By Sharon Weinberger
Facing a growing backlash over its operations in Iraq, the private security firm Blackwater is formulating a new business pitch — to expand into U.N.-style peacekeeping and humanitarian aid.
The company is buying a fleet of aircraft and ground vehicles, including its own airship, hoping to win contracts to secure failed states before the U.N. arrives.
“We can give what we call one-stop shopping, turnkey solutions,” says John Wrenn, who heads Global Stability Initiatives at the newly re-branded Blackwater Worldwide.
Linked to several violent incidents in Iraq, including the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad that sparked an international media furor and congressional hearings, the company over the past few months has attempted a public relations overhaul, modifying its name, revamping its logo, and engaging in a massive PR counter-assault to defend against its “cowboy” image.
Blackwater is one of dozens of private companies providing security services in Iraq and other war zones. It is part of a growing military outsourcing industry that exploded during the Iraq conflict and is only likely to get bigger. Proponents believe private security companies, or PSCs, are the future of military operations — and peacekeeping.
As Blackwater fights to keep its State Department security contracts in Iraq, the company is expanding into areas where its competitors have not. Blackwater recently purchased the McArthur, a naval vessel intended for disaster response and training, but that can also be used as a “mothership” for launching peacekeeping operations.
Blackwater now produces the Grizzly, a bomb-resistant vehicle that sports a unique diamond-shaped hull. In addition to a fleet of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, Blackwater has also moved into unmanned airships, building the Polar 400, a dirigible that would fly between 5,000 and 15,000 feet, and is designed to monitor border areas or track terrorists. The airship could provide surveillance, or eventually, transport into war-ravaged areas.
All this new technology is part of a broader company expansion. Blackwater argues that it can provide a “transition force” to take over security for failed states after military operations are finished.
Blackwater believes it could, in addition to providing security, also deliver aid and oversee disaster relief. This is work now done primarily by non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, and humanitarian groups. Blackwater executives have suggested sending a private peacekeeping force into Darfur, for instance.
“They would be the guys that go in and provide security, taking the handover from the military, and create the safe zones and start to provide the services, until the U.N. takes over,” Wrenn says.
That’s where the technology comes in. The Grizzly vehicle can ferry peacekeepers, or in an ambulance version, could be used to transport NGO workers and patients. And the airship could provide surveillance, or be used to ferry supplies for disaster relief.
“The beauty of an airship is you don’t need big runways and airports,” Wrenn says. “You can use them to deliver supplies where airplanes can’t go.”
Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association, which represents private security contractors (though not Blackwater, which pulled out of the group in October), says in many parts of the world, “private companies are in fact holding peace operations together.”
The industry, in Brooks’ view, is in part a natural consequence of the West’s unwillingness to commit its military forces to troubled regions, leading to what he calls “Westernless peacekeeping.” Globally, such contracting is a $20 billion industry, and growing, he contends.
Critics, however, note that the Blackwater name is a huge obstacle to its plans for expanded peacekeeping. Erik Prince, a billionaire and former Navy SEAL, founded Blackwater as a training company a decade ago, but its rapid growth, particularly into private security detail work in Iraq, has landed the company in the middle of a debate over “mercenaries,” a term that Blackwater and similar companies detest. The Blackwater controversy now includes an alleged conflict of interest between the State Department’s recently resigned inspector general and his brother, a one-time Blackwater board member; questions about the tax status of its contractors; and an ongoing fight over a West Coast training facility.
Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on private contractors, says Blackwater’s recent PR campaign may not be enough to fix the company’s image. “You can change your logo, you can have a public relations blitz. It’s nice but it’s not going to change this,” Singer says. “These long-term attitudes are sinking in.”
While Blackwater’s push to diversify is understandable — given the potential liability of its personal security work — its move into manufacturing is unusual for a services company.
Robert Young Pelton, the author of Licensed to Kill, a book on PSCs, calls many of Blackwater’s technologies “wacky,” comparable to something cooked up in the Batcave.
“They tend to be strange versions of existing products,” he says. “The blimp is not technology; it’s just a hot-air balloon, the oldest technology in aviation. What (Prince) has done is come up with homemade, kludged ideas. The government may or may not buy them.”
Though he is skeptical of Blackwater’s prospects as a global peacekeeping force, Pelton says that Prince’s vision is noble, even if it lends itself to black comedy. He compares Erik Prince to the Dark Prince of comics. “Batman lives his life as a mild-mannered billionaire, and then at night goes out and saves the world,” says Pelton. “It’s all right to have a big idea, but the big idea has never been tested, and if you play it forward and send Backwater to Darfur, imagine the various permutations of disaster if his current activities are employed over there.”
If Pelton thinks Prince is Batman, Wrenn has his own version of how Blackwater should be viewed.
“It’s like Bonanza,” says Wrenn. “The Cartwright family were cowboys, but wearing white hats. They were the good guys, the people you want your neighbors to be. Yeah, they carry guns, but it’s the nature of the business.”