Are Private Military Contractors a Solution to U.S. Quagmires Overseas?

Private contractors have actually fought for America since America began, but they're not a panacea.


We've fought in Afghanistan for 16 years now. Are we making progress?

After 9/11, we invaded, overthrew the Taliban, killed Osama Bin Laden and—stayed. Afghanistan is now America's longest war, ever.

President Trump's solution? He'll send several thousand more soldiers.

Erik Prince says he has a better idea—fight terrorists with only 2,000 American Special Operations personnel, plus "a contractor force" of 6,000.

Prince is the founder of Blackwater, the private military contractor.

The military uses contractors to provide security, deliver mail, rescue soldiers and more. Private contractors often do jobs well, for much less than the government would spend.

"We did a helicopter resupply mission," Prince told me. "We showed up with two helicopters and eight people—the Navy was doing it with 35 people."

I asked, "Why would the Navy use 35 people?"

Prince answered, "The admiral that says, 'I need 35 people to do that mission,' didn't pay for them. When you get a free good, you use a lot more of it."

Prince also claims the military is slow to adjust. In Afghanistan, it's "using equipment designed to fight the Soviet Union, (not ideal) for finding enemies living in caves or operating from a pickup truck."

I suggested that the government eventually adjusts.

"No, they do not," answered Prince. "In 16 years of warfare, the army never adjusted how they do deployments—never made them smaller and more nimble. You could actually do all the counter-insurgency missions over Afghanistan with propeller-driven aircraft."

So far, Trump has ignored Prince's advice. I assume he, like many people, is skeptical of military contractors. The word "mercenary" has a bad reputation.

But private contractors have fought for America since America began. Jamestown, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies all hired private security. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress authorized "privateers"—privately owned boats—to fight British ships.

Before America officially entered World War II, some American pilots made money privately fighting the Japanese. Those "Flying Tigers" were called heroes. John Wayne made a movie about them.

"Markets have a way of providing things when government can't," says Prince.

But contracting is no panacea. The Congressional Budget Office says that although they save the government money during times of peace, during war "costs of a private security contract are comparable with those of a U.S. military unit."

Economist Tyler Cowen points out that private contractors may make the real pain of war less apparent. In Iraq, says Cowen, "use of contractors may have helped to make an ill-advised venture possible."

And in Iraq, Prince's employees killed civilians. Four Blackwater employees were eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

Prince replied, "The guys did more than a hundred thousand missions, protective missions, in dangerous war zones. In less than one half of 1 percent of all those missions did the guys ever discharge a firearm."

Government has its own record of mistakes, civilian deaths and war crimes, too.

In 2010, Prince sold his security firm and moved on to other projects.

He persuaded the United Arab Emirates to fund a private anti-pirate force in Somalia. The U.N. called that a "brazen violation" of its arms embargo, but Prince went ahead anyway.

His mercenaries attacked pirates whenever they came near shore. His private army, plus merchant ships finally arming themselves, largely ended piracy in that part of the world. In 2010, Somali pirates took more than a thousand hostages. In 2014, they captured none.

Did you even hear about that success? I hadn't before doing research on Prince. The media don't like to report good things about for-profit soldiers.

Commentator Keith Olbermann called Blackwater "a full-fledged criminal enterprise." One TV anchor called Prince "horrible … the poster child for everything wrong with the military-industrial complex."

When I showed that to Prince, he replied, "the hardcore anti-war left went after the troops in Vietnam… In Iraq and Afghanistan they went after contractors… contractors providing a good service to support the U.S. military—vilified, demonized, because they were for-profit companies."

If we don't use private contractors, he added, we will fail in Afghanistan, where we've "spent close to a trillion dollars and are still losing."



NEXT: Presidents Are Reckless With Soldiers' Lives

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “His private army, plus merchant ships finally arming themselves, largely ended piracy in that part of the world.”

    To repeat my question from the previous thread: weren’t US/EU naval forces also very active in the area during this period? How do we know it was Prince’s merry band of mischief-makers that was primarily responsible for bringing the Pirates of the Aden franchise to an end before the crappy sequels set in?

    1. I’m also suspicious of this, “If we don’t use private contractors, he added, we will fail in Afghanistan, where we’ve ‘spent close to a trillion dollars and are still losing.'”

      I would be curious of seeing more outside analysis of it rather than from the business man himself. That being said, I can certainly understand the advantages mercenary groups might have. But the problem still remains of the government paying for it and now we’re just risking another Private/Public mixture and boondoggle.

      1. Exactly. Mercenaries are precisely as ethical, circumspect and competent as their employers command them to be and/or are capable of affording to pay them to be. Training your men to not shoot that suspicious-looking goat herder; sending in a 25,000$ UGV to probe that dead cow on the side of the road instead of just shooting an AT4 at it and rendering the road impassable for the locals for a week; sending men into the cave network to get positive ID on Terrorist Leader #317’s corpse instead of lobbing a thermobaric bomb inside and hoping for the best; all of those things increase costs. And increased costs, mean increased pressure to cut corners: either on the company, to help their bottom line if their employer lets them get away with it, or on the employer, to help their budget.

        Which sounds great until you realize that, if a government has resorted to hiring mercenaries, it has, by definition, gotten to the point where either lowering costs or increasing deniability is its #1 priority: neither of which bode well for rigorous accountability.

        1. I Make up to $90 an hour working from my home. My story is that I quit working at Walmart to work online and with a little effort I easily bring in around $70h to $86h.. Go this site and start your work..

          Good luck…>>>> http://www.webcash20.com

  2. We should ask noted scholar Hideo Kojima this question.

  3. “Bounty hunters! We don’t need these scum!”


  4. Or could these be considered Militia, with expense accounts?
    What is the constitutional difference of providing direct monetary compensation, and providing room, board, weapons, etc?
    After all, like Militia, they can refuse a contract, the one real difference between them and the “real” military.
    Sounds pretty libertarian to me.

  5. When the British invaded and occupied Afghanistan they were blocking competition from lowering the price of opium below the rate fixed for their own predatory opium monopoly. By amazing coincidence, irritated natives of India reacted with the “mutiny” in which Brits were hunted down like rats in a corncrib. This rent-seeking business of monopolizing salt, opium and whatnot for extorting cash from people whose weapons are less advanced often brings surprising reactions from the victims of that extortion. Americans with guns set foot in Afghanistan to do the bidding of organized peddlers of addictive stupefacients. Farfetched? Search “Overdose Death Rates” and see graphs top-heavy with everything criminalized–except psychedelics.

  6. What we gots to do is just drop a few nukes on these ragheads. Kill em all and let God sort em out. Thats why I voted for Trump he knows you got to kill the wifes and children of these goat fuckers.

    1. Stomp on veterans, especially the homeless ones, I’ve done it and gotten away with it. You scum started the war, it will end your country. America can’t be torn apart quick enough as far as I’m concerned. Killing wives and children is the only way your limp noodle can get excited, you don’t want to do those things because you think they’re necessary, you want to do those things, because your soul belongs to the one who was cast down.

      1. So, you get excited by going after those who can’t stomp you into a bloody pile? Good to know.

  7. I had some kinfolk who worked for blackwater. Killed as many of those ragheads as they could. Killed the kids killed the women then said it was self defense and got away with it. Fuck the ragheads

    1. In time we will find your guilty kinfolk and do justice upon them. Go on to extinction cro-mag, we Neandethals will inherit the earth 🙂

      1. The day libkind tries to actually start some kind of war will be the day that the forbearance allowing your survival will come to an end.

        1. Are the the two of you genuinely not aware that “Bubba” is an AmSoc sock (AmSock?)?

  8. I have no problem with it as long as the contract is signed and paid for by the Afghan government.

    The odds are, I have a problem with it.

  9. Problem with private military contractors is that their leadership comes from the revolving door of military brass and they can game the defense budget.

  10. Yeah, so what’s the real bad part? The fact that this would make it easy for the government to abandon any pretense of giving a shit about conducting war. Hey, fuck it, we just drop a couple extra trillion dollars and keeping fighting infinite wars. No one will harass us too much because the people dying are greedy contractors and not heroic young Americans. We can fight wars forever!!!! Now that we’re done fighting Oceania, we can ally with them and fight Eastasia.

    “President Trump’s solution? He’ll send several thousand more soldiers. Erik Prince says he has a better idea?fight terrorists with only 2,000 American Special Operations personnel, plus “a contractor force” of 6,000.” Yeah, great idea but it makes one ridiculous assumption. It assumes that there is an actual objective to the fight. If such objective actually existed, our military could do it just fine. But they don’t have an objective other than “stand between these two groups who are shooting at each other.”

  11. We need an article looking into Whitefish contract regarding the Puerto Rico energy situation. Some of the terms are ridiculous. No one in the puerto Rican government is allowed to audit costs???? And the rates in the contract are ridiculous. MOre than 300 an hour for some positions.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.