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.
A private security firm known as Lancaster6 has offered to provide the government of Afghanistan with a “turnkey air wing” with range of aviation assets.
Nevertheless, this isn’t Erik Prince’s first rodeo. The former Blackwater CEO sparked controversy a decade ago when his firm provided hundreds of millions of dollars in security support services to U.S. government in Iraq.
More recently, Prince has been using his private air force all over the globe to include Somalia, Iraq and South Sudan. Prince also reportedly has close ties to the Trump administration: He is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and was reportedly tapped to create a back channel line of communication with the Russian government during the Trump transition.
Prince’s firm is now called the Frontier Services Group and is based in Hong Kong.
Through an affiliate known as EP Aviation, Prince operates his own personal air force. In Central Africa, the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army is bolstered by Prince’s airpower. Helicopters registered to EP Aviation have been seen transporting U.S. Special Forces troops in the central African region, per a Daily Beast report.
The company named on the proposal to the Afghan government, Lancaster6, is already operating some of its aircraft in Afghanistan providing air mobility, troop transport, and parachute air drop support for supplies and cargo.
It’s unclear precisely what Prince’s current role is with Lancaster6, which is based in Dubai. The Afghan military official said Prince personally presented the Lancaster6 proposal to Afghan officials.
The current CEO of Lancaster6, according to a personal LinkedIn profile is the former director of operations and director of aviation for Prince’s Frontier Services Group, Christiaan Durrant.
Durrant was recruited by Erik Prince to build his private air force, according to a report by The Intercept.
Frontier Services Group and Lancaster6 did not respond to Military Times requests for comment.
Afghan forces, since taking over the responsibility for the security of Afghanistan in 2015, have borne the brunt of the sacrifice with dozens of lives lost every day, an Afghan defense official told Military Times.
“Aviation is an important part of the fight against terrorism,” the official said. ”We hope that Afghan security forces are provided with proper, modern and sophisticated aircrafts, ultimately these are the Afghan forces who will continue to make sure that the region is protected from terrorist getting a foothold in the long run.”
A Pentagon spokeswomen declined to comment specifically on the contractor proposal from Prince.
“The secretary listens to many different viewpoints in the formulation of military plans,” said Dana W. White, a spokeswoman for Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“Right now his focus remains on working with his fellow cabinet members and the White House to complete a national strategy for South Asia,” she said. “Any decisions he makes on troop levels or other support to Afghanistan will be in support of that strategy.”
According to the proposal, the contracted air support will continue until Afghans stop losing territory through 2017-2018, and Afghan forces begin to retake back ground lost to the Taliban.
There are currently about 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2011. The U.S. provides close-air support for Afghan ground forces in operations against the Taliban and the Islamic State group’s faction in Afghanistan.
Pentagon bureau chief Tara Copp and Mackenzie Wolf contributed to this report.