Poaching British Pilots, UK Officially Deployed Its ‘Active-Duty’ Air Force Pilots To China To Instruct PLAAF Aviators — Reports

Following the uproar over Western pilots training their Chinese counterparts, Sky News reported that London had previously conducted its defense training exercises with China, sending pilots to Beijing to coach their Chinese counterparts in 2016. 

In 2016, a UK report said that the British Ministry of Defense deployed active-duty pilots from the Royal Air Force in China to instruct Chinese pilots for a program while also allowing Chinese nationals to attend military institutions in the UK

The report said that several active Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots taught an “Aviation English Course” in China in 2016.

On the other hand, a handful of Chinese citizens attended the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham in Swindon and the RAF College in Cranwell, Lincolnshire.

At least three Chinese nationals have received training at an RAF college, and four fighter pilots have been dispatched to Beijing to teach the course from September 5–26, 2016.

The Ministry of Defense (MoD) official told Sky News that the pilots of the People’s Liberation Army (Air Force) have never received any sensitive training from the UK. 

It is believed that the MoD’s official defense cooperation with Beijing, which included initial officer training on English language proficiency and armed conflict law, was discontinued in 2019. 

UK MoD recently acknowledged that roughly 30 former British military pilots were in China instructing the Chinese air force how to thwart Western aircraft, calling the practice a “threat to UK and Western interests.”

Furthermore, British media outlets reported that Chinese officials are still trying to attract current and former British military pilots, “luring them in with salaries of £240,000, or over $270,000.”

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The Ministry also issued a “threat alert” warning current and former personnel not to consider such job offers. The UK government declared it would amend the law to make such activity unlawful.

Armed forces minister James Heappey stated that China is a rival threatening the UK’s interests in many parts of the world. Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Commons Defense Committee, expressed surprise that a law “akin to the Official Secrets Act” was not already in place to prevent it.

But the latest report quoted sources who noted that London has previously conducted its own official defense training exercises with Beijing. The authorities argued that it was strange to suddenly oppose this private initiative without offering a broader context. 

The report said that the current scenario seems even odder considering that the former pilots’ work had been disclosed to officials for many years without drawing such strong complaints. 

South African Company Defends Its Activities 

A South African academy has been at the forefront of recruiting former RAF pilots to train their Chinese counterparts. But, the company has defended its conduct by stating that the Ministry of Defense (MoD) was fully informed of the nature of the company’s operation.

The Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA) stated in response to several reports alleging that former RAF combat pilots were training their PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) counterparts.

“The TFASA is aware of recent media reports that reference the company and its activities. Many of the accusations and allegations leveled at it were factually incorrect and misleading,” the academy said. 

Nevertheless, the United Kingdom appears to have indicated that it would exert diplomatic or other pressure on South Africa to close down TFASA.

A pilot assigned to an air force aviation brigade under the PLA Northern Theater Command navigates his fighter jet while searching for mock attackers during the Golden Helmet competition. Photo: eng.chinamil.com.cn

The UK’s opposition Labor party has expressed anger about the potential security lapses when British pilots instruct Chinese pilots. Additionally, the Australian government has reviewed reports that TFASA hired former Australian military pilots.

Meanwhile, an ex-pilot and flight instructor for the US military who operated an aviation consulting firm in China is currently being detained in Australia while a request for his extradition on an undisclosed charge from Washington is pending.

China has not provided any significant details about these reports. Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, was asked to comment on a story of an ex-American pilot’s arrest at his routine news briefing in Beijing. Wang answered, “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”

Nevertheless, worries about veteran fighter pilots passing down their decades of knowledge to China’s young pilots are still intensifying. Such knowledge could give China plans to modernize its air force to Western standards and significantly boost its fighter pilot school program.