Chances are you’ve never heard of the “drone caucus” in the US House of Representatives, officially known as the House Unmanned Systems Caucus. Yet they are considered among the most powerful groups on the Hill. And participating in the caucus is a sure way for Congressmen to enrich their campaign coffers.
A story in the San Francisco Chronicle says that members of the group have attracted nearly $8 million in drone-related contributions over the past eight years. Local Reps Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter have each received more than $200,000 from drone firms. General Atomics, maker of the ever popular Predator drone, was among the top three all-time campaign contributors to California Congressmen Brian Bilbray.
While drones are infamous for their role targeting insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have also been used as an anti-smuggling tool along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the potential for domestic applications of drone surveillance has their corporate makers more ready than ever to make sure supporters are well financed.
Those companies include BAE Systems (Mantis and Taranis drones); Boeing Co. (Phantom Eye); Honeywell International (RQ-16 T-Hawk); Lockheed Martin (RQ-170 Sentinel); Raytheon Co. (Cobra); and General Atomics (Predator).
As private universities, corporations, police departments and even the celebrity gossip site TMZ have flooded the Federal Aviation Administration with applications seeking permission for domestic use of the unmanned aircraft, civil liberties and safety concerns (drones are notoriously poor at avoiding other aircraft) the industry and its Congressional allies pushed for passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, signed into law Feb. 14. The law requires the FAA to fully integrate the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, into national airspace by September 2015.
A June audit by the Homeland Security inspector general’s office led to a recommendation that Customs and Border Protection stop buying the drones until officials figure out a budget plan for the program and how to get the most use out of the unmanned aircraft, which are frequently grounded by inclement weather.
That hasn’t stopped the Department of Homeland Security from signing a sole source $443 million deal with San Diego based defense contractor General Atomics to purchase 14 additional Predator drones.
A report from defense consultants the Teal Group estimates that drone spending will almost double over the next decade from current level of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next ten years.
The above was part of Doug Porter’s “Starting Line” at San Diego Free Press.