Blackwater Founder's Private Afghan Air Arm Pitch Included An-26 Gunships And AH-1 Cobras
The mix of aircraft, helicopters, drones, and aerostats would have taken over for US and coalition forces.
In August 2017, it emerged that infamous private military contractor Erik Prince was proffering up the idea of privatizing the war in Afghanistan to both that country’s leadership and U.S. government officials, including offering to create a mercenary air arm to aid beleaguered Afghan troops. A more detailed breakdown of what that force could have looked like, such as plans to turn Russian-made An-26 cargo planes into gunships and acquire AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, has now emerged.
On Dec. 7, 2017, BuzzFeed News published a briefing it had obtained, outlining Prince’s plan, optimistically titled “An Exit Strategy for Afghanistan.” The proposal is linked to a nominally independent Dubai-based firm called Lancaster6, though a spokesperson for long-time private businessman and retired U.S. Navy SEAL told the outlet that Prince’s own Chinese-funded Frontier Services Group would have been involved. Prince, who has various ties to President Donald Trump’s administration, which includes his sister, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has publicly defended the idea of replacing American troops and the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan with a new, private force. There is no indication that the U.S. government is actively considering the proposal.
The plan would “remove the irritant and stigma of foreign invaders while providing a strong skeletal structure with key aviation and governance enablers to ensure [the] viability and success of [Afghan National Security Forces],” the briefing explains. “Unrelenting pressure placed upon Taliban force them to the bargaining table, annihilate ISIS,” another bullet point reads.
The proposal, which focuses exclusively on the restive eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Helmand, also includes plan to develop mining activities in Afghanistan ostensibly to provide improved quality of life and draw locals away from supporting insurgents, a concept the U.S. government and its allies have long attempted to implement in the past without success. However, the briefing makes it clear that this would have the added benefit of providing the United States with a new source for rare earth metals and other materials.
Under the proposal, contractors would have worked closely with Afghan military units and government officials, both to advise and assist those elements and provide key specialized capabilities, including intelligence, communications, medical, and other support. But most importantly, a composite “turn key” air wing would fly close air support, intelligence and reconnaissance flights, and logistics missions from bases in Nangarhar and Helmand.
When news of Prince's plan first appeared in August 2017, the available information indicated that the air component of his force would include A-4 Skyhawk jets, T-bird armed crop dusters, An-26 transports, and Super Puma and Gazelle helicopters. Lancaster6 had reportedly also offered to provide a propriety intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drone called Lionseye, for which there is little publicly available information beyond its reported 12-hour endurance.
The briefing BuzzFeed obtained describes an even more robust force. Close air support in both in Nangarhar and Helmand would reportedly have come from a mixture of A-4 Skyhawks, AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, and “An-26G” gunships. In Helmand only, the proposed attack force included four Gazelle light attack helicopters, as well.
The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was a marvel when the first versions began to enter U.S. Navy and Marine Corps service in 1956. Despite its relatively small size, the “Scooter” could carry an impressive payload of bombs and missiles over a respectable range. It was also fast and nimble, features that continue to make it a popular for contractors playing the role of enemy fighter pilots to this day.
It’s not clear where Prince expected to acquire these jets from, but it is possible he planned to purchase the seven jets the plan required on the second-hand market from one of the Skyhawks’ numerous former operators, such as Argentina. Various private companies in the United States are still flying them, as well, and may have been willing to part with some of them for the right price.
Depending on the source, it could have taken a significant amount of effort to get them back to flying condition, though, especially for combat missions. Contractors would have to make sure add in the right targeting equipment if the pilots wanted to make use of laser- or GPS-guided precision munitions. A number of the examples in private hands, such as Draken International's advanced A-4Ks, already have some modern capabilities that are used for training purposes.
The briefing doesn’t state which of the numerous different models of AH-1 Cobra gunships, which Bell Helicopter initially developed during the Vietnam War, would have gone to Afghanistan, either. It is possible Prince again had sources on the second-hand market for older single- or twin-engine models, many of which had electro-optical and infrared camera in a turret under the nose and the ability to launch TOW and Hellfire guided missiles.
Textron is still building the latest version, the significantly improved twin-engine AH-1Z Viper. If the Trump Administration had agreed to the plan, it is possible that they could have found a way to approve a sale of those helicopters to Lancaster6.
The Anglo-French Gazelle is also out of production, but is still in active service around the world in both military and civilian roles. Late model military types had roof-mounted sights for firing wire-guided missiles, but they can also carry 20mm cannons and .50 caliber machine gun pods, as well as unguided rockets.
The last close air support tool, the An-26G side-firing gunship, is by far the most eye catching addition in the entire presentation. At present, there is no clear indication that this aircraft even exists.
Still, it wouldn’t be a particularly complicated conversion and used examples of the basic cargo aircraft are readily available. There are a number of windows on the aircraft’s left side that could provide a mounting point for automatic cannons. Adding one or more sensor turrets with electro-optical and infrared cameras would aid in targeting, and if it included a laser designator, it could allow the crew to fire precision munitions.
Basic bomb racks that attach to the fuselage are already available for the An-26 family. Various companies, including ATKOrbital and Airbus Defense, have begun offering modular weapon and sensor kits that could work with various airframes. Bulgarian firm LASA Engineering, which has ties to Prince, could have been involved in this proposal.
LASA is also responsible for the T-bird, a converted Thrush 510G cropduster that would have provided “armed reconnaissance” to the mercenary force in Afghanistan, according to the briefing. You can read all about that aircraft, and its complicated history, here.
Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support would have come from the Lionseye drones and a number of tethered aerostats, along with three Diamond DA-62 twin-engine turboprops. Diamond offers a special mission version of this light aircraft known as the MPP.
This version of the aircraft has modular payload bays that can accept various electro-optical and infrared cameras, surveillance radars, communications packages and other systems. A satellite data link allows it to share any of that information with personnel on the ground in near real time.
Rounding out the force would be a pair of regular An-26 transports – one each in Nangarhar and Helmand – and 10 EC-225 Super Puma helicopters to help shuttle Afghan troops around the country’s more remote regions and provide combat search and rescue capabilities. The EC-225 is the last version of the Super Puma, now an Airbus Helicopters product, which is already in service with dozens of military and civil operators. The design can readily accept sensor turrets and machine guns for close-in protection, as well as other self-defense systems.
Functionally the force makes decent sense for Afghanistan. It could also have simply served as starting place to get things moving, with Lancaster6 and Frontier Services Group adding more assets to the mix or deploying additional task forces in other provinces as time went on.
But it remains unclear as ever how Prince’s plan would be able to do what thousands of highly equipped American and other foreign troops have been unable to over the past 16 years. There's nothing to say that contractors would be any more incentivized to actually "win" the conflict than Afghan or international military forces, however that end state gets defined in the end. The briefing BuzzFeed obtained highlights the fact that there are already tens of thousands of contractors there supporting the NATO-led coalition.
U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, head of all U.S. forces and the international coalition in Afghanistan reportedly refused to meet with the private contractor to discuss the plan in the past. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were apparently opposed to the idea, as well.
Combined with President Trump’s new, publicly announced strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia broadly and the recent surge of American aircraft and troops into the region, it seems unlikely that the U.S. government will be seriously considering Prince’s plan any time soon.
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