China is luring retired British military pilots with vast sums of money to share their expertise with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which can be used to develop the tactics and capabilities of the PLA Air Force, according to reports.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) is concerned that this practice could threaten the country’s national security and has been working with allies to try and stop it.
According to an unnamed British official, China’s efforts to recruit retired military pilots have been ongoing since before the Coronavirus pandemic but have gained momentum in recent months.
UK To Penalize Pilots?
The United Kingdom warns of the risk of prosecution of former UK military pilots that train Chinese servicemen and sees the practice as undermining the UK’s defense advantage, the defense ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
“When former UK military pilots provide training to the People’s Liberation Army of China, it clearly erodes the UK’s defense advantage. We are taking immediate steps to deter and penalize this activity,” the ministry said in a tweet.
When former UK military pilots provide training to the People’s Liberation Army of China it clearly erodes the UK’s defence advantage. We are taking immediate steps to deter and penalise this activity:
— Ministry of Defence Press Office (@DefenceHQPress) October 18, 2022
So far, 30 former British military pilots are said to have been recruited, including from the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and other branches of the armed forces. Several of these pilots have experience flying Eurofighter Typhoon, the Harrier, Jaguar, and Tornado.
Notably, none of the pilots recruited so far have operated the fifth-generation F-35, the most advanced and expensive aircraft in the RAF’s fleet.
While these pilots are training their counterparts from the PLA Air Force pilots on Chinese fighter planes, according to the official, the Chinese are keen to learn about British and Western tactics and procedures.
So far, there is no evidence of the recruited pilots violating the Official Secret Acts, the British law covering espionage, sabotage, and other crimes.
However, the British MoD intends to issue a warning, or threat guidance, to dissuade retired service members from sharing sensitive information with the Chinese military and ask those approached to tell the MoD what is going on so that it can be monitored.
“We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to head hunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China,” said a spokesman for the British MoD, who, under department rules, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
However, the UK has no legal mechanisms to prevent retired pilots from accepting training contracts from China. Moreover, the Chinese contracts are lucrative, with some reportedly worth around $270,000 a year.
According to the MoD official, such contracts are incredibly alluring for the pilots who retired from the service several years ago.
“All serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act,” the MoD spokesman said, “and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and nondisclosure agreements across Defense, while the new national security bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges — including this one.”
The retired pilots are being recruited through third-party head-hunters, and the MoD official mentioned a private test flying academy in South Africa in the recruitment efforts.