The Rise of the Drone Lobby

By Arthur Holland Michel

On September 24, Bloomberg News reported that in the past year the defence contractor Northrop Grumman has greatly increased its lobbying spending to fight proposed cuts to the military’s Global Hawk drones, which Grumman makes. Grumman has focused its lobbying efforts, which amount to over $9million in campaign and PAC contributions, on the Armed Services Committee, the congressional committee that oversees funding for the Department of Defense and advises the acquisition of new hardware.

At Grumman’s urging, the Committee has resisted the current administration’s attempts to cut the military’s Block 30 Global Hawk program. Grumman’s lobbying has come under intense public scrutiny because the Global Hawk, a long-range surveillance and reconnissance drone, is particularly costly and–according to the Department of Defense itself–unnecessary.

In 2012, at a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense at the time, explained that while the U.S. military is continuously seeking to expand its unmanned systems program, it has no interest in developing unmanned programs that are not cost effective. Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Armed Services Committee that the Global Hawk program was too expensive, and offered few capabilities that weren’t already available with the military’s 58-year-old U-2 spy planes. “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,” said Dempsey, at the hearing.

Nevertheless, by September 27, Northrop Grumman’s efforts had paid off–the Department of Defense announced that it had placed a $114.2 million order for three Block 30 Global Hawks. For anybody who is familiar with the way that military contractors lobby Congress, this should be a familiar story.

Northrop Grumman's Block 30 Global Hawk. The Department of Defense has argued that the Global Hawk is expensive and unnecessary. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)
Northrop Grumman’s Block 30 Global Hawk. The Department of Defense has argued that the Global Hawk is expensive and unnecessary. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

While Grumman has led the way in lobbying for drones on Capitol Hill, it is certainly not unique among drone manufacturers. According to, defense contractors like General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Boeing have made millions of dollars’ worth of contributions to encourage the expansion–or discourage the reduction–of defense drone programs in the past decade. Lately, much of these lobbying efforts have been focused on the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike program, a controversial project to develop a highly capable weaponized stealth drone platform that can be launched from aircraft carriers. Grumman has also led the way in the project, developing the much-publicized X-47B.

However, stories about lobbying by drone manufacturers are exceedingly difficult to find. As the military considers more complicated and controversial drone systems, it will be necessary to pay more attention to drone manufacturers’ relationships with lawmakers. The most influential lawmaker in this regard is Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican and Chair of the Armed Services Committee and a stalwart advocate of military unmanned systems. McKeon, who is also the founder of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus, is widely considered, according to a BBC Magazine profile, to be the most influential voice in the fraught government debate about drone acquisition and use. Unsurprisingly, drone manufacturers have invested heavily in him. Up until 2012, McKeon received $833,650 in campaign contributions from drone manufacturers, more than any other member of Congress. He has received $190,200 from Northrop Grumman alone.

Congressman Buck McKeon (center), a Republican from California, has been a stalwart advocate for drones. He has received more contributions from drone manufacturers than any other lawmaker. (Photo: Unmanned Systems Caucus)

By promoting the use of unmanned systems in both military and non-military sectors, the Caucus champions the policies and goals of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the world’s largest trade association for drone manufacturers and a key player in the relationship between drone makers and Washington, D.C. The Caucus serves as AUVSI’s principal channel of representation in Capitol Hill. The spread of drone lobbyist spending reflects this fact. According to a 2012 study by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics, the 67 members of the Caucus received over $8 million of contributions from drone manufacturers.

Defense contractors are pressuring the government to maintain the same levels of investment in unmanned systems even as the demand from the traditional theatres such as Afghanistan dies down. Furthermore, as the government continues to develop regulations for domestic drone use, manufacturers are concerned that strict government control could stifle a potentially lucrative industry. The future of American drone use will be decided in the coming years, and drone manufacturers are well aware that this is a crucial period for their products, and their balance sheets. The public should keep a very close eye on drone lobbying in the coming months, as it will likely be a major factor shaping future policies governing drone use, both military and domestic.

[includeme file=”tools/sympa/drones_sub.php”]