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For Sale: High-Tech, Lethal Weapons

Private military companies are expanding their offerings to clients with the latest in high-tech weapons

by Jody Ray Bennet

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, private military companies (PMCs) have dramatically expanded in number, eager to market and sell their services to governments, multinational corporations, NGOs and other clients.

Companies such as Control Risks Group can gather business intelligence for a firm wishing to open its doors in a hostile region or instruct an NGO on how to respond to employee abduction. Erinys International can guard an oil pipeline or train a domestic force to guard the entire infrastructure. In the event of an attack, CSS Alliance can deploy a team of professionals to respond to medical emergencies.

But while the services offered by such private companies differ, each relies primarily on the physical manpower required to gather intelligence or facilitate a private security operation. However, there is another group of PMCs advertising their own patented, high-tech weapons to many of the same aforementioned clients.

Some companies manufacture large-scale military equipment, like Blackwater's GRIZZLY Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) - a 22-foot long (6.7 meters), 15-tonne heavily armored land vehicle able to transport up to 10 people and resist "projectiles up to .50 caliber and to provide an IED-survivable envelope." Manufactured at Blackwater's Moyock, North Carolina compound, the GRIZZL is equipped with a roof turret designed to mount a 12.7mm machine gun, a feature that is undoubtedly attractive to militaries possessing such a weapon.

While the vast majority of the private military and security industry is made up of US and UK companies, there are explicit differences between the two. The GRIZZLY is symbolic of the US industry, often characterized by heavy-duty, lethal military equipment. The UK industry is in many ways softer, characterized by less lethal security technologies.

For example, Universal Guardian of London recently patented the Cobra Stunlight, a specialized flashlight equipped with a targeting laser and firing spout able to shoot a "debilitating pepper stream up to 20 feet." The company sold the product exclusively to domestic police forces, but currently the device is available on the commercial market.

Private sector integral to US defense

"Unlike US companies, British companies do not want to be seen as private military companies as this might scare away potential corporate clients. On the contrary, the larger US companies consider themselves as something like force multipliers of US grand strategy: Their services are aimed at bolstering US operations overseas," Dr Sabrina Schulz, a London-based consultant and expert on the UK private security industry, told ISN Security Watch.

"In the US, the private sector has become not only a 'tolerated' or 'accepted' part of US defense policy - its role is increasing because the US desires and welcomes private sector involvement."

While large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman usually receive the vast majority of their annual earnings from government contracts, some private military and security companies are now marketing and advertising unique products to both government and nongovernmental clients.

"Larger US companies can rely on government contracts for 90, if not more, percent of their business - only about 10 percent are generated through contracts with other businesses. In the UK, this ratio is the reverse. UK companies cater mostly for other private companies, amounting to roughly 90 percent of their turnover," Shulz told ISN Security Watch.

From a 6-meter armored tank to a 32-centimeter pepper-spraying flashlight, the two largest military and security industries are able to meet the needs of almost any customer. But as with any maturing industry, so comes competition.

Another firm, Canada-based SkyLink Security makes no hesitation in advertising its hi-tech products for identity screening, explosive and weapons detection and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance. SkyLink describes itself as a "one-stop shop of Homeland Security services for both government and civilian customers."

The company offers the BioFinger, a "single chip that can read a fingerprint from a live finger or printed image and verify [its] authenticity." The chip also identifies pulse waves in the finger, registering "information about heart rate, blood pressure, blood consistency, vascular and nervous system status of any given person."

SkyLink also features VibraLie, an image scanning system that records vibrations of the human face, making the product the world's "first-ever contact-less passenger screening technology."

Another private military company, the Golan Group, was founded in 1983 by ex-Israeli Special Forces personnel. The company provides a range of specialized military and security solutions, among which include executive protection, maritime security and facilities security, security training, business and civil intelligence gathering and crisis management. Golan Group is headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, operates throughout Israel and is present in over 20 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The company offers an amazingly unique product called the CornerShot Weapon System. As the name suggests, the system allows the attachment of most handguns used by US, UK and Israeli Special Forces for the ability to aim and fire around corners, thereby shielding the user from oncoming fire.

The system uses a series of lights and lasers which transmit images to a small video screen built just in front of the trigger device, allowing soldiers or law enforcement personnel the ability to view and aim at targets completely out of the line of sight. Costing upwards of US$5,000, the CornerShot eventually became so popular that the company manufactured two other product lines of the system, one to fit 40mm grenade and tear gas launchers and another to fit small-scale assault rifles.

These types of weapons began to emerge in the marketplace as combat operations transitioned into urban environments in which the strategic atmosphere has become multi-dimensional and angular. The Golan Group markets the weapons system as a necessary tool in such combat.

Innovative or inefficient?

The question remains as to whether these types of gadgets - no matter how fascinating - are truly effective. There is simply a lack independent research that could reveal the accuracies or fail rates of systems similar to Golan's CornerShot or SkyLink's identification technologies. The private sector clearly has an interest in selling these innovations, which are, however, often untested or unverified by independent study.

The UAV, which has been marketed by the private sector to militaries and large defense contractors, has been reviewed. A December 2005 study by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that costs of the UAV outweighed the effectiveness of its missions. The report said that the UAVs purchased by the Department of Defense from the private sector "cannot easily transmit and receive data with other communication systems because they are not interoperable." In this sense, compatibility issues with other military equipment create a downside in purchasing from the private sector.

As national governments become more reliant on the private sector to provide security solutions, private companies which have little or no previous military or security background will increasingly be burdened with the responsibility of creating products that are both compatible with existing military equipment and do not interfere with current operational practices.

"One of the problems that start-ups have in offering equipment innovations to the military is that they do not understand military requirements or how to communicate with the military very well," Dr Eugene Gholz, co-author of Buying Transformation: Military Innovation and the Defense Industry, told ISN Security Watch.

"There's a lot of jargon, specialized military expertise and bewildering variety of organizations connected to military operations and acquisition. That jumble makes sense to people steeped in the military environment, including many service-providing PMCs, but it is totally unfamiliar to scientists and business entrepreneurs who might have an idea that might help the military."

When it comes to military technology, an interesting paradox has been born from the government-business relationship. While it is fair to question whether militaries or police forces should approach private military companies for these types of technologies in the first place, it is also fair to make the argument that these militaries and police forces should do business only with those companies with a good deal of relevant and qualified experience in their fields.

Jody Ray Bennett is an ISN Security Watch correspondent based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

© 2008 ISN Security Watch (Switzerland)

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