With billions of dollars in spending reductions looming, Air Force officials looked around last year for a program they could cut that was underperforming, had busted its budget and wasn’t vital to immediate combat needs.
Eventually, they settled on the production line for a $223 million aircraft known as the Global Hawk, with the wingspan of a tanker but no pilot in the cockpit, built to fly over vast terrain for a little more than a day while sending back data to military commanders on the ground.
“The Block 30 (version of Global Hawk) is not operationally effective,” the Pentagon’s top testing official had declared in a blunt 2011 report about the drones being assembled by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif. Canceling its production and putting recently built models into long-term storage would save $2.5 billion over five years, the service projected. Its missions could be picked up by an Air Force stalwart, the U-2 spy plane, which had room for more sensors and could fly higher.
What happened next was an object lesson in the power of a defense contractor to trump the Pentagon’s own attempts to set the nation’s military spending priorities amid a tough fiscal climate. A team of Northrop lobbyists, packed with former congressional staff and bolstered by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, persuaded Congress to demand the drone’s continued production and operation.