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PMCs: Oregon's not so visible defense industry

Most Oregonians think their state isn't a big player in the military industrial complex like our neighbors to the north and south. Well, think again.

Log on to the website for Salem-based International Charter Incor-porated (ICI) and you find images of helicopters helping people in emergencies or performing tasks in otherwise difficult-to-reach places. The accompanying text talks about providing logistical support during natural disasters or protecting property during troubled times.

What you won’t readily find on the Web site is that ICI is one of 200 companies known as private military contractors, or PMCs, that serve as private contractors for the Pentagon in some of the world’s worst hot spots.

The rise of PMCs

There’s nothing new about private contractors being part of a nation’s military establishment. Non-combat tasks have been performed by civilians for millennia. Whether it was building fortifications for Rennaisance princes or operating soup kitchens for hungry Civil War soldiers, civilian contractors have been a way for the military to free up soldiers for the front lines.

Civilian contractors have also helped with a frontline presence where regular troops weren’t available or where their presence would be politically inadvisable. Mercenaries were an accepted part of the military-political landscape in classical Greece. The 14th century condotierri represented a highpoint for soldiers of fortune, dominating the politics of Rennaisance Italy for decades.

In modern times, that side of civilian contracting withered as mass armies charged with nationalist or ideological zeal proved more effective and less expensive. By the mid 20th century, mercenaries were relegated to nasty little wars in Africa and other post-colonial hot spots.

But the approach of the 21st century brought changes to the business of war just as it brought changes to the rest of our world. Many nations, including the U.S., found reliance on large conscripted armies to be politically unwise after the latter’s experience in Vietnam. While high-tech advances in weaponry could help increase firepower, there was still a need during a crisis for more troops than found on peacetime rosters.

Enter the PMC. Usually headed up and staffed by veterans, the PMC could offer the U.S. and other nations a way to maximize the use of their troops by letting civilian contractors handle logistics, training, maintenance, security and, in some cases, planning. These tasks were not being performed far from the frontlines. In many instances, PMC personnel were landing in hostile areas to build and defend airstrips or temporary docks. PMC troops may not be authorized to engage in combat, but they’re coming as close as possible to it (and in some distant areas are reportedly conducting military operations under the guise of security work.

In the Gulf War, an estimated one in 50 of battlefield personnel was an American civilian working on contract. In 1996, one in 10 of the Bosnian peacekeeping force was civilian. The U.S. was able to get around the Congressional limit of 20,000 troops for that mission by employing 2,000 mercenaries. The numbers aren’t in for PMC involvement in the Iraqi war, but there’s no reason to believe they went down.

War is good business...

With the demand for PMCs up, the business of war is proving to be very profitable. It is hard to pin down a figure for this industry, since much of the money comes from sources like the CIA. Some experts have estimated the global market may exceed $100 billion. Which explains why private military contracting has attracted not just your retired general interested in staying in the game, but Fortune 500 companies like Northrup Grumann and TRW as well.

Oregon’s PMCs

Most PMCs are smaller operations, albeit, still making millions of dollars. Two of the better known PMCs are products of Oregon: ICI and CH2M Hill.

Brian Boquist is probably best known for his 2002 effort to unseat U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley. But the Dallas, OR rancher is also a former Special Forces lieutenant colonel (U.S. Army Reserves) and owner of International Charter Inc. of Oregon, a company he formed in 1992. Prior to starting up his own company, Boquist worked for Evergreen Air International, a McMinnville-based air charter company with reported CIA connections.

ICI is one of the better known PMCs. In 1995, the company won a State Department contract to transport peacekeeping forces in Liberia, a job that often placed ICI personnel in the heat of things. At one point, ICI personnel were providing armed defense of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. The company picked up additional State Department contracts for work in Sierra Leone and Haiti. While Boquist likes to impress dinner guests with tales of landing troops in fire zones and being held hostage at gunpoint, he denies that the company performs “mercenary” tasks. He says most the work is either humanitarian — delivering supplies to hungry villagers — or involves training troops and officers abroad and at home.

For the latter, ICI has an extensive and remote training facility in eastern Oregon, a location the company brochure notes “offers a unique opportunity for undistracted, private training for your law enforcement or military team.” The brochure also emphasizes the fact that the area allows training for desert operations. Customers at the facility have included U.S. Army Special Forces Command, 1st and 10th Special Forces Group, Washington State Army National Guard and Oregon State Army National Guard.

ICI, now making $9 million annually, was awarded the State Department’s “Small Business Contractor of the Year Award” in 1998.

If ICI represents the entrepreneurial side of PMCs, CH2M Hill is the more traditional corporate expansion into the war business.

Say CH2M Hill and most people think of engineering projects like water treatment plants. But the Corvallis-born company has an extensive “military security services” division. The employee-owned business has over 10,000 employees and total annual revenues of over $2.3 billion. What portion of that comes from military contracts is unknown.

Anti-terrorism services are one of CH2M Hill’s bigger specialties. The company can provide computer simulations of terrorist attacks to “assist base leadership in responding to terrorist action.” The company also offers training of security personnel and remodeling of facilities to withstand physical and cyber attacks.

The company has also been heavily involved in developing the internal and external security of military bases in the United States and abroad. As with their anti-terrorism work, this security work involves not just assistance in developing procedures but in some cases actually writing the policies and guidelines, as well as installing the physical plants necessary to either turn back hostile forces or stop ones inside the base.

Much of CH2M Hill’s work straddles the public and private sectors. In particular, their security work often involves protecting civilian plants of military importance like a semiconductor plant in Kiryat Gat, Israel or similar structures in other Middle East locations.

What’s so bad about PMCs?

PMCs are obviously popular with the government due to their ability to operate at lower costs and outside restrictions placed on the public sector. But how much PMCs do the former is questionable.
Kellogg, Root & Brown, a PMC subsidiary of the Halliburton Company, received $2.2 billion for providing logistical support to U.S. troops in the Balkans. A General Accounting Office report found billings questionable and called for greater oversight by the Army.

The ability of PMCs to circumvent government constraints is clearly an even bigger problem than cost overruns. In some of the worst cases, PMCs have engaged in conduct qualifying as war crimes. DynCorp personnel providing military equipment maintenance services in Bosnia were caught keeping underaged women as sex slaves. Graduates of PMC training, like the Croatian army, used their new skills to drive over 100,000 Serbs from their homes in a four-day assault in 1995.

Then there’s the question of who is really in charge. As PMCs take over more planning and policy making for our military, the question arises “will the PMC do what is best for the client or for itself?” They are in a position to whipsaw government between the advice of the PMC contractors and the outside lobbying by the non-PMC component of the company.

Part of a bigger problem

PMCs, of course, are part of the bigger problem: an out-of-control military. While some may view military dollars as a blessing during recessionary times, defense spending is a poor basis for a stable economy. Despite the size and diversity of their economies, California and Washington have both reel whenever military downsizing takes place. Those dollars, furthermore, tend to go to corporations that reinvest only a fraction of that money into the local economy. In the hyper world of PMCs, where companies expand to meet operational needs and contract once those needs are fulfilled, the dollar flow is even more meager.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the price of relying on war as a livelihood. It requires us to deny that we are profiting from inflicting pain and death on others. It requires us to create barriers that not only shut out the reality of our acts but eventually our humanity as well.


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Last Updated: June 1, 2003