Northrop Grumman

This Drone Assurance Brought to You By Northrop Grumman


Dianne Feinstein gave a speech to the World Affairs Council yesterday. As part of it (after 9:10), she gave the following reassurances regarding the oversight of drone strikes.

We have a special effort on the CIA Predator program. The staff has made 28 visits to various facilities, attended intelligence gathering, we have looked at the intelligence. The key to these, to minimize collateral damage, to go for the targeted individuals, but to have intelligence which is just as good as it can be to be totally actionable. And so the collateral damage is really greatly reduced beyond what you may read in the press. I have asked, “please please please can I release these numbers?” And the answer is [laughs] “no, they’re classified.” So that’s about as far as I could go on that.

Ah, well, that’s about as far as you can go! If the CIA tells you it can’t release its claims about civilian casualties publicly so they can be reviewed by people on the ground, so people who aren’t getting all their information from the same people pressing the trigger double check those claims, I guess that’s as far as you can go then!

What I like best is the prominent role drone manufacturer Northrop Grumman (they don’t make the Predators used in CIA’s assassination program, but they do sell drones to the CIA) had in the talk. In his introduction of her, NG’s CEO Wes Bush hailed her “absolute integrity in addressing the facts.” (Though maybe Bush was talking about DiFi’s recent misrepresentations in support of the NSA’s hoovering of telecom communications, given that NG has a big chunk of the data storage contract.)

These convenient, unverifiable “facts” on drones delivered by someone proven to misrepresent such “facts” brought to you by the drone (and wiretap) industry.

The Machine Approving the Failing Flying Robots

As I noted earlier this week, drones have proven to be very expensive failures in the last few weeks.Yesterday, Danger Room described yet another example, the Army’s Gray Eagle (and since I obsess about these things, note the failed chip).

Beginning in March 2011, “poor reliability across all major subsystems” led to delays [in the Gray Eagle program] that would seemingly never end, according to a report from Edward Greer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for developmental test and evaluation. During the same month, a Gray Eagle drone crashed in California after a faulty chip blocked a subsystem from sending commands to “a portion of the aircraft’s flight control surfaces,” Col. Timothy Baxter, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, elaborated in an e-mail to Inside Defense.

“Flight testing was suspended,” Greer’s report added. The faulty chip was replaced and testing resumed, but the Army was now left with fewer available flight hours. The drone’s mean times between failures — or the average time the drone or a component works without failure — is also short. First, the drone itself has an average failure every 25 hours, short of a required minimum of 100 hours. The drone’s ground control station has a rate of 27 hours before a failure, short of a required 300. The Army has since lowered the requirement to 150 hours. The Gray Eagle’s sensors fare a bit better: 134 hours to 250 hours required.

Then the Gray Eagle was delayed again last October. The report concludes that for the 2011 fiscal year, the Gray Eagle is meeting only four of seven “key performance parameters,” and the drone’s “system reliability continues to fall short of predicted growth,” which could be a problem for the upcoming tests scheduled for August.

In spite of these failures, the government is pushing to accelerate our embrace of drones.

Here’s why.

In the Center for Investigative Reporting’s coverage of the DHS report I examined earlier in the week (which includes a number of additional examples where drones failed to perform as promised), they quote co-Chair of the Drone caucus and Homeland Security Committee member, Henry Cuellar, simply assuming “they” had a strategic plan.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who has championed drones as the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, said that Customs and Border Protection has to go back to the basics and come up with a sound strategic plan for its drones.

“The first thing any agency should have is a strategic plan. I assumed they had a plan,” said Cuellar. “We have to know where we are going before we start buying any more of the assets.”

Among Cuellar’s top donors are Global Atomics, the maker of the Predators CBP can’t use effectively as well as the Gray Eagle that keeps failing, as well as Boeing and Honeywell, which also sell UAVs.

Meanwhile, Republic Report points to an even more troubling example of failed oversight: the almost $500,000 a Northrop Grumman lobbyist was advanced to spend some time in Congress overseeing–among other things–the historically wasteful F-35 program and Northrup Grumman’s Global Hawk drone (the one that crashed earlier this week).

In 2011, after Republicans seized the House of Representatives in a landslide victory, the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military, gained a new chairman, Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA). As with most leadership changes, McKeon and his committee hired new professional staff. Thomas MacKenzie, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, was tapped to work for the committee beginning in March of 2011.

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