Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congressional Drones

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

At the Unmanned Systems Fair on Sept. 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 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 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 Office of Air and Marine 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 the President Felipe Calderón’s government drug war. Drone caucus members McCaul and Reyes, among others, have called for increased drone surveillance in Mexico.

Caucus and Campaigns

Formed in 2009 by McKeon, the Unmanned Systems Caucus (formerly called the UAV Caucus), aims to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

The caucus states that it “works with the military, industry, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the U.S. National Air Space.”

Members include a collection of border hawks, immigration hardliners, and leading congressional voices for the military contracting industry. These include Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus; Candice Miller (R-Minn.), who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee that reviews the air and marine operations of DHS; Joe Wilson (R-SC); Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

The drone caucus works closely with the industry association AUVSI, which, in addition to the drone fair, sponsored a UAV Action Day on Capitol Hill last year.

AUVSI has its own congressional advocacy committee that is closely linked to the caucus. The keynote speaker at the drone association’s recent annual conference was McKeon, who is also slated to be the featured speaker at AUVSI’s AIR Day 2011 – in recognition, says AUVSI”s president that Congressman McKeon “has been one of the biggest supporters of the unmanned systems community.”

While the relationship between increasing drone contracts and the increasing campaign contributions received by drone caucus members can only be speculated, caucus members are favored recipients of contributions by members of the unmanned systems association AUVSI.

In the 2010 election cycle, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $1.7 million to the 42 congressional members who were members of the congressional drone caucus. The leading recipient was McKeon, who currently chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, with Cong. Reyes coming in a close second.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, whose Predator drone production facilities are located in McKeon’s southern California district, is the fifth largest source of McKeon’s campaign contributions, following Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and SLM.

Since 2005 – the year that DHS began purchasing Predator drones, the company’s political action committee has contributed $1.6 million to members of the drone caucus, according to information from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In that period General Atomics has received $242 million in drone orders from DHS alone. The funds for the latest DHS drone purchases came not for the department’s annual budget but from a $600 million “emergency” supplemental bill that included $32 million to buy two more Predator drones for border security.

Members of the unmanned systems caucus, including McKeon, Cuellar, and McCaul, boast of their influence in pressuring DHS to increase the pace of its drone program.

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