The New York Times April 15, 2007
The Pilotless Plane That Only Looks Like Child's Play
During the last several years, unmanned aerial vehicles - known as U.A.V.'s - have amassed unusual political firepower.
By Charles Duhigg
IF you’re the type of shopper who spends billions of dollars on lethal military gadgets, and you’re ever invited to visit General Atomics Aeronautical Systems — the small, privately held San Diego company that has quickly become one of the military industry’s most celebrated businesses — take a bit of advice: accept a ride on the corporate jet.
The plane isn’t fancy. The cabin is cramped and the seats a little threadbare. (Want a beverage? Open the cooler, help yourself and quit whining about the heat.) Still, such bare-bones accoutrements haven’t stopped a parade of top military officials and politicians from clamoring for their own seats on General Atomics flights.
If you’re lucky, after the jet lands at the company’s airstrip in the high desert east of Los Angeles, you’ll tour one of the room-sized shipping containers clustered near the runway. Inside is a video-game addict’s idea of a cockpit, with joysticks, gauges and high-tech screens sprouting everywhere and a cushy chair that has improbably become one of the sexiest seats in the military. From that perch you can guide an unmanned airplane, known as the Predator, that is potentially thousands of miles away and can hover over suspected enemies for dozens of hours before raining down missiles.
For years, such planes — known as U.A.V.’s, for unmanned aerial vehicles — were pariahs within the military industry, scorned by commanders who saw them as threats to the status quo. But during the last several years, U.A.V.’s have amassed unusual political firepower. “For a long time, the only thing most generals could agree on was that they didn’t want any unmanned vehicles,” says Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Now everyone wants as many as they can get.”
In fact, only a decade ago, crucial Air Force commanders were lobbying to prevent battlefield deployment of U.A.V.’s, according to Congressional staff members. By 2005, however, John P. Jumper, then the Air Force chief of staff, had sufficiently about-faced to tell Congress that “we’re going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build.”
This transformation is, in many ways, a reflection of how the military’s priorities and goals have changed over the last decade. It is also a testament to how much clout General Atomics has amassed in a short period of time.
All of which raises another bit of advice if you’re visiting General Atomics: Don’t be late.
More than one official has learned the hard way that when the pilot of the General Atomics corporate jet says he’s flying back at noon, he means it. And that pilot is likely to be Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., a 34-year Navy veteran, former rear admiral, onetime commander of the station where the “Top Gun” flight school is based and now the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Mr. Cassidy’s belly may hang a bit over his belt now, but he’s so authentic that when the producers of the film “Top Gun” needed someone for a bit part who oozed power, they cast him.
Which is only fitting, for while General Atomics boasts elaborate technological gizmos and martial splendor, its authority also derives from its political savvy. In the last decade, the company has outgunned some of the nation’s biggest corporate heavyweights in the battle for prized military contracts. Soon, analysts say, Americans may rely on a host of General Atomics military devices, including magnetic cannons that use pulses of electricity to drop ammunition on distant targets, radar systems that can see through even the densest clouds and guns that shoot laser beams.
“Everyone talks about how the world has changed,” Mr. Cassidy says. “We’re building the technology for where it’s going.”
NO single moment marks the ascent of General Atomics. But to understand its rise and what that says about changes in military contracting, it helps to go way back, to a point before a pair of wealthy, intensely private brothers bought it, before General Dynamics spun it off, and before it even existed — to the 1930s and a group of angry German commanders plotting revenge.
After World War I, while France and other Allies were building military defenses modeled on trench warfare, German commanders were shaping a nimble fighting force. Using new technologies — like radio and fast-moving armored vehicles — they created the blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” a strategy that allowed them to end-run their enemies’ trenches by using panzerdivizions — small, sprightly forces that revolutionized how battles were fought. In 1940, Germany toppled France in 20 days and the panzerdivizion symbolized war’s shift from drawn-out conflicts using massive fortifications to rapid-fire engagements built around manned, motorized armor.
Nearly 70 years later, the Predator and General Atomics reflect the military’s transformation from conflicts built around manned armor to strategies organized around surveillance. U.A.V.’s embody the potential for quick, relatively effortless wars fought by drones controlled from great distances, and thus have become lightning rods for battles over the military’s direction.
General Atomics, the progenitor of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, started life in 1955 when a major military contractor, General Dynamics, feared that the military hardware market might dry up. It began exploring peacetime uses of atomic energy, but abandoned the effort when cold-war military spending took off. General Atomics eventually passed through the hands of a number of energy companies before landing in the lap of two Denver real estate moguls, Neal and Linden Blue, who bought it in 1986 for about $50 million.
At the time, a big part of the company’s revenue came from contracts focused on fusion experiments. (General Atomics, today a sister company to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, still runs one of the world’s largest fusion programs.) But the Blue brothers wanted to pursue the fascination with airplanes and national security they had carried since they were students at Yale in the 1950s, Neal Blue said in an interview.
While still in college, they persuaded Life magazine to finance a trip around South America on a propeller-driven Tri-Pacer, in exchange for sending back photographs. After graduation, the brothers moved to Nicaragua to found a cocoa and banana plantation with the family of Luis Somoza Debayle, then Nicaragua’s president. (They were “enthusiastic supporters” of the United States-backed fight against Communism in Nicaragua during the 1980s, Mr. Blue said, though, he added, not formally involved.)
After serving in the Air Force, the brothers expanded their business holdings to include petroleum mines in Australia, natural gas wells in Canada, manufacturing concerns in the former East Germany and hundreds of acres of ranches in Arkansas, Colorado and California. Neal Blue, now the chairman of the company, said that both brothers have top-secret clearance with the United States government, but declined to discuss if they have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
All the while, they remained flying enthusiasts. Linden Blue served as president of Beech Aircraft from 1982 to 1984 and was briefly imprisoned by Fidel Castro after his private plane skirted Cuban airspace a few weeks before the Bay of Pigs incursion.
Soon after the brothers gained control of General Atomics in 1986, they unleashed their passion for advanced aviation by turning the company into a leading pioneer in drone warfare.
Military efforts to develop unmanned planes had existed for decades, but unreliable technology and shifting priorities had killed most of the programs. The Blues, however, were convinced that technological advances in microprocessing and global positioning systems had made it possible to build inexpensive, technologically reliable and ultralight unmanned airplanes that could stay aloft for days. They poured tens of millions of dollars into the project, eventually establishing a separate company, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Neal Blue said.
At the time, the Defense Department was less enthusiastic.
“The military can react to new threats and new enemies very quickly, but there is a very high bar to shifting how forces are deployed, because a mistake can be catastrophic to national security,” said Andrew L. Ross, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. “Commanders are skeptical about machines that remove soldiers from the field.”
The Predator itself has offered critics some ammunition. One analyst estimates that 20 percent of all Predators sold to the United States military have crashed, because of errors by pilots controlling them from the ground. Another analyst, who has flown the aircraft but asked not to be identified to maintain his relationship with General Atomics, says they offer significantly less maneuverability than manned jets.
Another analyst who has studied the history of U.A.V.’s says the Predator has failed at some crucial tests.
“It has never done everything the military originally wanted it to do,” said Tom P. Ehrhard, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan research organization. “It still fails on flight reliability, flight worthiness, the camera’s accuracy, the ability to fly through clouds. There are a whole series of operational limitations that normally would prevent a device like this from getting military adoption.”
Officials at General Atomics declined to discuss those and other criticisms in detail. An Air Force spokesman said that the number of Predator crashes had declined, and that the plane’s limitations had not prevented its combat use.
Another obstacle to military adoption of U.A.V.’s, say the Blues and others, is a dynamic even older than the panzerdivizion: resistance to innovations that threaten entrenched power structures.
“There is a very strong tendency to reward commanders for figuring out how to win the last war,” says Neal Blue. “The fiefdoms within the Department of Defense were built upon putting more people into airplanes or into the battlefield. Technologies that didn’t include cockpit pilots or moving soldiers were seen as unattractive.”
For its part, the Air Force disputes that turf wars ever impeded the Predator’s deployment. “It is hard to name any other aircraft that has accomplished so much in so little time, or that has had such an immediate impact on how we conduct combat operations,” it said in a statement. “It was the Air Force that gave birth to the concept that Predator could both find and attack fleeting targets, a concept that has paid huge dividends.”
Nonetheless, the Blues’ early attempts to find military supporters of U.A.V.’s during the 1980s and early ’90s met with little success.
“No fighter pilot is ever going to pick up a girl at a bar by saying he flies a U.A.V.,” says Andrew F. Krepinevich, a former Defense Department analyst who is executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “When defense contractors initially talked about U.A.V.’s, they advertised them as replacements for fighter pilots. Fighter pilots don’t want to be replaced.”
BUT, ultimately, fighter pilots don’t run the military. Politicians do. And when Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993, there was already a sense among some elected officials that the military was stuck in cold-war thinking, according to members of Congress at the time.
Those politicians, however, were increasingly butting heads with Pentagon officials. And the military industry, which collected billions of dollars a year selling expensive jets and submarines, was in no rush to tell customers that they needed smaller, cheaper equipment.
So the politicians used stealth tactics. In 1993, John M. Deutch, a deputy defense secretary under President Clinton, invited Neal Blue to the Pentagon under the pretense of discussing fusion reactors. Mr. Blue said in an interview that when he walked in, he discovered an array of high-ranking officials waiting to hear about the Predator. Mr. Deutch asked how long it would take to deliver a flight-ready aircraft. Six months, Mr. Blue promised.
“We were looking for technologies that were sufficiently path-breaking that they offered justification for changing military doctrine,” Mr. Deutch recalled.
Flashy images helped, too. The live video feeds from cameras attached to Predators were transmitted to commanders and politicians back home.
“There was a lot of work to make sure that G.A.’s product made it to the battlefield before the bureaucracy could stop it,” said Representative Duncan L. Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “We knew that once we sent all those pictures to Washington, D.C., the debate would be over.”
After the Predators’ deployment in the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, the military’s support for them began to grow. Although many analysts were already suggesting that Predators could easily carry weapons — cruise missiles use similar technologies — General Atomics avoided even mentioning such possibilities until clients requested them.
“There was an unspoken deal. It was obvious the technology existed to make the Predator into more than just a surveillance platform,” said Daniel Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a military policy research group in northern Virginia. “But fighter pilots shoot the missiles, and fighter pilots have a lot of power within the Air Force. So G.A. made it clear pilots didn’t have to worry about Predators doing something they hadn’t asked for.”
(In the late 1990s, armed Predators were rolling off the assembly line two months after they were requested by Air Force commanders, according to company executives.)
After taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush gave his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, a mandate to remake the military into a more technologically advanced organization, and U.A.V.’s became a top priority, say former department officials. The Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan heightened the push.
By the time a Predator-launched missile killed a suspected Al Qaeda leader in 2002, even the public was accustomed to hearing about unmanned planes’ successes. Voicing enthusiasm for U.A.V.’s became an easy way for the military brass to show that it had signed on to Mr. Rumsfeld’s program.
“Predators became emblematic of what Rumsfeld wanted,” said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute. “Suddenly, everyone was saying they were ordering Predators, whether they actually wanted them or not.”
That shift has been profitable for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The company, which remains privately held, refuses to disclose its revenue or profits. But it now employs more than 2,400 workers and has sold more than 200 unmanned planes since 1993, according to a spokesman.
In 2005, the Air Force announced that it was ordering enough Predators to equip 15 squadrons over five years, at a price of $5.7 billion. The Department of Homeland Security has bought two Predators for border control, and Italy and Turkey have also bought planes.
A research firm, the Teal Group, predicts that the handful of U.A.V. manufacturers will collect about $55 billion worldwide over the next 10 years. General Atomics is expected to dominate a large portion of that market, said Philip Finnegan, an analyst at Teal.
When Mr. Rumsfeld stepped down last year, one of the mandates that had bolstered the Predator for so long also disappeared.
“Transformation is dead as a political idea,” Mr. Thompson said. “Rumsfeld was discredited by Iraq, and when he left, his priorities left with him.”
That presents a challenge for General Atomics, which is also confronting a flurry of competition. The major military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have all jumped into the U.A.V. game. With billions of dollars at their disposal and deep military relationships, those companies can outspend smaller rivals.
“This is an exploding marketplace, and we intend to claim a larger market share as it grows bigger and bigger,” said Gemma Loochkartt, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman. “Being a leader in this sector is important to maintaining leadership within the defense industry.”
So General Atomics is aggressively building on its existing clout. Unlike many other military contractors, which wait for a guaranteed contract to build new products, General Atomics has set aside what some analysts estimate at $50 million to build the next generation of Predators.
“We can move faster because we’re smaller, and we make sure people know that,” says Mr. Blue, who, at 72, still actively guides the company’s strategic direction. General Atomics has upgraded its manufacturing with a diverse range of automated and laser-guided tools that allow it to quickly change design specifications and produce custom-built planes, a flexibility that analysts say is almost unrivaled within the military industry.
Despite a demand for its products that far outpaces supply, the company has kept the Predator relatively cheap — about $19.2 million a plane, according to a study that the Government Accountability Office released last year. “For the military, $19 million is almost an impulse buy,” said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research firm in Washington.
YET however much General Atomics competes on price, some of its most dexterous strategies have involved overtly political tactics.
In 2006, a study conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity and other watchdog groups said that General Atomics had spent $660,000, more than any other company, sending Congressional staff members on trips. Company executives said the jaunts allowed staffers to help educate foreign governments about the Predator’s successes, although they acknowledge that they also improved the company’s relationships in Washington.
“Everyone else was doing it, so we did, too,” says Mr. Cassidy at General Atomics. After the study was released, General Atomics decided to sponsor less than $10,000 worth of Congressional trips a year.
General Atomics has also hired scores of former military commanders and has partnered with Lockheed Martin to pursue a $2 billion Navy program, one of its first such joint projects.
Equally important, the company has begun whispering to lawmakers about the importance of diversifying the military marketplace, say lobbyists who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the company. In part to preserve that selling point, General Atomics has spurned acquisition offers from major military contractors, Mr. Blue says.
Analysts say the trends that have kept General Atomics’ fortunes aloft are likely to persist for decades.
“It took 30 years for the world’s militaries to completely absorb and implement the technologies that started with panzerdivizions,” says Mr. Goure, the defense analyst. Although military strategists talk about organizing war-making around information and intelligence, the truth is that it will take decades for that transformation to be complete. In the meantime, leaders are likely to latch onto emblems of transformation — like the Predator — as symbols of progress.
“Once you prove that something works, a flurry of activity starts that builds the infrastructure for more innovations, and fights over who controls the new technologies emerge,” Mr. Goure says. “That’s when things become permanent.”
Such fights have already broken out over Predators. This year, the Air Force told Congress that it, rather than other branches of the military, should control the deployment of unmanned planes. Commanders in other military branches have voiced disagreement.
“The Predator has become a very durable and powerful symbol in a very short time,” says Mr. Thompson, the defense analyst.
That transition is even more impressive, considering what the Predator cannot do.
“It is unclear if this plane will ever meet some of the key suitability tests the Air Force applies to most aircraft,” said Mr. Ehrhard, the military analyst. “But no one seems to care that much.”
WHICH brings us to a final bit of advice for visiting General Atomics: Don’t count on leisurely send-offs. When its corporate jet lands back in San Diego, the company’s president is likely to bound out, make a dash for his BMW — the one with the license plate reading “UAV S”) — and shout out a hasty goodbye.
“I gotta run,” said Mr. Cassidy, the pilot and executive, after a recent flight. “We’ve got planes to sell.”
© Copyright 2007, The New York Times Company