The majority of air forces are maintained and commanded by sovereign states, being part of their military structures and having the aim of protecting the country’s interests. However, there is another kind of air forces: the private ones, belonging to commercial companies and offering their services for profit.
Of course, the mere notion of the existence of private military companies (PMCs) can be mildly shocking, mainly due to the image those companies have. However, not all PMCs consist of (or even have) mercenaries with worn-out paramilitary clothes, sunglasses, large beards and old Kalashnikovs. Many offer a variety of war-related services, from construction and logistics to training and intelligence gathering.
PMC-owned air forces follow the same trend, often by having a number of transport or utility aircraft in their inventory, or a fleet of observation drones of varying size and endurance. But of course, we did not come here to hear about those.
Combat-oriented private air forces exist too, and they can broadly be categorized as either aimed at assisting training or participating in a real war. Counterintuitively, the second ones are often much less impressive.
While it is very hard to get concrete information on the type and amount of aircraft the prominent (and secretive) PMCs operate, some intelligence tends to slip out. Possibly the first private firm to employ heavy airpower was Executive Outcomes from South Africa, who conducted counter-insurgency operations in Angola and Sierra Leone in the early 90s. In addition to an array of ex-Soviet heavy armor, the company operated one Mi-24 Hind and three Mi-8 Hip helicopters, three MiG-23 fighters, and converted a squadron of Pilatus PC-7 trainers for ground attack. The company was established as a “helping hand” to South African special forces, thus had close ties with the country’s military, and was disbanded by the government in 1998.
Executive Outcomes’ situation is somewhat similar to the much more recent story of Wagner Group, the shadowy Russian PMC allegedly owned by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. While Wagner’s independence from the Russian army is a matter of debate, there is no question that the company itself maintains an image of non-allegiance. There is no better example of that than a fleet of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters with covered markings and numbers that appeared in Syria in the summer of 2020 and were later spotted in Libya, in whose civil war Russia says it is not involved. According to U.S. Africa command, Wagner at some point operated at least 14 jets – MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 ground attack aircraft – from the Al Jufra Air Base in Libya. At least two Fulcrums were shot down since then.
The best-known and the most infamous PMC in the world – Academi (ex-Xe, ex-Blackwater) is possibly the most advanced in terms of their aerial capabilities. Although they (at least officially) do not employ fighter jets or attack helicopters, the company has its own airfield in Florida, owns several aviation companies – including Aviation Worldwide Services and Presidential Airways – and has subsidiaries involved in aircraft research and development. The majority of its airborne assets are focused on transport and surveillance – such as the independently developed Polar-400 airship, whose lavish publicity campaign still harks back to the time when the company did not try to hide all its activities. But Academi also owns a fleet of Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano light ground attack aircraft, well-suited for close ground support.
In 2017, Eric Prince, former CEO and founder of Blackwater, made the headlines by offering Afghanistan to replace their air force with his new security firm, Lancaster6, boasting – in addition to an assortment of reconnaissance and transport aircraft – A-4 Skyhawk light attack jets and Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters. Afghanistan did not agree and it is unclear whether the aircraft were ever purchased, but for a brief time, the troubled Central Asian country seemed like the first one to replace an entire branch of their military with a private company.