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China’s Attempt To ‘Steal’ US Naval Aircraft Fails; Here Is What Makes The T-2 Buckeye Important For PLA Navy

A former US Marine Corp AV-88 Harrier II “jump jet” pilot was involved in an illegal procurement of at least one T-2 Buckeye naval jet trainer for training the Chinese naval aviators to operate from an aircraft carrier, according to an indictment dated 2017, that was unsealed on December 9 by a US federal court in Washington, DC.

The indictment from US prosecutors alleges that the Marine pilot, Daniel Edmund Duggan, who was arrested in Australia earlier this year amid accusations of having trained Chinese military pilots to land on aircraft carriers, had breached US arms control laws and was involved in a conspiracy.

Daniel Edmund Duggan, 54, served with the US Marines for more than ten years, from 1989 to 2002, rising to the rank of Major, according to a LinkedIn profile that matches his description.

He is believed to have flown the AV-8B Harrier II jump jet and participated as a Marine Corps exchange pilot with the Spanish Navy.

Also, Duggan moved to China in 2014. Three years later, he began working in Qingdao in 2017 as the managing director of AVIBIZ Limited, a “comprehensive aviation consultancy company” with its headquarters in the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao. The company was registered in Hong Kong in 2017 but disbanded in 2020.

A civilian-operated T-2B Buckeye painted in United States Navy colors (Wikipedia)

However, before that, in the early 2010s, Duggan was involved with a test flight academy in South Africa that also had a presence in China, according to the indictment recently unsealed by the US federal court, which alleges that Duggan trained People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) aviators in China, South Africa, and other undisclosed locations.

The main focus of this training was carrier approach and landing, a fundamental and complex skill set needed for operating from aircraft carriers that are in the service with the PLAN and presently under-development in China.

While the academy in question is unnamed, reports suggest it could be the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), a privately run training center in South Africa’s Western Cape, which according to the UK Ministry of Defense, had recruited British personnel for providing pilot training to the Chinese military.

TFASA’s website states that its flight test aircrew has testing and operational experience with several fighter jets, including the Typhoon, Gripen, Hawk, Tornado, Mirage F1, and various trainers, the Hongdu L-15 and K-8 aircraft.

The Hongdu L-15 and K-8 aircraft are trainer jets operated by the PLA, among others. The company’s website also has a photo of an FTC-2000, another Chinese jet trainer, Western pilots, and a picture of the PLA’s J-16 multirole fighter bomber.

An image from the TFASA website showing Western aircrew in front of an FTC-2000 jet trainer (TFASA)

The TFASA website also states that the company has certified several Chinese helicopters, including the PLA’s Z-9 and the Z-10 attack helicopter.

Furthermore, TFASA reportedly provides flight training to 250 cadets per year from various Chinese airlines as part of a joint venture with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned aerospace and defense company.

Illegal Purchase Of T-2 Buckeye Aircraft

Apart from training the PLAN aviators, the indictment also alleges that Duggan was involved in an illegal purchase of a T-2 Buckeye aircraft from a US-based aircraft dealer for this trainer by providing false information to ensure the US government approved an export license of the plane to South Africa.

The T-2 was an all-purpose US Navy jet trainer used by the US Naval Air Training Command to conduct basic jet flight training for future Navy and Marine Corps aviators. It was produced by North American Aviation, which was later purchased by Rockwell, which was, in turn, acquired by Boeing.

It featured a tandem cockpit and incorporated under-wing hard points for weapons training and arresting gear for training in carrier landings. The T-2 was also used for pilot training, including first solo flights, formation, aerobatic flying, and day and night navigation.

US Navy T-2B Buckeye (Wikipedia)

It was finally retired by the US Navy in 2015, and now the Naval Air Training Command uses the T-45 Goshawk aircraft.

Interestingly, the planned procurement of the Buckeye by Duggan coincided with the timing of China developing a hooked jet trainer of its own, the Guizhou JL-9GA (also known as FTC-2000), which entered service with the PLAN around 2021.

Reports suggest that the T-2 might have been intended to provide valuable insights for developing the JL-9GA trainer jet.

It is unknown what exactly happened with the T-2 procurement or to what extent the trainer aircraft was utilized. However, a 1967-vintage T-2B model is listed as having been exported to South Africa in May 2011, following which it received the local civilian registration ZU-NVY.

Also, according to an online listing for the aircraft, the T-2B has been upgraded at some point with Garmin GPS navigation and communications aids in both cockpits and a modern electronic flight instrument (EFIS) system cockpit display. It is not clear who owns the aircraft at present.

The indictment says that Duggan and his co-conspirators, including another former US military pilot, did not seek a license to export defense services to China. Usually, a permit for a defense export to China would be denied, as the US has had an embargo on defense exports to China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

At the time of writing this report, Duggan is scheduled to appear in an Australian court later this week. At the same time, US prosecutors are seeking his extradition so that he can face potential charges against him in the US.

Duggan’s charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States by illegally exporting defense services to China, conspiracy to launder money, plus two counts of violating the US Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

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