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26 Jul, 2019 07:00

Private military forces in small boutique ops is the future warfare – mercenary aviator

Private military contractors are becoming increasingly relied upon to wage wars across the globe. Who are these soldiers of fortune and what’s their role in solving conflicts? We asked Neill Ellis, a long-time private military contractor and former South African Air Force gunship ace.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Neill Ellis, a long-time private military contractor and former South African Air Force gunship ace, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, Ellis, war is ugly, there is no second opinion about that. So, when national armies fight, it’s clear that soldiers fight for their country, freedom, etc. What’s driving a mercenary? Is it money? Adrenaline rush? What is it exactly?

Neall Ellis: It’s a combination of everything. Money is obviously important, but of course the adrenaline rush is a big thing. It’s a passion you have developed over the years and it’s just a profession that people get into and enjoy. Well, I enjoy it.

SS: Passion to fight, you mean?

NE: Look, if you go back over the history, in a sense warfare is a game, and it’s the greatest game available to anyone, you know. The stakes are high – either you get killed or you kill. So, I suppose that’s part of it – the excitement of winning the battle.

SS: Probably the same thing that drives people to do Russian roulette, I suppose?

NE: I wouldn’t like to say that, no. At least when you’re fighting in battle you’ve got a chance. In Russian roulette you’re not too sure how much chance you got. I’ve never tried Russian roulette, so I think I’ll stick to the fighting.

SS: Alright, so let’s get back to mercenaries. So, the word ‘mercenary’ often has negative connotations - they are often seen as people going for money without any ideological or moral considerations, ‘violent people for hire’, so to speak. Does this offend you? Why is the profession’s reputation so bad?

NE: I think it’s because of what I can term as “bleeding heart liberals”, they think the world is… Well, the world is a fantastic place, but they think everybody, all the politicians have good in them, which is not quite true. I don’t really care what people call you, you know, mercenary, contractor, private contractor – it doesn’t matter. It’s a job I’m doing, I don’t care what they call me, it doesn’t matter at all.

SS: Do PMCs get to be picky about who they hire, is the pool of candidates big enough for that?

NE: I think PMCs are picky with who they hire. Well, the ones that I have worked for. First of all, one of the requirements is that you must have had military training, you should have had a good military record, and also when military get approached by PMCs, 90% of the time it’s because you’ve got a name, and your name is on the market. So, it’s not a question of going on a barter basis, but generally speaking they say your name and your actions before follow you and they will choose you because of what you’ve done in the past and how good you are doing your job.

SS: Are there filters for recruits? Is there a rigorous screening process before you hire somebody, can PMCs afford to do that?

NE: I think it’s not so much where you might have some sort of like a military style filter or military style selection process because, as I said previously, you’ve had a military career, so the hirers, PMC bosses, they know what you can do, they know of you and your ability. So, if you are a person that has been in combat before and has done some ridiculous things like indiscriminate killing or losing or stealing, willful destruction without any reason to destruct any property, you’re not going to be taken. If you have a taint against your name, generally speaking the PMC will not hire you again. And the word gets out that you’re not good, you’re crazy. If you’re crazy and just start killing for the fun of it, that’s not good, you don’t want people like that, you want professional soldiers who are there to do their job and to maintain the credibility of the PMC.

SS: The physical condition of a recruit – is that the main thing that is needed to become a PMC? I know that in the campaign against Boko Haram in Nigeria a little while back, mercenaries were hired who were already nearing retirement age and they were still very good – is experience more valuable than physical condition in this line of work?

NE: In my opinion experience is what you would look at first, a guy’s experience. Obviously, the physical condition is very important, because you don’t want somebody who’s going to go on the ground and then he is too fat or unfit to be able to do the job. But then it depends on what you’re going to use him for. If you’re going to use him at the headquarters, then his physical fitness is not that important. But if the man is going to be out on the ground, running around, you know, as a soldier on the ground – then he needs to be physically fit. A driver does not have to be that fit. Well, it depends on who you take, but generally speaking – yes, we need somebody who is quite fit.

SS: You fought in teams that were very successful. Your helicopter could stop an advance of a whole enemy column single-handedly in Sierra Leone. However, I heard you say that your enemies there were rubbish. So, is the success of the PMCs - in Africa at least - due to their enemies being very weak as well as due to you or to your and your colleagues’ professionalism? 

NE: Look, mostly rebels wherever you got are weak. You know, they haven’t had the professional training that a lot of your military soldiers have had – I’m talking about formal military training like in, for example, South African army, British army, American army, Russian army, whatever… Australian army… I don’t think that any of the rebel movements are as well trained. And I’m talking about riots throughout the world, I’m talking about ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab – all those rebel movements are not that well military trained, no.

SS: How can one helicopter break a whole enemy, why were they so fearful of you?

NE: It’s because they were largely contained to the roads. If we take Sierra Leone’s jungle area, if you’re advancing in a large group of men, then you will be forced to stick to the roads, if you got vehicles you can’t just leave the roads and go on bundu bashing, or go through the jungle because the jungle won’t allow it. So if you’ve got vehicles with weapons, 14.5mm machine guns and 23mm cannons, then you have to go on the roads. So, it’s pretty easy to attack them and then take them out.

SS: You fought against the cult-like Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, against people who chopped off enemies’ hands and did other shocking things, but then you worked for Mobutu, the dictator of Zaire - when you chose places to go, do you have an ideological side to your decisions or was it only the contract itself that mattered?

NE: I only work for legitimate governments. And no matter what was said about Mobutu he was still a legitimate government, and the obviously in Sierra Leone it was a legitimate government. I’ve never worked for any rebel movements, and I don’t think it’s advisable for anybody to join a rebel movement. Because in the end doesn’t matter what happens and how much financial returns you get for working for rebel movements, in the end ten-to-one you will find yourself ending up in prison and possibly executed. This is what I believe is happening in Sudan at the moment with their one lieutenant colonel ex-South African advisor to the president. He was just on the wrong side.

SS: I heard you say that once you sense something is wrong, you pull out of a contract. Now, what kind of thing did you see as “wrong”? And how often did you have to do that – I mean, pull out of a job? 

NE: We never really had to pull out of a contract, maybe when I was in Bosnia, and the only reason why we’d pull out of a contract is because we weren’t given the promises that we expected. We were told we would be operating with two aircrafts, and we weren’t – we were operating with one aircraft. Secondly, people I was working with weren’t the correct people to be with, not because of their ability, it was just a mental attitude they had which I didn’t think was quite correct. You know, in this profession your mental attitude is one way, if you’re going to do the job, you do the job without any consideration for personal reasons. So, to answer your question – if I pulled out of a contract, it’s because a client’s ideology is wrong, maybe they’re indiscriminately killing innocent people which I will not take part in, and then secondly they’re not providing me with the equipment I need.

SS: The private military firms hire professionals regardless of their background - does it ever happen that, for instance, ex-South African military guys find themselves in the same team as their former guerilla enemies. How does that work out?

NE: It does work out, we’re all soldiers. And also, once you get into this profession and you start working for an organization, your previous ideological ideas shouldn’t matter. And if you’re there under contract and you signed a contract in allegiance to the person who’s employed you, then that’s it. And if this person who’s employed you brings in some of your ex-enemies – it doesn’t matter, we’re all just soldiers. And the soldiers as a fraternity where you get together, there’s no real animosity between the two of them, the people who that have an animosity are maybe politicians of a government, not the guys on the ground.

SS: Ellis, how do local people usually treat you? I mean, do they help you or do they see you as a foreign invader? I imagine that for some in Africa the fact that the PMCs are former South African soldiers may be a problem - but you’ve seen it with your own eyes, so is that the case? I also heard Col. Barlow who fought Boko Haram say that Nigerians greeted his unit as liberators… 

NE: I have never had a problem going into a country. I’ve never had a problem with the local population, they have always been friendly. In Sierra Leone we were treated almost like angels, people would give us food, give us fruit, when we would walk in the streets they would greet us, I never had any problem with the local people.

SS: Are PMCs better prepared, better trained in interacting with locals than members of national armies?

NE: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think it goes about your attitude towards people, it’s not a question whether you’re better prepared to do it, it goes about professionalism and your attitude towards people in general. Formal armies got so many rules and regulations, they’re not really allowed to sort of relax. Whereas within a PMC, although the rules and regulations are there, at least you are able to interact without fear of any form of collaboration or whatever it is called by civilians. So, it is more relaxed in a PMC than in a formal army, and you’re not necessarily restricted to the base, where you would be in a formal army, you can’t go out.

SS: So, of course everyone wonders if PMCs are paid a lot better than regular soldiers, and if yes, then why? 

NE: PMCs are paid a lot better, yes. In fact, there is this sort of bottom line salary that I will earn. I’m not going to go fighting for a couple hundred dollars a day. If I’m going to go fighting then I’m going to ask for a reasonable salary. Whereas a formal army, you know, it’s their job, it’s their life. Well, this is my job, and this is my life. I can dictate the rules in terms of the salary, whereas in the army you can’t.

SS: Do you see the fact that the PMCs are actually much better paid as somewhat sapping morale for a soldier when he does his tour and meets contractors who do the same thing and get paid 5 times more than him?

NE: I’m not sure if it saps the morale of a soldier. In life, everybody has a choice. If you want to be a soldier, then so be it. If you want to work for a PMC, that’s also good. It’s a progression. To join a PMC, you have to go through a training process, and the best place for any training or to gain experience is in a formal army. After that you can take what you can do, your ability and move into the PMCs. A PMC will not take you if you’re not trained.

SS: What is the future of the PMC business in general? I mean, is the market going to be hijacked by mega-companies like Academi, employing tens of thousands? Will it be better for the market to be divided up by small boutique operations?

NE: I think small boutique operations would probably be better, because there’s more control over them. If you have a large company like you mentioned, it’s just too many people and it becomes like an army where administrative processes can be nightmarish. It’s just too bureaucratic. If you have a smaller force there’s more control, and plus I think you’re more inclined or PMCs it’s easier for them to hire professionals and maintain a professional approach than having thousands of people.

SS: The US military - the most powerful in the world by far - is running its wars relying on contractors more and more. There are 3 PMCs to every regular soldier in Afghanistan right now, for instance. Are today’s wars not possible to conduct and win without aid of mercenaries - even for a military power like America?

NE: I think the problem with America, and I’ve worked with them, I’ve served them and had a lot of talk with them – it’s too bureaucratic, there are the rules of engagement and the American government is looking over their shoulders because there’s Accountability. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also accountability in PMCs, but we can talk about that. In terms of the future of PMCs I think there is a great future for them, but the thing is the Americans have come into the whole profession – and we call it a profession, which is not the right word – and they prefer to take over, because what is happening is Americans are sponsoring a lot of governments around the world fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS, so they prefer to use their people, it’s not easy to get in anymore.

SS: Can private military companies compete with state armies in terms of technical capacity, logistics? Or there is another decisive advantage of private over public?

NE: I think private companies can definitely compete. Firstly, the wars of today are insurgency-based, they’re lower-intensity conflicts. And we’re taking all these American capabilities, to a certain extent the British and, I think, maybe even the Russian capability. We’re using high-technological equipment, high-tech equipment. Whereas, if you want to fight the insurgencies at their level in the same way they fight the war, you don’t need too much to get in there and fight the war. Once you start getting high-tech stuff then, I think, you start losing the edge. I mean, obviously you need helicopters, armed helicopters, transport helicopters, then you need vehicles with cannons and machine guns on them. Maybe you need drones as well for reconnaissance purposes. But I don’t believe that today’s way of conducting warfare against an insurgency by using a bombing campaign isn’t a good idea. You’ve got to get people on the ground to go through the objective. And PMCs are good for that, because if you lose the ground with a PMC the families are unhappy but the government doesn’t have to answer for that.

SS: You worked for a private military company which undertook direct offensive action - including you flying combat missions. The contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s have assumed defensive duties mostly. Are the days of contracts like you had with Executive Outcomes completely over, or could we see a private army undertaking an offensive against the Taliban sometime soon? What do you think?

NE: I think that this is a good idea! Look, the Taliban are a good foe, they know the country backwards and they know how to fight. But the thing is, my time in Afghanistan I know some of the American special forces and some of the and some of the SAS British special forces went in, but nobody went in there as a PMC force, as a private military force to take them out. You know, it’s just too much bureaucracy when you use an army like America or Russia or even Britain, whereas PMCs are about the feeling of movement to get in there and do things.

SS: Now, in Nigeria a group of South African mercenaries quite recently did what the Nigerian Army couldn’t do for years, scoring a string of victories against the Boko Haram terrorist group. The South African government, however, threatened them with prison. Is mercenary success scary for those who work in this field? Are governments afraid of you even though they sometimes need you?

NE: Any government is afraid of a private military force, because obviously the government particularly is paranoiac about sort of subservants or groups coming in and trying to usurp the position. The South African government do have a fear because of Executive Outcomes and other organizations, because they worry that the rioters are going to come back and possibly try and make a coup. But on the other hand, if you are able to apply to the South African government as a PMC to conduct operations as mercenary group, it is possible.

SS: After some mercenary leaders tried their hand at military coups - like the cases of Comoros, the Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea -  can you blame the governments being uneasy about working with PMCs?

NE: No, but anybody who does that sort of work is not looking forward to being prosecuted, because first of all we don’t go and join any rebel movement. That’s my policy, anyway. I will not join a rebel movement to usurp or unseat a government, and it doesn’t matter how bad that government is. As long as it is a legitimate government – stay away. That’s my stance.

SS: PMCs became a controversial topic for the public after the Blackwater disaster in Iraq when a group of mercenaries shot at civilians in a public square. PMCs aren’t subjects to regulation and rules of engagement of national armies - does this absence of regulation also untie the soldiers’ hands, make it easier to go over the line together?

NE: I disagree on that. All the PMCs that I’ve worked for… In fact, it’s part of the contract you’ve signed, that you are not to oppose the laws ot the country, and if you transgress the laws of the country you can be held liable and you can be prosecuted under the laws of that country. So, there’s nothing like “you can do what you like”. It’s not right, it’s not possible. And yes, of course, we were working for a rebel movement, we did what they liked anyway, but a legitimate PMC working for a legitimate government falls under the laws of that country.

SS: PMCs are often accused of human rights violations by Amnesty International, International Red Cross and other organizations, yet none of the many private companies operating in Iraq, for instances, have been charged with any crimes. Are PMCs able to completely evade the legal system, act with complete impunity? 

NE: It’s not so much the civilians that are complaining about human rights abuses. It’s all these human rights groups which may be on the side of the rebels, and I know in fact when I was in Sierra Leone I was accused of human rights abuse, and when it came out and the facts came out, there was no case against me. But the fact is that the group that was trying to accuse me of human rights abuse were in fact siding with the rebels, the rebels that were cutting off hands and feet, beating people and abducting children as child soldiers, so, you know, it’s difficult. The PMCs are not really free to do what they like, no.

SS: Alright, Ellis, thank you very much for this interesting insight. We were talking to Neall Ellis, a long time private military contractor and former South African Air Force gunship ace, discussing the role of private military forces in today’s world.