With large budget cuts looming in the next decade, top Air Force officials knew last year they needed to halt spending on some large and expensive programs. So they looked for a candidate that was underperforming, had busted its budget, and wasn’t vital to immediate combat needs.
They soon settled on the production line for a $223 million aircraft with the wingspan of a tanker but no pilot in the cockpit, built to fly over vast terrain for a little more than a day while sending imagery and other data back to military commanders on the ground. Given the ambitious name “Global Hawk,” the aircraft had cost far more than expected, and was plagued by recurrent operating flaws and maintenance troubles.
“The Block 30 [version of Global Hawk] is not operationally effective,” the Pentagon’s top testing official had declared in a blunt May 2011 report about the drones being assembled by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif.
Canceling the purchase of new Global Hawks and putting recently-built planes in long-term storage would save $2.5 billion over five years, the service projected. And the drone’s military missions could be picked up by an Air Force stalwart, the U-2 spy plane, which had room for more sensors and could fly higher.
But what happened next was an object lesson in the power of a defense contractor to trump the Pentagon’s own attempts to set the nation’s military spending priorities amid a tough fiscal climate. A team of Northrop lobbyists, packed with former congressional staff and bolstered by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, persuaded Congress to demand the drone’s continued production and operation.
In so doing, the contractor — which had revenue of $25.2 billion in 2012, more than 90 percent from the federal treasury — defied not only the leadership of the Air Force, but also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He told the House Armed Services Committee in February 2012 that the Global Hawk “has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it.” The White House, in two messages to Congress last year, said it “strongly objects” to the lawmakers’ demand for additional Global Hawks, but the protests were to no avail.
Northrop’s strikingly successful campaign to thwart the government culminated in a letter this May from two influential House lawmakers to newly installed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reminding him of the requirement to buy three more of the drone aircraft. The Air Force, they complained to Hagel, had not heeded “clear congressional intent [and] explicit direction to complete the acquisition.”
The letter, whose authors — Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. — received a total of $135,100 from Northrop Grumman’s political action committee and employees for their election campaigns and leadership PACs since the beginning of 2009, is emblematic of the political forces that helped stoke a 117 percent jump in the Defense Department’s procurement budget from fiscal year 2001 through its peak in fiscal year 2010.
Those forces are now causing some lawmakers to resist the drawdown in military spending that President Obama and some military analysts say is needed to help shrink the federal deficit, projected to be $759 billion this year, and repair the nation’s long-term economic health.
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Northrop Grumman’s political strategy “is entirely predictable — hire the right people, target the right people, contribute to the right people, then link them together with subcontractors and go for the gold,” said Gordon Adams, who served as the senior White House budget official for national security from 1993 to 1997 and has studied defense spending and procurement for more than 30 years.
“Killing a major program, in production, is rather like vampire-killing,” Adams added. “You have to drive a silver stake through its heart to make sure it is dead.”
The battle over the Global Hawk is one of many in which a major defense contractor and its influential friends in Congress have forced the military to spend money on hardware it doesn’t want. An Army proposal in 2011 to stop refurbishing the M1 Abrams tank to save $3 billion was blocked by the same House and Senate defense panels in response to the lobbying muscle of the tank manufacturer, General Dynamics.
A contractor-driven campaign “often works,” Adams said. “It eked out more F-22 [fighters] than the Air Force wanted. It extended the C-17 [transport] production line by several years as Congress ordered up 10 more aircraft beyond what the Air Force needed.”
The case of the Global Hawks Block 30s also shows how lawmakers — even deficit hawks who say they want to slash federal spending — still earmark money for favored defense projects, even though such earmarks are formally prohibited by both House and Senate rules.
In this case, the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill Congress passed last December and the spending bill it enacted in March require the Air Force not only to keep flying Block 30s for roughly $260 million a year through calendar year 2014, but to also spend as much as $443 million on three more. The House — which has been Northrop Grumman’s close ally in the fight — voted in June for a fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill that extends Block 30 operations two additional years, through 2016.
Unexpected maintenance and flight problems
The Global Hawk at issue — the largest drone in the U.S. arsenal — is a successor to a smaller Block 10 drone that the Air Force flew successfully from 2001 until 2011. Northrop Grumman hailed the Block 30 as an “unblinking eye” platform that does a better job of tracking objects on the ground for a longer period.
But in a reversal of the prescribed path in which weapons systems are designed and fully tested before going into full production and being dispatched to war zones, Global Hawks were pressed quickly into service over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Horn of Africa, Japan and Haiti while still technically under development.
The reason is that the drones were a “technology push rather than a requirements pull,” in which the manufacturer developed a new capability before combat commanders specified exactly what they needed, according to a congressional source familiar with the program. Only after the new Global Hawks were in the field “did the services find out how commanders would actually use them,” he said. Randy Belote, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for strategic communications, declined comment on this characterization.
The Block 30 models were designed to fly for 28-35 hours compared to the 10-12 hour endurance limit of the piloted U-2s. But unlike the U-2, Global Hawks are not equipped with electronic countermeasures to defeat air defenses, and lack the U-2’s “all-weather” capability, according to congressional testimony by Air Force officials.
Moreover, the drones and their sensors have been prone to a wide range of problems, many of them blamed on the speed with which the aircraft were deployed.
To meet certain data needs, for example, Block 30s have been torn apart and rebuilt to add some sensors already present on the U-2. Built with hardwired sensors, unlike a newer, more “plug-and-play” version known as the Block 40, the Block 30 “lacks the flexibility to change with new requirements,” said the congressional source, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The concurrent testing and production also “put it at increased risk of cost growth,” the Government Accountability Office said last year, and the program has twice triggered special statutory provisions alerting Congress to its cost overruns. In all, the cost of a single Global Hawk jumped by more than 150 percent, from about $88 million in 2001 to $223 million in 2012, GAO reported in March.
That record caused a special Pentagon report on June 28, examining why the defense-wide acquisition system routinely produces large cost overruns, to depict the Global Hawk in particular as an egregious outlier. “Analyzing just aircraft development contracts” such as Global Hawk, the report said, Northrop Grumman had “significantly higher cost growth” than rival behemoths Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
The program was restructured in 2011 by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, then the Pentagon’s procurement chief, who nonetheless told Congress that its continuation “is essential to national security.” He cut the number of Block 30s to be bought and scaled back the full program’s price tag of $13.9 billion to $12.4 billion.
Meanwhile, rigorous testing from October 2010 through January 2011 led the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester to conclude that the Block 30 was unreliable. The Block 30’s “mission-critical air vehicle components fail at high rates, resulting in poor takeoff reliability, high air abort rates, low mission capable rates, an excessive demand for critical spare parts and a high demand for maintenance support,” J. Michael Gilmore said in a May 2011 report.
When flying at a near-continuous pace, the Block 30 provided less than half the required 55 percent “Effective Time On Station” coverage — the amount of time loitering over a target to gather intelligence — over a 30-day period, Gilmore said. Its sensor to identify radar and communications signals “does not consistently deliver actionable signal intelligence end-products to operational users due to technical performance deficiencies” and other reasons, he said.
As a result, Gilmore added, the Block 30 “is not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations].”
Bracing for congressional “impact”
Given the Block 30 troubles, Air Force officials concluded in late 2011 that they could not fly both that aircraft and the U-2 under provisions in the Budget Control Act. The U-2 already met all the military’s requirements for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, while significant investment would be needed to give Block 30s the same capabilities.
The Air Force knew its decision would be controversial on Capitol Hill. “We were bracing for impact,” recalled a retired Air Force pilot who worked with the Air Force liaison office. “There are too many constituencies tied to the Global Hawk.”
“The Block 30 Global Hawk has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it when the U-2 gives, in some cases, a better capability and, in some cases, just a slightly less capable platform,” Dempsey told a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 15, 2012. “So what you are seeing there is our ability to eliminate redundancy, to continue to invest in the best value, and to avoid at every possibility redundancy that fundamentally is too expensive.”
But cost and reliability concerns took a back seat to the risk of losing jobs, said former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who last year played a key role in blocking the proposed retirement of Block 30s as chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces.
Bartlett, who lost his bid for re-election last fall, spoke openly about how his colleagues on the full committee “see the military as a jobs program,” something he said is not necessarily in the national interest. “How is that consistent with national security? And budget frugality?” he asked rhetorically, asserting that his colleagues often rationalize such dilemmas away.
“Everybody has to look in the mirror and not see a jerk, so they have to argue with themselves that keeping this factory going in their district is the best thing for their country, whether it is or not,” Bartlett said.
After rumors of the program’s cancellation surfaced in late 2011, Northrop Grumman activated a “Support Global Hawk” website that described the drones as “high-flying, combat-proven aircraft [that] are so robust and reliable that they’re in high demand by warfighters who fly them.”
The advocacy site, which Belote, the Northrop Grumman spokesman, told the Center for Public Integrity was set up at the request of company employees who supported the Block 30, listed all the suppliers, their congressional districts and the lawmakers who represented them. The site also offered a “Take Action” form visitors could fill in that would be emailed to their elected officials. “Please help our troops continue to receive this much-needed capability,” the site said.
Northrop Grumman also circulated fliers on Capitol Hill with a map of the country showing the locations of major Global Hawk manufacturing sites, military bases and major subcontractors. The “Global Hawk Enterprise across the U.S.” has 3,483 Northrop Grumman employees in 22 states, 303 suppliers in 36 states and almost $600 million in supplier purchases, the flier said.
It was a sales pitch that major defense contractors — and often the military services themselves — routinely circulate on Capitol Hill. “There are probably 500 floating around right now,” a House armed services aide said, referring to fliers similar to Northrop Grumman’s, emphasizing the jobs issue.
Among the 26 in-house and outside lobbyists who identified Global Hawk or surveillance issues on their lobbying reports were three well-connected former Republican aides to the House Appropriations Committee: Jeff Shockey, a former staff director; John Scofield, a former communications director; and Letitia White, a longtime aide to former Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. Also on the team was Northrop Grumman Vice President for Government Relations Sid Ashworth, who spent 14 years on the Senate Appropriations Committee staff, serving as staff director for two subcommittees, including defense.