For some time now, western governments, mainly those belonging to NATO, have been trying to stop China from recruiting former military pilots who would train pilots of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Navy. According to numerous reports, the Chinese have tried and, in some cases, succeeded in recruiting American, British, German, Australian, Canadian, and Kiwi pilots to better understand the tactics and operational know-how of Western air forces, which will help China counter them.
United States (US)
In October 2022, Australian authorities arrested a former US Marine Corps pilot on charges of breaking US arms control laws by undertaking training of Chinese Navy pilots. According to court documents, Daniel Duggan, a dual national (having both US and Australian nationality), is accused of training Chinese pilots between 2009 and 2012 on how to land on aircraft carriers. For the said training, a retired US Navy T-2 Buckeye was purchased from an aircraft dealer in the US, and false information was provided to the dealer, which subsequently led to an export license being granted.
Mr Duggan is also said to have undertaken his actions without properly informing the US government, which was mandatory for him as a former member of the US military and a US citizen at the time, which is the basis of the charges brought up against him. Mr Duggan was employed by a South African flight training school that had a deal with a Chinese state-owned company to train Chinese pilots on carrier landings in China and South Africa. Around the same time, the British and Australian governments had issued warnings to former pilots not to take lucrative contracts to train Chinese pilots. Mr Duggan is still in detention in Australia while awaiting a decision regarding his extradition to the US. At the same time, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has also launched an investigation into his actions and his detention.
United Kingdom (UK)
The UK government (especially the Ministry of Defence) has also had concerns regarding former military pilots collaborating with China to train their pilots for some years, according to the UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey. The Minister has stated that more than 30 pilots, mainly from the Royal Air Force, have been paid upwards of £240,000 to help in training Chinese pilots. These pilots have retired from service, and most of them are said to be in their 50s, and they have flown different platforms, with some flying jets while others used to fly helicopters, specifically anti-submarine helicopters.
Even if the European pilots have not shared specific information or tactics regarding how NATO operates, they may have passed on critical inputs regarding planning large-scale and complex air operations.
The British government is looking into if and how any of the pilots have not kept in line with the Official Secrets Act, which stops current and former service members as well as civil servants from sharing state secrets with foreign governments. Although currently, the government does not think that any of the British pilots have broken any laws by training Chinese pilots. Minister Heappey has said that the government is looking to change the law where a two-strike policy will be adopted. The said policy will make it so that British pilots will be given a warning, and once they have received it, going forward with the training will be a prosecutable offence. Thus, the British government has issued warnings for former military pilots to stay away from any offers of training Chinese pilots for hefty salaries. The Chinese government, for its part, has denied having any knowledge of any recruitment or employment of British pilots.
Former German pilots have also found their way to China to train Chinese pilots. The said pilots have been living in China for some time (maybe for around a decade) and are paid enormous salaries for their services as trainers. Officials in the German government believe that these pilots may have passed on their knowledge, expertise in specific mission sets, and some confidential operational tactics to their Chinese students. These officials believe that the harvesting of information and know-how which may have any military or operational value is the main goal of the Chinese.
One of the pilots, according to reports, has been living in Qiqihar, in north-eastern China, the city’s only airport. The airport is of a dual-use nature and currently houses fairly new J-16 multi-role fighters. This platform is one of the most advanced fighters in the Chinese fleet. Due to such developments, the German Military Counter Intelligence has for some time been trying to figure out what exactly the former Luftwaffe pilots may have taught their Chinese students.
The Australian government also stated last year that an investigation was being conducted to look into claims of Australian pilots being headhunted by China for teaching its pilots. Before disclosing this investigation, the Australian government had warned former pilots that they might be approached to take lucrative contracts to train Chinese pilots and that they should stay away from any such offer. Similarly, the Canada Department of National Defence has also stated that it is looking at former service members being approached to undertake the training of Chinese pilots. New Zealand also has had four former service members work at the South African flight school, which is the centre of these training exercises.
These instances have shown how naive Europe remains about dealings with China, which led to their former pilots being employed by and helping the Chinese understand how NATO air forces, in particular, and Western militaries operate. This disparity of cases in Europe, compared to the US, shows how Europe has not taken the challenge of China’s increasing military influence and power seriously. The main reason for this may be that the most obvious conflict with China would be Taiwan, which is perceived as a conflict between China and the US.
Even if the European pilots have not shared specific information or tactics regarding how NATO operates, they may have passed on critical inputs regarding planning large-scale and complex air operations. This may have allowed the Chinese to understand better how the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region may react to Chinese operations, especially concerning Taiwan.
In an effort to stop such instances from happening in the future, the US has recently placed numerous entities on an export control list for undertaking training or helping to train Chinese military pilots. This includes the South African flight school previously mentioned and a company which was previously run by Erik Prince, the founder of the private military contracting firm Blackwater. The flight school, according to its website, employs flight crew with experience in operating and maintaining both Western and Chinese jets and helicopters and plays a vital role in the recruitment of Western pilots.