The services of private security companies have expanded so much over the last 20 years that they are now referred to as private military companies (PMCs) in some circles. PMCs have assumed all the different roles of war, from backend logistics, to training, to consulting, to battlefield operations, and more. The private military industry was a $218 billion industry in 2014 and business is growing, according to the Vice video below.
There are many reasons why hiring a PMC is more attractive than maintaining a military, and companies like ACADEMI (formerly Blackwater), Aegis, and others are redefining what war might look like in the future.
This VICE video explores the origins of the PMC industry and how the war on terror has fueled its growth.
Bob Hoover learned to fly as a teenager in Tennessee, flew over 50 combat missions in World War Two and went on to become a legendary test pilot. Hoover was Chuck Yeager’s backup pilot in the Bell X-1 program and flew the chase plane when Yeager first broke the sound barrier. In 1950 he joined North American Aviation as an experimental test pilot, an association that would last 36 years. This Episode is Part 2 of the remarkable story of Bob Hoover, one of the history’s greatest pilots.
Celebrate the 240th birthday of the United States Navy by taking a look at 28 photos (and a couple of paintings) that capture the spirit of the sea service past and present:
Cmdr. Christian Sewell launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in an F-35C Lightning II carrier variant joint strike fighter Nov. 4, 2014. The F-35 Lightning II Pax River Integrated Test Force from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 is conducting initial at-sea trials aboard Nimitz.
A port security boat assigned to Maritime Expeditionary Squadron 1 (MESRON 1) patrols the waters near Kuwait Naval Base Feb. 10, 2009.
A Mark 7 16-inch/50 caliber gun is fired aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) as night shelling of Iraqi targets takes place along the northern Kuwaiti coast during Operation Desert Storm.
U.S. Navy SEALs patrol the Mekong Delta, Vietnam in 1967.
An F-4B drops bombs on Vietnam.
Walt Disney and Dick Van Dyke visiting the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) with Captain Martin D. Carmody on July 6, 1965
The USS Missouri fires 16-inch salvo at Chong Jin, Korea in an effort to cut Northern Korean communications. Chong Jin is only 39 miles from the border of China. October 21, 1950.
The U.S. Navy tests nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll Jul. 25, 1946.
An unidentified man engages a penguin during a U.S. Navy expedition to Antarctica.
View from a Navy ship navigating waters around Antarctica.
Surrender of Japan, 2 September 1945 ; Navy carrier planes fly in formation over the U.S. and British fleets in Tokyo Bay during surrender ceremonies. USS Missouri (BB-63) , where the ceremonies took place, is at left. USS Detroit (CL-8) is in the right distance. Aircraft include TBM, F6F, SB2C and F4U types.
USS Idaho (BB-42), a New Mexico-class battleship shells Okinawa on 1 April 1945, easily distinguished by her tower foremast and 5″-38 Mk 30 single turrets (visible between the barrels of the forward main turrets). Idaho was the only battleship with this configuration.
Sailor and colleague stitching thatch in the South Pacific during WWII.
Seabees with the 111th Naval Construction Battalion landing at Omaha Beach before the Mulberry bridge was installed, Jun. 6 1944.
USS Darke (APA-159)’s, LCVP 18, possibly with Army troops as reinforcements at Okinawa, sometime between Apr. 9-14 1945.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet launches a B-25 during the Doolittle Raid.
USS Arizona (BB-39) sunk and burning furiously, Dec. 7, 1941. Her forward magazines had exploded when she was hit by a Japanese bomb. At left, men on the stern of USS Tennessee (BB-43) are playing fire hoses on the water to force burning oil away from their ship.
A sailor poses on the USS Bear during an expedition to Greenland in 1941.
Sailors pose in a train at Cardiff, Wales in 1918.
The USS Leviathan heads to France to pick up U.S. troops in this stereo photo from 1918.
The USS Colorado transits the Panama Canal.
The “Great White Fleet” steams the Atlantic Ocean as part of the U.S. Navy mission to prove that it’s a blue water fleet in 1908.
A dog contemplates jumping from the deck of a ship while sailing with the “Great White Fleet.” According to a note with the photo in the Navy historical archive, the dog did later jump.
Divers search the wreck of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The sinking of the USS Maine was one of the events that triggered the Spanish-American War.
The USS Monitor and CSS Merrimac face off in 1862 near Norfolk, Virginia. This was the first time ironclad ships faced each other in combat.
During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Navy attack the city of San Juan de Ullca in March 1847.
During the War of 1812, the Navy played a large role by limiting the actions of the British fleet.
A Revolutionary War painting depicting the Continental Navy frigate Confederacy is displayed at the Navy Art Gallery at the Washington Navy Yard.
Whatever is harming US diplomats in Havana, it has eluded the doctors, scientists, and intelligence analysts scouring for answers. Investigators have chased many theories, including a sonic attack, electromagnetic weapon, or flawed spying device.
Each explanation seems to fit parts of what’s happened, conflicting with others.
The United States doesn’t even know what to call it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used the phrase “health attacks.” The State Department prefers “incidents.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo from US Embassy Consulate in Korea.
Either way, suspicion has fallen on Cuba. But investigators also are examining whether a rogue faction of its security services, another country such as Russia, or some combination is to blame, more than a dozen US officials familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press.
Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the investigation. The AP also talked to scientists, physicians, acoustics and weapons experts, and others about the theories being pursued.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is why the symptoms, sounds, and sensations vary so dramatically from person to person.
Of the 21 medically confirmed US victims, some have permanent hearing loss or concussions, while others suffered nausea, headaches, and ear-ringing. Some are struggling with concentration or common word recall, the AP has reported. Some felt vibrations or heard loud sounds mysteriously audible in only parts of rooms, and others heard nothing.
Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires at US Embassy Havana. Photo from US State Department.
“These are very nonspecific symptoms. That’s why it’s difficult to tell what’s going on,” said Dr. H. Jeffrey Kim, a specialist on ear disorders at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, who isn’t involved with the investigation.
To solve the puzzle, investigators are sorting symptoms into categories, such as auditory and neurological, according to individuals briefed on the probe.
There can be a lag before victims discover or report symptoms, some of which are hard to diagnose. So investigators are charting the timeline of reported incidents to identify “clusters” to help solve the when, where, and how of the Havana whodunit.
While Cuba has been surprisingly cooperative, even inviting the FBI to fly down to Havana, it’s not the same as an investigation with the US government in full control.
“You’re on foreign soil,” said David Rubincam, a former FBI agent who served in Moscow. “The quality of the information and evidence you collect is limited to what the host government will allow you to see and hear and touch and do.”
Especially when you don’t even know what you’re looking for.
The first signs pointed to a sonic attack. But what kind?
Some victims heard things — signs that the sounds were in the audible spectrum. Loud noise can harm hearing, especially high-decibel sounds that can trigger ear-ringing tinnitus, ruptured ear drums, even permanent hearing loss.
But others heard nothing, and still became ill. So investigators considered inaudible sound: infrasound, too low for humans to hear, and ultrasound, too high.
Infrasound often is experienced as vibration, like standing near a subwoofer. Some victims reported feeling vibrations.
And it’s not impossible that infrasound could explain some of what diplomats thought they heard.
Though infrasound is usually inaudible, some people can detect it if the waves are powerful enough. For example, individuals living near infrasound-generating wind turbines have described pulsating hums that have left them dizzy, nauseous, or with interrupted sleep. Such effects have prompted fierce scientific debate.
The balance problems reported in Havana? Possibly explained by infrasound, which may stimulate cells in the ear’s vestibular system that controls balance, scientists say.
But there’s little evidence infrasound can cause lasting damage once the sound stops.
And the pinpointed focus of the sound, reported by some? Infrasound waves travel everywhere, making them difficult to aim with precision.
“There’s no efficient way to focus infrasound to make it into a usable weapon,” said Mario Svirsky, an expert on ear disorders and neuroscience at New York University School of Medicine.
If not infrasound, maybe ultrasound?
At high-intensity, ultrasound can damage human tissue. That’s why doctors use it to destroy uterine fibroids and some tumors.
But ultrasound damage requires close contact between the device and the body. “You cannot sense ultrasound from long distances,” Svirsky said. No victim said they saw a weird contraption nearby.
None of these sound waves seems to explain the concussions. Usually, those follow a blow to the head or proximity to something like a bomb blast.
“I know of no acoustic effect or device that could produce traumatic brain injury or concussion-like symptoms,” said Juergen Altmann, an acoustic weapons expert and physicist at Germany’s Technische Universitaet Dortmund.
It may sound like Star Wars fantasy, but electromagnetic weapons have been around for years. They generally harm electronics, not humans.
The electromagnetic spectrum includes waves like the ones used by your cellphone, microwave, and light bulbs.
And they can be easily pinpointed. Think lasers. Such waves can also travel through walls, so an electromagnetic attack could be plausibly concealed from afar.
There’s precedent. For more than a decade ending in the 1970s, the former Soviet Union bombarded the US Embassy in Moscow with microwaves. The exact purpose was never clear.
What about the sounds people heard?
Microwave pulses — short, intense blasts — can cause people to “hear” clicking sounds. According to a two-decade-old US Air Force patent, the American military has researched whether those blasts could be manipulated to “beam” voices or other sounds to someone’s head.
But when electromagnetic waves cause physical damage, it usually results from body tissue being heated. The diplomats in Cuba haven’t been reporting burning sensations.
The stress and anxiety about the disturbing incidents could be complicating the situation. Diplomats may be taking a closer look at mild symptoms they’d otherwise ignored.
After all, once symptoms emerged, the US Embassy encouraged employees to report anything suspicious. Many of these symptoms can be caused by a lot of different things.
At least one other country, France, tested embassy staffers after an employee reported symptoms. The French then ruled out sonic-induced damage, the AP reported .
Not knowing what’s causing the crisis in Cuba has made it harder to find the culprit. If there is one at all.
The Cuba Theory
It was only natural that American suspicion started with Cuba.
The attacks happened on Cuban soil. The two countries routinely harassed each other’s diplomats over a half-century of enmity. Despite eased tensions over the past couple of years, distrust lingers.
Diplomats reported incidents in their homes and in hotels. Cuban authorities would know who is staying in each.
But what’s the motive?
When symptoms emerged last November, Cuba was working feverishly with the US to make progress on everything from internet access to immigration rules before President Barack Obama’s term ended. Officials still don’t understand why Havana would at the same time perpetrate attacks that could destroy its new relationship with Washington entirely.
Cuban President Raul Castro’s reaction deepened investigators’ skepticism, according to officials briefed on a rare, face-to-face discussion he had on the matter with America’s top envoy in Havana.
Predictably, Castro denied responsibility. But US officials were surprised that Castro seemed genuinely rattled, and that Cuba offered to let the FBI come investigate.
Cuban President Raúl Castro (left) shakes hands with former US President Barack Obama, 2015. Photo courtesy of the White House.
Then, Canadians got ill. Why them?
The warm, long-standing ties between Cuba and Canada made it seem even less logical that Castro’s government was the culprit.
If not Castro, could elements of Cuba’s vast intelligence apparatus be to blame? Investigators haven’t ruled out that possibility, several US officials said.
It’s no secret that some within Cuba’s government are uneasy about Raul Castro’s opening with Washington.
“It’s entirely possible that hard-line elements acted,” said Michael Parmly, who headed the US mission in Havana until 2008.
But mounting unauthorized attacks, tantamount to aggression against a foreign power, would be a risky act of defiance in a country noted for its strong central control.
Cuba’s surveillance of US diplomats in Havana is intense. The government tracks US diplomats’ movements and conversations.
So at a minimum, if Americans were being attacked, it’s difficult to imagine Cuba’s spies being left in the dark.
Who else would dare?
US investigators have focused on a small group of usual suspects: Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela.
Cuban President Raúl Castro (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo from Moscow Kremlin.
Russia, in particular, has harassed American diplomats aggressively in recent years.
Moscow even has a plausible motive: driving a wedge between the communist island and “the West” — nations such as the United States and Canada. Russia also has advanced, hard-to-detect weaponry that much of the world lacks and might not even know about.
None of the officials interviewed for this story pointed to any evidence, however, linking Russia to the illnesses. The same goes for the other countries.
Spying Gone Awry?
Maybe no one tried to hurt the Americans at all.
Several US officials have emphasized the possibility the culprit merely surveilled the US diplomats using some new, untested technology that caused unintended harm.
You might think eavesdropping devices simply receive signals. But the world of espionage is full of strange tales.
During the Cold War, the US Embassy in Moscow discovered Russia listening to conversations through a wooden plaque that the American ambassador received as a gift. The plaque had a tiny “microphone” and antenna embedded, but no power source, making it hard to detect even when the room was swept for bugs.
The Russians had developed something novel. They remotely beamed electromagnetic waves to activate the device, which then transmitted sound back via radio frequencies.
Yet if the Cubans or anyone else were equally as innovative, it’s unclear why the incidents would have continued once the United States and Canada complained.
SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Otto Skorzeny was one of the most celebrated and feared commandos of World War II. Daring operations such as the rescue of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and missions behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge made him known as “the most dangerous man in Europe.”
1. He saved the Austrian President’s life
After growing up in an middle-class family in Austria, Skorzeny grew disillusioned with the depressed state of the country’s economy following its defeat in World War I. He joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party in 1931 as part of its paramilitary wing. When Germany annexed Austria during the 1938 Anschluss, Skorzeny led a small paramilitary group to protect the Austrian president Wilhelm Miklas from assassination by the Austrian Nazi’s, arguing that killing Miklas would only encourage violent resistance to the coup. This initiative brought the attention of the Party leadership, and he was given a small SS command in charge of the presidential palace.
2. He studied special operations while recovering in the hospital
After World War 2 broke out, Skorzeny fought in the Netherlands, France and the Balkans with the Waffen-SS as a junior officer. He joined the 2nd SS Panzer Division in the invasion of the Soviet Union, taking part in several battles including the failed attempt to conquer Moscow. In 1942 he was wounded in the head by rocket fire and spent a long convalescence in a Vienna hospital. There he read everything he could on special operations and commando warfare, essentially becoming a self-taught expert. He was later appointed commander of the SS’s special operations schools specializing in infiltration and sabotage.
3. He rescued Benito Mussolini
Skorzeny was personally selected to by Adolf Hitler to lead the rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after he was deposed and imprisoned in 1943. Mussolini was closely guarded and was moved constantly to avoid detection. An initial raid by Skorzeny and his men failed when their transport plane was shot down, and Skorzeny was later shot down again and rescued at sea while personally leading an aerial reconnaissance mission off the coast of Sardinia. When Mussolini was finally located at a mountain hotel at Gran Sasso, Skorzeny and his men crash landed gliders in front of it and rescued the former dictator without a shot being fired. The raid gained Skorzeny fame as well as a promotion and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, one of Germany’s highest awards.
4. He was accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. (Photo: War Office Second World War Official Collection)
It was believed by Soviet intelligence that Skorzeny had been tapped to lead a mission to assassinate Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at the Tehran conference in 1943. The other Allies thought the plot fanciful, and Skorzeny maintained after the war that the operation never existed and he had been named in order to provide credibility to it. Skorzeny did lead other operations throughout the war targeting foreign leaders, including a failed attempt to capture the Yugoslavian partisan leader Josep Tito that ended in a fiasco. Later, when it came to Hitler’s attention that his puppet Hungarian regent Admiral Miklos Horthy was secretly negotiating with the Red Army, Skorzeny led a successful raid to capture the Admiral’s son, forcing him to resign.
5. His face was on ‘wanted’ posters all across Europe
When Germany engaged in its last ditch attempt to defeat the Allied armies in Western Europe in the Battle of the Bulge, English-speaking soldiers under Skorzeny’s command wore American uniforms and spread chaos and paranoia behind American lines. Some of Skorzeny’s men who were captured claimed that Skorzeny himself was leading a raid to kill or capture U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Paris, though this was never actually part of the plan. This led to Eisenhower order wanted posters of Skorzeny posted all over Western Europe and contributed greatly to his reputation as a shadowy commando who could be anywhere.
6. He was acquitted of war crimes
After the Battle of the Bulge, Skorzeny was sent to command regular troops fighting the Soviets on the collapsing Eastern Front as an acting major general. He also oversaw a failed attempt to blow up the Rhine bridge at Remagan to deny it to American troops. After Germany surrendered, he was held as a POW for two years before the Dachau trials, where he was charged with illegally fighting in enemy uniform during the Battle of the Bulge. Skorzeny’s defense was that his troops discarded the uniforms before engaging in combat, and British commando’s testified on his behalf that they had used the same tactics. Facing the prospect of prosecuting Allied troops, the court acquitted Skorzeny.
7. He escaped from a military prison
While interned awaiting the results of a denazification court, Skorzeny escaped military prison in 1948 with the aide of former SS members dressed as U.S. military police, and later claimed the U.S. had assisted in the escape. After nearly two years in hiding, during which he was recruited by the CIA-backed Gehlen Organization in Germany as an intelligence operative, he set up a small engineering business in Madrid, Spain. It was suspected by some to be a front for the supposed ODESSA network, which was rumoured to be smuggling ex-Nazi’s out of Europe to Latin America and the Middle East. It is unclear if a centralized organization by that title ever actually existed, and that the name was actually a catch-all for scattered old-boy networks and smugglers who did help some Nazi’s escape. When Skorzeny’s memoirs were published in 1950 by the French newspaper Le Figaro, French Communists rioted outside the paper’s offices due to Skorzeny’s Nazi connections.
8. He was Eva Peron’s bodyguard
He was later sent by the Gehlen Organization in 1952 to be an military advisor to Egyptian dictator Mohammed Naguib, where he served with many other ex-SS and Wehrmacht personnel. Skorzeny oversaw training for Egyptian and Palestinian commando forces, including a young Yasser Arafat, and helped planned raids into Israel. Ironically, Skorzeny attempted to trade intelligence on the Egyptians to Israel’s Mossad if the famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal took him off a list of Nazi war criminals. Wiesenthal refused, but Skorzeny handed over the information anyway. He later divided his time between Spain and Argentina, where he served as an advisor to Argentinian president Juan Peron and bodyguard for his wife Eva. He also founded the Paladin Group after 1960, a freelance intelligence and mercenary organization that worked for governments from Libya to Greece.
9. He died of lung cancer
Skorzeny developed a spinal tumour in 1970 that left him paralyzed, but through intensive rehabilitation he was able to walk again. The cancer recurred, and he died of lung cancer in Madrid in 1975 and was eventually buried in his family’s plot in Austria. Skorzeny was a devoted Nazi for much of his life, and had served with and even protected some of the most vile war criminals of World War II. Though many specific details have never emerged, he helped at least some Nazi’s flee justice in Europe, and after the war he straddled the line between freelance mercenary and terrorist. But his personal bravery, skill and an astonishing career which spanned decades, which even his enemies acknowledge, make him on of the most colorful military figures of the 20th Century.
An ISIS expert claims there is a glaring “Achilles heel” present in the US strategy in Iraq and Syria, stating that the lack of any planning for the political future of the region after the terrorist group is wiped out will nullify the military gains made against the group.
“Only a fool would call this a victory,” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” told The New Yorker. “It’s only the expulsion of ISIS fighters from a wasteland. It’s not a victory, not only because of the destruction. It’s also not a victory because there’s a shameless lack of a political track to supplement the military track. That’s the Achilles heel of Operation Inherent Resolve. They don’t have a political vision about what will happen after ISIS.”
The destruction Hassan mentions is almost total in Raqqa. The activist journalism group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently claims that 90% of the city has been destroyed by the months of fighting between ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the US coalition.
The group has documented more than 3,829 airstrikes and 1,873 civilian deaths throughout the urban battle, and says 450,000 people remain displaced from the city.
Yet Hassan’s main argument is that the main threat to the success of the US-led mission is that there is no political plan for what will come after ISIS’s territorial defeat.
Professor Robert Pape, the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago, said he agrees.
“When we invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003 we created ungoverned space for Sunni Arabs in Iraq which then spilled over in nearby Syria,” Pape says. “The worry here is that as that area of Iraq and Syria now could remain ungoverned space from the perspective of the Sunni Arabs, this problem may just simply fester and continue.”
ISIS, and the war to defeat it, has inflicted enormous violence upon the Sunni Arabs of the region, and its effects will stick with the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria for generations.
And throughout the campaign to liberate Sunni regions previously under the the rule of ISIS, Iraq has employed Shiite militias with ties to Iran, called the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have been suspicious of Sunni villagers in conquered ISIS territory. Iraq’s own security forces have also frequently resorted to brutality against civilians in places like Mosul, which was an ISIS stronghold until recently.
Meanwhile, vast swaths of eastern Syria remain controlled by Kurdish-led militias in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or by the Shiite-led Syrian government.
An additional yet significant ethnic challenge lies in how to divide power between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in Syria and Iraq after the dust settles. Already, Iraq’s central government is asserting itself in regions controlled by Kurds around Kirkuk and Mosul, where clashes have occurred.
Such post-conflict realities in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria have led to widespread distrust between locals and the governments and militaries that now control them and have deepened the same feelings of political isolation among Sunnis that led to the rise of ISIS between 2007 and 2013.
According to Hassan, the “Achilles heel” of the US-led coalition’s strategy is that it makes no preparations to resolve these complex problems, and focuses solely on a military victory over ISIS. In his view, such a limited approach will only hasten the return of another Sunni insurgent movement in the region.
Medal of Honor recipient Walter Ehlers tells his dramatic stories of combat in North Africa and Europe and details the events surrounding his heroic actions during the Normandy campaign. He also offers his unique perspectives on the infantry, his fellow soldiers and the enemy.This episode also features rare recordings of live combat, direct from the battlefields of World War II.