Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Predator Drone is Born and Bred

Standing next to a Predator Drone, Maj. Gen. Mike Kostelnik speaks with President George W. Bush and Secretary Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security during their tour Monday, April 9, 2007, of the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Ariz. Said the President, "It's the most sophisticated technology we have, and it's down here on the border to help Border Patrol agents do their job." White House photo by Eric Draper
Standing next to a Predator Drone, Maj. Gen. Mike Kostelnik speaks with President George W. Bush and Secretary Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security during their tour Monday, April 9, 2007, of the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Ariz. Said the President, "It's the most sophisticated technology we have, and it's down here on the border to help Border Patrol agents do their job." White House photo by Eric Draper

(Excerpted from Tom Barry, "Predators on the Rise at Home," Truthout, August 7, 2013, at:

Looking back at the Air Force's close relationship with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems sheds light on why the company received its first orders for nonweaponized drones from CBP. It may also help explain why CBP conceived its drone program as part of a military-like strategy to secure the border using the much-vaunted ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities of Predator drones. 

Missing from the official narrative about sole-source, no-bid contracts for its Predator drones is an accounting of the personal and institutional relations that have shaped the DHS program. 

The back-story of DHS drones is fascinating. It is also instructive, and helps explain why CBP was willing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on drone operations that have proved spectacularly unsuccessful - whether measured either by number of terrorists caught (none) or by the relatively insignificant number of immigrants apprehended and pounds of illegal drugs seized, or by the logistical, technical, and management failures highlighted in the GAO and Inspector General reports.

Congressional pressure, industry lobbying and influence peddling, and the CIA's and the Air Force's enthusiasm for Predator drones all contributed to the CBP's decision to partner with General Atomics to launch its Predator drone program in 2005.

Not to be ignored, however, is the central role of Ret. Major General Michael Kostelnik, who was hired by CBP in 2005 to manage its newly unified air and maritime assets. Prior to becoming the CBP assistant commissioner in charge of OAM, Kostelnik played a major role in Air Force armament acquisitions, including a central role in the Air Force's development of the Predator.

For CBP, having a career military man direct its new air and marine division may have seemed entirely appropriate given the shift to a more militarized concept of border control after 9/11, with border policy shifting from border control  to border security.
Rather than keeping its air and maritime assets supervised separately by each Border Patrol sector chief, CBP had created one unit, and it needed a commander to direct national operations along the country's land and sea borders.

From the beginning of his tenure, Kostelnik served as the lead CBP official to promote and defend the drone program in the media, public forums, and congressional hearings.  Within the OAM, however, Kostelnik's enthusiasm for Predator drones wasn't well received by many traditional pilots, who have seen their flight time cut and the budgets for traditional aviation shrink.

When Kostelnik took control of OAM, he was a longtime supporter of the Air Force's program to prepare for drone warfare. As military acquisitions chief, Kostelnik, played a key role in promoting the UAV development program within the Air Force, especially supporting General Atomics in its work to weaponize its RQ-1 UAV.

Part of this inside story is set forth in a report written by Richard Whittle for the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association. Titled the "Predator's Big Safari," the report describes how the Air Force worked closely with General Atomics, first to produce the Predator as the premier intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, and then as a "hunter-killer" with a Hellfire missile payload aboard.

The Predator drone deployed by CBP to meet its post-9/11 "homeland security" and "border security" missions is a product of the military-industrial complex. General Atomics, a southern California military contractor, developed the Predator as part of a 1993 Pentagon initiative called the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program.

Kostelnik started following the development of the Predator in the mid-1990s in his positions as director of special programs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology and as executive secretary to DOD's Special Access Program Oversight Committee.

In the late 1990s, during the onset and killing of the Balkan Wars, Kostelnik, who had become commander of the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. As Air Armament Center commander, Kostelnik was a central figure in the General Atomics/Air Force project to "weaponize the Predator."

In 1995, Kostelnik watched a video streamed by General Atomics to the Pentagon from a test exercise of the Predator at Fort Huachuca, Arizona - where four CBP Predators are currently based. Soon afterward, Kostelnik visited the General Atomics development facility in southern California, where he met with the company's president, retired Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy, and personally observed a Predator test flight.

Fixated on developing UAVs as weapons, Kostelnik later called Cassidy, according to the Air Force history of the Predator's development:

"I've got an idea about using your aircraft," Kostelnik told Cassidy. "I think it can carry a small bomb. What do you think?"

"You'll hardly believe your good fortune," replied Cassidy, "We've already been working on it."

The Air Force deepened its interest in weaponizing the Predator following an Air Armament Summit that Kostelnik helped organize. The March 2000 summit, which included a presentation by Kostelnik's deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Sullivan, brought together company presidents, directors of research, and other division chiefs to discuss the Air Force's armament plans.

Initially, Kostelnik and his deputy promoted the idea of arming the Predator with small smart bombs. The US military was at the time deploying unarmed Predators for ISR operations in the Balkans. Kostelnik, among others in the Air Force, pressured the Air Force to provide funding to General Atomics to arm the Predators - as they soon did, but with Hellfire missiles, not with smart bombs as originally proposed.

The relationship that had been consolidating between General Atomics and the Air Force since the early 1990s was mediated and facilitated in Congress by influential congressional representatives, led by southern Californian Republican Representative Jerry Lewis, a member of the House Appropriations Defense Committee and vice chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 

Lewis, a favored recipient of General Atomics campaign contributions, used his appropriations influence to ensure that the Air Force gained full control of the UAV program by 1998. Lewis has received $10,000 every two years in campaign contributions from General Atomic's political action committee - $80,000 since 1998, according to the Open Secrets website. 

Under Kostelnik's direction, the Air Combat Command assumed management of the Predator development program. Since he took over CBP's aviation operations, Kostelnik has directed CBP to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics.  The OAM chief told the Defense Systems Journal that "he needed to look no farther than the Predator UAS - a system with which he had been involved from its earliest days as a classified program." That vastly reduced CBP's risk in procurement, said Kostelnik.

Aside from Kostelnik's usual (albeit highly dubious) assertions about the Predator's significant cost advantages over manned aircraft and "unique performance advantages" (including its capacity to perform "a very select group of high-risk mission sets"), the OAM chief touts the seamless interoperability with the DOD in the event of a national security emergency, noting that the CBP Predators and Guardians could easily be switched to DOD control.

Kostelnik repeatedly boasted that OAM created the world’s first and the largest nonmilitary drone fleet. "We're a law-enforcement air force," says Kostelnik, although "increasingly in our aviation and maritime capabilities . . . we're operating DOD-like equipment. But we're doing it not for defense missions; we're doing it in the homeland."

Kostelnik not only played a key role in the development of the armed Predator for global hunter-killer missions, he also became the DHS point person in the integration of the newly established homeland security operations with traditional national security missions.

Even when Kostelnik was still at OAM, CBP said that Kostelnik was unavailable for an interview, and the agency declined to comment on the OAM director's historical relationship with General Atomics.

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