China has been filling gaps in its military capabilities by surreptitiously recruiting serving and retired Western military officials. This has set the alarm bells ringing for NATO.
For the first time, a conference of NATO officials was organized at Ramstein air base, the NATO Allied Air Command headquarters, to discuss ways to deal with China’s aggressive campaign to lure American and NATO military personnel to its fold.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been recruiting NATO Alliance service members – both retired and serving, to serve as advisors to the Chinese military. The US has not revealed how many of its military personnel have been ensnared by lucrative Chinese offers, but the incidents have been on the rise.
Titled “The Securing Our Military Expertise from Adversaries,” the conference is the first such event with NATO participation aimed at tackling ongoing PRC targeting of the US and NATO-trained military personnel for employment. Topics included discussing best practices, cross-targeting, and how to combat the emerging threat to US and NATO security.
The event was attended by military, intelligence, and other key stakeholders from the US, 22 of its NATO allies, and Five Eyes partners. Officials from the US National Security Council were also present. The wide attendance signals the relevance of the issue for NATO allies.
A release by the US Air Force (USAF) says that “the US and NATO officials are zeroing in on People’s Republic of China efforts to exploit current and former US and NATO-trained military members with air operations experience in an attempt to bolster PLA air force capabilities.”
Since 2022, retired American, British, and German fighter pilots have been found working with the Chinese Air Force and Navy, lending their expertise to enhance their training programs.
In 2023, the German publication Der Spiegel found that former German Air Force officers have been training Chinese pilots for years through companies in Seychelles. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius later promised a thorough probe.
The report, featuring Eurofighter Typhoon pilot Alexander H. poached by Chinese agencies, was damning. It suggested that the poached pilots from the West helped China design tactics for a Taiwan attack scenario and might have divulged sensitive NATO deployment strategies in Europe.
In 2022, a former US Marine pilot, Daniel Duggan, was arrested in Australia for violating the US arms control law by training Chinese military pilots to land on aircraft carriers, a critical capability that would come in handy for the PLA Air Force while conducting crucial ops on the seas, possibly against Taiwan or the US and its regional allies.
The USAF acknowledged the overt and covert recruitment drives by the PLA have been directed at current and former US and NATO members with air operations experience. The modus operandi of the PRC, according to US officials, is to offer these jobs either through a mix of privately owned companies or to be directly contracted by the Chinese government.
The most sought-after recruits are the NATO pilots, maintainers, air operations center personnel, and other technical experts from multiple occupations who could provide insight into US and NATO air tactics, techniques, and procedures.
PRC recruitment of this nature primarily occurs “through seemingly typical job listings” using online job sites or via headhunting emails sent straight to targeted individuals.
Sensitizing the NATO officials, the US points out obvious red flags – the jobs are located in or around China, contracts that seem “too good to be true,” and vague details on end customers or position duties.
The USAF has asked its personnel to promptly alert authorities if they or their colleagues are approached to train foreign militaries. It has given a formula to help them contact the local US Air Force Office of Investigations detachment.
The issue was highlighted in a September 2023 memo sent by then-US Air Force Chief of Staff and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. The memo said this recruitment has seen a rise in recent years and poses a risk to sensitive national defense information for the US and its partners.
The US State Department regulates a defense service to a foreign military under International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Intentionally providing a foreign government with classified information is illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and US Federal Law. Punishment for persons convicted of intentionally providing classified information to a foreign government could include dishonorable discharge, life imprisonment, substantial fines, and even the death penalty in more severe cases.
Big Bold China
The PRC has not outrightly denied recruitment accusations. Instead, the Chinese embassy in Washington accused the US of attempting to smear companies engaged in “normal exchanges and cooperation” between the two countries.
In June 2023, the US government added dozens of companies to its trade restriction list with purported connections to the Chinese government. This list included Frontier Services Group, a Chinese state-owned company founded by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide, and the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, which faced scrutiny after reports that it had hired Western military pilots to train Chinese aviators.
Washington and Beijing have had tense relations for a long time because they disagree on issues like economic rivalry, climate change, and, more recently, the conflict in Ukraine.
Tension has increased as a result of US security assistance for Taiwan, a democratic republic that China regards as a renegade province, as well as other recent actions taken by the Biden administration to strengthen military connections in the Pacific.
Concerns over Western pilots training China’s military have grown in recent years, as Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand – all members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, which includes the US – have taken steps to prevent former military pilots from offering their expertise to Beijing.
In October 2022, the UK Ministry of Defense said up to 30 former British military pilots were providing training in China and that many others have been approached, including serving pilots.
In November 2022, Australia’s defense minister, Richard Marles, confirmed reports of Australian pilots providing military training to China. He called for a review of current safety procedures because “Defense activities, people, and assets are targets for Foreign Intelligence Services.”
The US indicted its former fighter pilot Duggan for training Chinese pilots to land on aircraft carriers – a skill he learned in his military training.
He denied the allegations, saying he was only training Chinese civilian pilots to improve their skills. In 2023, two more US Navy sailors were arrested and indicted for allegedly sending classified information to Chinese intelligence officers.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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