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How the Drone Warfare Industry Took Over Our Congress

Drones play an increasing role in foreign wars, on the border, and in 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. 

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