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Soldiers for Sale
By Adam Zagorin, Time magazine, Vol.149 no.21, 26 May 1997
The Cold War is over, but with demand for military muscle stronger than ever around the world, hired guns are going corporate.
The company logo, a metallic-blue chessboard knight, rears across the screen and unseats an opposing king. As the corporate promo continues, scenes of military derring-do flit by and a voice-over extols Executive Outcomes Ltd.'s product line: low-intensity conflict, sniper and special-forces training, rapid deployment, tank warfare. At the podium is Eeben Barlow, military marketer extraordinaire. A slim, fair-haired 40-year-old, he is chief executive of Executive Outcomes, a closely held company that is one of the world's leading purveyors of private military muscle. But Barlow, a onetime intelligence agent for a South African military unit that carried out assassinations, now prefers gray flannel to fatigues. Holstered on one hip is a cell phone, on the other a Czech-made revolver. "We never see ourselves as Rambo," says Barlow, who calls his employees "privatized peacekeepers."
Barlow is fast becoming the soldier-of-fortune set's answer to GE's Jack Welch. He puts a cheery corporate face on one of the world's oldest professions: mercenaries, or "military consultants," as most prefer to be known. It's a messy world out there. Since the cold war's demise, there's been no end to conflict. >From Azerbaijan to Zaire, disorganized military forces need help. And for second-rate dictators trying to extend their reigns or Third World countries trying to protect first-class mineral deposits, the market for private military assistance is ballooning. From the suburbs of Washington and Tel Aviv to London and Pretoria, a growing number of competitors are scrambling for contracts that run into millions of dollars, hawking their wares using everything from Websites to slick brochures.
For instance, contracts worth more than $170 million for training Saudi Arabia's national guard and air force have gone to Vinnell Corp. and a sister company, both partly owned by Washington's Carlyle merchant-banking group, whose chairman is former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. Military Professional Resources Inc., another capital-area firm, won the business to improve the fighting skills of troops in Bosnia and Croatia. "We offer expertise from the greatest fighting force on earth, the U.S. military," says former Army General Harry Soyster, a vice president at M.P.R.I. M.P.R.I. deploys nothing more lethal than flip charts and Magic Markers. Of course, the firm will gladly show clients how to point and shoot an arsenal of weaponry, ranging from rifles to main battle tanks.
The hard guys are currently employing the hard sell. At a recent arms show in Abu Dhabi, an Executive Outcomes booth quietly competed for business with mercenaries from Britain, France and the U.S. Topflight mercenaries and military consultants, many recruited from elite military units like the U.S. Special Forces, Britain's S.A.S. and Scots Guards and South Africa's 32 Battalion, can command anywhere from about $3,500 a month for enlisted men to $13,000 a month for officers or fighter pilots. That is far more than most of those involved could make wearing a regular-army uniform, and the package is usually topped off with free death-and-disability insurance.
But that's cheap compared with the more expensive merchandise the firms encourage satisfied clients to buy. Take Levdan, one of a variety of low-profile Israeli firms that have long peddled military assistance. Not long ago, the company completed a three-year mission in the Congo, during which more than 200 Israelis trained the armed forces and the elite guard protecting President Pascal Lissouba. The Congolese government then agreed to buy more than $10 million worth of Israeli weapons and military equipment.
Not to be outdone, Executive Outcomes has brokered the sale of, or leased on behalf of clients, tens of millions of dollars' worth of military equipment, including the Soviet MiG-23 and MiG-27 fighter aircraft and Mi-17 and Mi-24 transport-and-attack helicopters. A recent weapons delivery arranged by the British firm Sandline International for the government of Papua New Guinea was hauled halfway around the globe in a Russian Antonov An-124, a huge military transport that Sandline says it hired for $100,000 a day.
In Angola, where a lengthy civil war recently came to an end, the company was hired to protect some of that nation's oil wells and ended up involved in the award of a diamond concession. While on the job, Executive Outcomes found itself helping suppress a long-running insurgency. Not long afterward, an important Angolan diamond concession was awarded a firm called Branch Energy Ltd., a subsidiary of DiamondWorks. The latter company is listed on the Vancouver stock exchange and has, in turn, hired Executive Outcomes to provide security. "A major premise of the new mercenary business is access to natural resources," explains Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, a London-based newsletter.
Yet business is not always so good. Sandline International, which is headed by a former British military officer turned businessman, saw its $36 million contract with the government of Papua New Guinea blow up last month like a mishandled grenade. Brought in to help suppress a longtime secessionist guerrilla war, Sandline found its operations abruptly terminated when elements of the Papua military objected to the mercenaries. Nearly 70 of Sandline's officers and men were expelled. Tons of arms and equipment were impounded, and the Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, was forced to resign.
Not all military consultants are playing by the new rules. In Zaire, a force of several hundred Serb, Croat and Ukrainian thugs hired by the Mobutu dictatorship committed widely publicized atrocities and were then overrun by rebels. Not exactly a performance to attract future employers. But then the new corporate mercenaries would probably not have worked for Mobutu in the first place. Their business strategy is to seek out politically correct governments, natural-resource providers or even nonprofit organizations. The Red Cross, which suffered nine dead in conflict zones last year, hires armed guards to protect some of its installations. Other relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders, which lost three people in Rwanda, could be forced to move in a similar direction. But even nonprofits trying to right wrongs in the world's trouble spots are likely to discover that hired guns do not come cheap.
--Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Helen Gibson/London, Peter Hawthorne/Johannesburg and Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv
THE TOP HIRED GUNS
Here are some of the outfits that sell their men and arms to companies and governments around the world
A leader in its field, the firm is mainly staffed by apartheid-era, former South African military officers
Partly owned by a banking group whose chairman is a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Virginia-based firm trains Saudi Arabia's national guard
The low-key Israeli firm trained troops and bodyguards for Congolese President Pascal Lissouba, who then purchased $10 million worth of Israeli weapons and military equipment