Updated 08-27-08 2230 ST: Added some good insight from Grim ("the smartest man in the room™") and Marc Danziger after the Jump.
The Blackwater Worldwide trip had been in the works for awhile. We didn't have a good confirm on the exact format or date until the week of the trip. And, I had just had surgery and had a tumor removed 2.5 weeks before with a nice 2 inch incision to care for (I'm fine, btw, no need to email or comment) and wasn't sure I should be running around ranges or doing hot laps in a police interceptor. But, after some thought, sometimes you just gotta say (come on, say it with me), "WTF!"
So, I got Uncle Jimbo on our flight manifest at the last minute thanks to Bryan O'Leary who is a lobbyist for Blackwater. Bryan flew F-18's with a pal of my family. Good man who originally hails from Senator Coburn's office (the original Pork Buster).
We also met Anne Tyrrell who is Blackwater's Director of PR. Talk about a tough job...I think Anne really enjoys her job (I know I would). I have written articles (and ghost written a few) about private security firms. Several good friends of mine used the lowering wages of contractors in Iraq as an economic indicator of how things were going there (ie. getting safer). And, I also know more than a few contractors who have worked for Blackwater.
The trip began with a flight from DC to Blackwater's 7,000 acre facility in Moyock, NC (As trained Airborne professionals, Jim and I fell asleep within minutes upon taking our seats in the Cessna). Moyock is within a 2 hour radius of some of the largest Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, FBI, etc. bases and is the largest private training facility in the US. This was purely intentional. More than ten years ago, the intent was to compete with regional fire arms ranges for law enforcement (LE) and private training (corporate security etc.) with the eventual goal of garnering some military contracts. In order to do better than the regionals, Blackwater needed to have access to the population requiring training. Being close reduced costs of the trainees and made face-to-face visits cheaper and easier for the two negotiating parties.
Erik Prince founded Blackwater along with several others, including the President (and former US Navy SEAL), Gary Jackson. Gary met us at Blackwater HQ and spent the next several hours with us, giving an unofficial history lesson on Blackwater, and even driving our vehicle on the tour.
In our nation's history, military strength is not a priority until we've been attacked. The turning point in contracting occurred in 2000 when the USS Cole was bombed. The US Navy did not have the facilities or the personnel to immediately begin security training. They turned to Blackwater who had their training program up and running in less than month.
This would become one of Blackwater's hallmarks - extremely agile and fast turn around on contracts and then execute the highest level of professional training.
Why didn't the military ramp up training quickly?
Anyone who served (like I did) in 2000 knows that manpower was reduced, equipment was reduced, training facilities were reduced AND the military was hardly agile.
Rob Neppell who was along on the trip, and a civilian, writes about the why:
...Blackwater has molded itself as everything the military isn't --- and perhaps can't be: organizationally agile, quick to try new approaches, able to go from thought to vision to design to product in the time it would take the service branches (or traditional military contractors) to form a study group to develop the commmittee that would make a recommendation on whether or not to study the feasibility of that original thought...
Started with a few contracts to train Navy boarding parties, the folks at Blackwater became innovators. Side note: If you get one thing out of my visit to their company, it should be that they are consummate professionals. I was expecting professionalism but was surprised at the extreme high level of expertise and concern. The second thing you should understand from my trip is that they are innovators. They are innovators unfettered by the mind-numbing reams of regulations that stifles military innovation outside of SOCOM.
After all we've been through over the last eight years, our military is still not agile. For example, we have been contracting Russian aircraft in the 'stan to drop food and water to our troops because there is not enough capacity in the USAF to do the job.
Guess who wants in on some of that action?
FROM BLACK TO GREEN
As some of you know, I am an eco-environmentalist of sorts. The "eco" stands for economic. Businesses will gravitate towards greener practices when the incentives (ie savings) are there. I am not suggesting that Blackwater is eco-friendly for it's image or because it is staggeringly concerned about the environment.
Blackwater went green before being green was cool in order to SAVE MONEY. And they are on to some very interesting adaptations of eco-technology. Some of you may argue that they don't innovate as much as adapt. For the sake of continuity, I'll argue that sometimes they adapt current practices and sometimes they completely innovate. (If you want to argue about meaningless semantics, I don't have time for that.)
For example, a gallon of oil from Iraq must get processed elsewhere (ie the U.S.) and then shipped back to Blackwater teams in Iraq. You may pay $4 per gallon at the pump. It costs between $100-120 per gallon for Blackwater and the military in Iraq. So, in order to reduce those costs, Blackwater is investing in adapting wind power for their generators around the world. Each generator would have a small windmill (not like the test system pictured) to run on stored wind power for night operations saving, conservatively, 40% on fuel costs.
Many of the vans at Blackwater run on vegetable oil. The reason for this is to reduce costs, but also to experiment locally with technologies and innovations that may be adapted in hostile environments. [One problem with using alternative fuels is that Carolina bears think they're tasty! I also think that if you need fuel, all you need to do is knock over a Benihana and viola! you're in business...]
INNOVATIONS AND ADAPTATIONS
Portable Ranges - Gary Jackson stopped our tour so we could exit the vehicles and enter a portable range. Built of ship containers that can be detached and shipped and rebuilt quickly into a range, Blackwater's portable system is in demand by Police Departments without easy access to training facilities.
The Grizzly MRAP I and II - after the four Blackwater contractors were killed and hung from the bridge in Fallujah, Blackwater ended supporting convoy operations. With some convoys needing 20 translators just to communicate with all of the third country national truck drivers, Blackwater also didn't see that as a smart way to do the job. Blackwater has a significant advantage in that its founder, Erik Prince, owns his own automotive/racing company. So, out of concern for their own people and seeing a need for armored vehicles, they put that technology, along with military knowledge to develop their first Mine Resistant carrier (MRAP) - the Grizzly. We also were able to look at some of their hush-hush projects. No photos, but when you see a tactical armored 15 ton vehicle able to pull 160kph and carry six men, you can't help but wonder what you could have done with that as a Cav Scout...
Another example is in air ship technology which Gary Jackson refers to as "A poor man's UAV." (official Blackwater photo at left). They aim to provide more eyes in the sky than the military can (and provide them faster with longer duration/air time and at reasonable air speeds of around 50 knots).
Blackwater's aviation maintenance and flight ops are growing. With over 100 aircraft, they are assuming the void left in the air battle space by the USAF (as described above). They did over 11,000 missions in Afghanistan in 2007.
I think that most of us can agree that Africa will be one of the (if not "the") battleground(s) of the future.
Peacekeeping Operations are something that Blackwater is looking into, and, from their point of view, something that they could be doing effectively. Many news outlets carried the news that Mia Farrow and others have approached Blackwater about going in to try to stop the violence in Darfur. Make no mistake, Blackwater is not naive about the needs on the ground in Darfur. I've said before here and on TV that all it would take to quell the violence is ONE battalion of the 82nd Airborne.
But hold on - first, where are you going to get those paratroops and, next, what the hell are you going to do after you've stopped the violence? There are security, medical, logistical, and training nightmares that have kept us and everyone else out of Darfur. Blackwater, as entrepreneurs and innovators, think that they can go in and stop the slaughter, train peace keepers, maintain their equipment, provide medical relief and avenues for NGOs to safely operate. This would not be a 3 month op. The would be a decades long op. You need continual presence to maintain continuity - continuity of maintenance, equipment accountability, training, relationships, logistical support, etc. It could be done, but it won't be cheap and there is no guarantee of success. Erik Prince has told the WSJ that he would do the Darfur op at cost as a charitable operation.
Foreign Internal Defense is an area in which some of us have some expertise. Blackwater trained the Azerbaijan UDT teams to protect Baku harbor. The approach was successful and Gary Jackson wants to expand that approach to marry up Blackwater with many of our military forces conducting FID missions.
One problem that our military faces is one that I outlined above about Peacekeeping. We send in SF or SEALs or Marines to train FID forces. We give the FID force millions of dollars of equipment, and then we leave. When we return in a year or more, the millions of dollars of equipment are gone (on the black market), the soldiers untrained, etc. You could justify spending a lot on having a rotation of Blackwater experts on the ground to train and maintain during and between Us military rotations by the savings (not losing the equipment). And, it may turn out that we could end military rotations altogether after a few rotations because the training might become generational or inherent in the FID force because of the continuity.
Final note: I would much rather this be handled by our own military. I don't know if Blackwater could be successful in Darfur, but they've gotta be better than the UN. And I will say that I am utterly sick of people unwilling to try.
We wrapped up our interview and tour with Gary Jackson and headed off to Range 5 for a little practice. Since we didn't have much time to decide on whether to shoot Glock 9's or AR15s, we let Mary Katherine Ham decide. Wisely, she picked the AR15.
Our trainers were a former Marine Sergeant and a former SWAT officer. I have spent months of my life on ranges and ran hundreds of them (burned down one or two as well...). These guys really knew what they were doing. It was easy to see how they could take a noob for three days and turn them into a pretty good shot and, more importantly, a really good team mate.
It had been three years or so since the last time I fired an AR15, but it felt good and natural after the first tight shot group. I even managed to put a smiley face on my target (thinking "Smile, asshole.") Jim availed himself nicely and MKH, first time AR15 shooter, TORE IT UP. And, as much as we kid Marc Danziger (the best dressed range trainee I've ever seen - Italian shoes, even) about the huge money he has spent on training, we ate some humble pie as he demonstrated that his investment was worth it.
After the AR15 range, we moved to the Driving Range.
Our head trainer was a former 3rd ID (ROCK OF THE MARNE!) Sergeant and my drive trainer was a former State Trooper. I'll post Jimbo's video again below:
It should be noted that this was better than firing off hundreds of AR15 rounds...better than a roller coaster...almost better than a jump...I think I laughed the whole time and had a smile on my face for hours afterward. Adrenaline has always been good to me...you want adrenaline? Take a hot lap at Blackwater.
The track was not clean. On purpose. They simulate real world conditions on the track. I wanted to try the ramming pad where they train drivers on how to run road blocks, bust down gates and obstacles, and how to survive very dangerous situations. Maybe next time. I also wanted some Little Bird time but was denied. Next time.
FINAL: THE BLACKWATER REPUTATION
In the end, a lot of the negativity toward Blackwater is inherently political. It's popular to bash them just as it was popular for Dick Durbin to stand up in the Senate and label the military as "Pol Pots." There are just as many contractors as soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Personally, in my opinion, Blackwater deserves very very little of it's negative reputation, the rest is just anti-Bush, anti-victory BS. [There's a whole chapter in Senator Webb's book that we may look at debunking on private military organizations.]
Blackwater has lost some good men protecting State Department employees. No State Dept employee has been wounded or killed or captured under Blackwater protection. The next time you see a Congressman or Senator bitch about Blackwater, ask them if they'd be willing to go without their protection in Iraq or Afghanistan (Senators Hagel, Obama, Reed, or Biden anyone?).
Blackwater's bread and butter, though, is in training and logistics. They innovate, deliver, and grow in those areas. Their aviation business is booming while they are either reducing the security side or that business is in decline (opinions vary on this).
In the end, I'd rather see our military and State department be agile and flexible enough to do what it needs to do in Darfur and other hot areas. But, until Congress, the President, State and the Pentagon get their act together (don't hold your breath), we will need to depend on the private firms. And if you want the best, if you want a values-based entrepreneurial and highly professional firm (that happens to be bad ass), I think Blackwater is the only way to go.
[Edit note: may update with more photos later]
Update: Our own Grim, who writes at Winds of Change too, offers up a different opinion at Marc's first post about Blackwater:
...Blackwater is a fine organization, don't get me wrong -- I have met a few of their number here and there, and I've got some respect for them. But they can't do it alone.
The fact is that BW is not immune to the need for an overall COIN strategy. It may be they can disrupt a situation like Darfur, but that just means your opponents drop back into the insurgent stance.
COIN doesn't work with just kinetic troops -- "elite" or otherwise. You need fairly massive civil affairs investment, and that's something BW doesn't have and will never have. That's not to say that corporations can't do it -- KBR does it well -- but the BW costs are simply a fraction of what the total cost would be. Yes, you can do COIN privately. But they still need a local government to support, even if it's one they help stand up; and they need a huge amount of medical, economic, and technical help to pull off the stability operations that are what really end an insurgency.
BW can do great things, to be sure. But they can't fix something like Darfur, not by themselves.
And later this comment about the Geneva Conventions: