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Our Duties as Defense Technologists
As we bolster our defenses with technology, we must remember - and teach - our duties as citizens
When we founded Palantir Technologies in 2003, the United States was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks — and had embarked on two expeditionary wars to Afghanistan and Iraq. We built the first Palantir products to buttress our nation’s capacity to collect intelligence, prevent attacks, and hunt terrorists.
We helped our government prevent dozens of attacks and eliminate thousands of terrorists; but the wars kept going beyond what anyone imagined. Today, both post-9/11 wars are done, with total costs of about $8 trillion and a reservoir of public confusion about what was accomplished, and what the plan is to avoid future quagmires.
I remain deeply proud of the work we did at Palantir alongside exceptional men and women in the US military, and the work the company still does to keep Americans safe, protect civil liberties, and make our government work better. In the 2000's, it was a major cultural battle to fund and inspire Silicon Valley talent to work on defense, and a major bureaucratic battle to get our products adopted by Washington.
When I left my full-time role at Palantir, I was not eager to start another defense company and spend more time in political dogfights in Washington, D.C. Instead, I founded and built mission-driven companies in other industries including healthcare, local government, finance, and logistics — and started a venture capital firm, 8VC, to back dozens of other entrepreneurs.
By the mid-2010s, many of us in the technology world became worried about changes that were afoot in China, namely the ascendance of Xi Xinping, who was quickly becoming the most authoritarian and communist paramount leader since Mao. It became clear we were on a collision course with Xi’s China. And worryingly, unlike our country, China was "recruiting" many of its best and brightest engineers (it's not clear they always have a choice) into defense innovation roles.
We realized it was our duty to get back in.
In 2017, we backed Anduril Industries, as it was founded by Palmer Luckey and three former colleagues from Palantir. It has since raised billions and become the most important defense prime since Palantir and SpaceX. In 2018, we founded Epirus, now a global leader in EMP technologies. Last year, we founded Saronic Technologies, which is building autonomous naval vessels for the US, and we led investment in Chaos Industries.
Of the six defense unicorns founded in the last few decades (seven if you include SpaceX), I started two of them and invested early in a few others. That number will climb, and I don’t say it to brag — but to offer my perspective on defense now that the zeitgeist has realized the importance of our work. Because it wasn’t always like this.
As recently as 2018 and 2019 it was unfashionable to work on defense in much of Silicon Valley — defense was scorned at “Big Tech” companies, with employees and leaders who often noted they were globalists, not pro-US actors; and the sector was scoffed at by most venture capital firms, just as some of them had given me lectures on the foolhardiness of trying to build Palantir. Many institutional investors refused to participate on the basis of ESG mandates and other rules.
Today, amid multiple global conflicts and a national consensus that China is a dangerous adversary, it's a different world. Institutional investors, successful billionaires, and an army of young engineers are excited about defense. They call and write regularly, asking how to get involved.
That is a welcome cultural change, and I am proud of our “Rebel Alliance” of startups, who are doing important work channeling the best talent to terrify and deter our enemies. The paths laid by SpaceX, Palantir, and Anduril are already making way for others, including some of mine and companies founded by others.
This is a moment of victory; we fought hard to convince our sector that defense was our duty, part of protecting the free world and deterring our adversaries. But when so many are now rushing head-long into it, some reflection is prudent. We should always remember our patriotism and retain a fundamental skepticism of the industry — it exists for our defense, not its defense. With that in mind, I want to offer some thoughts for citizen-entrepreneurs in defense. Let’s stipulate a few things:
Evil exists in the world. The United States sometimes has to fight against it.
Technological superiority is absolutely essential to our defense, which obligates technologists to participate.
Incentives are dominant in every area, including the defense business. None of us is immune from those incentives.
In venture capital we know that if you give the smartest, hardest-working people in the world significant upside in the companies they work on, they can achieve transcendent outcomes unlike in any other industry. They will go to sleep thinking about their vital work — and wake up to do that work. As investors and builders ourselves we channel this dynamic to make things that last and make a real difference.
That could be called the positive version of the animal brain. But none of us is immune to the negative version of the animal brain. If anyone has a significant financial interest in defense businesses, there will be a perceived incentive — even slight — toward a more militaristic posture. If not outright war, there is at least the perceived incentive for confrontation and drum-banging. I have seen this many times — and it behooves all of us to be self-aware about how it may influence us.
Society has recognized this by creating, in media and movies, a default assumption of evil by people who make weapons. While pop culture isn’t totally wrong about the incentives, is is totally wrong about what the world would look like if we didn’t have talented people willing to do the “dirty” work of defense. We’d be speaking German. Or Russian. Or Chinese. We'd have experienced many more 9/11's. You get the idea.
But as patriotic individuals, building these companies in a mission-driven way still raises interesting questions. What part are the innovators the best at, and how long should we own large stakes in these businesses? Should they be public companies or private? Should we manage them forever? Who should be on the board and what should their incentives be, and how do we make sure their influence deters war, and doesn’t encourage it?
Amid Hamas’ brutal attack against Israel, Russia’s continuing war against Ukraine, and Chinese expansionist activities in the seas south of China and its threats against Taiwan, these questions may seem trivial in comparison to the need to re-arm and increase our capacities. But caution is wisdom, and as leaders it is important to assess the subtle incentives that affect us.
Entrepreneurs and investors constitute an important part of our Republic, but it isn’t our job to decide questions of war and peace — that authority rests with all the people and our elected representatives. Our advocacy should focus on promoting the best technologies and platforms to deter and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries — but must not influence the posture of the country towards war.
There are perfectly moral people who have owned and managed defense businesses over decades. There are some that are less honorable, or who may not even admit to themselves that they are caught up in a militaristic posture tied to their work. My personal goal as an entrepreneur and investor when I work in the defense space is to rapidly build and deploy critical new capabilities with innovative companies, get them to a successful scale, and eventually exit them into good hands. Other innovators will want to keep building, innovating, and managing their businesses over a greater length of time — and I respect that, too.
On my side I want to innovate for deterrence, and then promote, at the political level, a program of peace — that is, when a just peace is possible.
62 years ago, President Eisenhower spoke on this topic in his farewell address. He led the United States in both war and in republican government as an appointed General and an elected President; and he understood the difference between those two jobs. He also understood the quandary of a permanent defense industry, which didn’t exist before his presidency and has only grown since.
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peace time, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United State corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
At this moment, some of our best and brightest, including leaders of great influence in our society, are getting more involved in the defense industry. I hope that even as our peers work to profit by innovating new ways to deter and defeat our enemies, they will keep the goal of peace at the forefront and stay self-aware to prevent bad incentives from causing problems.
As we work to reform our existing defense industry and convince Washington, D.C. of the need to allow more competition and let better innovation replace legacy systems, we should always keep Eisenhower’s warning in the back of our head: to “recognize the imperative need” of this work, and yet “not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Without that thoughtfulness, we risk turning many great innovators into mere creatures of the defense industrial complex.
The US needs to deter its adversaries with technology, but we should always remember that we are citizens first, and never forget to pray for a just peace.
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