Presidential Airways Wants To Fly Some More

An airborne affiliate of Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, is one of the several companies that have submitted bids for a huge new special forces personnel contract in Afghanistan, government documents show.  (CORRECTION APPENDED: Xe sold Presidential Airways to AAR earlier this year.) 

In February, the Army Contracting Command based on Rock Island, Illinois sent out word that Special Operations forces in Afghanistan needed a fully integrated point-to-point airborne transport service for U.S. special operations forces in the war theatre, focused solely on low cost altitude air operations and cargo combination/passenger drops into Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. In English, this means that the contractee is supposed to pick people and equipment up, transport them to other facilities, or drop them, or their equipment, via parachute, behind enemy lines. Unmarked aircraft provide more operational security for the mission. (The U.S. has no official presence in Uzbekistan.)

The staff would be based at several U.S. airbases in Afghanistan. The contract would begin next year -- the year U.S. forces are supposed to be begin withdrawing from Afghanistan -- and could be extended as long as five years, according to the original proffer, which is posted on a government website.

Last week, the Army posted extensive, detailed information about the contract, which offers a unique window into how U.S. forces use contractors, even those with histories like Presidential Airways, which was featured in a CBS News "60 Minutes" segment in February and rebroadcast last night. In 2004, a Presidential Airways plane operating under the name "Blackwater 61" crashed on its way to Farah, Afghanistan. It had flown way off course, and its pilots had little experience navigating Afghanistan's terrain, and the plane lacked equipment to help searchers find its wreckage. At least one passenger survived the crash for several hours.  After the crash, the government suspended the company for a month. But then it awarded them another contract, under which military personnel are flown throughout the country today.

The newest contract supports both the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan, pronounced SIFF-SOCK-AY, and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force- Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A). 

CJSOTF-A is the task force governing "white" special operations forces in Afghanistan, although black SOF units and task forces often use the white equivalent for administrative cover.

The Army's work order provides a list of the 30 locations that the planes will transport to and from personnel, including Bagram, Khandahar, the Sharana forward operation base in Patika, Afghanistan and Maimana, which serves as a base for missions near the Turkmenistan border.

The contract solicitation provides plenty of information about the precise activities that the contractor will carry out. It says, for example, that the aircraft must be capable of carrying fifteen passengers plus baggage per mission, enough for so-called "fire teams" -- shooters.

An accompanying security form notes that the contractors will be required to have access to communications intelligence and must possess at least a SECRET security clearance. Before missions, they'll be briefed by task force intelligence units. They'll be given one satelitte phone per plane, will have access to the secure Defense Switched Network (DSN) and the military SIPRNET for SECRET-level tactical intelligence.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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