Pentagon Software Chief Resigns, Warns ‘We Have No Fighting Chance’ Against China in A.I. Wars

Nicolas Chaillan. (U.S. Air Force).
U.S. Air Force

Nicolas Chaillan, the first person to hold the position of Chief Software Officer (CSO) of the U.S. Air Force, resigned last week to protest the slow pace of technological development for the American military.

In an interview Sunday, he warned China has developed a dangerous lead over the U.S. in cyber warfare, especially artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

“We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years. Right now, it’s already a done deal; it is already over in my opinion,” Chaillan told the Financial Times (FT) on Sunday in his first interview since leaving his post.

Chaillan said cyber-warfare could end up being more important to the balance of global power than kinetic warfare, and criticized the Pentagon for spending heavily on physical weapons while underestimating China’s growing cyber advantage. He warned that some crucial U.S. government agencies have “kindergarten-level” network defenses.

Chaillan said part of the problem is that American tech companies like Google are reluctant to assist the U.S. Defense Department with cutting-edge AI research, while Chinese mega-corporations are required by law to give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) anything and everything it wants.

He warned Chinese companies are making “massive investment” into AI without ethical restraints, a concern others have raised by noting China does not hesitate to harvest vast amounts of data about consumers — including foreigners — and dump it into AI research projects. The Chinese are feeding terabytes of data into their expert systems, akin to nourishing plants with high-quality fertilizer, while Western competitors are slowed by privacy concerns.

The FT noted other officials have warned about China’s growing prowess with militarized AI, but they usually speak in terms of America losing its edge in a decade or so, while Chaillan argued it was already gone, and recovering it might be impossible:

Michael Groen, a Marine Corps lieutenant general and director of the defence department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, told a conference last week he wanted to field AI across the military in an incremental way, saying its adoption would require a culture shift within the military.

His comments come after US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said in July his department “urgently needs” to develop responsible artificial intelligence as a priority, adding a new $1.5bn investment would accelerate the Pentagon’s adoption of AI over the next five years and that 600 AI efforts were already under way.

But he committed that his department would not “cut corners on safety, security, or ethics”.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Air Force said Frank Kendall, secretary of the US Air Force, had discussed with Chaillan his recommendations for the Department’s future software development following his resignation and thanked him for his contributions.

Chaillan, a 37-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who founded his first company in France when he was only 15 and helped develop the popular website scripting language PHP, served as a special adviser for Internet security to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security before becoming “senior software czar” for the Air Force in 2018. 

When he announced his plans to retire in early September, Chaillan wrote a scathing memo criticizing the lack of funding and inter-agency cooperation for cyber defense.

“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,” he wrote.

Chaillan said his underfunded office was “unempowered to fix basic IT issues,” and he was given unreasonably short deadlines to correct major issues without the necessary resources.

“After all the talk and continued assertions that this was critical work, DoD could not even find $20 million to build tremendously beneficial warfighter capabilities,” he complained.

“A lack of response and alignment is certainly a contributor to my accelerated exit,” he said in his resignation memo.

After the Financial Times interview was published, Chaillan decided to ameliorate the tone of his comments slightly. In particular, he wanted to contest the characterization made by news outlets like Reuters, which interpreted him as saying America has already “lost” the AI war against China.

“For those who saw this article, I want to clarify one thing,” he wrote on Twitter and LinkedIn. “I never said we lost. I said as it stands, and if we don’t wake up NOW, we have no fighting chance to win against China in 15 years.”

“I also said that they’re leading in AI and Cyber NOW. Not in 10 years, as some B.S. reports mention,” Chaillan growled, evidently feeling that some coverage of his comments did not take his warnings seriously enough.

“Of course government funded reports always tell us we have more time than we have so no one is held accountable for missing the already past due target,” he observed. 

“We are competing against 1.5 billion folks here,” he said of America’s AI contest against China. “Either we are smarter and more agile, or we lose. Period.”


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