Commentary

Blackwater as Wal-Mart

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Middle East Times on August 18, 2008.

Say whatever you want about Blackwater Worldwide — and hardly a day goes by when something isn’t being said about it — it does not put all its eggs in one basket. Long before the company’s recent announcement that it would seek to de-emphasize its personal security work in the future, it had created a diversified corporate structure. To use military terminology, it is a combined arms operation.

While most attention is focused on Blackwater Security Consulting, the unit that provides contractors for work in Iraq and elsewhere, there is far more to it than that. Blackwater has long sought to be a one-stop shopping center, a sort of Wal-Mart for all the U.S. government’s military outsourcing needs, and a review of its business units shows it has gone a long way toward meeting that goal.

Consider Greystone Ltd., which is a Blackwater entity. A private security service, it is registered in Barbados and employs third-country nationals for offshore security work. Its Web site advertises its ability to maintain and train “a workforce drawn from a diverse base of former special operations, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals ready on a moment’s notice for global deployment.” Tasks can be from very small-scale up to major operations to facilitate large-scale stability operations requiring large numbers of people to assist in securing a region.

Need something delivered by air? Look no further than Aviation Worldwide Services. AWS was founded by Richard Pere and Tim Childrey, and is based in Melbourne, Fla. Several of the MD-530 helicopters used by Blackwater Security Consulting in Iraq are also operated by AWS.

AWS owns and operates three subsidiaries: STI Aviation Inc., Air Quest Inc. and Presidential Airways Inc. In April 2003 it was acquired by Blackwater USA. Blackwater also operates an airport at its North Carolina facility, called Blackwater Airstrip Airport.

Of course, some of these units have had their own controversies.

Presidential Airways is a charter cargo and passenger airline based at Melbourne International Airport. It holds a Secret Facility Clearance from the Pentagon. It operates several CASA 212 aircraft in addition to a Boeing 767.

Among other services, according to a European Parliament report, Presidential Airways has provided rendition flights to the CIA.

One of the firm’s aircraft crashed on Nov. 27, 2004, in Afghanistan; it had been a contract flight for the U.S. Air Force en route from Bagram to Farah. All aboard, three soldiers and three civilian crew members were killed. Several of their survivors filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Presidential in October 2005.

In December 2006 the National Transportation Safety Board released a critical report about the crash. It raised many questions about the safety of U.S. military personnel due to lack of oversight of contractors.

The NTSB found that the crew deliberately avoided the standard route and took a joy ride in another direction, eventually becoming trapped in a canyon and slamming into a mountainside. The report said that if the company had proper procedures for tracking aircraft and communicating with them, rescuers would have arrived in time to help Army Spc. Harley Miller, who survived.

Presidential Airways was faulted for failing “to provide sufficient oversight of its flight crews, did not ensure that specific routes were defined and flown and had inadequate communications and flight-locating capability.”

Blackwater said it is not liable for casualties in a war zone and that the NTSB report’s findings were politically motivated.

Still, Uncle Sam finds Presidential Airways useful enough that in late September 2007 it received a $92 million contract from the Pentagon for air transportation in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

STI Aviation focuses on aircraft maintenance and is a Federal Aviation Administration-certified repair station.

Many of Blackwater’s aircraft are registered to Blackwater affiliate EP Aviation LLC, named for Blackwater’s owner, Erik Prince.

So Blackwater is on the ground and in the air. What about the sea? It has that covered, too. Blackwater Maritime Security Services offers tactical training for maritime force protection units. It has trained Greek security forces for the 2004 Olympics and Azerbaijan’s Naval Sea Commandos.

Blackwater’s facilities include a man-made lake with stacked containers simulating a ship for maritime assaults. Blackwater received a contract to train U.S. Navy sailors following the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

And, of course, given that much American economic news these days deals with housing and real estate issues, it is only appropriate that Blackwater should have created the Raven Development Group. RDG got its start in 1997 by designing and building the world’s largest private tactical training facility: Blackwater USA.

Among other things, RDG offers general contracting, construction management, designing and building services to its clients.

And then there is the ultimate PMC — no, not private military contractor. Rather it is the Prince Manufacturing Corp., which seems, in part, to be a continuation of the successful family business started by Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s father, Edgar. Its Web site notes, “The Prince family’s legacy extends to Prince Manufacturing. Prince Manufacturing will rewrite the way contract manufacturing is done. We continue to add new capabilities to ensure that we can be your single source contract manufacturing solution provider with complete solutions throughout the supply chain, all under one corporate roof.”

Not only does it have subsidiaries in Indiana and North Carolina, but also in Oxford and Mexico.

All in all, according to a recent Small Business Administration report, Blackwater USA, which changed its name to Blackwater Worldwide in 2007, appears to have 29 different affiliates. Considering Blackwater only started in 1997, that makes Erik Prince one very capable man.

U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.