Ex-Air Force Tech Boss Eviscerates Pentagon For Already Losing The AI Race Against China (Updated)

Nicolas Chaillan rings the alarm on just how dire things really are when it comes to competing militarily with China on the cyber front.

byThomas Newdick|
China photo


Nicolas Chaillan, who served as the first Air Force Chief Software Officer, has slammed the Pentagon for its failure to keep pace with its rival China, after stepping down from his post last month, in what was, at least in part, a protest against the conditions that led to this perceived outcome. Among various complaints leveled at the U.S. military’s approach to modernization, Chaillan highlights what he sees as a lost battle between the United States and China in the field of cyber capabilities, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, or AI.

In an interview given to the Financial Times, Chaillan details some of the reasons behind his departure and the failings that he thinks have left China in pole position in terms of these kinds of high-end military technologies. Chaillan had previously announced his resignation from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of the Air Force via an open letter posted on his LinkedIn profile on September 2, which warned that the Pentagon was systemically “setting up critical infrastructure to fail” on a grand level while also criticizing the lack of support he’d received from leadership even on basic IT matters.

People’s Liberation Army fighter pilots are now battling AI-driven virtual opponents as part of their training, reflecting the growing importance of artificial intelligence to the Chinese military., PLA

“We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years,” Chaillan told the FT. “Right now, it’s already a done deal; it is already over in my opinion.” This echoes Chaillan’s sentiments in his LinkedIn letter, in which he identified China’s “drastic advantage of population over the U.S.” and its “booming, hardworking population” that left the United States with no chance of competing unless it became “smarter, more efficient, and forward-leaning through agility, rapid prototyping and innovation.”

A former technology entrepreneur, software developer, cyber expert, and inventor, Chaillan was appointed to his Air Force position under Dr. William Roper, the former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Roper himself left the service earlier this year, leaving a legacy of cutting-edge programs and disruptive concepts in his wake. While in his Air Force job, Chaillan was the service’s senior software czar, tasked with “analyzing current software and cloud migration plans to avoid vendor lock-ins while allowing for rapid prototyping and a streamlined process for deployment,” as well as looking for “new commercially available off-the-shelf software and cloud-related technologies to help with their adoption across various Air Force programs.”

The inability of the U.S. military-industrial complex, and policymakers, to enable this adaptation was among the reasons that Chaillan departed his Pentagon post after three years.

In his parting shot, the LinkedIn open letter, Chaillan laid the blame squarely on the Pentagon’s policy of installing inexperienced personnel in top IT security jobs:

Please stop putting a Major or Lt Col. (despite their devotion, exceptional attitude, and culture) in charge of ICAM, Zero Trust or Cloud for 1 to 4 million users when they have no previous experience in that field — we are setting up critical infrastructure to fail. We would not put a pilot in the cockpit without extensive flight training; why would we expect someone with no IT experience to be close to successful? They do not know what to execute on or what to prioritize which leads to endless risk reduction efforts and diluted focus. IT is a highly skilled and trained job; Staff it as such.

While he clearly felt he was personally well equipped to deliver on the kind of transformational changes the Pentagon desperately needs, it became impossible under the long-established DoD bureaucratic framework and culture: 

I told my leadership that I could have fixed Enterprise IT in 6 months if empowered. Yet with my 22 years of expertise running IT innovation, I was underutilized and poorly leveraged by the DOD, as most of my time was wasted trying to convince folks to engage with me and consider more relevant and efficient solutions, while I watched as they continued to deliver capabilities that do not meet the basic needs of our warfighters.

This, in particular, is a damning indictment of the gulf between what the Pentagon says it wants in terms of forward-looking software and cyber capabilities, and how it actually goes about trying to put those into action. “The DoD should stop pretending they want industry folks to come and help if they are not going to let them do the work,” Chaillan contended, in the process raising the question of why Will Roper left his position, too.

According to the FT, there could be more to come from Chaillan, who told the newspaper he has plans to testify to Congress about the Chinese cyber threat “over the coming weeks.”

As it stands, Chaillan contends, China has taken a lead in emerging technologies, while the United States has been unduly focused on expensive, monolithic programs like the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, all part of a defense budget that still far outstrips that of China, although the latter continues to grow.

The F-35 may be the biggest program in Pentagon history, but critics may argue that the Department of Defense has neglected to focus on broader AI capabilities, as well as cyber resilience., U.S. Air Force/Christopher Okula

While analysts predict the rivalry between the United States and China could ultimately lead to some kind of military confrontation, and this thinking is influential on U.S. military planning and posture, Chaillan said that a war between the two powers was not the issue. Indeed, he expects Beijing to be dominant across geopolitics regardless of potential conflicts.

Of particular concern to Chaillan is America’s resilience to cyber warfare, the kind of gray zone threat that is of increasing importance as a military tool in both China and Russia. Describing some U.S. government cyber defenses as being at “kindergarten level,” Chaillan also noted that Google’s unwillingness to work on behalf of the Pentagon was a major hindrance to U.S. cyberdefense capacity and in stark contrast to the way that Chinese companies work for their government, with little in the way of ethical concerns. Moral questions over the role of AI represent another hurdle slowing down U.S. progress in this field, he added, without apparently providing a solution to that problem. After all, Beijing operates a totalitarian regime full of state-run enterprises that work directly with the military, unrestricted by many of the ethical considerations that concern the U.S. government and private enterprise.

Nevertheless, Chaillan’s conclusions broadly echo the findings of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, an extensive report published earlier this year that The War Zone

discussed at the time. Among its conclusions was the fact that the current lead enjoyed by the United States over China with regard to AI is quickly being eroded.

The wide variety of AI forms, tools, and applications, as presented in a graphic from the NSCAI report., NSCAI

“The Chinese have made the judgment that the way they will supplant the United States as the dominant global power is to pursue technology and become the world’s technological engine, which will then empower both their economy as well as their military,” said Robert O. Work, vice-chair of the NSCAI, in April this year.

In his critique of the Pentagon, Chaillan’s words also recall those of the then-boss of U.S. Strategic Command, General John Hyten, who in the past has also sought to bring attention to the sluggish pace of change inherent in the U.S. military. “I’m very concerned that our nation has lost the ability to go fast,” Hyten told the Air Force Association back in 2017. “And we have adversaries now, and we see proof in those adversaries that they’re going faster than we are. ... Slow, expensive, that’s the way it is. ...  I'm criticizing the entire process ... the entire process is broken.”

Outside the United States, too, there is growing recognition of the fact that who leads in AI will also be guaranteed a head-start on the geopolitical stage. Back in 2017, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

The picture painted by Chaillan, meanwhile, is of a technologically innovative China pushing ahead, unhindered by bureaucracy or regulations, while the U.S. Department of Defense stagnates amid spiraling procurement costs and mismanagement.

So far, however, U.S. officials have generally remained adamant that AI is introduced incrementally, taking care to ensure that it’s used in a more responsible way. Speaking recently, Lieutenant General Michael S. Groen, the director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC, said that body was “fielding [AI] through slow, incremental progress,” with the aim of establishing reliable products that can be used across different combatant commands.

Lieutenant General Michael S. Groen, the JAIC director, provides a briefing on the use of artificial intelligence for military purposes:

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It seems Chaillan hoped that his role as Chief Software Officer for the flying branch would have been expansive and that he would have been able to use his experience in the civilian tech sector to introduce change more quickly. But that didn’t happen, he said, and instead, he was bogged down in tasks such as “fixing basic cloud things and laptops.”

Recognition that China is making significant strides in AI clearly stretches all the way to the top of the Pentagon. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III pointed to Beijing’s plans to use AI for “a range of missions — from surveillance to cyberattacks to autonomous weapons.”

“China’s leaders have made clear they intend to be globally dominant in AI by the year 2030,” Austin added, before noting that the United States had set itself the same target, albeit with the caveat that it was “not going to cut corners on safety, security, or ethics.” Reflecting that ambition, Austin pointed to “more than 600 efforts underway to enhance the nation’s defense using artificial intelligence.”

There has also been some progress in this field under Chaillan’s tenure, and his resignation letter highlighted how AI and machine learning capabilities are slowly migrating “to the jets to co-pilot the jets alongside our Air Force pilots.” The letter also pointed to his contribution to the Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, initiative, which aims to connect sensors and other information pathways across all services, while observing that the failure to deliver on this top-priority program was another reason for his departure.

Nicolas Chaillan, center, then the Department of the Air Force chief software officer, poses for a group photo with Major General Michael Schmidt, right, program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, and Networks, during a visit to Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, in June., U.S. Air Force/Lauren Russell

Chaillan’s experience seems to reinforce the idea that while the Pentagon has a growing interest in AI and autonomous weapons, it remains wedded to the vision that AI is simply another tool that helps reduce the workload for its personnel and may help speed up and simplify a host of processes. China, on the other hand, seems much more willing to go "all in" when it comes to increasing autonomy and AI-driven defense technologies.

Ultimately, however, both China and the United States — and any other nation or non-state entity concerned with AI — needs to address similar technical questions. As we have discussed in the past, these include how to insert a machine capable of autonomous decision-making into the process, the kinds of tasks can it handle and what degree of responsiveness and accuracy it can provide. Then there is the question of what kinds of vulnerabilities are introduced to the wider system once AI is inserted.

Although it might be falling far short of the targets that Chaillan would like to see, AI is already having an impact on how the U.S. military goes about its business. Examples include the pioneering test last December when AI-driven algorithms controlled sensor and navigation systems aboard a U.S. Air Force U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane. That was the first time that AI has been “safely” put in charge of any U.S. military system, according to the Air Force.

A U-2 Dragon Lady equipped with open software architecture at Beale Air Force Base, California, in September 2020., U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

The Air Force has also been looking at bringing AI into the air-to-air dogfighting arena, with simulated tests pitting AI-controlled F-16 fighter jets working as a team against an opponent, just one effort that’s exploring how AI and machine learning may help automate various aspects of air-to-air combat.

The Air Force is also pushing ahead with its Skyborg program, which is developing a suite of AI-driven systems that it hopes will be able to operate “loyal wingman” type drones working in concert with manned platforms, as well as other drones. An initial version of the Skyborg “computer brain” was flight-tested for the first time earlier this year.

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China, for its part, seems to be active in many of the same areas, including providing AI-driven opponents in simulated dogfights for its own air forces. This is just part of the People’s Liberation Army’s growing interest and investment in the development of advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, generally. This also now appears to extend into the maritime domain, with reports that China has been developing underwater drones able to autonomously identify and attack hostile submarines.

While we don’t know exactly how AI will influence or change the way the United States — or China, for that matter — fights wars in the future, it’s clear that the opportunities it presents are potentially enormous. That’s an outlook shared by many military leaders. The difference, however, is in how best to adopt and exploit AI’s potential. The Pentagon at large has, until now, espoused a step-by-step approach, but there have been many alarm bells ringing that the institution is just too slow to adapt to today's tactical realities, especially when it comes to absolutely critical cyber-related issues. It’s possible that Chaillan’s parting shots might at least encourage some change in this regard, especially if he does indeed sit in front of key members of Congress and paints as bleak a picture as he has to the public already. 

Stay tuned for our upcoming feature that looks at the truths and myths surrounding artificial intelligence and its intersection with warfighting. We believe it is the clearest look yet at the realities surrounding this highly complex but essential topic.

Update, October 14: Nicolas Chaillan has sought to distance himself from some of the more pessimistic comments attributed to him, while also engaging in a war of words on LinkedIn with Raj Iyer, the Army Chief Information Officer. 

Speaking to Breaking Defense, Iyer countered Chaillan’s analysis, stating it was “absolutely not true” that China has taken a lead in military AI. Beijing’s cyber units, he added, were “operating in a vacuum, and they’re relying on nefarious methods and cyberattacks to be able to get to, you know, what they think they know that we have.”

In response, Chaillan described Iyer as an “incompetent” leader and declared “him the perfect example of the problems I am describing of our Department of Defense. Since his arrival, he has stopped tremendous partnerships with the Air Force on Cloud One and pushed his teams to build his own siloed Army Cloud and his own DevSecOps stack despite DoD Platform One being light years ahead. His ego led to more waste of taxpayer money than I’ve seen before.” Chaillan also criticized Iyer for apparently encouraging competition between the Army and Air Force, again on LinkedIn, some months previously. Chaillan hit back: “How about we wake up and realize we must be One Team One Fight and compete against China instead?”

On the topic of China’s relative military AI status compared to the United States, Chaillan dialed back on some of his earlier quotes, declaring: “I never said we lost the AI war. I said we will if we don’t wake up and please, Raj, stop lying to our citizens by pretending Army systems have AI capabilities baked-in from the get-go. This is a joke and anyone in DoD knows this.”

Chaillan then signed off: “It is certainly not with leaders like [Raj Iyer] that we will solve this issue as he still denies we even have a problem. Disgraceful. He must resign.”

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com