When reports appeared in Chinese media last year of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force focussing on pilot training and high efficiency, nobody ever thought that China could be involved in hiring foreign pilots to train their own pilots. This became a reality when the BBC reported (October 2022) that over thirty retired RAF pilots had been approached by China to work for them. The UK confirmed that since 2019, former military pilots were being recruited by China. Post the Covid-19 pandemic cases of pilots going to China have reportedly gone up again.Notably, the hired pilots have experience flying across a variety of aircraft, including the Typhoons, Jaguars, Harriers, and Tornadoes.Chinese plans to counter the West and in the worst-case scenario, of a conflict, say over Taiwan, will then have prior knowledge of Western tactics in as far as the air war is concerned.
That the Chinese have attempted and perhaps succeeded to a degree in hiring retired air force pilots indicates that more countries could be involved in this espionage effort. The UK and Australia are already out in the open. The use of South Africa as an intermediary, however harmless, means that China may be using the African continent as a springboard to get retired pilots to China. In a sense, such activities should not come as a surprise to the West. The West has long been aware of China’s ability to steal technology and then reverse engineer the same.
For instance, China has been accused by the US of having used stolen technology of the F-35 fighter aircraftto build its advanced combat aircraft, the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang FC-31.Chinese hackers reportedly stole many terabytes of data (The Diplomat, 27 January 2015)relating to the F-35 program, including information on the aircraft’s radar design, engine, etc.Also, the Chinese Xi’an Y-20 Kunpeng heavy transport aircraft is said to have been developed using designs stolen from Boeing.The Y-20 bears a striking resemblance to the C-17 Globemaster III.
China has today gone one step further by stealing Western manpower in the form of human resources with expertise in aerial combat. The objective is to train Chinese pilots keeping in mind Western tactics in case of a future conflict. Also, these pilots could possibly fly Chinese fighter aircraft and suggest improvements to enhance combat performance. In October, Australia and the UK began probes into reports that their fighter pilots were planning to take up jobs in China to provide training to the pilots of the PLA air force.The hiring of retired Western air force pilots is reportedly being done through intermediaries, in this case a flying academy in South Africa. The UK government approached their pilots and asked them to stop getting involved with China.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has stated that it would take steps to prevent its retired and serving pilots from training Chinese forces. The UK took the decision after BBC reported that up to 30 former pilots had gone to train Chinese pilots.A MoD spokesperson said: “We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China”. The MoD claimed that China had been luring former British air force pilots with “large sums of money” to pass on their expertise and relevant training to the Chinese military.Some of the packages offeredas much as UK£237,911 (US$270,000).The BBC claimed that the retired British pilots were being used to help the Chinese understand the way in which Western planes and pilots operate, information which could be vital in the event of any conflict, such as over Taiwan.
The UK first became aware of a small number of cases of former military pilots being recruited in 2019, which were dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The Covid-19 pandemic slowed attempts down when travel to China became next to impossible, but the attempts have since increased. “They are a very attractive body of people to then pass on that knowledge,” a Western official told BBC. “It’s taking Western pilots of great experience to help develop Chinese military air force tactics and capabilities.” This indicates that there is concern about the nature of expertise being passed on by Western pilots to Chinese pilots.
Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles initiated an inquiry into whether his country’s pilots were being recruited by Chinese defence forces. A review has been commissioned into the Department of Defence policies and procedures.Action will be taken if systemic weaknesses were found to be putting Australian military secrets at risk. An initial investigation into reports of Australian fighter pilots having been approached by China uncovered enough evidence to justify a more extensive inquiry.Allegations appeared of former Australian pilots joiningthe South African flight school mentioned earlier.In end October, Australian authorities arrested Daniel Duggan, a former US Marine Corps Officer, following a US request. Duggan runs a business called Top Gun Australia, a private adventure flight company. The arrested officer is reported to have worked in China also.
As mentioned in the beginning the context in which this entire episode has blown up are reports in the Chinese State media last year (Global Times,15 August 2021) that the first group of Chinese PLA fighter jet pilot cadets were trained with advanced trainer jets immediately after training with basic trainer aircraft. This was an innovative approach to accelerate generation of combat capability and allowed pilot cadets to learn about 30 per cent faster, and they got on average 30 per cent more time to fly with advanced trainer jets. It noted that training subjects included flying in tactical formation, night-time flight, air combat and ground attack with a wide variety of weapons.The Global Times claimed that this practice means China now has a revolutionary approach to train pilot cadets.It appears therefore, that these retired pilots from the West were used in tandem with the new ‘innovative’ Chinese approach to training. The Chinese always seem to have an ace up their sleeve!