On Sept. 2, the Pentagon's first Air Force Chief Software Officer, Nicolas Chaillan, resigned in protest from his three-year position, citing a lack of support from the Pentagon and senior Air Force leadership as a factor in his departure. Following his public resignation, a frustrated Chaillan—who aimed to equip the agencies with the most advanced and secure software available—has been vocal in spelling out the reasons he left, which center around top leadership's consistent inability to "walk the walk" in implementing procedures to keep pace with a threatening China. He remarked:
"We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years. Right now, it's already a done deal; it is [nearly] over, in my opinion. China is set to dominate the future world, controlling everything from media narratives to geopolitics."
In his insightful resignation letter, Chaillan reveals he tried to raise the alarm of concern three years ago, remarking that "leadership in the department always says the right things." But yet, he routinely saw no change. He warned that the Pentagon is systematically "setting up critical infrastructure to fail" on a large scale, as he strived to improve it. Chaillan went on to tell Financial Times that the AI capabilities and cyber defenses of some government departments were at "kindergarten level." Indeed, in recent years multiple U.S. departments have increasingly been subject to hacking attempts and ransomware attacks. The father of three remarked that the failure of the United States to respond to Chinese cyber and other threats is putting his children's future at risk, adding:
"Right now, the urgency is spending time with my kids first and waking up America before it is too late. Because otherwise, there's just no point. Otherwise, I need to invest in a bunker."
Chaillan, 37, spent most of his time with the Department of Defense (DoD), working on a Pentagon-wide effort to boost cyber security. He is concerned about the slow pace of technological transformation in the U.S. military. He reminds us that Beijing is heading for global dominance due to its advances in cyber capabilities, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. He cautioned, "We are running in circles trying to fix transport/connectivity, cloud, endpoints, and various basic IT capabilities that are seen as trivial for any organization outside of the U.S. Government," adding:
"We are the largest software organization on the planet, and we have almost no shared repositories and little to no collaboration across DoD Services. At this point, I am just tired of continuously chasing support and money to do my job. My office still has no billet and no funding, this year and the next."
Chaillan's concerns are well-founded. China is on a fast track to becoming the leading Artificial Intelligence (AI) superpower by 2030. A National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence report declares the U.S. technology is "not prepared to defend the United States in the coming artificial intelligence (AI) era." Even more concerning, Chaillan, who plans to testify before Congress on the threat posed by China, said it doesn't matter whether the U.S. spends exponentially more than China on defense because that money is being allocated to the wrong areas.
According to Chaillan, emerging AI technologies are far more critical to America's future than hardware such as "big-budget fifth-generation fighter jets" like the F-35. With China's world dominance a guarantee, he also blamed the reluctance of Google to work with the DoD on AI. In 2018, while working on a software project to improve drone strikes' accuracy, Google quit working with the DoD after twelve employees quit over concerns regarding the ethical use of AI in drone warfare. Meanwhile, Chaillan, who led efforts to install "zero trust" architecture at DHS before joining the Pentagon, said Chinese companies are enslaved to work with Beijing as they make massive investments into AI with no regard to ethics. At an Aug. 11 Air Force Association luncheon less than a month before he resigned, Chaillan spoke of his frustrations, stating:
"I realized pretty quickly, we're very behind in cyber, to a point that it was very scary when it comes to critical infrastructure and the lack of security. And we see it every day, more and more, and I still don't believe we have any kind of handle on what's going on."
In his blistering resignation letter, Chaillan criticized Pentagon "laggards" and the lack of funding, declaring that military officials were regularly put in charge of cyber initiatives for which they lacked proper experience. He warned:
"[W]e 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? While we wasted time in bureaucracy, our adversaries moved further ahead."