By DION NISSENBAUM
WASHINGTON—Rep. John Garamendi is known as a staunch advocate for cutting unnecessary defense spending. But the California Democrat avidly defends one program: a fleet of high-altitude surveillance drones that the Pentagon wants to scrap.
While Mr. Garamendi says the drones are a critical Pentagon tool, there is another reason he is a vociferous defender of the unmanned aircraft: Pilots who control them work at a base in his congressional district.
The battle is playing out this spring as lawmakers, military contractors and Pentagon planners wrangle over what to cut in response to declining resources.
Northrop Grumman Corp., which makes the Global Hawk drones, counts on Mr. Garamendi and a bipartisan phalanx of other lawmakers to protect the program. The same strategy is used by other top defense contractors as they turn to Congress to rebuff proposed Pentagon cuts.
General Dynamics Corp. counts on Ohio lawmakers to protect the state’s M1 Abrams tank plant from Army trims. European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. has joined forces with Mississippi politicians to shield that state’s Lakota helicopter plant from reductions. And BAE Systems PLC has launched a lobbying campaign to maintain funding for its Bradley fighting vehicle plant in Pennsylvania.
“This is a tough one,” said one defense-industry official. “We are having to sort of buck the customer [the Pentagon], and it puts industry in a very difficult position. In some cases it certainly can become a tug of war between the Hill and the Pentagon.”
The fights begin in earnest on Wednesday when the Republican-dominated House Armed Services Committee meets to vote on the Obama administration’s $526.6 billion Defense Department budget plan. The hearing will be the first major congressional test for the military blueprint, which is certain to face revisions by lawmakers.
The battle over the Global Hawk is emblematic of the difficulty the Pentagon faces in trying to reduce its inventory while shifting its focus from the ground war in Afghanistan to emerging threats elsewhere.
The Defense Department has sought to ground the fleet of 18 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, which has been used to conduct surveillance from Afghanistan to Libya. The Air Force says its piloted U-2 planes have better surveillance equipment for the job—and that ending the Global Hawk program can save $2.5 billion over the next four years.
Lawmakers have not only rejected the Pentagon plans, but set aside $443 million to compel the Air Force to buy three more Global Hawks. On Tuesday, the Air Force said it is moving ahead with buying the drones even though it doesn’t want them.
Northrop can rely on bipartisan support. The planes are built in the district represented by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R., Calif.), who heads the Armed Services Committee, which will consider a plan to keep Global Hawk running through 2016.
To Mr. Garamendi, the issue is about more than protecting Beale Air Force Base in his district, which also supports the U-2 program. Mr. Garamendi said he wants “a holistic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance strategy that meets the needs of all of the services.” The Global Hawk, which can stay aloft more than twice as long as the U-2, built byLockheed Martin Corp., meets that objective, he argued.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said Congress plays a role in countering questionable Pentagon decisions. “Where it gets bad is when it is nothing more than horse trading,” he said. “It really is a question of ultimately how serious the members will be in prioritizing the nation’s defense instead of…parochial interests.”