POWAY, Calif. -- The cars begin rolling through the security checkpoints before dawn. Here, in a sprawling complex amid the craggy rock outcroppings of north San Diego County, 3,300 workers are building a new generation of weapons central to the military's vision for modern warfare.
This is where General Atomics Aeronautical Systems makes the Predator and Reaper drones, robotic planes that can thread the rugged mountains of Pakistan, capture video images of terrorist hideouts and launch 500-pound Hellfire missiles to blast them apart.
The company's 1.9-million-square-foot facility is a showcase for Southern California's drone industry, which employs an estimated 10,000 people. The fast-growing business is fueled by Pentagon spending -- at least $20 billion since 2001 -- and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress.
Seeing an almost limitless market, dozens of defense contractors -- Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. among them -- are now vying to get in on the action. They are building surveillance drones the size of insects that can fly through open windows, and others as big as jetliners that can skim the stratosphere.
Soon, experts say, the military and private companies alike will have fleets of robotic planes that can do just about everything piloted aircraft can do, such as carrying cargo and engaging in aerial combat.
"It is the most hotly sought-after weapon system in a generation," said Loren Thompson, a military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
The industry is centered in Southern California, a testament to the region's rich aerospace history. It's also the product of big-money lobbying and pork-barrel politics.
Thomas J. Cassidy Jr. stood on the windswept tarmac of Adelanto Airport in the Mojave Desert, pitching the wonders of the Predator drone to a dozen scientists and firefighting officials.
For Cassidy, this was the B list. The Pentagon was always seen as the primary customer for the Predator, but early trials during the conflict in Bosnia hadn't gone well. The small aircraft, powered by a pusher propeller, was easily shot down by antiaircraft fire. Fighter pilots mocked it as a pricey model plane.
Cassidy, a gruff former Navy rear admiral, was hired by General Atomics to persuade his former comrades in the military to buy the Predator.
Now he was looking for any customers he could find. The Predator could be used to spot wildfires, he told his latest prospects. It could monitor global warming.
The audience listened politely -- then scattered quickly when the demonstration ended. There were no takers.
It was Sept. 6, 2001. Five days later, the world changed.
"That's when the phone started ringing off the hook," Cassidy said.
With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the military suddenly wanted a weapon that could search for and destroy al-Qaida's mountain lairs. The Predator had its customer.
It was a turning point for General Atomics, and the company was poised to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Through its political action committee, General Atomics had been making friends in Washington since the early 1990s, giving nearly $3 million since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
By comparison, the political action committee for Northrop Grumman Corp. gave $8.2 million over the same period. But Northrop is a giant, with 120,000 employees and $33 billion in annual revenue.
Analysts estimate that General Atomics, which is privately held, has 4,500 employees and annual revenue of about $600 million.
"We weren't the only ones spending money," said Cassidy, 78, who recently retired as president of General Atomics' Aircraft Systems Group. "But we had our fair share of guys who were fighting for us on the Hill."
Two of those "guys" were Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., whose district includes the Antelope Valley, a hub of aerospace activity.
Since 1998, Lewis has received $65,000 from the General Atomics PAC. McKeon has received $48,000 since 2002.
Both men have successfully pushed for earmarks benefiting General Atomics, or money beyond that requested by federal agencies. Lewis has claimed credit for more than $100 million in earmarks for the Predator alone.
So far this year, Congress has earmarked at least $120 million for drones, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group. But no one knows for sure because earmarks are often cryptically described, said Laura Peterson, national security analyst for the group.
"People look down upon earmarks now, but they're a very important part of the defense industry," McKeon said. "We wouldn't have the Predator without it."
McKeon said drones make sense because they perform vital military functions without putting the lives of pilots at risk.
They also save money. A Predator costs about $4 million. Each of the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters now in flight testing is expected to cost taxpayers about $100 million.