It wasn’t long after the World Trade Center twin towers fell that U.S. Army special forces units were dispatched to the desolate outcroppings of Afghanistan to stalk and eradicate the Taliban.
The commandos were outfitted with radios, night vision goggles and automatic rifles. But a select few carried a new high-tech tool to hunt down the enemy.
It was a tiny robotic spy plane, so small it would fit in a backpack. Soldiers would throw the drone into the sky, where it would fly up to 400 feet, shoot video of what’s ahead and transmit those images back to the soldiers. The technology enabled them to avoid ambushes and pinpoint the location of enemy positions.
The small drones, made by Monrovia-based AeroVironment Inc., quickly became a staple of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and fueled the growth of the once-tiny company into a publicly traded defense contractor with thousands of drones at work in the war zone.
After the Cold War, the nation’s defense industry saw a devastating drop in business. But after Sept. 11, 2001, all that changed as money once again began to flow to big-name defense contractors, such as Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. andNorthrop Grumman Corp.
But far more dramatic was the abrupt change in fortunes for smaller Southern California companies such as AeroVironment. The company’s annual sales over the last 10 years went from $29.4 million to $292.5 million.
Owners of small military firms that never had much of a chance at winning major government contracts during the Cold War were thrown in the spotlight for their smaller, cheaper but powerful high-tech weapons — vital to waging guerrilla-type warfare. And they remain in the limelight today.
“The threat changed after 9/11, as did the way the military addressed the threat,” said Timothy E. Conver, AeroVironment’s chief executive. “By using smaller, efficient systems, it coincided to what we do best.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon budget more than doubled overnight, flooding defense contractors — big and small — with billions of dollars to build and develop hardware. It was a conflict that has bolstered Southern California’s fading defense industry.
“California’s aerospace industry has been one of the unsung heroes of the war on terrorism,” said John Noonan, aide to Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were able to quickly adapt to new battlefield requirements, most notably in their swift supply of badly needed reconnaissance, intelligence and communications platforms.”
The Southland went to work developing and building technology of all kinds for a new type of war.
One such innovation was a technology that enabled the military to prevent buried roadside bombs from exploding. The homemade bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs, were the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
May 2007 was one of the worst months in Iraq, with 92 killed and 408 wounded by IEDs, said Paul Swiergosz of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the U.S. military’s anti-IED task force. Now, the number of soldiers wounded every month averages “around a dozen or so,” he said.
The downturn is due in part to the Pentagon’s effort to arm soldiers with radio jammers that would interrupt the insurgents’ attempt to detonate the bombs remotely. One defense contractor that designed many of these systems is ITT Corp. in Thousand Oaks.
Before Sept. 11, the company had fewer than 25 people working on developing the jamming systems. Now the company has as many as 500 people working at its 110,000-square-foot complex.
“ITT was one of the first companies to see IEDs as a serious threat,” said Jeremy Barr, a former Navy SEAL and business development manager at the firm. “The larger companies didn’t see it.”
According to the anti-IED task force’s most recent numbers, from May to July this year, soldiers found 2,049 roadside bombs before they exploded. This is a 40% increase from the same period one year earlier.
While the innovation for the battlefield has been impressive, some critics say the money that has been spent on national security since the 9/11 attacks may actually have made the country less safe.
Christopher Hellman, a senior research analyst at National Priorities Project, a Northampton, Mass.-based taxpayer watchdog, said that many of the country’s military actions, including drone attacks, have “exacerbated existing tensions and created new ones.”
They have “eroded our standing in some of the most volatile regions of the world, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the misery of many more,” he said.
The armed drones, known as Predators and Reapers, used by the Air Force and CIA are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in 10 buildings in Poway. The complex harks back to an era when Southland aerospace pioneers such as Lockheed Aircraft Co., Douglas Aircraft Co. and North American Aviation built aircraft from start to finish, manufacturing nearly all of the components in-house.
General Atomics’ first facility in San Diego was about 1,100 square feet and had eight employees. Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., a former fighter pilot and rear admiral in the Navy, helped create the aeronautical unit in 1993. It later was spun off by then-parent General Atomics, a nuclear power firm, as an affiliated company.
“When we started all this, there was no requirement to build Predators by the government,” Cassidy, 79, said. “We had to convince them.”
After Sept. 11, the government came to him. Within months, the production rate doubled and hundreds of new employees were hired. The company’s current employment stands around 5,300.
“It was a game changer for the industry,” said Cassidy, who retired last year as president of the company’s Aircraft Systems Group. “Before then, few people noticed what we were doing.”