Drones create a buzz in Southern California aerospace industry

The cars begin rolling through the security checkpoints before dawn. Here, in a sprawling complex amid the craggy rock outcroppings of north San Diego County, 3,300 workers are building a new generation of weapons central to the military’s vision for modern warfare.

This is where General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes the Predator and Reaper drones, robotic planes that can thread the rugged mountains of Pakistan, capture video images of terrorist hideouts and launch 500-pound Hellfire missiles to blast them apart.

The company’s 1.9-million-square-foot facility is a showcase for Southern California’s drone industry, which employs an estimated 10,000 people. The fast-growing business is fueled by Pentagon spending — at least $20 billion since 2001 — and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress.

Seeing an almost limitless market, dozens of defense contractors — Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. among them — are now vying to get in on the action. They are building surveillance drones the size of insects that can fly through open windows, and others as big as jetliners that can skim the stratosphere.

Soon, experts say, the military and private companies alike will have fleets of robotic planes that can do just about everything piloted aircraft can do, such as carrying cargo and engaging in aerial combat.

“It is the most hotly sought-after weapon system in a generation,” said Loren Thompson, a military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

The industry is centered in Southern California, a testament to the region’s rich aerospace history and the skilled workforce that arose with it.

It’s also the product of big-money lobbying and pork-barrel politics.


Thomas J. Cassidy Jr. stood on the windswept tarmac of Adelanto Airport in the Mojave Desert, pitching the wonders of the Predator drone to a dozen scientists and firefighting officials.

For Cassidy, this was the B list. The Pentagon was always seen as the primary customer for the Predator, but early trials during the conflict in Bosnia hadn’t gone well. The small aircraft, powered by a pusher propeller, was easily shot down by antiaircraft fire. Fighter pilots mocked it as a pricey model plane.

Cassidy, a gruff former Navy rear admiral, was hired by General Atomics to persuade his former comrades in the military to buy the Predator. Now he was looking for any customers he could find. The Predator could be used to spot wildfires, he told his latest prospects. It could monitor global warming.

The audience listened politely — then scattered quickly when the demonstration ended. There were no takers.

It was Sept. 6, 2001. Five days later, the world changed.

“That’s when the phone started ringing off the hook,” Cassidy said.

With the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the military suddenly wanted a weapon that could search for and destroy Al Qaeda’s mountain lairs. The Predator had its customer.

It was a turning point for General Atomics, and the company was poised to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Through its political action committee, General Atomics had been making friends in Washington since the early 1990s, giving nearly $3 million since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By comparison, the political action committee for Northrop Grumman Corp. in Century City gave $8.2 million over the same period. But Northrop is a giant, with 120,000 employees and $33 billion in annual revenue. Analysts estimate that General Atomics, which is privately held, has 4,500 employees and annual revenue of about $600 million.

Among those who received campaign money from General Atomics was former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a San Diego-area Republican who in 2006 was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from two military contractors and evading income taxes.

General Atomics was not involved in that scandal. But it counted Cunningham among its favored friends, giving him a total of at least $35,000 for his campaigns from 1998 to 2006, and holding a 2004 fundraiser for Cunningham and other candidates at its corporate headquarters in San Diego.

Contributions tell only part of the story. From 2000 through mid-2005, General Atomics spent $660,000 —more than any other U.S. company — to pay for 86 trips for members of Congress, their spouses and aides to company facilities and overseas destinations, according to a study by the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity. Such junkets have since been banned.

“We weren’t the only ones spending money,” said Cassidy, 78, who recently retired as president of General Atomics’ Aircraft Systems Group. “But we had our fair share of guys who were fighting for us on the Hill.”

Two of those “guys” were Rep. Jerry Lewis, (R-Redlands), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, (R- Santa Clarita), whose district includes the Antelope Valley, a hub of aerospace activity.

Since 1998, Lewis has received $65,000 from the General Atomics PAC. McKeon has received $48,000 since 2002.

Both men have successfully pushed for earmarks benefiting General Atomics, or money beyond that requested by federal agencies. Lewis has claimed credit for more than $100 million in earmarks for the Predator alone.

So far this year, Congress has earmarked at least $120 million for drones, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group. But no one knows for sure because earmarks are often cryptically described, said Laura Peterson, national security analyst for the group.

“People look down upon earmarks now, but they’re a very important part of the defense industry,” McKeon said. “We wouldn’t have the Predator without it.”

McKeon said drones make sense because they perform vital military functions without putting the lives of pilots at risk.

They also save money. A Predator costs about $4 million. Each of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters now in flight testing is expected to cost taxpayers about $100 million.

Drones are also helping rebuild the local aerospace industry, which was eviscerated by the defense cutbacks of the early 1990s.

“We’ve lost a lot of jobs in the aerospace industry over the years,” McKeon said. Drones “are the wave of the future.”

Critics, however, say the prospect of jobs and campaign money has blinded members of Congress to the shortcomings of robotic aircraft.

On the battlefield, the pilotless drones have struggled with system failures, computer glitches and human error.

“Everybody is gaga over this technology, but they haven’t seen how much time and money go into flying these things,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group. “They are not cheap, and they have limitations.”

Hundreds of unintentional civilian casualties have been blamed on strikes linked to drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What’s more, some critics say the technology is a substitute for strategy — relying on video surveillance to track the movements of terrorists instead of trying to build intelligence the old-fashioned way, through relationships with local people.

Finally, some are concerned that drone technology will fall into terrorist hands and be used against U.S. targets.

In the 1990s, the arguments against drones seemed to outweigh those in favor. That’s what General Atomics Chief Executive J. Neal Blue resolved to change when he hired Cassidy.

“It was hard for the government to embrace something they weren’t comfortable with,” said Blue, an Air Force veteran and former president of Beech Aircraft. “We knew this technology had potential. It was just a matter of time before the government caught up with us.”

Cassidy once commanded the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, now the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and was hired as a technical advisor for the 1986 film “Top Gun.” But he so completely fit the image of a no-nonsense military man that producers soon cast him as himself in the movie.

After joining General Atomics in the early 1990s, Cassidy succeeded in getting the Pentagon to deploy a handful of early Predators in Bosnia, where the unarmed aircraft delivered real-time battlefield video to television monitors hundreds of miles away.

But the aircraft wasn’t ready. Some Predators were shot down by antiaircraft fire, and others suffered engine failure. Pilots had trouble remotely controlling the plane.

“We weren’t going to deploy [drones] on a massive scale until we had a reliable production-ready product,” said Gen. John P. Jumper, a former Air Force chief of staff who also served as the commander in Europe.

Unable to land a big military order, Cassidy sought out business among firefighters, NASA and “anybody that had an interest.”

The terror attacks changed his fortunes. Just four days after Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon jury-rigged a Predator with Hellfire missiles and tested it at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the Mojave Desert.

Today, drones have become a key part of military operations. The Pentagon is spending more than $4 billion this year buying and operating drones, more than 7,000 of which are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The CIA is also spending about $1 billion a year on drone technology, according to analysts, although the actual amount is not known because the agency’s budget is classified.

There is also a robust international market for U.S.-built drones, including Turkey, Italy and Britain. Last year, the Air Force released its Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan, which forecasts the possible drone development through 2047. In it, the Air Force lays out how drones would eventually replace nearly every manned plane — from fighters to tankers to bombers.

With Pentagon spending slowing overall, aerospace contractors are scrambling to enter the business.

General Atomics and Northrop reign as the two biggest drone builders, with factories and engineering shops scattered across the region. Their rivals include:

Boeing, which has snapped up small drone manufacturers in a bid to catch up with the technology. One of the Chicago company’s key acquisitions was Frontier Systems Inc. of Irvine, which builds a drone helicopter that could be used for cargo and reconnaissance.

Among the drones that Boeing is developing are the fighter-sized Phantom, which analysts said could be used for long-range bombing missions, and the Phantom Eye, an egg-shaped spy plane that can stay aloft for up to four days at 65,000 feet.

AeroVironment Inc., based in Monrovia, makes an array of small drones that have become a mainstay of the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. One of them, the Raven, weighs about four pounds and is fitted with video cameras to give U.S. troops a bird’s-eye view of what could lie ahead or over a hill.

Like Boeing, AeroVironment is also building a long-endurance spy plane, dubbed the Global Observer, which is in test flight at Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave. The plane, with its 175-foot wingspan, is designed to hover at 65,000 feet for a week at a time.

Lockheed Martin Corp., the nation’s largest defense contractor, is making a radar-evading drone called the RQ-170 Sentinel or the “Beast of Kandahar.” Little is known about the stealthy plane, except that is being developed at Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works in Palmdale.

The Bethesda, Md., company has also teamed with Kaman Aerospace Corp. on a robotic helicopter for transporting cargo.

“There’s a big market,” said Steve Gitlin, an AeroVironment spokesman. “There are different aircraft with different capabilities, but basically, they’re all here in California.”

In its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the region’s aerospace industry employed nearly 300,000 people. While it has downsized considerably — to fewer than 60,000 today — the Southland remains home to the sector’s leading edge, including spacecraft pioneer Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge and privately funded rocket ventures such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in Hawthorne.

While the drone business carries on this tradition, it’s still not big enough to single-handedly restore the Southland aerospace industry to its former glory.

That becomes apparent during a tour of Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, where 45 technicians are assembling the Global Hawk robotic plane in a small corner of a massive hangar in Palmdale where thousands once assembled the B-2 stealth bomber.

At the same facility, Northrop is developing the X-47B, a drone designed to take off from an aircraft carrier, drop a bomb on an enemy target and then land back on the carrier, all autonomously. The company expects the drone’s first flight sometime in December from Edwards Air Force Base.

“We had a small army working on the B-2, something like 3,000 people,” said Michael McCormack, who worked on the bomber in the 1990s and now oversees the assembly of the Global Hawk, a surveillance drone that can cruise at 65,000 feet. “This is a lot smaller program. We’re a much tighter-knit group.”

General Atomics’ drone-making facility in Poway is considerably bigger.

In seven buildings on 85 acres, uniformed workers churn out Predators and its next-generation siblings, including the larger Reaper and the jet-powered Avenger.

The factory is believed to be the world’s largest facility dedicated to drones. It harks back to an era when Southland aerospace pioneers such as Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft and North American Aviation built aircraft from start to finish, manufacturing nearly all the components in-house.

Donning bright-blue smocks, employees work around the clock, pounding sheets of metal into aircraft parts or fusing electronics onto circuit boards.

The drone components come together on the main production floor, which gleams like a Broadway stage thanks to the bright lights overhead. Beneath the lights, drones in various stages of assembly are lined up in neat rows with technicians hovering over them like bees.

George Nasrawi doesn’t get any campaign money from General Atomics, but he’s grateful for the factory just the same.

At lunchtime, plant workers fill his nearby restaurant, the Mediterranean-themed Victor’s Kafe.

“I might be out of business if it weren’t for them,” Nasrawi said. “A lot of companies are downsizing, but General Atomics is growing.”