How the Drone Warfare Industry Took Over Our Congress

At the Unmanned Systems Fair on September 21, the latest drone technology was on display. The drone fair, which took place in the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building, also displayed the easy mix of government and business. Also on exhibit was the kind of bipartisan unity often seen when Democrats and Republicans rally around security and federal pork.

Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Henry Cuellar, D-Tex., co-chairs of the Unmanned Systems Caucus, welcomed the drone industry and its supporters to Capitol Hill.

The drone caucus, which has more than 50 members, cosponsored the drone fete with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group that brings together the leading drone manufacturers. Drone orders from the federal government are rolling in to AUVSI corporate members, including such top military contractors as General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman.

Buck McKeon, who also sits on the House Armed Services Committee, thanked the industry for its support of “our warfighters.” In his opening remarks, Cuellar stressed the fundamental role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in ensuring homeland security and border security.

The Obama administration’s enthusiasm for drone attacks and surveillance in Afghanistan and elsewhere has helped consolidate the Pentagon’s commitment to drone warfare. Paralleling the increased use of drones in foreign wars is the rising commitment of the Department of Homeland Security to deploy drones for border security.

The drone business is projected to double over the next decade despite stagnant military budgets. The annual global market is expected to rise from $5.9 billion to nearly $11.3 billion by 2020 – with the United States accounting for about three-quarters of the total research, development and procurement markets.

U.S. government drone purchases — not counting contracts for an array of related UAV services and “payloads” — rose from $588 million to $1.3 billion over the past five years.

In the search of a high-tech fix for its much-criticized border security operations. DHS is becoming increasingly committed to drone deployment. The administration’s enthusiasm for drone surveillance mirrors its continuing commitment to ground-based electronic surveillance projects, which have quietly proceeded despite the department’s repeated inability to demonstrate the benefits of the “virtual fence.”

The Air and Maritime Office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) currently has a fleet of eight UAVs, with another two drones expected by early next year. CBP’s strategic plan calls for the eventual deployment of 24 drones.

CBP continues to add drones even though agency officials acknowledge that they have neither the skilled teams nor the technical infrastructure necessary to deploy the drones it already has. The agency says that drones function as a “force multiplier,” but it has never offered any evidence to document this claim that drones increase the efficiency of the Border Patrol and are more effective that piloted aircraft or ground patrols.

Nonetheless, border security hawks, especially in Texas, continue to escalate their demands for more drones to patrol the border and Mexican airspace.

Besides drone caucus co-chair Cuellar, who represents the South Texas border district that includes Laredo, other Texan drone proponents include Governor Rick Perry, Cong. Michael McCaul, the Republican congressman who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, and Silvestre Reyes, who represents the El Paso district and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

As part of the U.S. global drug war and as an extension of border security, unarmed drones are also crossing the border into Mexico. The U.S. Northern Command has acknowledged that the U.S. military does fly Global Hawk drones into Mexico to assist President Felipe Calderón’s government drug war. Drone caucus members McCaul and Reyes, among others, have called for increased drone surveillance in Mexico.

Caucus and Campaigns

Formed in 2009 by McKeon, the Unmanned Systems Caucus (formerly called the UAV Caucus), aims to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

The caucus states that it “works with the military, industry, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space.”

Members include a collection of border hawks, immigration hardliners and leading congressional voices for the military contracting industry. These include Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus; Candice Miller (R-Minn.), who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee that reviews the air and marine operations of DHS; Joe Wilson (R-SC); Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

The drone caucus works closely with the industry association AUVSI, which, in addition to the drone fair, sponsored a UAV Action Day on Capitol Hill last year.

AUVSI has its own congressional advocacy committee that is closely linked to the caucus. The keynote speaker at the drone association’s recent annual conference was McKeon, who is also slated to be the featured speaker at AUVSI’s AIR Day 2011 – in recognition, says AUVSI”s president that Congressman McKeon “has been one of the biggest supporters of the unmanned systems community.”

While the relationship between increasing drone contracts and the increasing campaign contributions received by drone caucus members can only be speculated, caucus members are favored recipients of contributions by members of the unmanned systems association AUVSI.

In the 2010 election cycle, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $1.7 million to the 42 congressional members who were members of the congressional drone caucus. The leading recipient was McKeon, who currently chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, with Cong. Reyes coming in a close second.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, whose Predator drone production facilities are located in McKeon’s San Diego district, is the fifth largest source of McKeon’s campaign contributions, following Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and SLM.

Since 2005 – the year that DHS began purchasing Predator drones, the company’s political action committee has contributed $1.6 million to members of the drone caucus, according to information from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In that period General Atomics has received $242 million in drone orders from DHS alone. The funds for the latest DHS drone purchases came not for the department’s annual budget but from a $600 million “emergency” supplemental bill that included $32 million to buy two more Predator drones for border security.

Members of the unmanned systems caucus, including McKeon, Cuellar and McCaul, boast of their influence in pressuring DHS to increase the pace of its drone program.

Congress and Contracts

At the drone fair this year, Cuellar praised Buck McKeon for being a “big defender of the military.” As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon is also a major defender of military contractors, especially those with production facilities in his San Diego district.

In a new policy report by the Center for International Policy and Common Cause, William Hartung says that McKeon is the arms industry’s most forceful advocate in the battle to bolster the Pentagon budget. Furthermore, according to Hartung:

[Buck McKeon] is the largest recipient of defense industry campaign contributions in the Congress, receiving over three quarters of a million dollars from 2009 through 2011, including $590,000 to his campaign fund and $191,000 to his leadership PAC.

He has numerous defense plants in his district, including Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works” research facility, as well as factories and research sites operated by Boeing, General Atomics (the maker of the Predator and Reaper drones), and Northrop Grumman. And he is the chair of the congressional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus.

McKeon is also a central player in the ongoing defense spending debate. As the Armed Services Committee chairman, he has held hearings on the need for continuing high Pentagon budgets. Hartung observes that he has allied himself with conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise and the Heritage Institute, and meets “behind the scenes with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the chief lobbyists for contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics.”

The U.S. military is driving the surging market for UAVs. Drone purchases accounted for more than one-third of the Air Force’s 2010 aircraft budget. The 2012 DoD budget includes $4.8 billion for UAVs, continuing, according to the Pentagon, “strong funding for unmanned aerial vehicles that enhance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.”

While DoD and DHS have favored the Predator drones manufactured in San Diego by General Atomics, other military contractors, notably Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are seeking to make more inroads into this booming market with its own UAVs. With its Global Hawks, the drones that the Northern Commands uses for drug war surveillance in Mexico, Northrup Grumman has hit on a new contracting payload.

There’s little obstructing the U.S. military from deploying drones in its wars and intelligence operations. But along the border and elsewhere in U.S. airspace, drone proponents face restrictions established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

As one of its chief goals, the House drone caucus aims to open U.S. airspace to the widespread use of drones by federal and local law enforcement agencies. Although the FAA is acceding to the demands for increased drone access to more U.S. airspace, the drone caucus is not satisfied.

At the insistence of the drone caucus, the House approved an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill (which remains stalled in Congress over Republican anti-union demands) that promotes the integration of unmanned systems into the entire national airspace by 2015. When announcing the passage of the caucus-sponsored amendment, McKeon lambasted the FAA for its “languid” process of authorizations for drones to share U.S. airways.

Candice Miller, a Republican who represents a Michigan border district, has become one of the most influential members of the drone caucus. In her new role as chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Miller has pressured the FAA to act quicker to increase drone access to national airspace.

Miller, who calls herself a “strong supporter of using UAVs,” has been using her new chairmanship to insist that DHS pay more attention to the northern border. “I like to remind folks we actually have two borders, so the northern border as well. And both of them need to be secured,” said Miller in her opening statement at a subcommittee hearing on March 15.

More border security, whether in form of more Border Patrol stations or drones, means increased employment and revenues for her district. In part because of her advocacy, DHS has opened an Operations Integration Center on the Michigan border and greatly increased the use of the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in her district for homeland security operations.

Lately Miller has been using her new position of influence to pressure the FAA to authorize drone flights in northern Michigan – in no small part because DHS would likely then situate one of the many planned UAV operating centers at the base. While unmanned, UAVs require teams of 50 or more members to operate as well as a network of ground operating stations.

Advocacy for increased border security on the northern border and increased UAV deployment, as well as pressure on the FAA to open airspace for drones, is not confined to the House. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, has also brought these the issues of security, increased drone presence, and FAA airspace approvals together.

During the debate over the FAA reauthorization bill, Senator Schumer stressed that U.S. national security is at stake:

The FAA has been very hesitant to give authorization to these UAVs due to limited air space and restrictions that they have. I certainly can appreciate those concerns; but when we’re talking about Customs and Border Protection or the FBI, what have you, we are talking about missions of national security. And certainly there’s nothing more important than that.

For Schumer, as with the members of the House drone caucus, stated concerns about border security and national security overlap with the search for more federal pork.

Schumer is seeking FAA approval for extensive UAV testing in the airspace around New York’s Hancock Air Base, which is where the military stations the fleet of killer drones that are being used in the Middle East and South Asia. A report by the Syracuse Post-Standard noted that if approved by the FAA “it would help ensure the future of 1,215 jobs” at the air base and “potentially lead to millions of dollars in radar research contracts for local defense companies.”

Boys and Toys

The U.S. public has expressed little concern about the increased use of killer drones in U.S. war-fighting and counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration despite frequent reports of deaths of untargeted civilians. In Pakistan and within the United Nations, there are rising complaints that drone attacks violate international law and result in a pattern of noncombatant civilians – what the U.S. military calls “collateral damage.”

Yet all is not quiet on the home front.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is taking the U.S. government to task for ignoring international law, while the American Civil Liberty Union charges that drone surveillance tramples civil rights and violates individual privacy. Peace and anti-war groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation have also criticized the administration’s increased use of attack drones.

With respect to border security, there is no public outcry or activism against drone deployment despite its massive costs and dubious benefits. Similarly, there has been little public concern about the virtual fence, the other major high-tech project to secure the border – in sharp contrast to widespread opposition to the steel border fence.

The relative absence of public discussion about the U.S. government’s increased deployment of drones can be, in part, explained by government secrecy and by lack of opportunities for public review.

American confidence that most problems have high-tech solutions may also help explain the lack of public or policymaker criticism of the Pentagon and DHS drone programs. But as drones increasingly appear on the home front, it’s likely that drone traffic will raise new concern about the threats to the safety of air travel.

Following the federal government’s lead, local law enforcement agencies are planning to use drones for surveillance. Reacting to the announcement that the Houston-area sheriffs department had purchased a drone, Terry Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, remarked: “I gotta tell you, it sort of looks like boys and their toys. We’re giving up our privacy, we’re letting the government have way too much power.”

Burke’s comments could just as well have referred to the federal government’s drone programs, and to the drone enthusiasm of the House drone caucus.