Your Friendly Neighborhood War Profiteer

It's not just Alliant Techsystems. Hundreds of small Minnesota companies are cashing in on America's defense industry.

He lives in Redwood Falls and runs Airborne Data Systems, a company specializing in surveillance gear that does real-time aerial mapping and heat-sensitive imaging. His equipment can "defeat" enemy camouflage—spotting bodies and equipment not visible to the eye—and can sense disturbed earth and other subtle changes to the environment, all of which can be used to identify military targets. Satellite surveillance can do all of this, but not in real time.

Fuhr got into the air-surveillance business with something called "precision agriculture" in mind. From the air, you can better assess the effectiveness of pesticides or an irrigation system, and he was looking to sell snapshots of farm fields to farmers and agricultural corporations. Beyond that, he thought maybe he could sell his imaging devices to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"But when you sell to a civilian program," Fuhr says, "you're only selling one at a time. The military is a different animal. You make a good presentation in the defense market and you might be outfitting a whole fleet."

The throwable Recon Scout by Recon Robotics
The throwable Recon Scout by Recon Robotics
Chip Laingen, director of Minnesota Defense Alliance
Chip Laingen, director of Minnesota Defense Alliance

Fuhr has no ambition to compete with the big contractors. Better to fill the holes they can't, he says. "If you build your program into the $10 million-plus zone, the big guys are going to take it from you," Fuhr says. "But they can't afford to turn on the switch for a $5 million project."

"We've technically never sold anything to the Defense Department," he says. "But the 'big eight'—Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed, and the rest—we've done them all."

What he's done is the numbing work of researching the military's needs and who is meeting them with what products. There are holes everywhere—technology the big companies don't have and must find to fulfill their contracts. Discovering those holes and convincing the right people you can fill them means scores of calls and meetings. Fuhr's systems are loaded onto planes and wired to work virtually off the shelf.

"The problem," says Fuhr, "is that it takes so much money and time to groom all these people, and you may get nothing out of it. That's how come there are $58 hammers—it's not the hammer's cost, it's that the company lost 10 contracts before they landed one."

Airborne had three systems ready for delivery in September 2001. The program was promptly canceled in the flurry of 9/11 priority shifts. "We got hung with the stuff," says Fuhr. "The thing is, the government has no obligation to anything that has not been delivered yet."

It can be a fickle bureaucracy, and everybody has an eye on national and international events. In the case of Iraq, Fuhr wins if the U.S. withdraws: "If we pull our ground forces, somebody will want to be watching this thing. Our market gets bigger." 

READ MORE ON THIS: Minnesota's Thin Slice of the Military Pie

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