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17 Jul, 2013 00:30

Thanks to lobby effort, flawed drone still flying despite Pentagon, White House objections

Thanks to lobby effort, flawed drone still flying despite Pentagon, White House objections

Despite needed cuts to big ticket US defense programs, an investigation into Northrop Grumman’s lobbying efforts reveals the military contractor kept its costly Global Hawk drone flying despite the Pentagon’s own attempt to kill the project.

Though the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles into use by America’s military is seemingly unstoppable, at least one drone project, the $223-million Global Hawk, was determined to be underperforming and unnecessary in a report put together by top officials in 2011.

“The Block 30 [version of Global Hawk] is not operationally effective,” the Pentagon’s head testing official declared in a May 2011 report about the drones, which were being assembled by Northrop in Palmdale, California. According to The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), neither that report nor efforts by both the White House and top Army officials managed to thwart the drone program.

It was projected that cancellation of new orders of the Global Hawk, a lumbering unmanned reconnaissance aircraft with the wingspan of a tanker, would save the government $2.5 billion over five years. Those cuts would have also placed already built and deployed Global Hawks into storage in favor of America’s ubiquitous spy plane, the U-2, which could accommodate more sensors and fly higher than the drone.

In February of 2012 the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, told the House Armed Services Committee in that the Global Hawk had “fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it.” Dempsey’s statements were further pushed by the White House, which twice told Congress that it “strongly” objected to additional Global Hawk orders.

Despite the determination that the Global Hawk, the largest drone currently serving with US forces, was to be killed, the lobbying effort mounted by Northrop proved unstoppable.

Reuters / NASA / Handout

According to Gordon Adams, a former senior White House budget official for national security, halting the momentum on a large defense contractor project is easier said than done.

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

Adams described the defense contractor’s response as “entirely predictable” and highly effective.

“Hire the right people, target the right people, contribute to the right people, then link them together with subcontractors and go for the gold,” says Adams.  

Adams tells CPI that the Global Hawk fiasco mimics many other defense contractor campaigns to sustain embattled programs.  

“It eked out more F-22 [fighters] than the Air Force wanted. It extended the C-17 [transport] production line by several years as Congress ordered up 10 more aircraft beyond what the Air Force needed,” Adams points out.

A congressional source familiar with the Global Hawk program tells CPI that, ironically, the drone proved to be problematic and ultimately unneeded to the US Air Force because it was developed and built before combat commanders even specified their needs.


As a result of Northrop’s rush to produce the large drones, once in service, problems that required additional testing and modifications meant that the cost for a single Global Hawk increased by 150 per cent, from $88 million in 2001 to $223 million in 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Hints that the Global Hawk program was headed for the chopping block prompted Northrop to create a 'Support Global Hawk' website in late 2011. That website listed all of the suppliers involved, their congressional districts as well as the lawmakers representing them. The defense contractor also distributed fliers throughout Capitol Hill, with maps showing the locations of the drone’s manufacturing sites, military bases and subcontractors.

According to CPI, another major element of Northrop’s campaign to keep the Global Hawk alive involved major campaign contributions: key members of the House Armed Services Committee and a related subcommittee received a total of $941,000 in contributions between 2009 and 2012.

Of the 26 lobbyists who fought on behalf of Northrop’s Global Hawk were three former Republican aides to the House Appropriations Committee. Part of that team was also Northrop’s VP for Government Relations, Sid Ashworth, who had served for 14 years as a staff member on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Ultimately, Northrop’s efforts paid off, and despite efforts by the Pentagon and the Obama administration to kill the program the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill passed by Congress will require the Air Force to fly the Block 30 Global Hawks through 2014, costing $260 million per year. The bill also stipulates that the US spend as much as $443 million on three additional Global Hawk drones.