The progenitor for many of today's private security firms was the South Africa-based Executive Outcomes, which fought in Angola and Sierra Leone. (Incidentally, those truly interested in what this legendary firm did and how it worked should read the book published last year, "Executive Outcomes: Against All Odds," by its founder, Eben Barlow.)
After that, companies like U.S.-based Military Professional Resources Inc. worked in the Balkans, first for Croatia and then for Bosnia. And after that came Iraq, the mother of all private military contracting opportunities.
But someday, regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, even Iraq is going to draw to a close.
A U.S. withdrawal will not affect all companies in the same way. For those who do military logistics work, the demand for in-country technical representatives to maintain and repair weapons systems will likely substantially decline. Some of those, however, will likely redeploy to assist in the ongoing "reset" program to repair and replace equipment that has been worn out by operating in Iraq. But those doing work under the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program -- driving trucks, staffing military bases -- will not likely find similar redeployment options. Those who do consulting, such as U.S.-based DynCorp, which trains Iraqi police forces, likely will continue receiving some work.
Still, where will private military firms look for new contracts? Most likely they will return to their point of origin, Africa. In fact, some are already there.
Pacific Architects and Engineering, now owned by Lockheed Martin and DynCorp, has been working under a U.S. contract since November 2004 to provide logistical support to Africans engaged in peacekeeping in Darfur, Sudan.
DynCorp also provides logistical support and training for peacekeepers in Liberia and Somalia.
Together these AFRICAP contracts have a ceiling of approximately $500 million, or $1 billion total. In February the State Department sent out a notice that it was looking to re-complete the contracts.
Both DynCorp and PAE also work together in the Security Sector Reform program in Liberia, also funded by the State Department. DynCorp has been contracted to provide basic facilities and basic training for the Armed Forces of Liberia, while PAE won the contract for building some bases, forming and structuring the AFL and its component units, and for providing specialized and advanced training, including mentoring the AFL's fledgling officer and non-commissioned officer corps. DynCorp's job is essentially to "recruit and make soldiers," while PAE is employed to "mentor and develop" them into a fully operational force.
Both firms are generally said to have done a good job in Liberia, though past delays by the State Department in releasing funding have increased the time taken by DynCorp to provide basic training for all recruits and increased its costs.
A more serious concern was noted by the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. In a study released in March, the institute concluded that "the image of DynCorp creating an armed elite is disconcerting to many Liberians."
In the 1980s, the study notes, the United States spent $500 million to train and equip the army of Liberian President Samuel Doe. "Every armed group that plundered Liberia over the past 25 years had its core in these U.S.-trained AFL soldiers. There is thus a fear that when the United States withdraws support for its SSR Program and funding for the AFL, Liberia will be sitting on a time bomb; a well-trained and armed force of elite soldiers who are used to good pay and conditions of service, which may be impossible for the government of Liberia to sustain on its own."
MPRI has also provided training for the militaries of Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal under the State Department's African Contingency Operations and Assistance Program, (formerly the African Crisis Response Initiative), and separately provided training and analysis to the South African military.
Northrop Grumman also operates under a $75 million contract to support the ACOAP program, which aims to train 40,000 African peacekeepers over five years.
KBR provides services to at least three bases in Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia used by the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
And former Blackwater USA Vice Chairman J. Cofer Black made headlines back in 2006 when he advocated the use of private military companies to assist in providing peacekeeping services in Africa. Black said Blackwater could have a small, nimble, brigade-size force ready to move into a troubled region, like Sudan, on short notice.
The establishment of the U.S. military's latest regional command, the new Africa Command, has also played a role in opening up the market. Private contractors have been seen as an integral part of AFRICOM since its inception. This is not surprising, considering that in October 2003 James Jay Carafano and Nile Gardiner, both from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, proposed to the Bush administration the creation of a centralized Africa command for the U.S. military. Their proposal made clear that the objective was to preserve U.S. access to African oil and other natural resources on the continent. The Heritage report also points to the strategic importance of Africa in the global "war on terror."
A study published in spring 2007 by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces noted that "Africa may do for the (private military) industry in the next 20 years what Iraq has done in the past four, provide a significant growth engine."
(U.S. Navy veteran David Isenberg is a military affairs analyst. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a correspondent for Asia Times and the author of the forthcoming book "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq." His "Dogs of War" column, analyzing developments in the private security and military sector, appears every Friday.)