Last week’s vote to continue production of the Air Force’s oft-maligned Global Hawk Block 30 drone offers a fine example of what happens when the Pentagon’s desires are at odds with those of influential defense contractors and their friends on Capitol Hill.
The $114 million deal to fulfill a previous order with Northrop Grumman came despite repeated attempts by Air Force officials to persuade Congress that the money could be better spent elsewhere, given the myriad problems with the Block 30 that appeared when it was pressed into service in Afghanistan and Libya. The aircraft proved unreliable in bad weather; worse yet, it needed an expensive retrofit to add electronic sensors needed to counter anti-aircraft.
Making the necessary upgrades to the Block 30 increased its price tag from $88 million to $223 million per unit, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. A month earlier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee: “The Block 30 Global Hawk has fundamentally priced itself out of our ability to afford it.”
Fortunately for Northrop, a few venal lawmakers from both major parties were willing to take up the Block 30’s cause on Capitol Hill – for the right price. According to Bloomberg News, Northrop tripled its federal campaign contributions over the first six months of 2013, from $372,000 two years ago to $1.3 million this year, just as the Block 30 appeared headed for the chopping block.
As a congressional source told the Center for Public Integrity, the drone came about as a result of a “technology push rather than a requirements pull.” Northrop had developed a fancy – and expensive – new toy, and was determined to sell it to somebody.
But even after its product was deemed a dud by the Air Force, Northrop flooded Capitol Hill with pamphlets boasting about how many people they employ at Global Hawk manufacturing plants across the country. “There are probably 500 (pamphlets) floating around right now,” a House aide told the Center for Public Integrity in July.
“When it comes to parochial pork, lawmakers are still lining up to defend it,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said to Bloomberg News last week. “The Pentagon’s never been bashful about wanting everything under the sun. So when they say they don’t want something, Congress should take notice and cut.”
The decisions made at the Pentagon in an era of budget austerity are difficult enough. And when our defense officials find a way to make the best of a finite budget, they shouldn’t have to defend it from pork-barrel politics.