Friday, November 18, 2011

Drone Caucus and Contracts

At the drone fair this year in the Rayburn House Office Building, Cong. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) praised Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) for being a “big defender of the military.” As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon is also a major defender of military contractors, especially those with production facilities in his southern California district.

In a new policy report by the Center for International Policy and Common Cause, William Hartung says that McKeon is the arms industry’s most forceful advocate in the battle to bolster the Pentagon budget. Furthermore, according to Hartung:

[Buck McKeon] is the largest recipient of defense industry campaign contributions in the Congress, receiving over three quarters of a million dollars from 2009 through 2011, including $590,000 to his campaign fund and $191,000 to his leadership PAC.

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 fifty or more members to operate as well as a network of ground operating stations.

Advocacy for increased border security on the northern border and increased UAV deployment, as well as pressure on the FAA to open airspace for drones, is not confined to the House. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has also brought these the issues of security, increased drone presence, and FAA airspace approvals together.

During the debate over the FAA reauthorization bill, Senator Schumer stressed that U.S. national security is at stake:

The FAA has been very hesitant to give authorization to these UAVs due to limited air space and restrictions that they have. I certainly can appreciate those concerns; but when we’re talking about Customs and Border Protection or the FBI, what have you, we are talking about missions of national security. And certainly there’s nothing more important than that.

For Schumer, as with the members of the House drone caucus, stated concerns about border security and national security overlap with the search for more federal pork.

Schumer is seeking FAA approval to extensive UAV testing in the airspace around New York’s Hancock Air Base, which is where the military stations the fleet of killer drones that are being used in the Middle East and South Asia. A report by the Syracuse Post-Standard noted that if approved by the FAA “it would help ensure the future of 1,215 jobs” at the air base and “potentially lead to millions of dollars in radar research contracts for local defense companies.”

Boys and Toys

The U.S. public has expressed little concern about the increased use of killer drones in U.S. war-fighting and counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration despite frequent reports of deaths of untargeted civilians.  In Pakistan and within the United Nations, there are rising complaints that drone attacks violate international law and result in a pattern of noncombatant civilians – what the U.S. military calls “collateral damage.”

Yet all is not quiet on the home front. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights is taking the U.S. government to task for ignoring international law, while the American Civil Liberty Union charges that drone surveillance tramples civil rights and violates individual privacy. Peace and anti-war groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation have also criticized the administration’s increased use of attack drones.

With respect to border security, there is no public outcry or activism against drone deployment despite its massive costs and dubious benefits.  Similarly, there has been little public concern about the virtual fence, the other major high-tech project to secure the border – in sharp contrast to widespread opposition to the steel border fence.

The relative absence of public discussion about the U.S. government’s increased deployment of drones can be, in part, explained by government secrecy and by lack of opportunities for public review.

American confidence that most problems have high-tech solutions may also help explain the lack of public or policymaker criticism of the Pentagon and DHS drone programs.  But as drones increasingly appear on the home front, it’s likely that drone traffic will raise new concern about the threats to the safety of air travel.

Following the federal government’s lead, local law enforcement agencies are planning to use drones for surveillance. Reacting to the announcement that the Houston-area sheriffs department had purchased a drone, Terry Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, remarked: “I gotta tell you, it sort of looks like boys and their toys.  We’re giving up our privacy, we’re letting the government have way too much power.”

Burke’s comments could just as well referred to the federal government’s drone programs, and to the drone enthusiasm of the House drone caucus.  

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