At sea, Congress authorized privateers, which was a private ship and a private crew with a private captain, and they were fighting for the prize money of capturing an enemy merchant ship — so much so that they actually provide for the letter of marque and reprisal in the U.S. Constitution. Americans don’t realize any of that, and think that it was some invention of the Bush administration to enrich his political supporters, which is asinine. The fact is the U.S. military of the 1990s was substantially smaller than it was in 2003 and the U.S. military when it does deploy on a stability operation, doesn’t deploy all that efficiently. The tooth-to-tail ratio of a conventional unit is a staggering 12 to 1. Putting 120,000 troops in to get 10,000 trigger pullers outside the wire — that’s a problem. With contractors you can almost get the inverse number of that, and in fact, we did. We operated with about 10 operators per one support. RECOIL: What policy did you put in place in order to turn around the tooth-to-tail ratio? EP: When you have a free good, you tend to use a lot more of it. If you were charged $20 a gallon for water, everyone would shut the water off when they’re brushing their teeth. Let me give you an example: Blackwater’s air wing bid for Navy work, which would require two helicopters operating off a Navy Sealift Command ship. We were replacing two Blackhawks with two Puma helicopters. The Navy showed up to do that job with two Blackhawks and 35 people, and had another 70 people back in the States either home from deployment or getting ready to deploy. We showed up to do that mission with two helicopters and eight guys — two pilots, two copilots, one program manager, and three mechanics, and maybe two people back home on logistics. Why the difference? Because I pay for all those guys, while the Navy Admiral who says, ‘I need 35 people on that ship,’ he doesn’t have to pay for them. They have no idea what things cost at all, and any way you can introduce pricing into that equation, you’ll educate those decision makers how to more effectively and efficiently distribute their goods. The average soldier costs $120,000 per year to stand there naked, before you put any gear on him. Then, when you throw in life support like Baskin Robbins ice cream, Starbucks, and on and on; it adds up crazy fast. RECOIL: You’ve been taking the lessons and experience learned from Blackwater and employing them in different parts of the world. What’s the mission of Frontier Services Group? EP: The mission of Frontier Services Group — and let me be also clear — FSG is not building a training area in Xinjiang, China. There’s been some media noise about that over the past couple of weeks. We provide zero tactical training of any stripe whatsoever to any Chinese police or military units. The only training provided to any Chinese person is for, like, airline or bank employees who deploy overseas, and it’s basically how to not be a victim of terrorism or kidnapped. The mission of FSG is to provide expeditionary logistics support to challenging areas — getting goods across the sea, trucking it or moving it by air; we do medevac. We’ve managed the entire fishing fleet of a country and coordinated transport of tuna to get to your favorite sushi bar in whatever market you happen to be in. RECOIL: So there’s no security element to those services? EP: There’s a small security element; we’ll provide a security manager to a camp, but there are no FSG armed personnel. If there’s a security team at a mine or an oil and gas site, then it would be a local security company with local personnel who might be armed as a subcontractor, with an FSG security manager over the top of them to ensure the lights work and a proper security plan is adhered to. It’s not in any way, shape, or form a private military company. The Chinese have a challenge because they tend to take everything with them whenever they go over to do a mine or an infrastructure project. They take their own rebar, their own concrete, their own barber, and their own cooks, but they don’t have that experience that we’ve had in the West of dealing in more challenged areas, so they don’t have a good cultural engagement process. If you go out of your way to buy vegetables and fruit from the locals or if you do a medical clinic a couple of times a week, it helps you pick up a lot of good intel about what’s going on and what’s the threat from local criminal elements or terrorist groups. The West has done that much longer and more effectively. RECOIL: With China’s expanding role in Africa, do you see this as being a major growth area? EP: I’ve publicly announced I’m raising a private equity fund separate from FSG to do battery minerals. You have around 22 grams of cobalt in your cell phone, and there are around 34 major automakers in production with electric cars. You buy an electric vehicle and you go from possessing 22 grams of cobalt to around 10 kilograms. And so whether it’s copper, which is used in massive amounts in electricity distribution, or cobalt, or nickel, the two key elements in high-end batteries, you just can’t have this digital economy and green energy without minerals that come from some pretty rugged places. Two thirds of the world’s cobalt right now comes from the DRC, so it’s an appropriate location for people who aren’t afraid of operating in difficult and challenging places. RECOIL: You come across [in your autobiography] as someone whose Catholic faith is a central part of your life and yet you describe yourself as a libertarian. At what point do the two collide? EP: You know what? I’ll quote Margaret Thatcher. ‘Christianity gives us the means to restrain ourselves, so that the state doesn’t have to.’ I’m a Catholic, but I’m also extremely thankful that there’s forgiveness. 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