The Drone That Wouldn't Die: How a Defense Contractor Bested the Pentagon

The Air Force was ready to drop the RQ-4B Block 30, but a Northrup Grumman lobbying campaign convinced Congress to resuscitate it.
An RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base in Yuba County, California. (Chris Kaufman/Associated Press)

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 for a little over a day over vast terrain 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.

A contractor-driven campaign "often works," Adams said. "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."

The case of the Global Hawks Block 30s also shows how lawmakers -- even deficit hawks who say they want to slash federal spending -- still earmark money for favored defense projects, even though such earmarks are formally prohibited by both House and Senate rules.

In this case, the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill Congress passed last December and the spending bill it enacted in March require the Air Force not only to keep flying Block 30s for roughly $260 million a year through calendar year 2014, but to also spend as much as $443 million on three more. The House -- which has been Northrop Grumman's close ally in the fight -- voted in June for a fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill that extends Block 30 operations two additional years, through 2016.

Unexpected maintenance and flight problems
The Global Hawk at issue -- the largest drone in the U.S. arsenal -- is a successor to a smaller Block 10 drone that the Air Force flew successfully from 2001 until 2011. Northrop Grumman hailed the Block 30 as an "unblinking eye" platform that does a better job of tracking objects on the ground for a longer period.

But in a reversal of the prescribed path in which weapons systems are designed and fully tested before going into full production and being dispatched to war zones, Global Hawks were pressed quickly into service over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Horn of Africa, Japan and Haiti while still technically under development.

The reason is that the drones were a "technology push rather than a requirements pull," in which the manufacturer developed a new capability before combat commanders specified exactly what they needed, according to the congressional source familiar with the program. Only after the new Global Hawks were in the field "did the services find out how commanders would actually use them," he said. Randy Belote, Northrop Grumman's vice president for strategic communications, declined comment on this characterization.

The Block 30 models were designed to fly for 28 to 35 hours compared to the 10- to 12-hour endurance limit of the piloted U-2s. But unlike the U-2, Global Hawks are not equipped with electronic countermeasures to defeat air defenses, and lack the U-2's "all-weather" capability, according to congressional testimony by Air Force officials.

Moreover, the drones and their sensors have been prone to a wide range of problems, many of them blamed on the speed with which the aircraft were deployed.

To meet certain data needs, for example, Block 30s have been torn apart and rebuilt to add some sensors already present on the U-2. Built with hardwired sensors, unlike a newer, more "plug-and-play" version known as the Block 40, the Block 30 "lacks the flexibility to change with new requirements," said the congressional source, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

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Presented by

Richard H.P. Sia & Alexander Cohen

Richard H. P. Sia is a writer for the Center for Public Integrity. Alexander Cohen is a data reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

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