Some of the former United Kingdom military pilots who were recruited by China’s military to train Chinese pilots may have actually gone along with the recruitment effort in order to steal secrets from China for the West. These Chinese recruiting and British counter-spying efforts are playing out as China is trying to overtake the U.S. and the West as the dominant global power.
Last week, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense revealed that China had recruited around 30 former British military pilots since 2019 to train their Chinese counterparts. The Daily Express reported on Sunday, based on unnamed British government sources, that at least some of the former British pilots who were recruited by China actually worked as double agents who used the opportunity to gather sensitive information from the Chinese side.
China has been able to lure in former British pilots with experience flying fighter jets and and helicopters, reportedly offering salaries as high as $270,000. Beyond simply improving the expertise of Chinese pilots, the recruitment effort also risks exposing sensitive Western aerial combat tactics and the physical vulnerabilities of Western aircraft for China. China could use such Western air combat techniques to fly more effectively or to devise ways to counter Western air power.
According to the Daily Express, the British government has struggled to stop this Chinese military recruitment practice. However, rather than impotently accepting that China will continue to lure in experienced former British pilots, the Daily Express’s sources claim the British government asked some of the targets of China’s recruitment efforts to “wear two hats” — one as a trainer for China’s military and the other as a spy for the U.K.
The sources said the former British military pilots were instructed to play it safe as they acted as double agents. As a result, some of the British pilots China recruited had only limited access to sensitive Chinese military information. Other British trainers, however, were more lucky and trained pilots of some of China’s most advanced fighter jets, according to the Daily Express sources.
One source told the Daily Express that the U.K. had “played China at its own game” – and won.
“This was a rather unprecedented situation,” the source added.
While its rare for a government to so openly describe the efforts of alleged intelligence gathering operations, a source for the Daily Express said the pilots who served as double agents had already left China and the operation has concluded.
The alleged British counter-spying operation against China could be real or the revelation to the media could itself be an intelligence community effort against China. Even if no British pilots had actually worked as double agents while training China’s military, the claim that they did steal information from China could sow doubt among the Chinese military about how much they can trust the foreign pilots they recruit.
While these unnamed sources have claimed the U.K. government was able to turn this Chinese recruiting effort to their own advantage, the U.K. government is openly pursuing efforts to prevent and punish former military pilots who do go on to work for China’s military.