WASHINGTON — Erik Prince, the former CEO of the private military company known as Blackwater, wants to step up the Afghan air war with a private air force capable of intelligence collection and close-air support, according to a recent proposal submitted to the Afghan government.
According to a senior Afghan military official, Prince has submitted a business proposal offering a “turn-key composite air wing” to help the fledgling Afghan air force in its fight against the Taliban and other militant groups.
The development comes as the White House is considering a plan to draw down the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and replace the ensuing power vacuum with contractors.
Pentagon officials are skeptical of that plan. Moreover, a senior Afghan defense official told Military Times that U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has refused to meet with Prince regarding the contractor plan.
Military Times has reached out to U.S. military officials in Afghanistan for a comment on Nicholson’s meeting or lack thereof with Prince and have yet to receive a reply.
The proposal submitted to the Afghan government in March boasts an impressive array of combat aircraft for a private company. The aircraft offered in the proposal includes fixed-wing planes, attack helicopters and drones capable of providing close-air support to maneuvering ground forces, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by Military Times.
The proposal promises to provide ”high speed response” close-air support and ”the entire country can be responded to in under 1 hour.” The proposal states that weapons release decisions will still be made by Afghans.
The air frames are also outfitted with equipment to provide intelligence collection that includes imagery intelligence, signals intelligence and communications intelligence. The aircraft would be operated by the private company’s employees.
One tool in particular is an iPhone application called Safe Strike. Safe Strike is a deconfliction tool for air tactical controllers to safely and accurately call in precision airstrikes or indirect fire, according to the proposal.
The proposal also promises to ”conduct medical evacuation in combat situations” with ”ex-military medics and door gunners,” according to a copy of the proposal.
The Afghan air force is in the first stages of transition from its old fleet of Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters to U.S. UH-60A model Black Hawks — a development Nicholson deemed as necessary to help break the stalemate in Afghanistan.
However, those helicopters won’t be arriving in Afghanistan for almost two years, and training isn’t expected to begin until later this fall.
With battlefield casualties rising and the continued seesawing of territory between Afghan and Taliban control, Prince’s proposal seeks to provide an interim private air force while the Afghan air force reaches full operational capability.
However, not everyone is on board with the plan. Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Afghanistan won’t accept a private contractor force.
“President Ghani has told me he won’t accept it,” Neumann told Military Times in an interview. “Afghans will never accept this.”
Neumann also questioned the legality and cost of using a private contracted force compared to using U.S. military assets.
“It cannot be cheaper,” he said. “This idea that it is somehow cheaper is ridiculous. Any force is going to have the same [support and logistical] requirements.”
Contracted forces would also not have the same legal protections under international law, Neumann said.