UPDATE 2 on The $50m contract to fight piracy, a primer on privatized force

The recent $50m deal between TopCat Marine Security and Somalia has apparently opened some eyes to the world of private military companies. Two leading experts / authors in the field today, Deborah Avant (The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security) and P.W. Singer (Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)), refer to these private enterprises as Private Military Companies and Private Military Firms, respectively (there are other authors and resources I'd recommend, see my reading list on the right). What many people do not understand, not through lack of caring but through a cloud of understandable and encouraged ignorance, is the private sector has long been involved in providing private tactical military force. Personally, I prefer to use the phrase "private military force" to separate legal and moral accountability and utilization questions away from for-profit motives and from other modes as logistics, training, and assistance. However, in the TopCat Marine Security and Somalia deal, money and service are inextricably linked.

Some of the ignorance, again not to be taken negatively, about private, non-state (as in non-governmental) force confuses the discussion on TopCat, as is apparent on some of the comments on Kathryn Cramer's posting on this topic. In no particular order, a few comments...

A) TopCat / Peter Casini's statement of leaving the details of the military operations to the "Special Forces" guys may simply indicate the nature of his partnership, or shell, that has been created. TripleCanopy, Inc. is an outfit founded by x-Delta force members that "won" the contract to provide intra-Green Zone security. I do not mean to hint the TripleCanopy award was subject to meddling, but low cost is not necessarily the path to victory or success. Also, personal contacts likely mattered in the lobbying to gain this contract, previously held by Global Strategies Group, that just recently ended during heightened security of the various votes in Iraq. Without getting into various details, but this change is suspicious and inappropriate on many levels:

  1. Global Risks had tactical awareness in a critical time. TripleCanopy's guards are coming from the outside, primarily from South America, but ultimately have zero situational awareness and will need substantial time to come up to speed.
  2. TripleCanopy's South Americans include Chilean and Peruvian soldiers, among others. No disrespect intended, but Chilean and Peruvian soldiers are not the caliber of the Gurkhas and Sri Lankans Global Risks had deployed. Not only is there a lesser level of professionalism, but the Chileans and Peruvians guards have fought with each other over old feuds.
  3. TripleCanopy's selection of guards has introduced a language barrier. Many of the guards do not speak English, the lingua franca. In a stressful environment where communication, integration, and awareness between military, diplomatic, political and security units is crucial, TripleCanopy has introduced a complicating factor when it did not previously exist. Global employed "British-trained Nepalese Gurkhas and Sri Lankans, a majority of whom speak at least some English and often speak it well."
  4. Private military companies, especially those providing tactical military force, are not licensed, monitored, or integrated with the military command, in theatre, Florida, or Washington. These are almost exclusively contracted by the civilian leadership. The Green Zone security contract, for example, is handled by the State Department. While they may liaise with the military in some form, it is unlikely this consultation is with the tactical commanders.

B) The training of foreign nationals and foreign soldiers (the soldiers may or may not actually belong to a state) is something the US Special Forces (Green Berets) is trained for and excels at. This builds inter-military cooperation, trust, and tactical intelligence opportunities through the friendships, understandings, and awareness at the personal level. The hiring out of this capability is notable in Croatia, a perfect example of "foreign policy by proxy," which is really were the concerns about private military force should be focused.

The Croatian example to intervene when "political sensitivities" prevented overt participation is demonstrative of intentionally avoiding Congressional, and democratic, oversight and international law. The net result was a poor investment when both the US and Croatian governments may have gotten more bang for the buck if they had used normal US military channels in terms of services and long term relations between militaries. Three factors contributed to the US using a private military force to carry out foreign policy outside of Congressional or media oversight, however. The first was an inability to provide direct assistance because of a UN embargo in the region. Second was the need to respond to Russian assistance to the Serbs against the Croatians which, third, the US saw Croatia as moderating force in the Balkans and wanted to guarantee this through NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which necessitated improving civil-military relations, establish democratic control of, and restructure the train the Croatian Armed Forces (Hrvatska Vojska or HV). As an example of what the HV was before, it intentionally filled the ranks with untrained recruits to inflate casualty figures to appeal to the outside world for assistance. After a few months of training from retired US officers, including generals - the CEO, who met with Croatian military leadership, was a former US Army Chief of Staff - allowed the HV to execute two sophisticated and successful military operations. Operation Storm, the second operation, was seen as a textbook example of a NATO operation. It is worth noting the sophisticated offense that brought the Serbs to the negotiating table may not have resulting purely from training in the limited time available. It is likely the engagement of MPRI was a clear signal to the Croats of American backing of the Croat government (see Avant, Singer).

C) The Private Military industry in general is not nefarious, evil, or generally with ill-intent. The modernization of the military through technology, the transformation to the All-Volunteer Force, even the conversion of some elements of the US Armed Forces into what may be referred to as "occupational" motivation (money to pay for college, experience for the private sector, etc) versus "institutional" motivation (duty, honor, country) contribute to increasing needs to outsource. The United Kingdom has outsourced training for their nuclear submarines and operation of their air tanker fleet (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have followed suit on the latter).

The use of some private military company to help Somalia is understandable to keep US troops out of a fray with national security implications. Assistance to Columbia, for example, is carried out through DynCorp (a subsidiary of CSC). A couple DynCorp employees have been held hostage for some time with express dismissal of their plight by the US Government (the four Blackwater contractors killed and mutilated at Fallujah do not fall under the same argumentative rubric as the DynCorp employees, but that is for another post).

For those wondering, Lt Col Tim Spicer and his band of merry men, Aegis (see recent news), might be more similar to TopCat than say MPRI, Blackwater, or a myriad of other providers based in the US or the UK. However, Spicer firmly believes and seeks to promote the benefits of privatized force when governments fear to tread. He also has an established company, with a real headquarters (not an answering service), business members (not cousins), and does not change his title within his own company. In other words, there is consistency to his operation, and level of professionalism (even if morality and wiseness of decisions can be questioned) that disallows Spicer or Casini from being remotely comparable.

In summary, my opinion is the TopCat / Somalia contract is not what it seems. There are other industry operators that would have been far better choices for anti-piracy or even for a cover op if it was above board. These could have purchased the Cobra boats, if they truly are the best of breed. Further, the $50m is a magical number for US export controls, exceeding which requires Congressional notification. Regardless, State, not the Department of Homeland Security, approves the sale.

Curiously, there is an indication that TopCat may be a shell for clandestine activity. If this is true, I would expect new incorporation information to surface about TopCat, chiefly that is was reorganized outside of the United States to avoid ITAR and AECA. As a vehicle for covert activity, I am suspicious of TopCat's viability with its easily retrieved checkered pass. With the recent proliferation of private military firms, creating a new front would be easy and not stand out. I believe this contract is a farce on its face. Money laundering? No, probably not directly but likely integrated into the funding scheme for this operation. EU funding has been suggested, but again, direct funding or alternative sources?

Or, and this has strayed quite far from being a primer on privatized violence, is this contract more similar to Project Jennifer and the Glomar Explorer (to retrieve ordinance dumped in 1991)?

Congressional approval would be a rubber stamp under these circumstances. News of this action would easily, as is apparent, hidden among all the other headlines, including Bush's 30 Nov 05 speech. That would allow for the greater than $50m price tag if TopCat is still based in the US and is the primary contractor. Funny thought: if this is correct, then Casini's gaf, "let the Special Forces guys...", is like Paracha's comment. In other words, his failure to otherwise identify his "business partners" as something other than the active duty-implied "Special Forces" stems from his lack of discretion and and not a slip of the tongue.

Or, has TopCat become a necessary cover for regional operations of the US armed forces or intelligence services? This would mean the anti-piracy line is either a cover or a secondary mission. The public diplomatic efforts of the US are meaningless in the region without virtually zero contact or interest with outside media. With media coverage nearly nil, even the humanitarian orgs are mostly gone, sightings of "US military-style" personnel would be adequately covered by this story.

Back to the PMC topic, to see a dated listed of private military companies in Iraq, see CorpWatch's listing here.