‘The 21st-Century Space Race Is On’

Michael Waltz, Congress’s first Green Beret, talks about the new Space Force and America’s budding commercial launch industry.

Freshman Congressman Michael Waltz, a combat-decorated Green Beret, represents Florida’s 6th congressional district. (Rep. Waltz's website)
Freshman Congressman Michael Waltz, a combat-decorated Green Beret, represents Florida’s 6th congressional district. (Rep. Waltz's website)

Freshman Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida is emerging as a key player in U.S. space policy as President Donald Trump pushes for a separate Space Force and the Defense Department stands up a new Space Command.

Waltz brings a unique perspective to this arena. A U.S. Army National Guard Special Forces officer and veteran of the Afghanistan War, Waltz is the first Green Beret ever elected to the U.S. Congress. While in Afghanistan, Waltz led the teams searching for Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post and was held captive by the Taliban. Waltz later served as the Pentagon’s director for Afghanistan policy and as a senior advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney for South Asia and counterterrorism in the George W. Bush White House.

Meanwhile, Waltz’s business background is driving his push to nurture the budding commercial U.S. space launch industry amid a government effort to develop an all-American rocket ship to send national security satellites and other payloads to space. Waltz was co-founder and CEO of defense consulting firm Metis Solutions, and partner at Askari Associates LLC, although he has since stepped away from the business.

Waltz, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss his thoughts on national security operations in space and the Pentagon’s relationship with the business community. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What do you think about President Trump’s push for a separate Space Force?

Michael Waltz: The Air Force had to split off from the Army in the 1940s. I think we are at that same inflection point when it comes to space and the Air Force. So I’m supportive of the Space Force.

I think for now a Space Corps within the Air Force as opposed to a separate Space Force, as the Pentagon has proposed, is reasonable and a good first step. But with the Air Force managing space, there is always going to be a deference to the Air Force’s core mission of close air support, air dominance, and strategic projection. Whenever a service has to make tough decisions, it is going to default back to what that core mission is. So I don’t want to see the space component of the Air Force always be second fiddle, and that’s why I think it’s time to separate it, at least to some degree.

The jury is still out. If the Air Force isn’t willing to truly give the Space Corps the kind of deference and resources and unique authorities they need, we will come back to the table and push for a separate force.

FP: Congress directed the U.S. space community to develop a new, all-American rocket to power the next generation of rocket ships. This involves the U.S. Air Force, the traditional defense industry, and commercial start-ups. What is your assessment of where the United States needs to go in terms of national security space?

MW: The 21st-century space race is on. I see as one of my mandates to continue to educate and explain not only to my constituents and Floridians but my national platform how reliant we are in our modern way of life on space, from real-time navigation to banking to how reliant we are on GPS, you name it. Then further communicating the fact that that is built on an infrastructure that wasn’t designed to be resilient and defensible, and it needs to be overhauled.

I’m thrilled as a conservative to see the private sector taking such a role and that we are not pouring billions through another government agency. That is still evolving, but it is groundbreaking and exciting.

FP: China just landed on the far side of the moon. Are you concerned?

MW: The moon is going to be at the center of this. The Israelis just launched, the Indians are planning to launch to the moon, the Chinese just did to the back side of the room. It’s always worth remembering that the Chinese do not have a civilian NASA exploration component. It’s pure military. … So it’s a domain that we need to be competitive in and maintain leadership in.

FP: More broadly, what do you think about the growing role of commercial start-ups in the Defense Department?

MW: I’m very interested in the disconnect between the Pentagon Valley and Silicon Valley, where we are going in terms of artificial intelligence, or AI, and Chinese investments in AI. I think we’ve had some important good first steps with the Pentagon’s new cyber-strategy, with just some important technologies that are coming out, but we’ve got to get our act together.

FP: You have a background in business. How will this help you get this message across?

MW: I helped build a business from scratch up to just past 450 employees. I’ve stepped away from that now. I am proud of it in the sense that I’ve walked the walk of an entrepreneur. I’ve done some hard things being a Green Beret and a ranger, and this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s a very different concept of risk and sliding everything you own across the table for something you believe in. It made me realize: It shouldn’t be so darn hard to do business with your own government

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that the soldiers, the commands, the units in the field that need contract services, and the contracting part of our government—the gulf between them is wide and vast and painful. They don’t understand each other, they are not incentivized in the same way, they are often very frustrated with each other.

It is something that I want to dig into pretty hard, not only from a small business and entrepreneur standpoint but also getting the soldiers what they need when they need it.

FP: Do you have concerns about the Pentagon using new technologies such as artificial intelligence for lethal purposes?

MW: I have concerns about our adversaries using it for evil. I’m also concerned about the pairing of AI with unmanned systems. So if you look at the Joint Strike Fighter, the pilot is the weakest link. Are we facing a situation where we could have a Joint Strike Fighter against 20 or 30 smaller, more nimble, AI-empowered unmanned systems? They could lose five to six and not care, and they would be able to predict what the pilot is going to do in a given situation.

Data is the new gold and the new oil. That’s one of the reasons I think getting the Pentagon on the cloud is so important to be able to leverage and access that data.

FP: As a veteran of Afghanistan, what are your thoughts on the president’s decision to draw down troops there and in Syria?

MW: I am thrilled that the president backed off of a full withdrawal from Syria and is going to leave a footprint there. That is certainly better than zero. But we need to stay on offense, we need to keep our foot on these groups’ necks, so to speak. There is a very misguided notion in this town on both the left and the right that it’s too hard, too long, too difficult, let the actors in the region handle it. What they are missing is it will follow us home. It has in the past, and it will again.

And when it does, fighting our way back in and earning the trust of our local allies that we just abandoned will be far more expensive in terms of blood and treasure than maintaining a persistent presence.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman