The “Circuit” is the colloquial and often misused term for the international network of specialist VIP and executive protection individuals, usually relative to hostile environments and the more “risky” commercial theaters. It’s early days was very much former UK special forces, officers and select UK police units but since the US-led invasion into Iraq it has grown to encompass numerous nationalities, inclusive of US servicemen/police personnel also. These days, it is so over-used there are so many former military/police personnel claiming to be part of it, that is used by nearly everyone that has or wants to work in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Strangely enough, most buyers or clients have never heard of it. The Circuit was in part what contributed to the now well-known rise of Private Military Forces/Companies that have been actively engaged in numerous campaigns and theaters around the world, ranging from anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa up to and including post-war reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It also contributed to the surge in security personnel escorting media teams into and around conflict areas.

I have worked on The Circuit as an “operator”, recruited personnel from The Circuit and managed personnel and contracts in support of The Circuit’s business model in hostile environments, on and off for the past 13 years. I have worked as a sub-contractor, corporate manager and commercial provider at senior and executive levels, justifying, in my opinion, the insights to comment on this subject.

The Circuit was initially made up of former Tier 1 military and police individuals. Those with multi-discipline, special forces/operations experience and skills. Those ideally suited to set up and deliver managed security environments to an array of commercial and government clients as required. Whilst the service appeared to be limited to VIP/Executive protection, there was much more involved and the suite of skills and experiences these individuals brought to the solution was significant. Over time, demand outpaced supply, client ignorance/cost cutting and a host of “get rich quick” providers flooding the market overshadowed this initial model that previously guaranteed former SAS, Delta, SEAL Team 6, GIGN, GSG 9 and other similar pedigrees. There were all manner of basic infantry personnel servicing clients and in some instances clients paying the same price for these lower level services. The end result is that it is much more difficult to find Tier 1 operators on The Circuit, and someone’s past or current attachment to The Circuit is far from a guarantee of skills and standards. More often than not, those on The Circuit have only basic protection skills, with very little depth/experience elsewhere. Don’t worry, there is also the odd highly skilled and experienced operator left, largely due to commercial servitude or other personal circumstances. In all these markets you will find a few “racehorses providing pony rides”.

As demand outpaced supply, a few entrepreneurial individuals saw the value in supplying the market with people and courses. A micro industry of “approved” VIP/Executive protection courses were born, with certain companies only hiring individuals that had undergone said “approved” courses. A nice margin and percentage went to their mates and former colleagues of course. Some lone operators set up recruitment and introduction services, pocketing the first month’s payment of anyone they introduced to The Circuit’s existing providers. This opened up a real “meat market” with most providers merely fronting manpower, appearing under different company banners and prices. The client owned the guns, cars, accommodation, radios and everything else in many instances, with companies rotating their brand and people through the contract. Some contracts have the same people servicing the client for the past few years, under different provider’s names and declining “day rates”.

Old companies were reborn, new companies were established, mergers, acquisition and numerous other commercial rationalization of the market took place, ending in what is now a few companies competing for less and less commercial opportunities, praying for the “old days”. Day rates have dropped, quality has dropped, standards have dropped and yet in some of these environments the threat to life and property is only increasing or returning to the “old days” in many ways, especially after the main US troop withdrawals. In short, there has been little diversification in service offerings or primary markets, with some so heavily weighted in one market and/or one contract that if it should be lost, their entire business is likely to fail. Clients are a funny beast in this market, with so many just seeking cheaper prices year-on-year, yet expecting the same, if not higher quality, of service, all the while they don’t have their own affairs in order or area wasting millions in poorly managed resources, providers, personnel and even commercial agreements. A phenomena that is seldom practiced in other markets or service segments.

Senior management in these existing and newly formed private military companies varied greatly, contributing to the overpricing of services, driving away quality operators, leaving clients feeling ripped off and the dilution of basic skills/experience required for the task at hand. Many walked from senior military roles directly into senior/executive roles within the commercial provider’s management or leadership. The assumption was that management of large numbers of manpower required the same skills and experience one might obtain as a Colonel or General in the military or as a senior police commander. This could not have been further from the truth/reality. Egregious commercial mismanagement, repetitional damage and even loss of life has been attributed to so many senior executives having an impressive military service but a total lack of commercial skills, experience, and aptitude. Sad but true. Short-term lust for large profits impacted the market significantly, especially once the entry market expanded from largely government clients to that of commercial enterprises. If only they had heard the commercial expression “you can shear a sheep many times but you can only skin it once!”

Despite a time when “close protection” specialists were abundant and could been seen in large volumes at airports all around the world, especially those feeding into the Middle East and Africa, the overall quality of the market and international use of these skills has not advanced. Good operators are returning to their country of hire/residence, without any commercial opportunities, by either the companies that contracted them or the clients they service in nasty parts of the world. This is scarily unique to the executive/VIP protection sector, if you can call it a service sector given the inconsistent and varied quality of providers and individuals.

The Circuit is not what it used to be. It is no longer primarily Tier 1 [elite] level personnel and “invitation” only. Consumers/clients understand the requirement and full scope of skills necessary less today than they did a decade ago, thanks to lacklustre providers and mediocre management by big name companies that “dominate” the market. These dominate companies are easy to identify. They are the ones that have an online sign up for, much the same McDonalds has for it’s vacancies, claiming to seek senior and experienced talent. This application then ends up being reviewed by some young HR professional, usually under the age of 30. These recruitment systems are not known for their application and success rates for unique and specific talents. At a time when there are significantly more veterans in the market, with less official conflicts being undertaken but the hint of increased military spending on the horizon, it will be interesting to see what “The Circuit” becomes over the next 10 years and what becomes of those with “advanced degrees in warfare” that once was the only assurance for governments and commercial entities to successfully enter and profit from emerging markets, not just post-war conflict areas. Not to mention limit the loss of life and reputation associated with “buying cheap” when the circumstances should prohibit such actions.

Tony Ridley

Travel Safety Experts
Travel Safety Experts

Travel health, safety, security and risk management experts