Monday, April 11, 2016

Inside Erik Prince’s Treacherous Drive to Build a Private Air Force

FROM THE EARLY DAYS of the war on terror, Prince aggressively built up an aviation wing at Blackwater and supplied aircraft to the CIA and other government agencies. His “little bird” helicopters — with armed commandos hanging from their frames — became a notorious symbol of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. By 2013, after scandals, investigations, and a $42 million settlement with the Justice Department, Blackwater had been broken up, with its pieces renamed and Prince largely excluded from their operations. But his vision of creating a private air force endured.

In early 2014, Prince and Citic Group, China’s largest state-owned investment firm, founded Frontier Services Group, a publicly traded logistics and aviation company based in Hong Kong. FSG offered services such as shipping minerals, chartering flights for executives, and occasional medevacs from remote African locations. Over the past two years, Prince has given interviews and speeches describing his vision of FSG. “This is not a patriotic endeavor of ours,” Prince said of his new company. “We’re here to build a great business and make some money doing it.” China, he said, “has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.” But while he burnished his new image as chairman of a public company, he was secretly overseeing the clandestine attack aircraft program.

Prince, together with a small group of loyal deputies, hid this effort from the corporate leadership at FSG by means of non-company encrypted email, aliases, and outright deception. When Prince pitched logistics contracts to African governments on behalf of FSG, he and his team simultaneously developed plans for paramilitary contracts with those same governments.

In 2013, when FSG was being created, Prince and his team were already developing a secret blueprint for weaponized crop dusters to target terrorists and assist counterinsurgency operations in Africa. Originally drafted in late 2013, the plan was updated more than 100 times through the end of 2015. The goal was to offer affordable, high-powered air superiority to Prince’s clients that could “break the paradigm of attrition warfare in low intensity conflict.” Prince’s plan predicted strong “global marketability” for the small attack planes.

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