July 21, 2013

Drone builder foils Air Force frugality fling

Northrop Grumman goes over the brass's heads to preserve an order for three $223 million crafts.

By RICHARD H.P. SIA and ALEXANDER COHEN/Center for Public Integrity

With billions of dollars in spending reductions looming, Air Force officials looked around last year for a program they could cut that was underperforming, had busted its budget and wasn't vital to immediate combat needs.

click image to enlarge

Two instructors pass a model of a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn. The Air Force tried but failed to scuttle the Global Hawk program.

Glenn Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

Eventually, they settled on the production line for a $223 million aircraft known as the Global Hawk, 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 back data to military commanders on the ground.

"The Block 30 (version of Global Hawk) is not operationally effective," the Pentagon's top testing official had declared in a blunt 2011 report about the drones being assembled by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif. Canceling its production and putting recently built models into long-term storage would save $2.5 billion over five years, the service projected. Its 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.

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 defied not only the leadership of the Air Force but also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Dempsey 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' demands for additional Global Hawks.

But its protests were to no avail.

Northrop's successful campaign to thwart the government culminated in a letter this May from two influential House of Representatives lawmakers to newly installed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reminding him of the requirement to buy three more of the drone aircraft at an estimated cost of at least $300 million.

The letter, whose authors - Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. James Moran, D-Va. - have 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 now inhibiting a major drawdown in military spending.

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.

A spokesman for McKeon, Claude Chafin, said the lawmakers were responding to the absence of a credible Pentagon analysis supporting "the additional shedding of" assets such as the Global Hawk in the midst of "the war fighter's growing need."

Northrop Grumman has hailed the Block 30 -- the largest drone in the U.S. arsenal -- as an "unblinking eye" platform that does a better job of tracking objects on the ground for a longer period.

But Global Hawks ran into trouble partly because they were pressed quickly into service over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries while still technically under development. Only after the new Global Hawks were in the field "did the services find out how commanders would actually use them," said a congressional analyst who's familiar with the program but wasn't authorized to be quoted speaking about it.

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