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China’s military recruiting British ex-military pilots to train their own

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to deputies at the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
October 18, 2022

The Chinese military has been recruiting former British military pilots to help train up China’s own air forces.

On Monday, United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense told the New York Times China has already recruited as many as 30 former British military pilots in recent years to train its military. China has mostly recruited former pilots with experience on fast-flying fighter jets, but has also heavily recruited helicopter pilots.

A spokesperson for the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), who spoke to the New York Times under the customary condition that he not be named, told the New York Times that China has offered lucrative contracts to draw in Britain’s former military pilots, with salaries of about $270,000 a year.

The British official said the Chinese recruiting effort has been ongoing since even before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, but said their efforts have ramped up in recent months.

The Chinese recruiting effort may have gone unnoticed for as long as it had because China has contracted for these British pilots through a private 3rd-party South African test flying academy in South Africa.

The New York Times reported China’s military has been able to recruit several pilots who had flown multirole fighter jets like the Typhoon, Jaguar, Tornado and Harrier but have not been able to poach any pilots who had flown the U.K.’s most advanced F-35 stealth fighters.

The MoD official said the former British military pilots have been training Chinese pilots to fly Chinese aircraft, but said the Chinese military has been eager to learn about British and Western tactics and procedures. China’s pilots could use knowledge to both replicate seasoned western military aviation techniques or to devise strategies to counter those western aerial tactics.

A Chinese air force with knowledge of western aerial combat techniques could be an added threat in a potential future conflict between China and the west.

The British military has signaled it is trying to stop these Chinese recruiting tactics.

“We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to head hunt serving and former U.K. Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China,” the MoD official told the New York Times.

“When former UK military pilots provide training to the People’s Liberation Army of China it clearly erodes the UK’s defence advantage,” the MoD tweeted on Tuesday. “We are taking immediate steps to deter and penalise this activity.”

“1. Defence Intelligence are engaging with the individuals already involved to ensure they are fully aware of the risk of prosecution under the Officials Secrets Act,” the MoD added, listing one effort to counter China’s recruiting efforts.

“2. The Government’s National Security Bill will capture a range of relevant activity and provide additional possible routes to prosecution,” the MoD continued. “3. 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.”

China’s effort to recruit British pilots is just the latest in a pattern of Chinese efforts to gain critical western military knowledge. Last month, a private intelligence firm called Strider Technologies published a report detailing how China had hired dozens of former employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S. to help develop advanced missile technologies for China.