Americas Covert Warriors: Inside the World of Private Military Contractors

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URS also oversees the U. You'll be seeing much more of URS around the world, as they're also behind the design of all future U. They're also involved in homeland security, providing systems to help secure borders. The NGJ program aims to give U. Their impressive client list includes 27 armed forces around the world. The company's defense program is focusing on military communications systems that meet the modern threat of hacking and network sabotage. Operators can "interact" with the imagery and have eyes on the theatre of operation while staying protected in-vehicle.

Honeywell's military arm supplies engine parts for anything from the Abrams M1 Main Battle Tank General Dynamics and the CH Chinook Boeing helicopter, to weapons systems designed by other defense companies that made this list. Name any U. Honeywell also comes up with covert solutions for guided weapons when relying on GPS is out of the question.

Bottom line is: they make military stuff work. With a focus on technology-based solutions, the CSC's aerospace and defense sector is booming. Among its portfolios, it is responsible for training and simulation services for the U. In January this year, the U. Army has previously used CSC for designing battlefield simulations to help improve survivability by training soldiers and medics to save lives while under fire. Oshkosh Truck 's defense branch is responsible for delivering severe-duty tactical and armored vehicles.

United Technologies ' military services business is most noted for the UH Black Hawk helicopter, manufactured by subsidiary Sikorsky Aircraft. L-3 Communications says their small manned airborne intelligence-gathering platform, aptly named SPYDR , is the most versatile and inescapable in the world.

It casts a "web" that captures mission-critical intelligence about its targets and delivers the information in real time. Raytheon 's sectors of expertise are missiles and electronics. Navy nuclear-powered attack submarines. Northrop Grumann's areas of focus include drones and cyber security in support of its homeland security solutions. The corporation recently pledged to further deepen its commitment to hiring former service members, in partnership with President Obama's Joining Forces initiative to integrate more veterans into the civilian workforce.

It supplies the U. Air Force favors the FE Strike Eagle , which has a perfect air-to-air combat record so far with more than a hundred victories and no losses. Lockheed Martin 's main weapons system is the F joint strike fighter, expected to become one of the world's largest military aircraft programs. It is overly simplistic to think of covert action merely in terms of hidden sponsorship.

In reality, covert action, as we have seen, involves multiple levels of exposure and multiple audiences. Allies, adversaries and domestic audiences may well be aware that a state is engaging in operations, creating a unique form of dramatic irony. Covert action might even be thought of as a kind of secret theatre that can be used to communicate or create uncertainty.

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In the mids, Britain launched covert actions against Egyptian interests in Yemen and against Indonesia. Both cases were visible to the targets; indeed, President Nasser of Egypt even sent those heading the Yemen operation a Christmas card. It was not always successful, however. Communication within the Indonesian Army was so poor that SAS raids did not achieve the signalling or deterrence effects intended.

The following decade in Angola both superpowers employed covert aid primarily to signal resolve to local allies and each other, measuring commitment from observed changes in the magnitude of their opponent's aid. Likewise, western aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan was intended to convey resolve. Implausible deniability—or open secrecy—prevented escalation during the Cold War: parties had a shared interest in maintaining the fiction of secrecy in order to avoid pressure to escalate.

However, as demonstrated above, a similar logic applied when using covert action against non-nuclear and non-aligned states. It still holds in the post-Cold War world, suggesting a lack of strategic transformation and the advisability of caution in calculating the role of nuclear weapons in determining the place of covert action within a state's grand strategy. Crucially, the deterrent value depended on Israeli denials being implausible. Remarkably, secrecy and special forces have become a sort of performative spectacle.

Premiers love to associate themselves with special forces because it makes them look tough.

Article excerpt

Two of the top contenders featured the CIA and covert action. The award went to Argo , with Zero Dark Thirty a close runner-up. Both films claimed to feature true stories and to be focused on narrating real events. Both received government support, including access to CIA and special forces officials, together with reams of specially declassified intelligence documents. Performative posturing using intelligence and special forces creates ambiguity as much as it shows resolve. It proudly demonstrates the existence of these virile capabilities without specifying when and where they are being used.


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This twilight zone is useful: many states, in practice, have long preferred ambiguity over deniability. The CIA neither confirms nor denies its activities. Acknowledgement and denial exist at the ends of a continuum, not as binary absolutes.

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Hybrid warfare forms a timely example of implausibly deniable operations creating exploitable ambiguity. The approach, developed in the United States but now associated with Russia, 75 combines political and military activity with covert action, especially influence operations.


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Russian activities in Ukraine, especially in the eastern Donbas region, form the most recent prominent example. Intervention in Ukraine displayed many of the factors associated with twenty-first-century implausible deniability discussed above. Ultra-nationalist Russian agitators seem to have moved into Ukraine to intensify the local grievances of ethnic Russians and to create disturbances.

Under Russian supervision, the rebel units focused on radio stations and communications facilities in an attempt to shape the narrative, seeking to frame events as a humanitarian crisis that could be blamed on Kiev.


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All the while, Moscow denied any involvement. This operation aimed to reduce the credibility of the American election system, using tried and tested practices that date from the Soviet era, yet are now more sophisticated, especially when combined with advances in communications technology, overt propaganda and attempts to work through institutions such as the OSCE or the UN. Here again, despite widespread accusations, the Kremlin denies sponsorship. The ambiguity created by implausible deniability is useful for a variety of reasons.

First, implausible deniability opens up a gap in the decision-making of cumbersome institutions like NATO that Russia can exploit.

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Russia is highly unlikely to expand into the Baltic states, so it is important not to overstate the case here, but the Kremlin certainly welcomes disunity within NATO, and the Baltic states do face a complex array of pressures from their east. This is dangerous as, through small individual gains, it turns on testing the resolve of one's rival. Second, ambiguity and implausible deniability allow the construction of powerful narratives. Knowledge of Russian activity—without acknowledgement—allows the Kremlin to cultivate an image of omnipotence. NATO, and western commentators more broadly, see Russian subversion behind every gooseberry bush and fear that Putin is already waging hybrid warfare against eastern Europe, if not the whole of NATO.

The fear of hybrid warfare, as operating in permanent support of some supposedly clearly defined foreign policy goal, perpetuates the idea of a powerful Kremlin needing to be countered. Non-acknowledged exposure is the crucial ingredient enabling this narrative. Competing narratives and a gradual approach which blurs the line between legitimate and illegitimate action mean that by the time target states are in a position to retaliate or investigate, the damage has been done.

Overt acknowledgement would invite condemnation, escalation and retaliation by the international community. Meanwhile, unofficial narratives, enabled by implausible deniability, aimed at domestic audiences are also useful. Governments have a variety of tools at their disposal, including leaks and plants, by which to transfer knowledge into the public domain without officially acknowledging something.

Multiple press stories revealed the classified drone programme in a controlled way, largely as a result of information planted by unnamed US officials. The plants, probably authorized by the White House, kept the American people minimally informed and characterized the operations in a manner designed to boost support without compromising security.

They also signalled respect for local sovereignty by noting Yemeni consent, without formally acknowledging Yemeni involvement and so technically not violating the pledge to keep it hidden. Domestic watchdog groups struggled to secure additional details about internal procedures, collateral damage estimates and legal viewpoints.

Implausible deniability, even pantomime secrecy, are not new. Some of America's larger paramilitary Cold War covert actions were so ostentatious that they could barely be disguised at all. Despite official denials, audiences were well aware of the hidden hand and to whom it belonged. America's Joint Special Operations Command boasts close to , personnel and its own Special Forces University located in Florida, together with an academic journal. Yet despite this panoply of activity, the United States does not seem to have thought through the doctrinal issue of unsecrecy.

By contrast, others have devoted more thought to implausible deniability. Russia has a longer tradition of thinking about unsecrecy. Likewise, the Kremlin recognized the positive gains to be derived from exposure as opposed to acknowledgement. They deemed forgeries, a speciality of the KGB, successful even if exposed. If the Americans could convince a foreign leader that a particular document was a forgery, then, the Kremlin hoped, that forgery would serve to remind the leader of similar American activities in the past—or simply create fear and uncertainty about the present.

This article has sought to problematize the concept of plausible deniability. We conclude that, in reality, covert action is less about plausible deniability and more about non-acknowledged intervention as performance. It is misleading to assume that successful covert action necessitates that the sponsoring hand remain hidden long after the act.

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America's covert warriors : inside the world of private military contractors

Some scholars predict the demise of covert action, largely because increased exposure, caused by changes in the media and communications technology, erodes plausible deniability. Covert action is broader than current conceptions of plausible deniability allow. There may well be cases of covert action yet to come to light which are plausibly deniable; but, even so, our key point still stands.

A spectrum of visibility and deniability exists; the one constant is non-acknowledgement.

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Building on this, we asked why, despite this lack of plausibility, leaders continue to use such actions, and how these developments connect to discussions about hybrid warfare. We conclude that implausible deniability does not spell the end of covert action. The grey zone between secrecy and exposure brings significant benefits. It has communicative value and allows states to demonstrate resolve without escalating to military conflict.

In an era of new nationalism, it also injects calculated uncertainty into relations between states, creating fear abroad and yielding electoral dividends at home.

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