US Losing Ground to China Due to Pentagon’s Wasteful Bureaucracy: Former Chief Software Officer

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
February 13, 2022 Updated: February 16, 2022

News Analysis

Bureaucracy and waste are hamstringing U.S. military development and adversely affecting the nation’s military readiness, according to the former chief software officer of the Air Force. That means the United States is less prepared for a potential conflict with China.

“Any bureaucracy which slows down outcomes for the sake of bureaucracy is going to ensure we get behind China,” Nicolas Chaillan, who resigned in September, said in a recent interview.

“China doesn’t let complacency or bureaucracy get in the way of [its military],” he told The Epoch Times.

He made the comments amid increasing tensions between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concerning the de facto independence of Taiwan, mass intellectual property theft, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

As that competition becomes more adversarial, the CCP has focused on technological development in sectors that its leadership considers vital, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (AI/ML).

According to Chaillan, it’s these sectors, and IT more broadly, that U.S. military bureaucracy is negatively affecting the most.

A ‘Toxic’ Budgeting System

There are long-running concerns that the Pentagon is encumbered with red tape, redundant oversight measures, and safety protocols that slow military development to a snail’s pace. Indeed, the bureaucracy has become something close to synonymous with the Department of Defense (DoD), according to its leadership.

Epoch Times Photo
Lt. Gen. John E. Hyten, Air Force Space Command vice commander, speaks about how cyber operations are a clear catalyst for change in the art and science of modern warfare during the Space Foundation’s Cyber 1.3 luncheon at The Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 8, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Duncan Wood)

Gen. John Hyten, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said in October 2021 that the Department’s bureaucracy was “brutal,” and that a risk-averse culture among military leadership was stifling technological development and allowing the CCP to seize the advantage in critical sectors such as hypersonic weapons development.

“The pace [China is] moving and the trajectory that they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it,” Hyten said. “It will happen.

“We can go fast if we want to. But the bureaucracy we’ve put in place is just brutal.”

When asked if he agreed with that assessment, Chaillan’s response was matter-of-fact.

“Yes, without a doubt,” he said. “Everything from the budget process with Congress … to the acquisition process that is cumbersome and prevents agile acquisition due to reporting requirements and [the fact that] budgets are allocated so far ahead that we are stuck in time.”

He added that the sheer amount of compartmentalization within the DoD makes it difficult to build consensus among leadership and to get anything done.

Chaillan also said that such difficulties were particularly burdensome in terms of developing cutting-edge technologies, as it was difficult within the DoD to upgrade to yesterday’s technologies, much less tomorrow’s.

He noted that the budgeting process as a whole ultimately is the responsibility of Congress to fix. The process’s knock-on effects throughout the DoD were dangerous nonetheless, he said. Key among them, he said, was the need to allot finances for specific projects many years in advance.

Currently, Pentagon leaders develop a five-year program that will serve as an outline for the scope and funding of their endeavors. This program is then used to inform the branch’s budget request of Congress. Congress then allocates funds for future use, as it dissects the Pentagon’s alleged needs.

The problem, of course, is that military responses to emerging threats and IT development can’t be pre-allocated, meaning that many programs come into existence and end up being unnecessary, while other needed technologies go unfunded.

“[The budget process] isn’t the Pentagon’s fault, but it has toxic ripple effects across the building as the Pentagon is now working the 2024 to 2029 budget,” Chaillan said.

“How could this even work out? No one knows what IT will look like in 2025, let alone 2029.”

Epoch Times Photo
Nicolas Chaillan, former Air Force chief software officer, in Washington on Oct. 13, 2021. (Jared Cummings/Conservative Partnership Institute)

As such, he said, current acquisition processes hinder the integration of expert industry experience into the military, effectively preventing the military from expanding its talent pool. This is because the Pentagon cannot effectively train and continuously fund IT workers whose expertise needs to be continuously changing with the technology, as the budget process forces them into long-term, semi-static programs agreed to at times years in advance.

Such statements echo similar remarks made by Michael Sekora last month. Sekora, who spearheaded Project Socrates, a Reagan-era Defense Intelligence Agency program designed to increase U.S. competitive advantage, lambasted what he referred to as a “finance-planning” model of defense.

In such a system, Sekora said, the government merely allocates funds year by year, in the hope that the funds will somehow be transformed into the technologies that are needed when they are needed.

The CCP, meanwhile, was pursuing a technology-based strategy whereby specific technologies were created and deployed in a whole-of-society effort to address real problems in real time.

“China understands that exploiting technology more effectively than the competition is the foundation of all competitive advantage,” Sekora said.

“Anything else is a guaranteed exercise in futility.”

Talent Retention ‘Worse Than I’ve Ever Seen’

To that end, Chaillan noted that a vital aspect of working in technology-oriented fields is the need to be forever learning, improving, and iterating. Unfortunately, he said, making continuous learning a part of the job is not something that the military bureaucracy allows much of.

“We don’t invest enough in our talent,” Chaillan said. “We must understand that with the pace of IT, the only answer is continuous learning.”

Chaillan said that when he was chief software officer for the Air Force, he would give his team an hour every day to dedicate to learning new concepts. That model isn’t in vogue with the Pentagon, however, which typically approaches IT-related fields from a managerial perspective.

“Usually, learning is seen as a yearly thing or worse,” Chaillan said. “Additionally, the DoD believes in this concept of ‘knowing everything’ where no one is supposed really to become an expert at something, they just learn to manage and they supposedly can manage anything from a [fighter] wing to a maintenance crew to an IT team.”

This managerial approach was negatively affecting IT in the military, which requires a more active and entrepreneurial approach, Chaillan said. Moreover, it encourages the placement of military officers to leadership roles based purely on rank rather than in-field qualifications.

“We are setting up critical infrastructure to fail,” Chaillan wrote in a separate open letter in September that explored his reasons for resigning from the Pentagon.

“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?”

That problem was compounded, Chaillan said, by a lack of opportunities for IT professionals in the military to actually apply themselves at the jobs they were trained to do.

“Obviously, that doesn’t work with IT,” Chaillan said.

Epoch Times Photo
An Air Traffic Controller monitors computer screens inside the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center(CATCC) used with the US Navy’s Northrop Grumman X-47B, a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) designed for aircraft carrier deployment, July 31, 2012, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. (Paul J Richards/AFP/GettyImages)

That means that many IT professionals in the military are prevented by bureaucratic processes from further developing professionally, eventually becoming “stale” at their skill set. It’s a problem that Chaillan himself cited as a reason for his own departure from the Pentagon.

Perhaps because of this, many of the companies at the forefront of new technological development simply won’t work with the DoD, Chaillan said.

“Unfortunately, many companies still refuse to work with DoD, which isn’t helping us get access to best-of-breed talent,” Chaillan said. “We also have a very tough time retaining talent right now, particularly in IT. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen.”

Chaillan lamented the fact that chief information officers in the DoD weren’t being fully utilized, and were effectively being treated as lottery tickets whose projects may or may not be picked for funding rather than as drivers of innovation.

“DoD Chief Information Officers are just seen as policy shops instead of actual doers,” Chaillan said. “That would never happen on the commercial side. That must be changed.”

Indeed, in his open letter, Chaillan wrote that the very same happened to him, much to the detriment of U.S. defense needs and equally to the advantage of the CCP. He was underutilized, he said, and spent the majority of his professional time trying to convince others to consider more efficient solutions to well-known problems.

“The DoD should stop pretending they want industry folks to come and help if they are not going to let them do the work,” he wrote. “While we wasted time in bureaucracy, our adversaries moved further ahead.”

‘Four Cents of Real Value on a Dollar’

That mismanagement and the adverse effects it has on military readiness are only the tip of the iceberg, however. By Chaillan’s estimation, the Pentagon is only utilizing 4 percent of its funds on actual solutions.

“Overall, I believe we get four cents of value out of one dollar of taxpayer money spent,” Chaillan said.

“First, probably 60 cents are wasted due to cumbersome acquisition processes and requirements which were made to prevent fraud or conflicts of interest or bad behavior, but really ended up creating a massive bureaucracy which created more waste than it is preventing.

“Second, because we are stuck in time and get requirements that are five to 10 years too old, we effectively buy many things that are obsolete or aren’t a good fit to the current mission and should have been voided but we don’t because we spent years trying to get the contract done.

“That’s probably another 30 cents. Another six cents is wasted by making mistakes, which are fair and common.

“That’s four cents of real value on a dollar. With $750 billion funding, that means $30 billion is actually real tangible value.”

Chaillan was careful to point out that the figure is only his opinion but said that most of his professional acquaintances would agree that the DoD loses at least 60 percent of its funds to such wastage.

Regardless, bureaucratic waste remains widespread, and outdated or otherwise unneeded technologies remain a persistent problem. The fact is that parts of the military, for its trillions of dollars received over the years, simply don’t have adequately functioning technology.

That problem was highlighted in an open letter to the DoD penned in January by Michael Kanaan, director of operations for the Air Force-MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, a joint AI research endeavor, in which he flogged military leadership about the fact that its IT professionals were working with computers that were decades old.

“Want innovation? You lost literally HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of employee hours last year because computers don’t work,” Kanaan, who was Air Force’s first chairman for AI, wrote. “Fix our computers.”

“It’s not a money problem, it’s a priority problem.”

Epoch Times Photo
The Pentagon building in Washington in a file photograph. (AFP via Getty Images)

US Approaching ‘The Point of No Return’

Such problems and the waste that causes them are not new, however, nor are they a secret. Indeed, in many instances, such waste is baked into the U.S. defense-industrial complex by excessive congressional oversight.

In 2015, then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that 20 percent of the defense budget was “pure overhead.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, meanwhile, set that number at closer to 40 percent.

Likewise, another former Navy secretary, John Lehman, said that “roughly half of all uniformed personnel serve on staffs that spend most of their time going to meetings and responding to tasks from the hundreds of offices that have grown like mold throughout the vast Defense Department.”

In 2015, a DoD report was compiled to examine the problem, and found that $125 billion, roughly a quarter of its annual budget at the time, was lost on administrative waste over the course of five years.

The Pentagon ultimately buried the report, classifying its data out of a fear that Congress would cut its budget.

Likewise, accounting firm Ernst and Young found in 2018 that the Defense Logistics Agency, the Pentagon’s main procurement wing, failed to properly document more than $800 million in construction projects.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pentagon also failed all three of its audits, each conducted since 2018, when it was subjected to its first independent and department-wide audit.

In 2020, then-DoD Comptroller Thomas Harker said that the department likely wouldn’t pass an audit until at least 2027.

In sum, the Pentagon is failing to invest in relevant new technologies because its bureaucracy is slowing the investments it does make. Meanwhile, its funding structure and excessive administrative oversight are hemorrhaging most of the funds it receives before the money gets to projects that might be outdated or unnecessary by the time the budget is approved.

According to Chaillan, the United States must compete with China’s superior population by becoming more efficient, more innovative, and more agile. Under the current bureaucratic structure, however, the likelihood of that happening is fast becoming an impossibility, he says.

Even as the CCP invests in AI/ML, autonomous systems, space warfare, and quantum computing, the U.S. military is struggling with a lack of basic, functioning IT equipment. Moreover, Chaillan said, it’s failing to deliver on the tangible products required to win a war.

“The biggest threats to readiness today [are] our lack of access to basic IT capabilities like Edge computing, Edge cloud, proper connectivity, modern devices, and ensuring we can connect all the military domains to get a full picture of our current situation,” Chaillan said.

“More importantly, the lack of investment in AI/ML tangible military outcomes instead of focusing on AI/ML ethics will be what leads us to getting behind to the point of no return if that doesn’t change by December 2022.”

Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.