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.”