After ‘Robbing’ Stealth Tech, China Now Accused Of Stealing US, Western Fighter Pilots To Train Its Aviators

China is reportedly recruiting active and retired Western military pilots and other service members to bolster its air force and learn about Western aviation strategies.

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The ‘Five Eyes’ partners — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — jointly released a bulletin, terming China’s recruitment operations as a “persistent” danger. The United States and its intelligence allies released the bulletin on June 5.

According to the bulletin, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is employing former fighter pilots from Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and other Western countries through private companies in South Africa and China to train cadet pilots in PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Navy (PLAN).

According to Michael Casey, the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a division of the US intelligence agency, “To overcome their shortcomings, China’s People’s Liberation Army has been aggressively recruiting Western military talent to train their aviators.”

He also said, “Recent actions by Western governments have impacted these operations, but PLA recruitment efforts continue to evolve in response.”

When probed about the bulletin, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said the Pentagon “always expect that our pilots will uphold the standards that they are trained under and that they keep their training specific to the United States.”

There is a growing perception that China is also looking to hire former Western pilots by paying them exorbitant fees to learn Western combat tactics that could be useful in a potential combat scenario. For instance, a US official said Chinese pilots may learn anything from air warfare tactics to landing on an aircraft carrier from pilots with Western training. They may also offer China a rare glimpse into how to thwart Western military strategies.

The bulletin said, “The PLA wants the skills and expertise of these individuals to make its military air operations more capable while gaining insight into Western air tactics, techniques, and procedures. The insight the PLA gains from Western military talent threatens the safety of the targeted recruits, their fellow service members, and U.S. and allied security.”

It warned that this “threat continues to evolve in response to Western government warnings to their military personnel and public, so this notice seeks to continue highlighting this persistent, adaptive threat.”

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Beijing has employed private enterprises that frequently conceal their connections to the Chinese military to entice Western pilots. These companies reach out to potential pilots through headhunters or professional networking sites, promising them “lucrative contracts and the opportunity to fly exotic aircraft.” The statement said that the most sought-after targets have been military pilots, flight engineers, and staff members of air operations centers.

These private businesses have established ostensibly independent operations in other nations, including Laos, Singapore, and South Africa. Dozens of former Western pilots are teaching Chinese military officials, who, in turn, send additional pilots back to China for training.

The intelligence partners’ warning coincides with increased anxiety over China’s military build-up and recent maneuvers around Taiwan, which Beijing has labeled as “punishment” following the island nation’s recent elections. China claims Taiwan is a part of its territory and has threatened to use force to annex the island.

It is no secret that China has been expanding its Air Force and Navy on a scale not seen in several years. This is evident from the power it frequently projects in the Taiwan Strait or the contested South China Sea. However, there is concern that while it has significantly expanded the number of fighter jets in its arsenal and developed a third aircraft carrier, it does not have many qualified fighter pilots to fly these aircraft with the proficiency seen in the West.

Growing Concerns

There have been several reports in the last few years that have categorically noted that China is ensnaring Western fighter pilots — from the US, the UK, France, and Germany — to train its cadet pilots. However, that concern is growing as Beijing remains relentless in its poaching.

Since 2022, retired American, British, and German fighter pilots have been working with the Chinese Air Force and Navy, lending their expertise to enhance their training programs.

Daniel Duggan, a former US Marine pilot, was arrested in Australia in 2022 for training Chinese military pilots to land on aircraft carriers in violation of US arms control law. The crucial capability would be useful to the PLA Air Force in critical sea operations against Taiwan, the US, and its regional allies.

The most sought-after recruits are the NATO pilots, maintainers, air operations center personnel, and other technical experts from multiple occupations who could provide insights into US and NATO air tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Pilot Daniel Duggan – a former US Marine Corps aviator – has been accused of breaking American arms control laws by training Chinese fighter pilots to land (via Platform X)

However, Western nations have been increasingly taking steps to counter Beijing’s campaign. For instance, in June 2023, the US government added dozens of businesses with alleged ties to the Chinese government to its list of organizations subject to trade restrictions. On this list were the Test Flying Academy of South Africa and Frontier Services Group, a Chinese state-owned corporation. Both corporations were linked to the recruitment.

The UK, for its part, announced in September 2023 that former members of its armed forces who trained Chinese pilots would be held legally responsible and even prosecuted for exchanging military strategies with an adversary nation.

In January this year, US and NATO officials convened a conference to discuss how to counter Chinese recruitment of alliance personnel.

Titled “The Securing Our Military Expertise from Adversaries,” the conference was the first such event with NATO participation aimed at tackling the People’s Republic of China’s moves targeting 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.

As China seeks to challenge its Western counterparts, it has rattled them by breaking into their bastion and stealing its soldiers.