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Britain and Australia plan steps to stop China hiring their pilots

Four F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 parked on the deck onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on 22 September, 2020 off the coast of the United Kingdom (UK). (1st Lt. Zachary Bodner/3rd Marine Aircraft Wing)
October 21, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The British defense ministry is “taking immediate steps to deter and penalize” the recruitment of former U.K. military pilots by China for training, which experts say could pose serious security risks in the Asia-Pacific region and the South China Sea.

The Australian Defence Force meanwhile is also investigating claims that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is attempting to recruit Australian aviators to train its pilots. 

British media, including the BBC, reported that up to 30 former British military pilots are believed to have gone to train PLA members, allegedly for large sums of money.

Defense intelligence officers “are engaging with the individuals already involved to ensure they are fully aware of the risk of prosecution under the Officials Secrets Act,” said the ministry in a statement.

“We are conducting a review of the use of confidentiality agreements across Defence with the aim of providing additional contractual levers to prevent individuals breaching security,” it said.

The current legislation would be amended to “capture a range of relevant activity and provide additional possible routes to prosecution.”

A rare intelligence alert has been issued to warn former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots against collaborating with the PLA.

‘Staggering news’

The news on China’s recruitment of U.K. former pilots left some regional security and defense analysts dumbfounded.

“It’s totally astonishing that some elite pilots within NATO would be training Chinese pilots,” said Alexander Neill, an independent military analyst based in Singapore.

Recently, the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group took part in joint exercises in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy and other allies.

Ten US F-35 fighter jets were deployed aboard the British aircraft carrier as part of an agreement to integrate the operations of two nations’ carrier fleets.

“Imagine what the U.S. Navy must have been thinking after receiving the news? They’re supposed to be on the same side,” said Neill.

“There must be a lot of frustration and anger,” he added.

“Recruiting former members of the armed forces is a common practice of intelligence gathering,” said Matthew Brazil, Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and co-author of the book ‘Chinese Communist Espionage’.

“Depending on how current a pilot is, they would at least know a lot of secret-level information on air combat tactics and capabilities. A pilot could know more too about advanced avionics and Allied Air Force weaknesses,” he said.  

Pilots under contract to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) or the PLA Navy (PLAN) “would therefore be targets for recruitment by Chinese military intelligence to reveal more than just flying skills.” 

The latest developments show that the U.K. has a “serious counter intelligence problem,” according to Singapore-based Neill.

“It seems peculiar that the British intelligence didn’t have much idea about the recruitment [of former military pilots],” the security analyst said.

Combat experience

According to British media reports, the U.K. authorities first became aware of the recruitment of former military pilots in 2019. The number was small at that time but has recently increased “significantly”.

The recruited pilots have experience on fast jets and other aircraft, including Typhoons, Jaguars, Harriers and Tornados. 

Neill pointed out that while growing fast, the PLAAF doesn’t have much operational experience compared to the RAF, which took part in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

“The former military pilots hold valuable knowledge and experience, of which the PLAAF seems determined to get as much as they can,” said Neill.

“It’s clear that the PLA has now moved on from training to rehearsing combat scenarios,” he said, adding that not only the U.S. and its allies but other countries in the region should be watching closely.

“This is the most dangerous development,” said Shen Ming-Shih, acting deputy chief executive officer at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (IDSR), a state think-tank.

“China wants British ex-officers not only for flight training, but to understand the West’s air combat doctrine and to find operational weaknesses of the U.S. and NATO air forces, then to develop their own countermeasures,” Shen said.

“Knowing Western air operation strategy and tactics, China can also counter the Taiwanese Air Force, because our Air Force operates with similar tactical thinking,” the Taiwanese military expert said.

British officials told media that the former pilots were recruited through intermediary headhunters, including a particular flying academy based in South Africa. They were offered lucrative packages, some thought to be as much as U.S. $270,000.

Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, himself a former soldier, wrote on Twitter: “We should not be surprised by China’s audacity in luring UK pilots to learn about our tactics. But we should be surprised there’s nothing akin to the ‘Official Secrets Act’ preventing this – and the absence of patriotism of those involved.” 

Australia investigating claims

Australia’s defense ministry has followed the U.K. in investigating claims that Australian former military pilots had been recruited by China via a South African flight school.

The defense minister, Richard Marles, said in a statement quoted in Australian media: “I would be deeply shocked and disturbed to hear that there were personnel who were being lured by a pay cheque from a foreign state above serving their own country.”

“I’ve requested the division to examine these claims and are available again to my workplace with clear recommendations on this matter,” the minister said.

In Alexander Neill’s opinion, the PLA is keen to get first-hand knowledge of Western air forces tactics and is not picky about which countries to learn from, given they have similar platforms. 

“Israel, Australia, the Netherlands or any other country could serve the purpose,” he said. 

Some analysts also think that “recruiting ex-NATO pilots is actually a double-edged sword for China.” 

“These Western instructors could reveal how much the PLAAF knows, how they fly and train their pilots, how they cooperate with other units, branches etc.,” said Andreas Rupprecht, a well-known expert on China’s military aviation.