Thursday, February 25, 2010

Drone Lobby in Congress

Since the start of DHS’ drone program it has counted on the strong support of the increasingly influential Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the El Paso area representative who came to Congress after working 26 years in the Border Patrol, retiring after building a national reputation as a border enforcer as district chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector.

Reyes currently serves as chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee and is a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee. He is a prominent promoter of UAVs, which are tested and partly developed at the Ft. Bliss military complex in El Paso.

Reyes is a member of the little-known Congressional UAV Caucus, whose mission is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of UAVs, actively support further development and acquisition of more capable UAVs, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety.”

 Mission of Congressional UAV Caucus

The UAV Caucus says that its mission includes "actively support[ing] further development and acquisition of more capable UAVs" and "more effectively engag[ing] the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety."

Members of the caucus state that they:
  1. Acknowledge the overwhelming value of UAVs to the defense, intelligence, homeland security, and the scientific communities;
  2. Recognize the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more UAVs in support of ongoing operations;
  3. Work with the military, industry, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space (NAS);
  4. Support our world-class industrial base that engineers, develops, manufactures, and tests UAVs creating thousands of American jobs;
  5. Support policies and budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security UAV capability.

One business beneficiary of Reyes’ enthusiasm for drones is Aerospace Missions, a small company that after setting up in El Paso has received a steady stream of $1 million earmarks by Reyes from 2005 through 2009 to develop miniature sensors for UAVs.

As a member of the Air and Land Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Reyes notes that the subcommittee is “responsible for funding key programs of importance” to Ft. Bliss and the nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, including the Future Combat Systems, F-22 fighter aircraft, and Predator UAVs.

As I serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, I have been involved with the development of UAVs and know the importance of the intelligence they provide,” said Reyes in response to questions about his close relationship with Aerospace Missions and other UAV contractors.

UAV proponents, including UAV manufacturers and high-tech advocates within DHS, have not been above using the controversy over the border fence created by the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006 to promote UAVs for border security. This was a major theme at the 2008 Global Border Security Conference and Technology Expo in Austin.

Michael Rosenberg of E.J. Krause, the conference organizer, said: "Our goal is to bring together government and industry leaders to consider technology and policy strategies that move beyond the fence. The government's demand for advanced border technology is increasing and we are committed to providing a unique opportunity for government officials in homeland security and law enforcement to see first-hand what solutions are available to them.”

Another conference speaker was Rick Morgan of Aerospace Missions Corporation, the UAV development company surviving on congressional earmarks by Rep. Reyes and other members of Congress.

Congressional UAV proponents are not working alone. There’s a newly created industry association to parallel the UAV Caucus called the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems Association (UAVSI), which has its own congressional advocacy committee and sponsors events. In close cooperation with members of the Congressional UAV Caucus, UAVSI sponsors an annual UAVSI Action Day on Capitol Hill, and congressional tours of UAV manufacturing facilities.

The principal market for UAVs is the military. Drone purchases accounted for more than one-third of the Air Force’s proposed 2010 aircraft budget. While the Predators have thus far been favored by DOD and DHS, other military contractors, notably Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are seeking to makes more inroads into this booming market with its own UAVs.

Congress has passed a flurry of laws and budget authorizations to foster UAVs. Shortly after DHS was created Congress in 2003 directed DHS to study the feasibility of using UAVs, and has repeated this directive in numerous instances since then. The 2003 DOD Authorization Act (P.L. 108-136) required the president to issue a report “on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for support of homeland security missions.”

As part of the 2007 appropriations bill Congress urged DHS to work with the FAA to implement a pilot program that would use UAVs for surveillance on the northern border. 

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