Global Economics

Defense Contractors' Growing African Business


Northrop, Lockheed Martin, and other defense outfits see opportunities as the U.S. government, private industry, and the U.N. spend more in Africa

Five years ago, Africa didn't matter much to DynCorp International (DCP). The Falls Church (Va.) company had its hands full in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it recruited, trained, and supplied police. But with big new contracts in Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia—and lots of potential business elsewhere on the continent—DynCorp's interest in Africa is growing fast. In fact, Africa is now so important that the company this month is paying to be the top sponsor of a Washington conference for defense contractors focused on the region.

In recent years, DynCorp's African business has grown to $150 million annually, or 7% of its total revenue, and it's looking for more. The company is eyeing "major" business opportunities there, says Will Imbrie, business development chief at DynCorp. It's bidding on extending a current contract to train peacekeepers in Sudan for the U.S., and expects there may be a chance soon to build schools and hospitals on the continent for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Another possibility could be a contract to work with the army in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the U.N. "Africa really fits into the company's sweet spot" Imbrie says.

DynCorp isn't alone. Companies such as Triple Canopy, Northrop Grumman (NOC), PAE (a unit of Lockheed Martin (LMT)), and MPRI (a unit of L-3 Communications (LLL)) have received at least $1.1 billion for programs in Africa since 2004—mostly State Dept. and Pentagon contracts to train African soldiers, a steep increase from 2003. The continent, however, still represents only a small slice of U.S. defense contractors' worldwide business, which totaled $20 billion to $316 billion last year, depending which companies and services are counted.

African Market Growth

Africa is now one of the industry's most promising growth markets. American companies are currently bidding on U.S. and U.N. contracts that will be worth at least $1.2 billion over the next five years, and they see even more work providing security for oil companies, mining outfits, and other Western corporations operating in Africa. There's probably even more than that on tap, experts say, but projections are difficult because many government contracts don't break out funds for contractors until after the fact, and other contracts aren't publicized. "There's a huge surge" in African work, says consultant Frances Cook, a former U.S. ambassador to Cameroon and Burundi who advises clients on working in Africa. Since 2005, contractors have helped the U.S. train nearly 80% of African peacekeepers—some 39,000 soldiers from 20 countries. "It's big bucks," she says.

The biggest known prize, the continuation of an ongoing State Dept. peacekeeper-training program, is set to be awarded by February. The deal is worth up to $1 billion over five years, and involves support services such as communications, maintenance, and construction, rather than the armed security work carried out in Iraq by the likes of Blackwater, which has battled with insurgents.

The rise in spending since 2003, mainly by the U.S. government and going to U.S.-based private contractors, parallels the continent's rise in strategic importance. The White House now views Africa as an important battleground for stopping terrorism, securing access to oil, and countering Chinese influence, analysts say. The Pentagon's new oversight structure for the continent, The U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, formally launched on Oct. 1 with a requested budget of $400 million and a mandate that recognizes the "emerging strategic importance of Africa," according to the command's Web site.

Controversial Outcomes

Many experts are critical of the contractors working in Africa and of the rising U.S. military presence there. "If you look at the record for these programs in terms of teaching respect for human rights, professionalizing militaries, and preparing African armies for peacekeeping operations—all of which are perfectly laudable goals—the end result of the programs doesn't contribute very much to those," says Daniel Volman, who directs the African Security Research Project in Washington. "It's much more likely to be used for purposes not intended by the U.S. government: counter-insurgency warfare, terrorizing populations, repressing internal dissent, etc."

Volman and others cite Executive Outcomes, a now-defunct South African mercenary force, as an example of the hazards of private defense contractors in Africa. Executive Outcomes fought on behalf of the repressive governments of Angola and Sierra Leone in their mid-1990s civil wars. Before being shut down by the South African government in 1998, the company also did security work for mining and oil companies in Africa, work that is continued today by other contractors.

The industry has since tried to clean up its image. The International Peace Operations Assn., a trade group that is sponsoring this month's conference, promotes ethical conduct and consults with governments, nonprofits, and others. But while there are oversight mechanisms to prevent corruption and abuses of power, says independent analyst David Isenberg, often "the people who are supposed to implement them aren't there."

That criticism isn't likely to deter the defense industry from pursuing more work in Africa, most of which doesn't include armed security. Douglas Ebner, a DynCorp spokesman, refutes the notion that the company is a mercenary force, noting that most work is in training and equipping police, peacekeepers, and other armed forces in support of U.S. and U.N. objectives. Only 2% of the company's sales, he says, come from security work. When asked about Executive Outcomes, Ebner insists, "We're not that."


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