Equip the man, or man the equipment?

Monday, August 26th, 2019

What has Erik Prince been up to since he sold Blackwater?

I moved to the UAE because of piracy off the coast of Somalia. At the time there were 80 to 90 ships a year being hijacked and the UAE government wanted to do something about that, so I gave some ideas as to build a police unit, which effectively ended piracy and did it for a cost of less than the pirates were taking in ransom per year. It was kind of a passion project, and it showed how cheaply and effectively the private sector can do things if allowed to innovate. I compare that to the U.S. Navy, the EU navies that were dispersed all over the Indian Ocean — if you have a problem in your yard, the smart homeowner doesn’t chase bugs all around the yard with a spray can, rather they find the nest, and that’s what we did.

Since then, I started a private equity fund, I’ve invested in some mining and energy upstream geoscience activities, and I’ve been involved in some more aviation and transportation work in Africa and the Middle East. I’ve been very public about what the United States should do in Afghanistan and a few other of the nagging problems where people continue to suffer because no one can seem to put the fire out.

The U.S. military is designed to win a conventional war, but the problem is when you take a conventional unit and re-task it from a linear battlefield, re-tasking everything from your air defense guy, your chemical weapons specialist, to your artilleryman to now fight an insurgency where the enemy is all around you or nowhere, we have a real struggle dealing with that. I remember a former Special Operations commander describe it this way, ‘In [Special Forces (SF)] units, you equip the man — the guy is the weapon system. In a conventional unit, optimized for that linear battlespace, fighting a nation state — in that case, you man the equipment.’ What does the Army say? Artillery is the king of battle, so you man the artillery, the tanks, the rockets, because that’s what does the large-scale killing on the battlefield. All that firepower doesn’t really apply to fighting guys on motorbikes wearing flip-flops, and that’s where the United States has struggled this past 17 years. Right after 9/11, we had around 100 CIA and SF guys working in Afghanistan in an unconventional manner, and they smashed the hell out of the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Then, when the conventional army rolled in, we largely replicated the Soviet battle plan.

The way the U.S. and NATO deploy there is that they send a unit for seven or eight months. The guys spend a couple of months on the ground getting to know the area, and some of them have never been to Asia in their lives. They’re productive for a couple of months, spend the last month or so packing up and ready to go home, then they lift that unit out and send another one to start again to repeat the cycle.

We’ve done that more than 30 times now, where you completely rip away any continuity. The one part of the Afghan forces, which fights pretty well is the Afghan Commandos because they’re trained and mentored by their SOF counterparts who do a better job of focusing in small unit tactics, being flexible, and equipping the man, rather than manning the equipment.

What I’ve advocated for is replicating that model across the entire regular Afghan army using SF veterans. If I send those veterans back as contractors, they can stay for years at a time on a 90-day rotation, but they go back to the same unit, the same valley, and they get to know the terrain, the good mullah, the bad mullah, and the guys are incentivized to make sure their unit performs well. They’re dependent on the local population for intelligence, and they’re responsible to protect that population from the Tailban or ISIS, so it becomes this intertwined, interlocking dependency that stems from continuity and trust.

We also have to provide those guys in the field with the overwhelming advantage of airpower, so that they get lift and medevac and resupply and close air support in a very timely manner, which hasn’t always been the case, especially for the Afghan units. They’ve been lucky to get aircraft tasked inside of 10-12 hours, unless they happen to have an American JTAC with them. So you have Afghans who are dying in the field from what should be nonlife-threatening wounds; you have Afghan firebases routinely surrounded and annihilated where nobody comes after four, five, seven days.

Our model would be a very joint program where any of our contractor-provided leased aircraft would be crewed by one professional pilot and one Afghan crewmember. Any weapons release decision remains in the sole authority of the Afghan, so it’s not a contractor dropping a bomb or shooting a canon, only an Afghani citizen.

The third component is what I call government support. In this, we’re not trying to fix the government, just the key elements that the military needs to run on. Getting the men paid on time, fed on time, supplied and medevaced. There’s currently a huge amount of ‘ghost soldiers,’ a huge amount of corruption, which bleeds the supplies, and there’s corruption in the promotion process because guys are promoted by their ethnicity or religious affiliation, rather than merit, competency, or bravery.

I had hundreds of instructors attached to Afghan units for a long time — we built the entire Afghan border police. I had many reports of when we’d get a new crop of students that within two days you could tell if there was a bad egg. When the other Afghan students — who greatly appreciate the fact that they were in a properly run schoolhouse, where they’re getting fed, paid, and the light switches work, and there’s batteries for the radios and a comms plan — they took care of making sure that any bad eggs were removed and sent on their way. The way that mentoring is currently done by the U.S. Army is largely one of drive-by mentoring, where they’re not living on the same base, eating at the same chow hall, and embedded with their Afghan brothers.


  1. Graham says:

    I dimly recall one of the French generals in 1940 trying to rally forces for a counterattack proclaiming that he had “no use for men without equipment. I’d rather have equipment without men.”

    That stuck with me for years as one of those imponderables- was he wise, foolish, or is it simply that either of those situations is useless? I always figured he ought to be able to do at least incrementally more with unarmed men than with unmanned equipment, on the grounds the equipment would just sit there waiting to get seized by the enemy. An unarmed man can at least try to make himself some weapons from natural stuff lying around. No use against the panzers but maybe you can trip up and kill some infantrymen or dispatch riders.

    In “War”, one of the Soviet spokesofficers made a argument that the Soviet doctrine was all about the men using the weapons, and by comparison it mattered less what the weapons were. That surprised my teenaged ears, full of stereotypes about the Russians. He might have been just throwing out the party line, but still.

    FYI, trying to find that French quote merely brought up Salon, Slate, Guardian and WashPo articles of the last decade on the subject of whether the world would be better off without men, the wonders of some species of salamander that reproduces without “men” [I assume they meant male salamanders], and so on. I think that was close to peak uselessness for Google. Or for our culture.

  2. Kirk says:

    Prince is on to something here, but he’s gone waaaaaaay too far with his ideas.

    It’s the same mistake that all the “special operators” make, and that is that they believe that they can “do it all”, when the reality is considerably short of that. You can get out into the boonies and be “special” with all the usual sort of masturbatory “shadow ops”, but the problem with that is that without a quasi-religious “cause” to hang it all off of, all you’re really doing is killing a bunch of people to no end.

    Prince was a SEAL; SEAL team guys have a certain mindset and a certain attitude, one that is not particularly conducive to actually doing big-picture crap like he’s espousing here. He thinks he did really well in Afghanistan, but the reality is that he was basically King Canute, sitting in the rising tide.

    The problems of Afghanistan and the “War on Terror” go well beyond the battlefield; we could win every battle, and still lose the war–Just like Vietnam. The problem here is not military in nature, nor is it soluble solely by military means, unless you intend to kill everyone over the age of about three, put the survivors into foster care, and raise them in a totally different culture. The real problem in Afghanistan is the cultural issues surrounding their religion, ethnicity, and the history of the region. Islam came in with a compelling package that melted into the existing cultural matrix; you want to counteract that, you need to do the same damn thing the Islamic conquerors did, and change the culture. We aren’t doing anything like that, and that’s why whatever we do is going to evaporate like so much water dumped out on hot pavement in the middle of summer.

    The root of the issues with Islam have to do with their essential self-delusion; the religion is a package of secular and religious cultural practices that are not amenable to the modern world. Look at the rate of translation from other languages into Arabic for an example; look at the production of intellectual product in Arabic. The only thing they’ve managed to contribute to world civilization has been innovation in terrorism, and a bunch of really delusional self-referential scholarship on what they imagine to be the unchanging word of their god, based on crap that seems to have been imagined into being several centuries after their prophet lived and walked among them. You start looking into the “roots of Islam”, and what you find is that there is essentially no “there” there, to be found. The existence of Mohammed is even questionable, when you get down to it–Much of the history related in the Koran is not backed by archaeological evidence, at all.

    So, if Prince thinks he’s got the right answers, here? He’s delusional. The things we need to do to deal with the issues of Afghanistan are not being done, and we likely will not. My guess is that we’re eventually just going to let them kill themselves, or we’re going to do it for them when they try pulling off another 9/11 attack. The entire Muslim world is mentally ill, and very unlikely to ever solve their issues themselves. The religion itself is pathologic, and incapable of reform or adaptation, particularly given the insistence that the fraudulent document they call the Koran is the “word of god”, unchanging.

  3. Kirk says:


    The issue isn’t that you need just men, or just equipment: You need trained men, and you need them to have the equipment they need. Throwing just one or the other at a problem like the Wehrmacht is foolishness.

    Say for example that I invent a time machine, and go back to 1939 Poland; I show up with cargo containers full of anti-tank weapons to give the Poles right before the invasion begins. What happens?

    More than likely, I’ve just gifted the Germans a mess of high-technology AT weapons that’ll do them a lot of good when it comes to the invasion of the Soviet Union. Why? Because no matter how brave and valorous those Polish soldiers are, they don’t have a clue how those weapons work, or how to employ them effectively.

    Now, if I were to take back a couple of brigade’s worth of AT-weapon trained modern Polish soldiers, along with the other gear they’ll need, wellllll… Different result, assuming that the Poles of 1939 can get the hell out of the way and let them operate in accordance with their doctrine.

    Man and machine are inseparable, especially once you get past the point of throwing rocks at each other.

  4. Graham says:


    I get that, as much as a civilian could. I was just struck by that long remembered quote, seemingly at odds with what I would have expected especially from a French officer of the day. Then again, I’m stereotyping French assumptions about war based on the way they talked a generation before 1940.

    I figure if he had 100,000 unarmed French soldiers to rally they could have done little enough to fight, but not nothing. Or at least they could have kept running to fight another day. If he had a field full of a couple corps’ worth of equipment, he’d have more or less what you say- a gift for the advancing Germans.

    With all that in mind, the quote still strikes me as odd. Wish I could remember who supposedly said it.

    Of course I’m commenting without knowing his particular circumstances, and overstating what was probably just an outburst of frustration at whatever the shortage was he faced. Probably he had trained men from broken units wandering around all over the place, having ditched most of their equipment, and his logistics had completely broken down.

  5. Graham says:

    And that Polish scenario certainly illustrates some of the problems occasionally cropping up in alternate history fiction.

    The best authors are better, but too many blithely assume that technology is temporally portable.

  6. Kirk says:

    The fallacy that French officer had going is about what I’d expect of a nation whose fervid belief in elan led them into a useless sacrifice of an entire generation.

    The French officer corps was a product of the same culture that created the Grandes Ecoles, and it was entirely and self-referentially delusional at its core. The German officer corps was dramatically different and far more attuned to reality–One should not forget that it was a junior French officer who wrote up a pamphlet outlining what became the basis for most modern small unit tactics, which was published, then ignored by the French hierarchy. A copy was captured by the Germans during a trench raid, and then… The Germans wound up enacting most of his system.

    Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything that could have saved the French in 1940. They were so far behind the power curve with regards to the necessities for modern war, in terms of tactics and organization, that it was basically irrecoverable. And, despite the evidence of Poland before them, they were completely unaware of their internal inadequacies.

    The Germans, by contrast, had massive issues in Poland. They identified them, were completely open and honest about them, and then implemented the necessary fixes in order to fix them. When the invasion of France began, they were so far in advance of the French in terms of operational technique and tactics that it was like snatching candy from a baby. Didn’t help the French, either, that the Germans were hopped up and hyped up on Pervitin, which enabled them to maintain an utterly unprecedented operations tempo, as well as having it heighten their aggression.

    France was self-screwed, to be quite honest. Nearly everyone was, until they figured out solid counters to the German improvements, which really took until about ’43.

  7. Wang Wei Lin says:


    I’ll acknowledge my lack of military acumen and details of history, but as I understand the Vietnam war it was a fiasco, but the US did not lose. After Johnsons escalation then on to Nixon adminstration the war was conducted by stateside REMF bureaucrats. Nixon took the decision making away from them and gave it to the generals in the field. An intense bombing campaign of North Vietnam ensued to the point that bomber pilots reported numerous instances of white surrender flags being displayed.The North eventually capitulated and agreed to a surrender treaty. Asian sensibilities aside concerning symbolic placement of tables and chairs, we basically bombed the shit out of them to get them to surrender. That is the how the war ended. The iconic photo of the helicopter evacuation of Saigon was in April 1975. The peace treaty was signed in January 1973. The fall of South Vietnam to the North was not a defeat in war, but a failure to have appropriate forces in place in South Vietnam after the January 1973 treaty. Imagine what would have happened in Germany or Japan had US/Allied forces just walked away. The US didn’t lose the war. The US ‘lost the peace’.

  8. Kirk says:

    Wang, what I was getting at was that the US is following the same trajectory in Afghanistan that it did in Vietnam… It boils down to an inability to cope with the ideological and political aspects of the war.

    Vietnam was when Communism was at the height of its near-religious appeal. Afghanistan is infested with Islam, and in neither case did the US military/political elites recognize that fact, or develop a meaningful strategy to counter the ideological aspects of the fight. Note the similar pattern of “achievement” for the Iraqi military, the Afghani forces, and the ARVN: We keep supporting and fielding the most inept and uncommitted, to fight those whose ideology is strong and appealing.

    We’re not doing this right. Not at all–Which is what I’m getting at. No doubt there will be helicopters going from the embassy in Kabul out to the airfields at Bagram, and a final, messy retreat much like the British were forced into during their Afghan wars. And, it’ll be for the same reasons: We never attacked the Afghanis where it really counts, at the real center of gravity in this war–Which is the religion.

    You want final victory in this war, you have to recognize the fact of the matter, that the primary enemy is Islam and Islam-inspired mental illness. Afghanistan was never, ever the real center of gravity: That was Pakistan, with the ISI and its predilection for Islamic irredentist insanity. The ISI thinks it can recapitulate the Mughal experience, and re-conquer all of India, in order to put the Hindu masses back where they belong, underneath Islamic feet. Ain’t happening–The resultant fight will go nuclear, and the subcontinent will likely be uninhabitable afterwards.

    Ah, well… That’s the likely end-game, anyway. Wish all y’all the best of luck coping with it, because I’m done with it all.

  9. X-Ray says:

    Wang, one small correction: “The US ‘lost the peace’.”

    Not the US. The Democrats ‘lost the peace’.

  10. Paul from Canada says:

    One thing Prince is right about is the cost savings and efficiency of outsourcing support roles, IF IT IS DONE RIGHT.

    It is often done wrong. For example, the mom’s basement kids who cornered the market for COMBLOC ammo for the U.S., who won contracts as middleman and brokers of surplus despite the terms of the contract stating that brokered surplus was not acceptable.

    Prince’s example of contracted helicopter support for Navy VERTREP is a good one, although I think his personnel footprint was a bit too small.

    Up here in Canada, we have a rare success. Our at sea replenishment ships/oilers (HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Provider, rusted out. As usual, TPTB had dithered over replacement until it was too late.

    There were/are plans for multi-role RO-RO ships that can act as supply ships and oilers, and as hospital and disaster relief platforms, and in a limited way as a mini assault ship in permissive environments or in conjunction with an allied task force.

    The trouble is that the design of same is still going on, delayed by politics, mission creep, bureaucracy and all the usual procurement suspects.

    The solution was the addition of re-fuelling masts and RAS gear to a leased off the shelf commercial container ship. It came in on time/on budget, and is in service as ab interim measure while the new ships are designed and built.

    Since it is a commercial ship, it is operated as such, under contract, with a civilian crew, and a small Navy detachment to run the RAS and re-fuelling gear.

    MV Asterix is providing excellent service, and if I were Emperor, we would procure and deploy MV Obelix and NV Dogmatix as well.

  11. Wang Wei Lin says:


    Thanks for the clarification. I totally agree. I have read the Qur’an 3 times, the Hadiths twice, Umdat al-Salik Sharia jurisprudence and more. Islam is an infestation that has no place in the Western world or the world in general. The West should draw the ever popular red line around the middle east and get out followed by an explusion of all Muslims who came to the West in the last 20 years, citizen or not. Then the following public diplomatic communication should be made: If a single Islamic bomb goes off in the West we will MOAB Medina. If another Islamic bomb goes off in the West then the Kaaba will be next. As a demonstration of our firm will and policy a MOAB will be dropped on our bombing range. Diplomats and media are welcomed to attend the detonation on such and such date. This is our only and final communication on this matter.

    Islam strikes at what it believes is our core value system. We should counter in the same fashion.

  12. Alrenous says:

    Line soldiers typically can’t be trained for more than one weapons system at a time. Educationrealist also sees this regarding low-IQ students and math. Indeed the IQ threshold for the army is largely about the fact that below that level they can’t be fully trained for even the simplest loadout.

    By contrast your average special forces will train themselves on multiple weapon systems, often even if you try to stop them.

    In the regular forces, you man the equipment, in special forces you equip the man, and that is exactly the correct way around.

  13. Kirk says:

    Alrenous, your assertions are basically bullshit.

    The ability of the private soldier to handle complex equipment and the training thereof has little to do with their inherent characteristics, and a lot more to do with the amount of trust their leadership has in them. Crappy leaders don’t put any faith in their men’s ability to do things, and as a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy, then they don’t.

    Yes, you’re going to run into issues with trying to train Afghan or Iraqi recruits with average IQ test scores in the mid-double digits, but that’s not the case even going back to the WWII era here in the West; we routinely trained people to do extremely complex things with multiple weapons systems without too much trouble, whenever we actually tried it. The First Special Service Force is an outstanding example–The majority of the US-sourced half of that force came out of various stockades, and was filled with malcontent troublemakers. Who promptly turned around and managed to blow every record for the conventional Army out of the water, when they were tested.

    Most of the limitations imposed on training tasks come straight out of the imaginations of our officer class. From about 1982 through 2007, I observed a steady upgrade in complexity of equipment and operations across the entire Army, such that tasks and weapons which were only allotted to the SF community back in the 1980s were routinely being passed off to line units in the 2000s. Equipment that the “system” refused to hand off to us out on the line, like remote detonation systems for demolition, were being handled just fine by the line units whenever they deigned to give them to us. The average soldier in the armies that I’ve worked in or around is nowhere near as dumb or difficult to train as your post would have it.

    I’d be happy to watch you or anyone else you chose try to figure out programming a SINCGARS radio using an ANCD at three in the morning on the side of a hill in Korea, after being up for three days. Average soldier could easily manage that, albeit with a bit of coaching. As far as task complexity, that’s just about as bad as it can get.

    Truth be told, I think that we’re outrageously underestimating the capacity of the average person we put in uniform. Do the right sort of training, and they’re enormously capable, and always have been. Hell, even back in the old days when it was the old CEOI procedures for encryption of radio messages, people managed. And, that’s nowhere near as easy as someone with no experience of doing that would think it was.

  14. Paul from Canada says:

    “Truth be told, I think that we’re outrageously underestimating the capacity of the average person we put in uniform. Do the right sort of training, and they’re enormously capable, and always have been.”

    Ask the Rhodesians and South Africans about that.

    They were able, despite their racism, to turn illiterate peasant tribesmen, who often hadn’t seen electricity before joining the army, into effective soldiers.

    It took longer, more repetition of certain things, and an understanding of the culture and ethnography, but it could in fact, be quite easily done.

    You might not get an illiterate tribesman to become an SF comms SGT, but you could get him to be able to use the radio in an emergency, even without him understanding the theory, but just by making him memorize the practice.

    And if you get one who is literate, then you can make an officer, which towards the end, the Rhodesians did, even going so far as to make a black officer a true equal, not a “Sepoy” officer.

  15. CVLR says:

    I would unironically prefer to have those illiterate tribesmen at my back than most of the weirdos and degenerates getting commissions today.

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