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Nicolas Chaillan: The CCP Is Using TikTok to Manipulate Americans and Gather Data for AI Weapons

TikTok is one of the Chinese regime’s most powerful weapons of mass manipulation and misinformation, argues Nicolas Chaillan, former chief software officer of the U.S. Air Force and Space Force. TikTok was the most downloaded app globally and in the United States in 2021.

The Chinese regime is using TikTok to manipulate Americans—particularly the younger generations, Chaillan says. And it’s gathering enormous amounts of data, from voice prints to face prints, to power the next generation of AI weapons.

At the same time, the best and the brightest are leaving the Department of Defense, Chaillan says.

“When you hear the DOD talk about focusing on climate change and focusing on domestic terrorism as the number one threat, that’s just plain nonsense … If China is not the number one threat, I don’t know where these people have been living, but they’re not on the same planet.”

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Jan Jekielek:

Nicolas Chaillan, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Nicolas Chaillan:

Thanks for having me.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s great to have you back. It’s one year now since you left the Air Force as the Chief Software Officer of the Air Force. You’ve been thinking a lot about something I’ve been thinking a lot about, which is TikTok and its influence on American society, its incredible influence on American society. 

I was just reading that there’s more viewing time of TikTok now than there is of YouTube by Americans, which is just kind of unbelievable to me. This is what you say about TikTok. You say it is potentially the most powerful weapon of mass manipulation and misinformation ever created by the CCP. Okay, so that’s a big statement.

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes, absolutely. When you look at what the CCP has been doing for many years now, information and the control of information is probably the cornerstone of being able to push their agenda to the American people. What you’re going to find is now 40 per cent of kids under 24 are using TikTok as the way to search for information. So, you can imagine that it enables the CCP now to control what you’re going to get to see, what you’re going to be able to find out about, and potentially censor information as well.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s very interesting what you’re talking about, because typically when we think of TikTok, we basically think of data issues. There’s a ton of evidence showing that American data is available to Chinese censors and Chinese agencies, but what you’re talking about is something very different. It’s the ability of the Chinese regime to potentially influence Americans.

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes, absolutely. Look, the data aspect is very important too. The issue you’re going to see with TikTok is that it is multifaceted. Effectively, you’re going to find the data issue with potential access to personal information, including face prints and voice prints, which can ultimately give access to future payment systems. If you go to China, you can authenticate and pay with your face. One day this technology will come here. Effectively, China has all the data points of your face and voice to be able to use that for any kind of fake payment system. So, that’s going to be a real issue as well.

But when you start compounding the data aspect—knowing the people, what they think, what they are watching—with the ability to promote content and filter content, that’s when you’re going to see things like what we’ve seen with the labs in China with the COVID-19 virus, where effectively, China was powerful enough to convince American companies to ban the discussion around whether or not the virus came from China’s lab. You can imagine that if they now control the main platform of information used by kids under 24, they don’t have to ask anybody. They can just decide to ban it themselves.

Mr. Jekielek:

There have been studies, and there’s actually a Chinese study that came out, and this is kind of fascinating to me that they would publish this. Perhaps, they were wanting to create a rationale for the population, because for the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, they basically created a new set of rules, which is really interesting.

Mr. Chaillan:

China knows how bad these kind of platforms are for the younger generations. They’ve done a lot of study and they know it’s actually classified as an addiction. For kids under 14, they can only watch Douyin for 40 minutes. It’s banned at night, because they know, particularly at night, how bad this is for the brain, particularly the brain of kids that are still growing and learning. They really want to have that mitigation aspect of not being able to be on the phone 24/7, which is effectively what you see with kids here. It’s interesting that China decided not to use the same platform with the same rules across China and the rest of the world. There are only two versions, there’s the Chinese version, Douyin, and TikTok for the rest of the world. People argue it’s because of the language. That’s nonsense, obviously, because TikTok is in 125-plus languages. It’s never been about languages. It’s been about the ability for the CCP to set different rules when it comes to the ability to prevent that kind of risk to the Chinese people.

Mr. Jekielek:

But there’s a couple of things here. They also have a particular interest in controlling what information gets to the Chinese people. In fact, they excel at this.

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

There are multiple purposes happening here.

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes. But they probably have the same intent for what people get to see outside of China as well. Of course, they want to have a tighter control when it comes to the Chinese market. But at the end of the day, what’s interesting is even if you look at the algorithm itself, it’s going to be promoting educational content. It’s going to be promoting historical content, instead of the dance moves that we see here in the U.S. and in Europe. It’s not an accident. What they decide to promote is specifically designed to pull us down instead of pushing us up.

Mr. Jekielek:

What criteria are you seeing are being used by the regime in terms of what content they choose?

Mr. Chaillan:

It’s very clear that they’re looking at what’s going to be able to educate kids to learn and be more efficient, be able to learn new skills, and also obviously, when it comes to history, control the narrative around China being the new world leader and more importantly, America being the enemy.

Mr. Jekielek:

And censoring whatever is negative. For example, right now, there’s huge protests that have been happening as a result of the zero-COVID policy. There’s still tens of millions of people locked down and some of those people are going crazy. You don’t see a lot of that on Douyin.

Mr. Chaillan:

No, you’re not going to find that, for sure. That’s always been the case with the great firewall and the ability of China to control that access to information. I find it interesting that China has been able to effectively ban all American companies from doing really meaningful business when it comes to technology in China. But yet we’re completely okay with China coming into the United States with their solutions. No one is thinking twice about the technological risk of capturing all this data and the ability to track what people do.

They are able to not only see all the applications installed on your phone, but also everything that’s going on in term of communication on your phone, who you’re talking to, what you like, what you don’t like, and what you’re searching. The amount of data that they’re capturing, beside the face prints and voice prints—which by the way, is already pretty scary to me—really tells you that the aggregate of information is beyond what any kind of comparable application would gather.

Mr. Jekielek:

In terms of the gathering of this information, there’s all sorts of possible uses. You were discussing a fake payment system. Do you mean now they have your biometrics that you would use to access your phone? So, in the future it might not have anything to do with TikTok. If someone wants to impersonate you, they’ve got the goods to impersonate you. Is that what you’re saying?

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes. It is multifaceted, right? You can think of the ability to infiltrate American companies. Let’s say you want to steal some technology from an American company. You’re going to be able to know exactly what the people behind the company like, what they’re listening to, and what books they read. So, now you can pretend to be their friend, by having the same passions. You can show up as an intelligence group, you can re-engage with those people and have a deep relationship, thanks to the information you gather. 

It’s really enabling them, as an intelligence community, to have access to pretty much everything of about 40 per cent-plus of America. It’s really very significant. I don’t think there is any kind of technology ever that’s been able to gather that kind of volume of information about people. They can pinpoint down to individuals in a company for cyberattacks. They can now target people.

Like you said on the face and the voice prints, you can literally start using this for deep fakes. You can generate fake videos of people with their voice and their face saying things that they’ve never said. That could be used for many different use cases. They download all your contacts from your phone, all the applications installed on your phone. They potentially have access to biometrics as well, so it could be all the way to fingerprints. 

This is really giving, effectively, access to your entire life. When you take a step back and you think back of how you use your phone on a day-to-day basis for banking and healthcare and email access and everything you do on your phone today, you’re effectively giving the entirety of your life information to the CCP.

Mr. Jekielek:

Some people in the U.S. might say, “This is just the same type of information we’re actually giving to Facebook and Twitter and these Big Tech giants.” Although what you’re describing sounds more invasive. But then people would say, “Actually, it really is more invasive than you’re aware of.”

Mr. Chaillan:

It is definitely a little bit more invasive. When you read the terms and conditions of Facebook and Twitter and other social media companies, you’re not going to find as deep of an access. It is definitely concerning. A lot of people wonder why should a selected few private companies have so much, and individuals leading these companies should have access to such important information. And definitely, Congress should start taking action when it comes to data governance and privacy and cyber breaches. There’s very little requirement when it comes to a company getting breached in term of reporting, and making sure that the breach is handled the way it should be handled legally speaking, and also when it comes to the impact on individuals. It’s interesting, because Europe created a law, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation,) enforcing proper behavior of companies. It’s a little bit extreme, and I think there’s a balance there.

It’s working pretty well at the end of the day. Yet, the United States is still not really paying much attention to the value of data. In 2016, China created the Shanghai Data Exchange, which is effectively enabling China to access both American and European companies’ data, because they’re smart enough to enable access to a platform pretty much like a trading platform for stock, for data where U.S. companies, and of course, Chinese companies, and European companies are able to sell access to their data and trade it. 

Anytime they do that, China and the CCP are getting a free copy of that data, and getting more access to data. Why do we care? We care because with the volume of data we’re talking about, this is what’s going to be powering the next generation of artificial intelligence and machine learning weapons. Not just for basic use cases of spying on people and tracking faces and things like that, but now it’s also being used for the next generation of weapons, of actual physical weapons.

Mr. Jekielek:

So, what is the relationship? Maybe you can expand on this. What is the relationship with the amount of data, and how is that connected with the use of actual weapons? It’s not obvious.

Mr. Chaillan:

The more volume of data you have and the pace is so important when it comes to teaching and training AI models. The AI models, just like you see with Tesla, are gathering so much data coming from the cars to be able to optimize the self-driving features of the car. They’re capturing information about everything surrounding of the car, what’s happening in real life, people crossing dogs, pets, anything, right? At first, you may even think some of the data they are gathering doesn’t really matter when it comes to the car itself, like the ability to detect, proactively, maintenance issues.

All these items are really enabling the AI to become better and faster, and then it’s a composite effect. The more data you have, the faster you can train. The faster you train and the faster you deploy that AI capability in real life with real use, the more it’s going to learn. The more data you have, there’s just better capability you can end up building. That becomes part of pretty much every aspect of life. When we put AI on a jet in the Air Force, very basic AI capabilities, we were able to see that the AI was able to defeat the human pilot every single time.

Mr. Jekielek:

Why?

Mr. Chaillan:

AI is able to do things that the human brain is not able to comprehend. Obviously, in the use case of the pilot, it doesn’t care about its own safety. He is going to take risks and do things that the pilots are taught not to do, both for their safety and the safety of the aircraft. But effectively, the AI is able to toe the line at a much more granular way that a human would not even be able to comprehend, because the human brain does not have the capacity of analyzing all this data, and understand what’s going on in real time. It’s just too much and too soon and too fast for the human brain to handle.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let me get this straight. This mass data gathering, which effectively TikTok facilitates for the CCP, is directly useful for the CCP in terms of developing war fighting technology?

Mr. Chaillan:

It’s useful in every aspect of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and AI weapons. It’s going to really empower them in term of spying and stealing intellectual property, which is by the way, is something that is vastly underreported. The FBI director finally came out after over-classifying this issue for years, disclosing that what we see coming from the CCP, when it comes to the CCP targeting American companies and stealing both IP through actual individuals embedded inside of companies in the U.S., but also through cyber means. 

It has never been as high as it is. There are hundreds of new cases a day opened by the FBI because of breaches. That gathering of intellectual property, combined with that data, is really creating a massive national security risk. It’s probably the largest national security risk we’ve ever seen in the last 20 years.

Mr. Jekielek:

Why do you think that America is somehow asleep at the wheel here?

Mr. Chaillan:

The first aspect is you’re going to find is that Congressmen are still struggling to turn on their phones, let alone understand the power of data. When you take a step back, and you look at the lack of understanding of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and software in general, and you look at hypersonic, you look at all these quantum computer risks and the fact that very soon, probably within 10 years, there’s going to be the ability for quantum computers to crack all encryption being used right now by the United States, both on the national security side and the commercial companies and payment systems, there really is a lack of understanding of technology, probably because Congress has no term limits, and you end up seeing people that just should not even be in the jobs. The first step is going to be about awareness.

We also over-classify these issues way too much. You’ve seen the DOD, and the FBI, along with the DOJ over-classify these, and effectively, Americans are not even tracking the issues. I always felt that if you were just to disclose a little bit more about the volume of attacks and the means of attacks—we don’t need to disclose the who and the why—but if we can just disclose what’s happening and really raise awareness, that would have the biggest impact. Because what you’re going to see is American companies stepping up and willing to come and help the U.S. government to do better.

What you see right now is most companies refusing to do business with the DOD. Of course, in China, they don’t have a choice, so they’re going to get access to best of breed commercial capabilities. So effectively, if you look at the commercial side, the commercial American companies are leading compared to the Chinese companies. 

But the U.S. government, particularly the DOD, is behind, because we don’t have access to best of breed American companies, where the CCP has access to best of breed Chinese companies. Even if they’re number two, the military side is clearly number one, because the DOD does not have access to the American technologies. You end up seeing at least a 10 to 15 years gap of adoption of innovative technologies.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re basically saying that the U.S. Department of Defense does not have access to the best AI technology that Google and some of these leaders in the technology have, whereas in China they do. Is that what you’re saying?

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes, that’s exactly right. Effectively, what you see is most innovative AI companies in the United States are refusing to do business with the DOD. I tried to convince many of them, spending many, many hours of my week in discussion, including the large companies like the Googles of the world, to the smallest startups creating tons of innovation. And really what you find is they’re going to be willing to do a business with DOD when it comes to the business side of DOD— emails and management of people and optimizing, this kind of basic business concepts. 

But when it comes to the war fighting side, which is really what matters, the DOD is not an organization to manage people, it’s a war fighting organization. If you don’t have access to best of breed, you don’t have the ability to create the next generation AI weapons. No one wants to use them.

The issue is that you see people living in this kumbaya universe, particularly in the Silicon Valley, where they feel like they don’t have to embrace the fact that we need to have these weapons just as a deterrence. No one wants to use it, just like nuclear weapons, but we must have it. We cannot be the only one without it. 

What you’ve been hearing in the last three, four years in the Pentagon, particularly from people that were sent from the Googles of the world, is the fact that we should focus on ethics. The bulk of the funding of these AI teams in DOD, instead of focusing on AI weapon capabilities, without going to crazy things like having weapons completely managed by AI shooting targets.We’re not talking even about advanced technologies like that. We’re talking about very basic AI weapons that could just proactively target better with human deciding whether or not to shoot, so there’s really no risk in term of AI taking control of the world or anything crazy like that. 

At the end of the day, what you’re going to find is these companies focus on pushing people to talk about ethics, on why we should not do any work with AI weapons. Meanwhile, China couldn’t care less and is embracing the advantage. It’s very clear that any kind of AI-enabled weapon will without a doubt win over a human-powered design.

Mr. Jekielek:

What about these companies, the American companies in China? For example, I’m aware that Google has an AI lab in China, as does Microsoft.

Mr. Chaillan:

It’s always interesting to me that you see Americans complaining pretty heavily when it comes to interacting with the Department of Defense in the U.S., but yet they do not care about the engagements happening in China. Overall, there’s a really poor understanding of what China is doing. There’s lots of discussions when it comes to the fact that China is at war with us. Some people dismiss it, not understanding what’s going on. Really, it’s all about educating the public on what China has been doing for the last 30 years. 

This is not something new, it’s just that we empowered China to be effectively controlling much of the critical manufacturing. Also, you can look at medicine, we can’t even have penicillin created here in the United States anymore. You see the same with microchips. That’s why Taiwan is so important.

You’ve seen for once Congress waking up and doing some meaningful action with a new law, investing in U.S. made chips, $52 billion on chips. That’s a good baby step. But when you look at how much China is spending on chips, that’s still way, way too little. Not to mention when the government spends money, a good 80 per cent is wasted anyway. It’s not going to the right place. I don’t know how much of that is going to come to meaningful innovations. 

At the end of the day, when you take a step back and you look at the importance of Taiwan, if for some reason something happens in Taiwan, I can tell you most of the critical infrastructure and also critical industries will be completely one hundred percent disrupted. There is no backup plan.

Mr. Jekielek:

From what I understand, TSMC, which is a major premier chip manufacturer in Taiwan, is actually building a factory in the U.S. as we speak.

Mr. Chaillan:

That’s a good step. But at the end of the day, if you look at the broader landscape of chip making in Taiwan, if something was to disrupt the supply chain in Taiwan, none of this will matter. It’s a rounding error compared to the volume we’re talking about. If you look at automotive, and you look at pretty much every market on the planet, we underestimate how much would depend on chips. 

People just think of chips like computers and maybe they don’t realize that it’s effectively a piece of the internet of things, the devices you use, from your thermostat, to your car, to planes, to pretty much everything that we consume. Technology is such a central piece of life, people would not know what to do without it.

Mr. Jekielek:

All of these devices, internet of things devices especially, are gathering data and that data is fed into the companies that govern those devices or create those devices. That data is collected and then managed and sold in places like the Shanghai Data Exchange that you mentioned earlier. Again, how is it that these companies that are working in this Shanghai Data Exchange, imagine that the CCP isn’t involved in using their data for its own purposes in the process? Are there any safeguards?

Mr. Chaillan:

There are no safeguards, but I think they don’t really care. It’s all about profits. They want to go after this massive Chinese market. They also want to be part of this broader ecosystem. Quite honestly, it’s very difficult for some of these companies to produce the capabilities and products without using Chinese manufacturing. 

And we have created that, right? We empowered China to become the manufacturing giant today, believing we could not do it elsewhere, or believing we couldn’t do it here in the United States, which is probably completely wrong. But effectively, that’s what is happening now, and so you see companies just focus on profits.

Mr. Jekielek:

Another thing about TikTok, because of this incredible amount of data that it sucks in, it allows for this incredibly targeted advertising, and it has become the biggest advertising market in America. Do I have that right?

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes, I think it is.

Mr. Jekielek:

Just the concept of that is mind-blowing. And again, this is something that the CCP could have direct control over.

Mr. Chaillan:

Not could have, it’s pretty clear they do. But it’s also interesting that we’re effectively funding their growth. The advertising revenue is effectively fueling the next innovations, and the next generation capabilities coming from China.

Mr. Jekielek:

Something just struck me. One of the effects of the shelter-in-place or lockdown policies in a lot of the world, especially the technologically-enabled world, was that people spent a ton more time online, viewing advertising and so forth. There seems to be a connection here.

Mr. Chaillan:

Oh yes, it’s win-win for China. People are going to spend more time online, and they’re going to live in this parallel universe. You see companies investing in Metaverse and people are disconnecting from real life, living in this dream not come true. But effectively, it is creating sheep. It’s designed to make the human brain less focused on trying to solve problems. It’s crazy how you can see the population now being okay with accepting lockdowns, that limitation of freedom. It’s all part of the same strategy, to effectively make us either dumber, or at the very least, less willing to fight back.

Mr. Jekielek:

We know on the record that Silicon Valley executives prohibit their kids from using social media. There’s also evidence that shows that many of these technologies were designed to be addictive. Should everyone be banning social media for their kids, and reducing their own use then?

Mr. Chaillan:

There is moderation for everything. I would not use TikTok, that’s for sure. I’d certainly would want to moderate the consumption. Look, maybe China is pretty smart about it. Limiting it to 40 minutes for kids under 14, and banning it at night is probably the right number. Maybe we should just for once steal some of their concepts.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s fascinating to me because they’re also describing video gaming as a kind of spiritual opium. I remember there was something about that a while back in the state media. In some way they’re trying to protect their population from the same impacts that are happening here, but they’re not actually looking to have a critically thinking population. They’re looking to have a compliant population.

Mr. Chaillan:

They’re competing against two different objectives, but at the same time they want smart people. And so, you want to push them to be able to learn and innovate. There’s 120 million Chinese educated in science and technology. That’s a third of the United States. That’s what we’re competing against. The higher the number grows, the less likely we’re going to be able to compete, just by sheer volume. 

Then, we have to be smarter, we have to be willing to do it differently, we have to be able to be more innovative somehow with less volume. As you know, the world is pretty much a volume game. It is very difficult, competing against such a number of people. You’ve seen India doing very well. If you look at the Fortune 500, India’s CIOs, CEOs, and CTOs are very good at bringing in top talent, and empowering them across the world to become world leaders.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re saying this is something that we have to figure out.

Mr. Chaillan:

If we don’t, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to compete and still be relevant. I always tell people when it comes to the DOD potentially getting breached by cyber means, I’m very concerned about cybersecurity. But there is one thing that worries me more than the DOD getting breached, it’s the DOD becoming irrelevant, that no one is even trying to hack us. There is nothing worse than being irrelevant. We’re getting close to that, because we have a population that’s divided. The politics that we’ve known for the last years is getting worse than ever. 

And then effectively, you have more time focused on the wrong problems. When you hear the DOD talk about focusing on climate change and focusing on domestic terrorism as the number one threat, that’s just plain nonsense. That’s not what we should be focusing on as the Department of Defense protecting America. If China is not the number one threat, I don’t know where these people have been living, but they’re not on the same planet.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is a very valuable point that you raise. A lot of Americans and Canadians just don’t understand the darkness that exists in some parts of the world. They imagine that all the darkness is here, and this is where all the problems are, and that it’s much worse here. Somehow, they’ve come to this understanding. They don’t realize if you get rid of the safeguards, there are some really bad things that will be very happy to come in and install themselves.

Mr. Chaillan:

You see the failure of education. That’s been pushed, by the way, by China for 30 years, by pushing a communism agenda and socialism agenda into the schools. You’re seeing them reap the benefits of that today. The kids have no clue. It’s funny, as an immigrant, now American, I see the hate of some people born in the United States towards America, and that was grown from the education system. 

Honestly, they have never traveled. They don’t know what’s going on in the world. They’ve never been to Venezuela, and they’ve never been to China, for sure. They should. They would realize pretty quickly that America is probably not as bad as they believe. 

That’s why it’s called the American dream. That’s why people like me move here to live and completely change their lives. They completely adapt to this new way of capitalism and thinking, of innovating, and bringing value to America. It’s scary that the schools are completely controlled now by these extremists and effectively dividing the nation.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to talk about this. Of course, you are French and you became an American, so why?

Mr. Chaillan:

For me, it was always interesting how American values and the American dream aligned with my brain and the way I believe in things. It was just a perfect fit. Maybe I was born to be here and it just didn’t happen. But it was just weird, the way of France assisting people and holding their hand for every aspect of life and people abusing of the system. 

I had employees take two weeks off because they had a pimple on the hand, and they couldn’t type on a computer because the pimple was so disrupting their lives. They had to take two weeks off, fully paid by the French government and by my company. You will see these abuses, because of healthcare being free and people don’t understand how lucky they are to have access to that system, and then effectively bankrupting it by abusing it.

It is just interesting how people here also see success as a good thing. There is some jealousy, but it is not the same as in France. In France, you become the target, and you become the bad guy if you’re successful. It had to be because of your dad, or because of whatever help you got. It couldn’t be because of your hard work and starting at age 12 like I did, and creating my first company at 15. 

My family had no background in IT whatsoever, and I didn’t get any money from my parents, but that’s what people would assume. The socialism and the way France thinks about innovation and the entrepreneur in general is despicable. It pushes people to leave. Suddenly, the funding and the growth and the opportunities are just not that exciting. So, people end up leaving. I think that’s what it is here, the American dream.

Mr. Jekielek:

You became American. You left the private sector, and were incredibly successful in the private sector. You’ve sold a lot of products to some of these tech giants that we’ve been discussing. But you decided to go a different way and take a significant pay cut and become first Air Force Chief Software Officer. Very briefly, before we get into what things look like today, how did that happen?

Mr. Chaillan:

For me, it actually started before the Air Force. I started at DHS, I was the chief architect of the Department of Homeland Security. That started because I wanted to make a difference. I literally became part of the DHS a month after I became a citizen. I could not help in any meaningful way before being a citizen. 

I did everything I could to line up my start date with my citizenship and focus on cybersecurity. Quite honestly, that’s why I saw how bad critical infrastructure was in terms of cyberdefense. The reason was really for me to try to make a difference. DOD was particularly exciting, because that’s where you can really save lives.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is fascinating. On the one hand, you’re saying that in terms of the mission, there is no better mission. This is where you are, and where you need to be. But actually, you did leave, because of things you didn’t like. You were very vocal about that.

Mr. Chaillan:

It was tough. I wish I could have stayed. I would’ve stayed as long as I could have. I was a term appointee, so I only had three year term. I could have extended to five. I lasted three, which was pretty good. But I felt like I had to raise awareness. I was just tired of listening to the same people, even different people talk about the same problem, and not taking any meaningful action. 

We were running out of time, and I saw China slowly but surely taking us over when it comes to hypersonic, when it comes to quantum computing, and when it comes to AI machine learning. Yet, the leadership at the Pentagon would talk about the “almost Sputnik” moment. That was the term, almost Sputnik moments. It wasn’t almost, it really was a Sputnik moment, and we kept diminishing it and messaging it to the public so it doesn’t look as bad, and it doesn’t look like we’re failing.

You’ve seen the Afghanistan debacle where no one is held accountable and people get frustrated. I would have so many people reaching out to me in the department, complaining about what’s going on. At some point, you’re being muzzled and you can’t just tell people what you think. With the new administration, particularly, I was already pretty vocal for someone in the government. They were very concerned about me even having engagement with industry, and sharing some of the threats with China. 

And that’s when I felt like, “Hey, it’s important for me to leave and be able to raise awareness, make sure people understand that we have pretty much a year and a half to wake up.” That was a year ago, to be able to compete against China before it’s too late and that we’re losing the battle.

You hear the leadership call China near-peer adversary all the time when it’s not true and they’re fighting the wrong battles. They’re still fighting the old school wars that would not succeed against China. You’re not fighting camels. You’re going to face a real nation that’s going to have real weapons and capabilities. We’re vastly unprepared. 

Every time we did any type of scenario in Taiwan, we lost communications in 24 hours. That’s exactly why you see Russia failing against Ukraine. The communication aspect is so essential to be able to organize any kind of battle. What you’ve seen with communication is the prime example of what would happen to the United States should China go after Taiwan.

Mr. Jekielek:

So one year on, have we learned our lesson yet?

Mr. Chaillan:

It’s interesting, because people ask me if I regret leaving. I think my coming out had a lot of positive impact. For example, the DOD created the first chief digital AI office, which was created to merge a lot of the silos around digital AI, machine learning, and innovation. And they put in a great individual. Craig Martell came from industry too, the commercial side, and he can really get things done. 

He’s reporting directly to the deputy secretary of defense, which is pretty rare in DOD. That tells you they wanted to really get things organized. The issue is the main objective was to create that office. We don’t need more offices. By office, I mean a team. I don’t mean a physical office. Obviously, they’re all at the Pentagon. But what you see here is, effectively, the first goal of that new team is to within 12 months build a team.

That’s just mind-boggling to me. Instead of saying we need to have this weapon capability in 12 months with tangible outcomes for the war fighting, which is why we’re here, we’re just going to organize a bunch of people. That’s just not the velocity and the pace we need to be able to succeed at competing against China. This is kind of a bureaucracy mentality saying, “Hey, we’re going to create more bureaucracy in 12 months, and that’s going to define whether or not we succeeded at doing this engagement.” 

This is a prime example of the leadership not comprehending the problem, which should be focused on solving tangible outcomes for the war fighter, with tangible capabilities that they can touch and fill in production in theater. Instead, you see people creating emerging offices in the Pentagon.

Mr. Jekielek:

Okay. So you’re saying that the DOD is overly bureaucratic from what I hear, right?

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes.

Mr. Jekielek:

But what about this raising awareness amidst the brass, amidst the people that need to be made aware of the issues. Are they aware now?

Mr. Chaillan:

What we did by leaving and being so vocal about it, myself and a few other people, we created this momentum and this kind of psychological safety. People now are able to talk. You’ve seen multiple people leaving the department. Recently, we just lost a bunch of great talent, more than I’ve ever seen before. In fact, it’s actually pretty concerning, because of course the people leaving are the good ones, not the bureaucrats. You see people getting frustrated and they leave. 

You’ve seen recently Preston Dunlap, the Chief Architect of the Air Force, which was the most impactful person I’ve met in the department, full stop. He created most of the top innovations that I’ve seen coming out of the Air Force and Space Force in the last three years, and decided to leave six months ago. You’ve seen some of the best innovators leave, doers that actually do the work, not people like me and Preston talking about it, but people that actually get their hands dirty and do the work, the lower ranks that actually get things done.

Some of the team that we created called Platform One, we had nine initial founders in the government and all nine left. So literally, we lost some of the brightest talent. Many left to go on the commercial side, come back, the sell to DOD, which is okay. But the goal of government people is to have the best interest of the taxpayer in mind. 

So, when you go on the Dark side, which is not really the Dark side, but we call it the Dark side, where you’re going to come back and sell back to the department, obviously you’re not going to be objective. You’re going to want to make money. It’s interesting how the DOD has no problem paying much more an individual coming as a contractor, than an employee of the government.

The pay caps are completely ridiculous. Most people leaving end up making much more money, sometimes two to three times the pay on the commercial side. And so, the mission is so exciting. We have this incredible mission that’s attracting all these people, and yet we have a massive pay gap. And despite that, we still find good people. 

You can imagine if we were to solve this hiring nonsense and limitations of pay gaps, you could really do a real damage in solving all these issues and attracting the best talent. People want to come and make a difference, but are you willing when you’re younger to walk away from two to three times the pay? People need to feed their family. You see war fighters nowadays, because of the flash inflation, not being able to feed their family and recommended to go to the food bank to get food. It’s despicable.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s say you did fix the pay gap that you’re describing, so that people could make competitive rates. But you’re saying, the bureaucracy is still there, and still limiting things.

Mr. Chaillan:

Yes, but we can hack the bureaucracy, with the right people in the government jobs. The key is to have them in government jobs, not just as contractors, because contractors cannot make decisions. They have to abide by whatever the government employees say. The government employees may not know any better and don’t have the right expectation of timeliness. 

One of the reasons I left was because I was becoming part of the problem. And so you become part of the problem. It’s actually pretty healthy to be able to leave and come back and leave and come back. The system is not designed for this at all. First, your clearance process is a nightmare.

Someone coming from the commercial side, it will be very painful to get through the hiring alone and then the clearance process. Then of course, if you leave, you can lose your clearance and then you cannot come back. None of that is done by accident. It’s designed on purpose to create this DOD bubble. 

Just like we have the Silicon Valley bubble, and I also call it the kumbaya bubble. But the DOD bubble is this incompetence bubble designed on purpose to make sure that we limit the talent, so that the people coming from outside an industry have a very tough time even getting the jobs.

Mr. Jekielek:

Wait, it’s an incompetence bubble?

Mr. Chaillan:

Incompetence bubble.

Mr. Jekielek:

That sounds terrible.

Mr. Chaillan:

That’s the issue when you have this self-sustaining bubble. People in the government end up leaving. You have 90-plus percent of the general officers leaving work for the top five primes in the defense initial base to come and sell back the stuff that they were trying to do in their jobs and failed at doing. 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of great people, but they don’t know what they don’t know. I always joke that if you take the leadership at the Pentagon for two weeks to SpaceX, their brain will implode. They cannot grasp the velocity of the commercial side, and their system is just poorly designed.

You end up building with no communication, no cellphone, right? You will be probably the last to know that there’s an attack against America one day if it happens at the Pentagon, because we are completely disconnected. You probably will get a notification on your app from CNN or Fox News before we ever find out in the Pentagon. That tells you that, effectively, this bubble doesn’t get access to the traditional methods and velocity of the commercial side. 

We need more people coming from the commercial side, instead of just coming into the government and then leaving to some of the primes to keep doing more of what they already know. They don’t have the ability to see, “Wait a minute, this is how we are supposed to do business.” If they were to go to startups or they were to go to SpaceX or Tesla, whatever company that’s innovative and fast and gets things done, that’s where you would see the return on investment.

Mr. Jekielek:

One year ago you said that there was a year and a half to catch up. Now we’re one year in. How close are we?

Mr. Chaillan:

Not only we did not catch up, that’s what worries me again, we actually let China take a lead in many things. The one thing we actually did pretty well is the hypersonic side of the house. We finally started to make more investments and get things done. China still has 200-plus hypersonic launches. We have 11 or 12 now, so still a pretty massive gap. 

And of course there is fear of failing. That’s why companies like SpaceX are so successful. They have this mentality of, “Hey, if we don’t fail, we’re not learning.” In the department, failing is bad. And so you’re going to take the least amount of risk to innovate. You just can’t do massive innovations if you are always afraid of any kind of failure. What you’ve really seen in the last year is a massive amount of people leaving the department.

A lot of it probably has to do with the debacle in Afghanistan, people not held accountable, people getting away with big mistakes and no accountability, and people getting killed. The hiring is at its worst. Not only do we have trouble finding new recruits because of the state of our new generations, overweight, lack of eagerness to go serve, this mentality about America is bad. You’re losing a pretty big chunk of the population. 

Part of the reason why COVID was so bad in the United States is the population is so overweight and no one wants to talk about it. But it is what it is. You can’t have overweight people in the military, so that compounds a problem. When you look at all these things, that’s why China is so good at fighting this war against the United States. Each of these different pieces are thought as a cohesive plan. We are so siloed in the Department of State, DHS, DOJ, and DOD, that we don’t understand how all of these things play together to create a cohesive plan, and we have no ability to respond to it.

Mr. Jekielek:

As I listen to you speaking, it almost sounds like you are actually still in there, still thinking about this, and still wanting to be there. Would you go back if you were invited?

Mr. Chaillan:

I would go back, but I don’t know if they would invite me back. Depending on what happens in 2025, I think we’ll be back. There is this issue when it comes to being vocal about what happened. A lot of the military is taught to keep things in the house, and that’s all great. I kept it for three years diligently until I felt like, “Hey, we are all talking about the same problems for the last three years, and have yet to see the DOD do anything to solve it.” 

The walk the walk piece was so important to me and to the nation. Honestly, I had no kids when I started. Now, I have three kids because I had twins, they’re four years old now. The urgency and the fear was keeping me up at night. I just could not physically ignore it any longer, because I felt like I’m failing my kids.

I’m failing our American friends’ kids if we don’t take action now. We’re running out of time and no one is doing anything about it. At some point, what are you going to do? You could just stay there and not be able to fix it. Honestly, with the administration change, Secretary Kendall is a great person and I think he can really get things done. 

But some of the appointees, unfortunately, were picked to check boxes by the administration. It’s about gender, it’s about other things than competence. Honestly, these are important jobs. I don’t care who you love and what you like to do in your life, but what I care about is that you are competent?

You could find quite a few appointees right now that have no reason for being here in this building other than checking boxes. I’ve seen people getting passed by, because they were white and male. They were great, very competent experts replaced by people that have no business being there. 

You’re going to go and report to these people and try to educate them, so you’re taking a step back. You spend three years fixing stuff, getting momentum with the people, understanding the problem and you start backwards and it’s just so much work. We need the best of the best and we need to stop being divided.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re very passionate about all this. You’re still very passionate about this work. I don’t think there is a new Chief Software Officer yet, at the moment.

Mr. Chaillan:

No, that tells you something interesting. When the Assistant Secretary, Mr. Hunter testified in front of Congress for his confirmation, because I was leaving right at the same time, he was asked, “Hey, software is important to the DOD, right?” He agreed and they said, “So, we assume that it’s going to be your priority to fill that role.” And he said, “Yes, it’s my top priority to fill this chief software officer role.” 

You’re now a year after that, and they have not yet appointed anybody, which for this kind of role can be done in 20 days. They’re still doing interviews, allegedly. I’ve yet to hear anything. Apparently they have two people from the commercial side, one person from the building. What’s interesting is the people from the commercial side already told me that they have no interest anymore, because they’ve been waiting for a year, with, by the way, no update.

You can imagine waiting for a job for a year with no communication whatsoever. No one wants a job like that, for something that should really take 30 days. It took me probably 45 days to be onboarded and I’m French and all the nightmare that goes with it, with the paperwork. So for most cases, it’s a 30 day decision. 

And my understanding is that other people left, so we have an acting chief architect. We lost the chief software officer. We’re losing a lot of the cyber expertise. There’s also a DOD chief software officer that was appointed after I left. He lasted a year. He also left very upset about the lack of eagerness to fix the system. Jason Weiss was very competent and one of the best experts in software in the building. He lasted 12 months. So I did pretty good with three years.

Mr. Jekielek:

Nick, any final thoughts as we finish?

Mr. Chaillan:

It’s very important for most Americans to understand the threat that the CCP is causing. This is not about China. The Chinese people, they don’t really have a choice, but the CCP is an enemy here. I can tell you that when you take a step back and you look at what’s been done in the last 25 years, you’re going to see a methodical war against American interests. The fact is that most companies still refuse to engage with the DOD. If they struggle and they want to get it done, they need to do it now. I can help them do that. This is something that’s a passion for me too. I helped about 750 products get into the department. So, getting best of breed and getting access to the technology is how we’re going to win.

Mr. Jekielek:

Nicolas Chaillan, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Chaillan:

Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Nicolas Chaillan and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

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