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Dry-weather drone maker rains cash on Congress

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An Air Force officer walks past a Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle with U.S. Air Force markings
Photo credit: Department of Defense

Few companies more actively slip PAC money into the pockets of members of Congress than Northrop Grumman. So far in the 2014 campaign cycle, the defense giant, which derives 90 percent of its revenue from the federal government, has split $1.67 million among the campaign committees and leadership PACs of 236 members of the House and 62 senators. And tucked into the just released Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, in section 8118, Congress had something to offer Northrop Grumman: further support for the company's troubled Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.

The Air Force brass has soured on the drone, in part, as Defense News reported in July, because their array of sensors and cameras are not as sharp as those of the U2 spy plane, and in part because Global Hawks can't fly in thunderstorms. Even a forecast of bad weather can scrub flights. Early in 2012, the Air Force said it not only wanted to stop ordering new versions of the UAV, used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it wanted to mothball the copies it has — sending them to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which is also known as the boneyard.

Northrop Grumman, which has made billions for building the drone and wants to make billions making more, has now won another legislative mandate for the dry weather drone. Both the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act and Defense Appropriations Act ordered the Air Force to fund and use the Global Hawk. And Congress' latest omnibus yet again directs the Air Force to keep spending money on the drone, while barring it from using those funds to scrap the plane or disband the units that support it.

The company wouldn't answer questions about its PAC contributions or lobbying of Congress over the Global Hawk, but its vice president for strategic communications, Brandon R. "Randy" Belote 3d, emailed a brief statement touting the Global Hawk's abilities, adding that the firm is working closely with the Air Force to reduce its costs and improve its performance.

Defense News reported that the rainy day problem, for example, could be solved by the addition of a camera that would allow ground operators to steer the drone away from bad weather. And all it would cost the Air Force is $7 million per drone. Remediating other problems could cost many millions more. Which is part of the reason the drone's maker is so happy with section 8118.

"While the Omnibus Appropriations Bill has a few more procedural hurdles to clear, Northrop Grumman greatly appreciates Congress’ continued support of Global Hawk," Belote's statement begins.

And 298 members of Congress, no doubt, appreciate Northrop Grumman's support.