The Magazine

Warriors for Hire

Blackwater USA and the rise of private military contractors.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Moyock, N.C.

For obvious reasons, the location of the headquarters of Blackwater USA isn't well-publicized. Officially, the only public trace of the world's largest private military training facility is a post office box in Moyock, North Carolina, an unremarkable rib-shack pit-stop on the way to the Outer Banks.

But the place isn't hard to find. From Washington, D.C., head south. As soon as you cross the state line, follow the sound of gunfire until you find an armed compound half the size of Manhattan. Which is not to say the place sticks out--it's just very, very big. Blackwater is a company most Americans first heard of when four of its contractors were murdered in Falluja, Iraq, in March 2004, and their bodies desecrated on camera. It is the most prominent of the private security contractors in Iraq. You might think of the North Carolina facility as Blackwater's Fort Benning or Quantico.

Still largely subsumed by the swampland it occupies, the compound is mostly au naturel except for odd aircraft lying around. The company name sounds mysterious, but it's just the name of the region. If you dig a few feet underground, the hole will quickly fill with the thick, dark peat water just under the surface. The only building of any real size houses the company's brand new 60,000-square-foot corporate offices, a low profile building with a massive stone entryway that blends into the surroundings nicely. (The massive double-door handles made from .50 caliber machine gun barrels get noticed, however.) In fact, the company logo--a target sight superimposed over a bear claw--isn't entirely figurative. Black bears--at least one of which tops 800 pounds--roam freely all over the property.

Of course, running into a bear is probably the least of your safety concerns at Blackwater. Firing ranges abound on the property. For years, the company's bread and butter was its multimillion-dollar business designing and manufacturing targets and shooting ranges. From its original product--a patented, reactive, reinforced steel target--the company now makes everything from modular, endlessly configurable "shoothouses," with doors and rooms that simulate urban combat, to concrete, reinforced shipping containers that can be set up anywhere in the world as self-contained ranges. (A personal favorite is the "Dueling Tree"--an upright stand with three targets on each side. Hit the target and it gets knocked over to your opponent's side where he can knock it back. The first shooter with all six targets on his side loses. Think of it as tetherball with guns.)

But we're only scratching the surface. Though the company is less than ten years old, it's already become the alpha and omega of military outsourcing. The target systems remain a multimillion-dollar business, but now the corporate flagship is just one part of a very large fleet. Indeed, it would be hard to understate Blackwater's capabilities:

* A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.

* A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.

* The country's largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.

* A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.

* A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.

* A 1,200-yard-long firing range for sniper training.

* A sizable private armory. The one gun locker I saw contained close to 100 9mm handguns--mostly military issue Beretta M9s, law enforcement favorite Austrian Glocks, and Sig Sauers.

* An armored vehicle still in development called the Grizzly; the prototype's angular steel plates are ferocious-looking. The suspension is being built by one of Black water's North Carolina neighbors--Dennis Anderson, monster truck champion and the man responsible for the "Grave Digger" (the ne plus ultra of monster trucks).