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Weekend Listening: The Real Team America

Palmer Luckey, Katherine Boyle, and Joe Lonsdale on the defense tech they’re building to keep our country safe—and the threats that keep them up at night.

As scary as this period feels—between Russia’s war in Ukraine and Hamas’s war with Israel—there’s increasing concern that this is just the calm before the storm. Should China decide to move against Taiwan in some way, then we’ll have war with U.S. involvement in three separate regions. Or perhaps by then it will not seem like three separate wars, but a single global one. 

Most Americans in the last fifty years, and certainly since the end of the Cold War, have lived in the luxury of safety. We live in a place where peace and security are generally taken for granted. But a lot of Americans had a serious wake-up call after October 7, when a country with a high-tech security fortress was overwhelmed by terrorists on motorcycles and trucks and paragliders.

It’s only natural to wonder: Could this happen here? Who is actually coming over our border? If we had to fight for our country, who would actually show up?

Today’s guests on Honestly had that wake-up call long before the wars in Ukraine or Gaza. They’ve long invested their time, money, and resources into building a better American defense. And in the past few months especially, their work has come to be seen as prescient.

Palmer Luckey is a 31-year-old software engineer and entrepreneur. At the age of 19, Palmer founded the virtual reality company Oculus, which was originally supposed to be sold on Kickstarter as a virtual reality prototype for VR nerds and enthusiasts. Instead, it was acquired by Facebook for more than $2 billion. Then, when he was 25, he founded Anduril Industries, an $8.5 billion company that develops drones, autonomous vehicles, submarines, rockets, and software for military use.

Katherine Boyle is a Washington Post reporter turned venture capitalist; she is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and the co-founder of the firm’s American Dynamism arm, which invests in companies that build to support the national interest. 

Joe Lonsdale is a co-founder of Palantir (along with Peter Thiel and others), and founder and general partner of the firm 8VC, which backed Anduril in its early days. 

They are each attempting to disrupt the defense marketplace, bring Silicon Valley’s speed, creativity, and innovation to defense, advance our national security, and, you know. . . save America. 

To listen to our full conversation, click below—or read on for an edited excerpt.

On why people with no military experience became passionate about American defense:

Bari Weiss: You guys are, in a certain sense, like skunks at a garden party. All of you are involved in American defense in some way, but none of you have a military background. So I’m curious how you came to this view of the problem given that none of you had ever served?

Joe Lonsdale: A lot of the best innovation by entrepreneurs is done by outsiders. And, you know, I grew up in Silicon Valley. I was, if anything, a bit of an insider on the computer science scene and tech scene. You’d hear stories, when I was going to Stanford, about how the NSA and the DoD were like 20 years ahead, 15 years ahead of these big breakthroughs versus even the very top places at MIT and Stanford, Harvard. But they were that far ahead in the ’70s.

And then 9/11 happened. And then we saw the U.S. government spend tens of billions of dollars on stuff that, frankly, was just stupid compared to how Silicon Valley worked, compared to everything we figured out at PayPal, compared to how Google works, compared to how other companies work. And this was a really painful shock for me because I am a patriot. I’m proud of how strong the U.S. is. I always kind of assumed the U.S. was way ahead in these areas, and it wasn’t. And we realized we have to actually get involved, take some of the things we’ve learned about investigative technology, about new possibilities in technology, and go after this.

It was a combination of seeing that the best and brightest in China were being forced to work with the Chinese military at the same time that our best and brightest were saying, no, we’re not going to. That was a big wake-up call. That’s when Palmer and three of my former colleagues from Palantir built Anduril with Palmer and helped start it. We said, wow, we have to do this. It’s key for America. 

On the erosion of faith in the U.S. military and the importance of American power:

Katherine Boyle: The one thing that underpins the entire conversation we’re having is the talent crisis. That is not my term. It was called a quiet crisis, actually, in the 1980s, by Paul Volcker, who was former chair of the Federal Reserve. Then he was tapped to serve as the head of a commission on the crisis inside the civil service, inside the bureaucracy of government. There was a view that in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, the best and brightest American minds—they served their country. They all served in some capacity in government. Oftentimes that was through the draft. But there was still status in going into the bureaucracy, into the civil service of the country, and working inside of the government. That’s very important to have talented people working as part of the bureaucracy, not as political appointees, but working and serving their careers inside government. The view in the 1980s was that it was already eroding. There was a degradation inside civil service and that it needed to be turned around. 

The same talent crisis that hit the government in the ’80s has also hit the prime contractors. The best and brightest minds in this country used to go into Lockheed Martin, they used to go into Raytheon, they used to build the F-35. The best engineers who wanted to work on the hardest problems used to go to the defense primes. For the last 30 years, they’ve been coming to Silicon Valley. For a while they were working on apps, but because of people like Joe, because of people like Palmer, because of SpaceX, Palantir, and Anduril, a lot of the best talent is now coming to defense start-ups, and the government has to figure out how to work with start-ups. Otherwise, we have trapped talent pools that are not providing the government with what it needs to survive. 

Palmer Luckey: It used to be that everybody knew somebody who had served, and it was probably a close family member just because of the statistical distribution of people who fought in World War II, who fought in the Korean War, who even fought in Vietnam. That’s now changing. You have kids who don’t know anybody who’s ever served in the military, would never consider joining themselves, and none of their role models have ever served in the military. That leads to a bit of a disconnect. In my case, I worked at an Army affiliate research center before starting Oculus—the ICT Mixed Reality Lab—on a few things, including an Army project called Brave Mind, which treated veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. That was the first exposure I had to how the military developed technology, how they use technology to solve problems. But I was one of those people where me and all my friends, we didn’t really have any direct experience with the military in our regular lives. It wasn’t something that we even had had a strong negative thought about. It’s that we didn’t think about it at all. 

On the importance of innovative software in American defense:

BW: When most civilians like me think about military defense, I think about F-35s, I think about giant, hulking ships. I think about big, heavy things, strong guys with guns. And you guys are suggesting that that’s sort of an outdated view of what military defense should actually look like. Palmer, one of your core beliefs is that software can be just as powerful as physical things. I would love for you to explain that to listeners.

PL: I’m not one of those guys who thinks software alone is going to stop war. But I do think that software, really good software, like AI control software that is very good at fusing sensor data, figuring out how to attack things and how to kill them effectively, is what allows you to build totally new types of weapons. Think about the difference between building aircraft that have to keep a person alive inside the aircraft and can only maneuver at the limits of what a human can handle versus a system that can think and move as fast as a computer can survive.

That’s a totally new type of thing. Remote-controlled airplanes like the Predator are great, but at the end of the day you need multiple people who are controlling and managing each of those. You will never be able to manage thousands or tens of thousands of them in a given area because of that ratio of machines to people. If I can automate those, I can potentially be deploying millions of robotic systems in a given area and have them performing at a level that a human-piloted or remote-piloted system never could achieve. This is true across the air. This is true underwater. This is true in space. This is true on land. This is even true underground. And so that’s the power of software: enabling you to build weapon systems, which are hardware that couldn’t exist otherwise, that are much cheaper at much larger scale than the things that are designed to keep people alive.

BW: Palmer, I go on the Anduril website and I read about things like AI, drones, autonomous vehicles for the air and sea. Tell us what these things actually are. 

PL: We build vertical takeoff and landing, AI-powered, small micro fighter jets. We build robotic submarines that can dive deeper than manned submarines that are much quieter, much longer range, and much cheaper to manufacture than a submarine that needs to keep a whole crew of people alive. We’re also building aircraft that can collaborate with manned aircrafts. Imagine a squadron of one or two human planes flying, aided by dozens of autonomous aircraft that are able to soak up missiles, to keep that person safer and also make them much more lethal in that manned platform. We tried to find these areas where autonomy and artificial intelligence can make warfighters much more effective. 

You have Amnesty International, you have a lot of United Nations organizations trying to ban lethal autonomous weapon systems. Look at the countries that are supporting those efforts. They are countries that want to cripple our ability to build these things because they don’t want America to have the best tools. It’s amazing to me how people fall for this. The people pushing for bans on lethal autonomous weapon systems are wrong-minded people. They understand exactly what will happen if Western countries do not build these systems, and that’s why they’re pushing to basically allow us to destroy ourselves. They would love to see us like Europe has done: destroy ourselves with regulations and take ourselves out of the fight. We have to be resistant to that.

On the biggest threats to America:

BW: It’s clear to me that there are two key threats right now to the Pax Americana. One is that it’s under threat from China and Russia and Iran and the so-called axis of resistance. That’s obvious. But also that it’s under threat internally by a lot of people, including a lot of elite, influential people who believe that American power is necessarily bad. They don’t think that the world is better off with America as the world’s hegemon. Which is the bigger threat? Is it our leadership here at home, that many people in positions of power don’t seem to get it? Or is it China that is really keeping you up in the middle of the night? 

JL They’re obviously both threats. I would definitely say it’s the leadership at home and it’s the culture here at home that scares me. It’s millions of bureaucrats that are unaccountable. It’s a culture of incompetence. It’s cultures that prioritize virtue signaling over merit and competence, which is terrifying. There’s so much of the defense-industrial complex where the money goes toward things based on who they are friends with, or if they have proven that they have the right minority or gender status. Have they virtue-signaled the right way and donated to the right people? Are they playing the game properly to come across as the thing that D.C. wants to support? And this is not to say that there aren’t great bipartisan defense leaders in Congress, in the DoD, who want to do the right thing and who are trying to do the right thing. But I think our country in general has this crisis of incompetence. And that’s what we need to fix if we’re going to get this right, because we have the ability to do this right. What I care most about is that the best ideas can win. That’s the biggest question right now. If we can be competent, America will be safe. 

On the future of America and American dynamism: 

BW: Katherine, you often talk about investing for the sake of the West, a strategy you call “American dynamism.” In a speech you gave last year, you said, “we don’t win a war against bad ideologies unless we know who we are and what we stand for and where we’re headed. And if we lose this silent war, the ultimate war for American ideals, it’s not because we don’t have the know-how to build missiles and hypersonics and attributable systems and drone swarms. It will be because we doubt our inheritance, because we doubt the beauty and nobility of what we’re building, because we doubt that American dynamism is true and the key to a safer, more prosperous civilization.” I’d love for you to build on that idea.

KB: I talk about what Alexis de Tocqueville said about what makes America so special. It is this enthusiasm, this optimism, this belief that you can do anything. There is an American sentiment that has existed in this country since its founding, that we build new things and we always take risks, and we’re not afraid of risk. Yes, some people lose. Actually, the quote I wish I had in front of me is basically that some people will lose in the American experiment. Some people will build businesses that fail. But America always benefits from that innovative spirit, from that hustle spirit, from that wanting to create new things.

I say tech is sort of a petri dish of this American experience. It’s how we build new technologies. But it’s not just tech. Building a family is in the spirit of American dynamism. It’s building a small business that’s not venture-backed, where you’re building something for your community that your customers love. This is what underpins the American experiment and which keeps us at the forefront, that keeps us as the hegemonic power. The spirit to continuously build. Again, the biggest thing that has happened that is dangerous is to convince young people, to convince our regulators that building is not a good thing, to convince people that growth is bad.

Growth is life. Dynamism is life. It underpins the American experience. That is the thing I worry about, that we’re believing these lies that we can’t innovate, that innovation is bad, that tech is bad, that owning a business is bad, that building a family is bad. All of those are lies. What is the core of the American experience? It is building new things for your community. It is building in the spirit of serving your country. It is building for others. It’s that outward focus that has made America the most exceptional country in the history of the world. 

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