The birth of Executive Outcomes (EO) in 1989 and the figure of its founder, Lieutenant-Colonel Eeben Barlow, represent a watershed period in the history of PMCs. Indeed, the company’s military accomplishments in less than a decade of operativity are widely celebrated. The ability to organise and rapidly deploy an elite fighting force with nearly autonomous capabilities revolutionised the understanding of military providers and operations in Africa and beyond:
“[EO is] with the possible exception of the South African army, the most deadly and efficient army operating in sub-Saharan Africa today”(Eeben Barlow).
However, besides its formidable military effectiveness, EO has been deeply controversial, especially in South Africa. Executive Outcomes and Chairman Eeben Barlow truly capture the complexity of the private military industry. The firm was fiercely criticised both at home and abroad while, at the same time, local populations and humanitarian groups showed appreciation for its success (source). In the end, after more than two decades, Executive Outcomes has recently been revived by its legendary founder.
2.0 History of Executive Outcomes
Executive Outcomes was set up in 1989 by ex-SADF Lieutenant-Colonel Barlow as a small close corporation in South Africa to provide specialist covert training to SADF’s Special Forces (source) (source). However, it was only in 1993 that the firm rose to prominence when they carried out a successful operation to liberate the oil city of Soyo – Northern Angola – from UNITA occupation on behalf of London-based Heritage Oil & Gas, whose CEO was Anthony Buckingham (source).
Following their success, Angola’s MPLA government formally requested the services of EO in improving the capabilities of the armed forces to defeat the UNITA rebels (source). By the end of 1994, UNITA had lost all major urban centres and its traditional foothold in Huambo. Likewise, in Sierra Leone, EO’s involvement drastically changed the dynamic of the conflict which culminated with the surrender of RUF rebels (source). At its heydey, Executive Outcomes could deploy hundreds of highly trained soldiers anywhere in Africa. Nonetheless, the company in December 1998 announced that it would close its doors by January 1999. Unexpectedly, Eeben Barlow revived Executive Outcomes following the demands of unspecified African governments (source).
The firm’s unofficial motto “Fit In or Fuck Off” shows the strong emphasis put by EO and Eeben Barlow in fostering group loyalty among the personnel. This was achieved through official statements and sportive events among its members. EO’s group loyalty stood in stark contrast with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone. The latter were mostly unwilling conscripts with no possibility of escape (source).
Originally, EO was registered as a close corporation based in Pretoria, South Africa. However, by 1993, Barlow had set up a UK firm under the name “Executive Outcomes Ltd” (source). In 1994, the holding Strategic Resource Corporation (SRC) was set up by Barlow. In a few years, EO had radically changed: from a small enterprise with just two managers and one bank account at Standard Bank to being part of a large corporate holding (source) (source). SRC was made up of both corporate and military firms. The former was based out of London while the latter was controlled by the EO offices in Pretoria (source).
3.1 Business Structure
Companies in SRC:
- Executive Outcomes Ltd
- Cross Swords Holdings Ltd
- OPM Support systems (crime and intelligence)
- Saracen (security)
- Ibis Air
- Capricorn Systems
- Branch Mining Ltd
- Rangol Medical Ltd
- Trans Africa Logistics Ltd
- Military Technical Services
- Gemini Video Production
- Advanced Systems Communication Ltd
- Shibata Ltd (Demining)
- New Africa Informatics Ltd
- Livingstone Tourists (tourism)
- Steelpact & Falconer Systems (equipment)
- Aquanova Ltd (equipment)
Clearly, several military and civilian companies had been absorbed into SRC which provided the support network for EO. Indeed, Ibis Air owned helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and represented the air wing supporting the operations of EO’s infantry units (source).
According to the experience of Executive Outcomes’ founder Eeben Barlow, EO will secure a quotation only after the client has accepted the proposals (source). However, there are close relationships between military companies and corporate sponsors such as EO and Buckingham’s Heritage Oil. Critics have loudly denounced that corporations actually provide most of the funds for the employment of the PMCs. In exchange, they receive permits to exploit the energy resources of the countries (source).
3.3 Key Figures of Executive Outcomes
Eeben Barlow – call sign Echo Bravo (EB)
Founder and Chairman/CEO of Executive Outcomes. Formerly, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the South African Defence Force. Later, he rose to second-in-command of the 32nd Battalion Reconnaissance Wing and commander of CCB’s section 5. Until 2020, Chairman of STTEP (Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International).
Formerly of the South African Special Forces, after joining EO, he rose to Chief Operating Officer (Deputy to the CEO). He left the company in 1997 together with Eeben Barlow.
Nic van der Bergh
A former paratrooper of the SADF, served Executive Outcome as project manager until his appointment to CEO following Barlow’s departure.
Eeben Barlow expected his men to adhere to EO’s code of conduct. This reflected the mission statement of the company: essentially, working for UN-sanctioned governments and as a legitimate business. In the event that any of the firm’s employees were found contravening them, they would be readily dismissed and tried by the authorities where the crime had been committed (source).
Following the demobilisation of the early 1990s, Executive Outcomes was able to draw on the extensive manpower of the former SADF. At the time, the bulk of the EO staff was composed of the commanders and members of the elite Special Forces (source). More specifically, the firm heavily recruited from:
- the counterinsurgency unit Koevoet (Crowbar)
- the 44th Parachute Brigade (Parabats)
- the 1-5 Special Forces Reconnaissance regiments (Reccies)
- the 32nd (Buffalo) Battalion
The latter was the most decorated combat unit in the armed forces of South Africa and Barlow’s own unit before EO. Around 70-75% of Executive Outcomes’ available manpower came precisely from the 32nd Battalion (source). The firm also drew from members of the intelligence units of the Civilian Co-operation Bureau (CCB), officers from the former South African Police (SAP), and ex-African National Congress (ANC) members (source). Eeben Barlow’s own past in the Special Forces and, later on, in Military Intelligence and the CCB is likely to have been a significant factor in the recruitment of former acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and men with similar professional backgrounds.
Current methods of recruitment remain unknown. In fact, the announcement of the rebirth of Executive Outcomes from Eeben Barlow’s personal social media accounts explains that the company is not recruiting personnel (source).
The former Executive Outcomes website (www.eo.com) outlines the criteria for prospective employees until the firm’s extinction in 1999 as follows:
- Must have had military or police training;
- Be South African citizens or have served in the SADF, SAP or ANC’s Military Wing;
- Have been honourably discharged;
- Have no criminal record or criminal investigation pending;
- Be prepared to work outside of South Africa;
- Carry “no political baggage”;
- Be prepared to work in high-risk environments;
- Remain loyal to the company and its clients;
Furthermore, EO emphasized that race and religion did not influence in any way the selection of a candidate. The ultimate criterion that determined the appointment of employees relates to the consideration of the abilities of the individual: “Can he or she do the job?” (source).
Currently, the revived Executive Outcomes has not made public the requirements for recruitment. However, in light of the mission statement on the new website: “[EO] remains an apolitical South African-based, and African-staffed company […]”, the affinity to its former guidelines is abundantly clear (source). Nevertheless, it is possible that the company may have dropped the requirement for South African citizenship in favour of African staff. This might be due to a changed global environment that makes Executive Outcomes purely South African manpower pool no longer viable (source).
3.5 Connections to other important organisations and figures
Anthony Buckingham and Branch-Heritage Group
Allegedly, Executive Outcomes and Sandline International have been accused of having close links to Branch-Heritage Group and Heritage Oil and Gas which are both linked to Anthony Buckingham (source).
The breadth of the operations undertaken by Executive Outcomes required the employment of varied military hardware. Indeed, EO units were required to sustain major operational roles. The company not only shouldered direct combat duties but it provided air capacity to transport, evacuate, and supply troops, conduct air-to-ground assault missions and intelligence-gathering (source). Therefore, beyond rifles and guns, EO owned major weapon systems to support its air wing. This included a wide variety of platforms from attack helicopters to troop and cargo carriers, and other light aircraft for logistics and airlift purposes (source).
The secretive nature of EO after its revival does not allow for checking which military equipment they are using in their most recent operations. Therefore, we can only confirm the weapons and platforms they have been known to be used in the 1990s.
- AK-47 assault rifles
- PKM light machines guns
- RPG-7 grenade launcher
- Mortars (60mm and 82mm)
- D-30 howitzers
- Anti-aircraft weapons (23mm and 14.5)
- AGS-17 automatic 30mm grenade launchers
- Heavy machine guns
Helicopters and aircraft:
- Mi-8 helicopters
- Mi-17 transport helicopters armed with twin PKM machine guns
- Mi-24 helicopter gunships armed with a 12.7mm Gatling gun, 57mm rocket pods, a 30mm grenade launcher, and two 7.62mm door-mounted miniguns
- Mig-23 fighter jets
- L-39 trainer fighter jets
- Pilatus PC-7 ground-attack aircraft
- Boeing 727s
- Puma helicopters
- Mirage and Cheetah aircraft
- Various troop-carrying helicopters and ground-attack aircraft
- Beechcraft King Air 200 fitted with high-resolution cameras and forward-looking infra-red system (FLIR) for aerial reconnaissance
- Unarmed Cessna as spotter planes and radio relay stations
- Soviet AN-26 aircraft
- Russian Il-76
Some of the interesting vehicles used by EO:
- unarmored Land Rovers, armed with 12.7mm machine guns and grenade launchers
- Armoured personnel carriers
- Infantry fighting vehicles like BMP-2s (with AGS-17 grenade launcher mounted on)
4.3 Other Important Gear
- Night Vision Equipment
- VHF and HF Radio systems
- Hardened tactical radio sys
- Satellite Comms units
- Body armour
5.0 Tactical-Operational Information
Since its deployment to Soyo, Executive Outcomes understood that it had to apply its considerable military capabilities according to the concept of relentless offensive action to quickly defeat the enemy. This offensive and aggressive doctrine relies on the firm’s air mobile component. This ensures the rapid deployment of EO’s assault units with the aim of delivering an overwhelming pre-emptive strike supported by superior air power and firepower (source) (source).
Most notably, while elements of Executive Outcomes take on the role of combat teams, they are assisted by forces within the countries of operations. Firstly, this ensures that the available manpower for the theatre of operations is effectively used which has a positive outcome on the running costs for the firm. Secondly, by relying on larger indigenous forces, EO’s elite units serve as force multipliers. For instance, in Angola, Executive Outcomes trained, integrated, and lead the 5000-strong 16th Brigade to maximise the effectiveness of the forces deployed in the field (source).
Therefore, Executive Outcomes achieved success in different conflicts by establishing effective logistics, ensuring dynamic flexibility at the operational level, and constantly maintaining the initiative. But, above all, enhancing situational awareness was crucial to Eeben Barlow: “I viewed intelligence as the lifeblood of any realistic and credible strategy.” (source).
Executive Outcomes fulfilled numerous contracts across Africa and beyond during its decade-long history. However, the most notorious operations involved Angola and Sierra Leone:
- In Angola, against rebels from the National Union for the Liberation of Angola (UNITA) from 1993 to 1997
- In Sierra Leone, beginning in 1995, Executive Outcomes defeated the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels
5.2 Core Purpose of Executive Outcomes
Executive Outcomes seeks to provide clients with:
“A highly professional and confidential military advisory service to legitimate governments; sound strategic and tactical military advice; the most professional training packages currently available to armed forces, covering aspects related to land warfare, air warfare, naval warfare; peacekeeping (persuasion) services; advice to armed forces on weaponry selection; para-military services; a total a-political service based on confidentiality, integrity, professionalism and dedication in order to create a climate for peace and stability for foreign investment” (source).
In short, EO wherever deployed aims to guarantee the integrity and the stability of the State (source).
Executive Outcomes operated according to four ‘interlocking principles’:
- Ground operations + air support
Air power was the fundamental component of any EO military actions. This allows EO to deploy timely and accurately according to their offensive posture with the aim of exploiting superior firepower and negating retaliatory action to the enemy (source). By employing reconnaissance teams and electronic intelligence, EO units could rapidly locate and destroy hostile elements (source).
- Initiative and good common sense
By taking the initiative, together with air mobility, EO combat teams pressure the enemy through mobile attacks to force a withdrawal and, subsequently, to relentlessly pursue them (source). Additionally, EO stressed the importance of creative thinking in tactical situations and personal initiative. This ensures the flexibility and decentralised decision-making required for the aggressive doctrine undertaken by small EO strike units (source).
By undertaking regular training, Executive Outcomes created highly experienced and skilled units which, nevertheless displayed a strong sense of group loyalty (source).
The maintenance of efficient supply lines to the troops in forward deployment was crucial for the success of the operations.
5.4 Personnel Size
At the height of its business in the 1990s, Executive Outcomes “[was] able to draw on a large, professional workforce and can call on over 2 000 men at very short notice” (source). From this pool, EO deployed contingents with a wide numerical range depending on the specific operation and the client’s requirements. For instance, Eeben Barlow dispatched no more than 75 combat elements to fulfil the contract with the Angolan state oil company in Soyo in 1993 (source). Conversely, later contracts required larger contingents. In Angola, they deployed more than 550 men and at least 300 personnel operated in Sierra Leone (source).
Current figures on EO manpower after its revival remain unknown. However, rough estimates can be made. STTEP, the PMC that Barlow chaired until 2020, deployed several hundred personnel (at least 250) at the request of the Nigerian government to fight Boko Haram in 2015. Since STTEP followed in the tracks laid by EO, it is not unreasonable to estimate potential personnel figures for a modern PMC to be in the range of hundreds of highly skilled and experienced soldiers (source).
6.0 The Future of Executive Outcomes
As the company was recently revived, it is difficult to map out potential future scenarios. Indeed, EO has been particularly secretive about its current contracts. This is partly due to its tormented past with negative publicity from the South African media. Thus, it is not surprising that the announcement of the rebirth of Executive Outcomes has been followed by a precise statement by Eeben Barlow regarding media engagement: “Furthermore, Executive Outcomes will neither comment nor engage with the media on any contracts” (source). This, however, limits our knowledge of the current operations of the group beyond Barlow’s declaration that “Strategic partnerships have already been put in place with two companies that have a likewise reputation for adding value to governments, and I look forward to helping them establish themselves in Africa” (source).
Nonetheless, the fortunes of Executive Outcomes will once again be linked to the figure of its notorious founder. However, it is important to underline that EO has stated that they will not operate in South Africa due to past divergences with elements of the South African state (source).
The reputation for effectiveness, earned through impressive military accomplishments, will play favourably to the emergence of EO in the private military industry which has seen important developments in recent years. Above all, the meteoric rise of Wagner Group from the Sahel to North and Central Africa (source) (source). Conversely, multinational forces from international organisations like the UN have registered a marked decline. Combined with the erosion of the credibility of French military operations in the continent, African states have increasingly turned to ‘corporate warriors’ to address the seemingly endless cycle of instability and violence. Thus, EO and Eeben Barlow will re-enter the market seeking to capitalise on their glorious past experiences to finally provide “African solutions to African problems” (source).
7.0 Controversies of Executive Outcomes
Critics from academia and journalism advanced accusations that Executive Outcomes could no longer be considered an independent military company. Allegedly, EO included UK-based companies active in the mineral and energy sectors under the leadership of Anthony Buckingham. These offices included Heritage Oil, Branch Energy, Branch Minerals, and DiamondWorks (source). More generally, academics have raised concerns about conflicting interests between PMCs and multinational corporations (MNCs).
8.0 Frequently Asked Questions about Executive Outcomes
8.1 Why are Executive Outcomes and Eeben Barlow considered the grandfathers of modern PMCs?
The importance of EO, and its founder, for shaping modern understandings of warfare, African conflicts, and statehood cannot be understated. The company was the first of its kind and the model for all the PMCs that followed in the years after its end. Its ability to constantly field a several-hundred-strong unit in different theatres of war with almost autonomous capabilities ranging from logistics and intelligence to ground and air support changed the dynamics of conflicts in Africa. States under threat from rebels and insurgents could now rapidly find a cost-effective solution to achieve internal stability. The birth of a ‘small army’ composed of highly trained soldiers posed questions on the very foundations of the modern state. Thus, its legacy is undoubtedly controversial, compounded by the alleged links to other commercial entities. However, the successes of EO in achieving (short-term) stability in conflict-ridden regions cannot be undermined.
8.2 Why did Executive Outcomes disband after having endured a decade of strong criticism?
Since its opening, Executive Outcomes has always drawn outcry among the public and the international community. EO raised the question of whether a private corporation should be able to provide full combat capabilities to states. Furthermore, the company was constantly accused by the media of reasoning by profit to exploit local resources, lack of accountability, and conflicting interests (source). Despite some opaque business connections, the claims remained largely unproven. In his book “Executive Outcomes: Against All Odds”, Eeben Barlow alleges that the public criticism levied against EO concerning its legitimacy, interests, and legality stemmed from a years-long disinformation campaign by elements of South African politics and society whose goals opposed a quick resolution to conflicts in Africa (source).
Faced with negative publicity and a “disinformation war against the company” (source), Executive Outcomes terminated its operations on 1 January 1999 at a time when national legislation regulating PMCs in South Africa was implemented. Nevertheless, the 1998 Foreign Military Assistance Act merely sought to bring mercenary activities under governmental control rather than prohibit them (source). Media claims that EO was terminated due to political pressure from the new legislation remain unfounded.
8.3 What made Executive Outcomes so successful vis-a-vis national militaries and multinational coalitions?
Executive Outcomes could deploy faster and with much lower political costs. Their chain of command was clearer and smoother; EO ensured higher compatibility of military equipment and training. Additionally, it recruited highly skilled combat veterans. This translated into a willingness to deploy overwhelming force on its enemy without the political constraints of governments and the UN. Finally, they are less expensive than using national or multinational foreign forces (source).
Since its rise to publicity, Executive Outcomes has been the point of reference for innumerable private military firms. With their actions, they (unwillingly) brought the term ‘mercenary’ into the public debate, and redefined the boundaries between states and corporations. Despite the controversies that followed EO until its termination and beyond, Eeben Barlow’s company brought stability – even if temporary – to a number of countries in the African continent. The rebirth of Executive Outcomes has yet to prove if the company can live up to its glorious past:
“Executive Outcomes is the small wave of the future in terms of defence and security, because the international community has abdicated that role”(source)