Security Firms Try To Evolve Beyond The Battlefield

Blackwater's rendering of one of its new battlefield airships.
Blackwater's rendering of one of its new battlefield airships. (Blackwater Usa)
By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

After building a business defending high-ranking officials in Iraq, Blackwater USA executives think the future may be hovering above the battlefield.

The North Carolina company is developing an airship -- think Goodyear blimp -- loaded with sensors and surveillance cameras that can quickly relay information about the ground below to clients miles away. "If bad guys are setting up IEDs on the side of the road, we can see real-time what's going on," said Chris Taylor, Blackwater's vice president for strategic initiatives, referring to improvised explosive devices, which have proved deadly against U.S. troops in Iraq.

The company's first airship should be ready by the end of the year, he said, though it doesn't have any customers lined up.

Blackwater's move is only the most dramatic of the diversification plans private security companies are undertaking. The industry grew rapidly when the government and corporations paid hundreds of millions of dollars for armed guards after Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq. Private guards' unprecedented numbers in Iraq have raised questions about how they should interact with the military and prompted calls for more regulation of the industry.

Now many industry insiders reason that demand for private security in Iraq will begin to decline, and they want to expand beyond just toting guns.

Herndon-based Triple Canopy Inc., which has about 1,000 employees in Iraq and won part of a State Department contract last year to guard high-risk embassies, has branched out from government work and begun advising commercial clients about potential threats to their office buildings.

Nevada-based Special Operations Consulting LLC, founded in 2003, initially built a 100-acre training facility to use for its growing ranks of Iraq-bound guards but began opening it up to competitors that needed sniper training required by the Department of State, as well as U.S. and foreign units in need of the specialized training.

Olive Group FZ LLC, a United Arab Emirates-based company with a new office in the District, is selling global positioning systems to clients that want to guard their employees against kidnappings.

Some boutique security providers are even buying interest in body armor makers, said Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for the industry.

Most of the private security companies are privately held, though DynCorp International LLC, owned by Veritas Capital Fund LP, is planning to sell stock to the public. DynCorp, which has provided security to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, received about 37 percent of its $1.9 billion in revenue in fiscal 2005 from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blackwater, which also makes targets for gun ranges and runs a construction company, has been around since 1997. It didn't become a national name until 2004, when four of its employees were ambushed and brutally killed in Iraq. Now it is entering the crowded field of unmanned aerial vehicles.

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