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Gaetz bullish on defense funding for Northwest Florida

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANDESTIN — Eglin Air Force Base is now in “a golden era of funding” as the United States shifts its national defense focus from counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations to defending against “near-peer” adversaries like Russia and China, according to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

“We are no longer going to be treed by the Chihuahuas in the Middle East,” Gaetz said Friday to a crowd of hundreds of military contractors, military personnel and economic development professionals. The congressman delivered the Friday keynote address to the Defense Leadership Forum’s 2020 Air Force Contracting Summit at the Hilton Sandestin resort.

Instead, Gaetz said, the country’s military focus is shifting, among other things, toward the development of “hypersonic” weapons that can travel at multiple times the speed of sound, countering similar efforts in Russia and China. Eglin AFB is heavily involved in that research.

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Also, Gaetz said, America’s defense focus is shifting toward the space domain, and to cybersecurity issues.

Much of the military training in cybersecurity is occurring in Northwest Florida, including at Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, and at Corry Station, the Navy’s Information Warfare Training Center in Pensacola.

Also, Gaetz said, the Air Force 20th Space Control Squadron at Eglin AFB, which can track small objects far above the Earth’s surface, could become an integral part of the new U.S. Space Force.

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All of those circumstances, Gaetz said, put Northwest Florida in a great position in terms of military contracting opportunities and attracting top talent to the area. In fact, Gaetz said, attracting talent in cybersecurity, space and hypersonics “should be the whole strategy” for economic development in this part of the state.

Gaetz urged his audience to work to bring people with those skills to this area. “Let’s dip them in that emerald green water,” he said. “Let’s get sand between their toes.”

On a related note, Gaetz pushed his vision for a “Futures Park” just outside the gates of Eglin Air Force Base. The proposed development, would combine the Weapons Technology Integration Capability (WTIC) facility currently planned for Eglin with educational institutions, military contractors and associated enterprises on a technology-oriented campus.

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The concept is a “high priority” for him, Gaetz said, in large part because it could attract talent to Northwest Florida.” In addition, he said, the WTIC and any surrounding development could help ensure the continued flow of federal military funding into this part of the state.

But, Gaetz cautioned, bringing that continued flow of military funding and economic development to Northwest Florida is hugely dependent on keeping oil and gas exploration out of the Eglin-managed military test range that covers tens of thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

A moratorium on that exploration expires in 2022, although the House of Representatives recently passed legislation for a permanent moratorium. The Senate, however, has not taken action on the permanent moratorium, and Gaetz urged his audience to contact their senators to push for it.

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“Please encourage our senators to get that moratorium extension into some must-pass bill,” the congressman asked.

In other comments Friday, Gaetz updated the summit attendees on current military spending, which has brought improvements to equipment in the Gulf Test Range, is bringing new training helicopters to Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Santa Rosa County, and is enhancing a virtual weapons simulator at Eglin Air Force Base.

Gaetz’s keynote also took a political turn, as he defended his vote to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to wage war in Iran without congressional approval.

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A staunch supporter of the president, Gaetz nonetheless told his Friday audience that Congress should have some “skin in the game” as U.S. forces are committed to action.

“It’s not enough for politicians to set back and snipe” at decisions made by the administration, Gaetz contended.

It’s a particularly pointed issue for Northwest Florida, he said, where the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field is the most deployed wing in the Air Force, and where the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), headquartered at Eglin AFB is routinely deployed into particularly dangerous situations.

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That operational tempo, and the willingness of troops to deploy, Gaetz said, “contrasts with so much of the cowardice I see in the U.S. Congress.”

Gaetz also briefly addressed the Trump impeachment, which on Friday appeared headed toward acquittal in the trial winding down in the U.S. Senate.

Geatz said that, at the outset of impeachment proceedings in the House, he believed the issue could be “siloed” as Congress went about its other business.

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“It turns out impeachment was all-consuming,” Gaetz lamented.

But, he added, to applause from the audience, “It appears that the national nightmare of impeachment may finally be coming to an end.”