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CPI Details How Northrop Saved Global Hawk UAV

> original title:

The Huge Drone That Could Not Be Grounded

(Source: Center for Public Integrity; issued July 16, 2013)



A major defense contractor used campaign donations and insider access on Capitol Hill to defy the Air Force and keep a troubled drone aloft at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars


With large budget cuts looming in the next decade, top Air Force officials knew last year they needed to halt spending on some large and expensive programs. So they looked for a candidate that was underperforming, had busted its budget, and wasn’t vital to immediate combat needs.

They soon settled on the production line for a $223 million aircraft with the wingspan of a tanker but no pilot in the cockpit, built to fly over vast terrain for a little more than a day while sending imagery and other data back to military commanders on the ground. Given the ambitious name “Global Hawk,” the aircraft had cost far more than expected, and was plagued by recurrent operating flaws and maintenance troubles.

“The Block 30 [version of Global Hawk] is not operationally effective,” the Pentagon’s top testing official had declared in a blunt May 2011 report about the drones being assembled by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif.

Canceling the purchase of new Global Hawks and putting recently-built planes in long-term storage would save $2.5 billion over five years, the service projected. And the drone’s military missions could be picked up by an Air Force stalwart, the U-2 spy plane, which had room for more sensors and could fly higher.

But what happened next was an object lesson in the power of a defense contractor to trump the Pentagon’s own attempts to set the nation’s military spending priorities amid a tough fiscal climate.

A team of Northrop lobbyists, packed with former congressional staff and bolstered by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, persuaded Congress to demand the drone’s continued production and operation.

In so doing, the contractor — which had revenue of $25.2 billion in 2012, more than 90 percent from the federal treasury — defied not only the leadership of the Air Force, but also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He told the House Armed Services Committee in February 2012 that the Global Hawk “has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it.” The White House, in two messages to Congress last year, said it “strongly objects” to the lawmakers’ demand for additional Global Hawks, but the protests were to no avail.

Northrop’s strikingly successful campaign to thwart the government culminated in a letter this May from two influential House lawmakers to newly installed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reminding him of the requirement to buy three more of the drone aircraft. The Air Force, they complained to Hagel, had not heeded “clear congressional intent [and] explicit direction to complete the acquisition.”

The letter, whose authors – Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. -- received a total of $135,100 from Northrop Grumman’s political action committee and employees for their election campaigns and leadership PACs since the beginning of 2009, is emblematic of the political forces that helped stoke a 117 percent jump in the Defense Department’s procurement budget from fiscal year 2001 through its peak in fiscal year 2010.

Those forces are now causing some lawmakers to resist the drawdown in military spending that President Obama and some military analysts say is needed to help shrink the federal deficit, projected to be $759 billion this year, and repair the nation’s long-term economic health.

Northrop Grumman’s political strategy “is entirely predictable — hire the right people, target the right people, contribute to the right people, then link them together with subcontractors and go for the gold,” said Gordon Adams, who served as the senior White House budget official for national security from 1993 to 1997 and has studied defense spending and procurement for more than 30 years.

“Killing a major program, in production, is rather like vampire-killing,” Adams added. “You have to drive a silver stake through its heart to make sure it is dead.”

The battle over the Global Hawk is one of many in which a major defense contractor and its influential friends in Congress have forced the military to spend money on hardware it doesn’t want. An Army proposal in 2011 to stop refurbishing the M1 Abrams tank to save $3 billion was blocked by the same House and Senate defense panels in response to the lobbying muscle of the tank manufacturer, General Dynamics. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full story, on the Center for Public Integrity website.

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