Does Erik Prince’s Private Air Force Even Make Sense?
The mercenary entrepreneur is probably wrong about the market for private warplanes
You probably remember Blackwater, the notorious U.S. mercenary company that rose to fame — or infamy, as it were — during the Iraq war. You might also remember Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater in 1997. Prince had no choice but to sell his company after a spate of shootings involving Blackwater employees, including the one 2007 incident that resulted in the deaths of 17 unarmed civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad. The company has since renamed itself “Academi.”
Now Prince is under scrutiny again — this time for reportedly trying to set up a private air force.
On April 11, The Intercept published a story accusing Prince of weaponizing light aircraft. Prince, the story alleges, converted two Thrush 510Gs, which are usually used as crop dusters, into light attack planes capable of carrying a wide array of weapons and aerial reconnaissance payloads.
The extensive modifications reportedly included ballistic glass and Kevlar armor for the cockpit plus anti-explosive mesh for the fuel tank as well as hardpoints compatible with both NATO and Warsaw Pact guided and unguided munitions.
The story reads like a spy novel. It describes how Prince allegedly hid behind a network of shell companies, concealing the real nature of the airplane modifications from the board of the very company that paid for them, Frontier Services Group, of which Prince is the founder and chairman.
The Intercept’s story is incredibly well sourced, with former and current employees of FSG and Airborne Technologies — the Austrian company that handled the planes’ conversion — providing details and internal documents.
The scandal is obvious and extends beyond merely misappropriating company funds. The Intercept doesn’t accuse Prince of any crime, but he may have breached U.S. and Austrian and E.U. export regulations concerning war materials. What’s baffling is Prince’s obsession with the concept of a mercenary air force — and its utility and profitability in counterinsurgency operations, especially in African countries.
As the Intercept points out, Prince’s obsession with armed air wings goes back to his time at Blackwater. The company was notorious for deploying its own Little Bird helicopters, often seen with armed Blackwater agents hanging from their frames. But the Thrush deal takes that concept to a whole new level.
Airborne Technologies, in which Prince holds a 25-percent stake, fitted its signature SCAR-Pod surveillance sensor suit to the Thrush aircraft and also developed a custom pylon that would take both NATO and Eastern Bloc armaments, something that an ex-employee called “an impressive engineering accomplishment.”
The cost was substantial — $1 million for the airframes, with the customization adding at least another $7 million per plane, according to the story.
According to The Intercept’s sources, Prince claimed at various points to have potential customers lined up — including the governments of Mali, South Sudan and an unnamed Central Asian country. These purported customers would’ve either outright bought modified Thrush planes or rented them. But none of these deals came to fruition and today one of the two prototypes is in storage in an unidentified East African country, while the other remains in Austria.
At one point Prince raised with Airborne executives the prospect of converting up to 150 planes.
This poses an interesting question. Is there actually a market for a mercenary air force that would warrant the capital-intensive, high-risk and likely illegal investment Prince has made? Based on The Intercept’s sources, he had identified primarily African governments as potential customers, likely speculating that the continent’s current trouble with insurgencies could drive demand for the rugged, comparatively low-cost COIN planes.
But looking closely at the actual strategic and tactical needs, as well as the existing military capabilities of African countries, reveals that Prince’s private air force wouldn’t actually be a good fit for the majority of potential customers — and that’s leaving aside the legal and moral implications.
To be feasible, Prince’s hypothetical private air force would have to be considerable cheaper or, for political reasons, more desirable than simply sourcing competing airframes on the official international arms markets. Moreover, Prince’s Thrushes — rugged planes that are best suited for operations from dirt airstrips — are an odd choice of platform for the high-tech surveillance gear Prince added to them.
Despite the additional armor, a Thrush wouldn’t be able to defend against anything beyond small arms and small-caliber anti-aircraft fire. And to play to the strengths of Airborne’s advanced surveillance equipment, friendly forces would have to be trained and equipped with modern communication tools.
Instead of relying on a shady mercenary outfit and its hacked hardware, African governments could simply purchase — legally and without hassle — any of a wide range of advanced military aircraft specialized in the type of missions that Prince envisioned.
There’s the Brazilian Super Tucano, a plane of comparable size, ruggedness and price as the modified Thrush. Nine African countries operate this airframe or have professed an interest in acquiring it. Many more operate rotorcraft of Soviet design, often in modernized versions, which in many scenarios are more flexible than fixed-wing aircraft are.
More ambitious and financially better-off countries move upmarket and invest in mostly Russian hardware. Uganda, Algeria, and Angola are among the leading international operators of Su-30 multi-role fighters.
Especially in the Sahel, where mostly former-French colonies are currently fighting Al-Qaeda insurgents as well as the Boko Haram insurgency, local governments can also count on advanced aerial assets from allied Western nations. France has deployed advanced multi-role fighters and long-endurance drones to the region and, together with the United States, also provides aerial intelligence to its regional partners. The U.S. military flies fixed-wing surveillance planes out of airports such as that in Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso.
That doesn’t mean that Prince couldn’t find any customers for his planned mercenary air force. The government of South Sudan is a likely client, especially as Prince can draw upon his earlier dealings with Salva Kiir, the country’s embattled president. South Sudan is essentially broke, stuck in an ugly civil war, under threat of an arms embargo and has essentially no infrastructure capable of supporting more than the most basic aviation needs. At the height of the fighting, Kiir’s forces might have welcomed the capabilities that Prince’s modified Thrushes.
But Prince wasn’t able to deliver on a contract with South Sudan that included several modified aircraft, according to The Intercept. Even if the deal had gone through, customers with the profile of the South Sudanese government are few and far between. Prince would have tapped out the market with just one deal. Not to mention, Prince’s involvement would have become public sooner or later, guaranteeing an international outcry and strengthening the call for an arms embargo on his first and only customer.
Even by merely modifying and transferring two aircraft, Prince may have exposed himself to criminal investigations in two countries. The concept of a roaming band of aerial mercenaries, in addition to having a very limited customer base, would likely not be tolerated by the international community.
Even historically, there are few precedents for Prince’s plans. While mercenaries have served as pilots — and still do — for air forces lacking domestic training infrastructure, this is a wholly different affair than providing a whole package, including planes and weapons.
An exception to the rule was the South African outfit Executive Outcomes, which offered its clients the services of its own Mi-8 and Mi-24 attack helicopters and MiG-23 fighters, as well as main battle tanks. E.O. thrived in the 1990s, when civil wars raged across Africa. The company was actually the inspiration behind many of the modern legislation that regulates the business of military contractors. Its dissolution in 1998 should have been in warning sign to Prince that his business plans were unlikely to succeed.