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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.

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    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.   

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