China tried to recruit Australian ex-fighter pilots

By Jacquelin Magnay

The Defence Department has launched an investigation into claims China has sought to recruit pilots from Australia and Britain to train Chinese armed forces.

The revelations prompted the UK government to make it illegal for British pilots to train Chinese military personnel

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said on Tuesday that British pilots had been warned and would be prosecuted if they continued to be part of the Chinese training.

It is understood that some Australian pilots are part of a western cohort of about 30 pilots who have been approached in recent months through a South African flight school acting as an intermediary offering half-million dollar packages to help train the Chinese military in various attack aircraft such as Typhoons, Jaguars, Harriers and Tornados.

Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles has begun an urgent investigation into the extent of Australian pilot involvement.

“When our ADF personnel sign up to the Defence Force, they do so to serve their country and we are deeply grateful of that,” he told The Australian.

“I would be deeply shocked and disturbed to hear that there was personnel who were being lured by a paycheck from a foreign state above serving their own country.

“I have asked the Department to investigate these claims and come back to my office with clear advice on this matter.”

In the UK a western official briefed journalists about the intelligence and security concerns, saying that the retired western pilots are being used to provide information to China about the practices and operations of western planes and procedures, which could be used in any future conflicts.

“It’s taking Western pilots of great experience to help develop Chinese military air force tactics and capabilities,’’ the official, who cannot be identified, said. The official revealed that the first awareness of a small number of former military pilots being recruited occurred three years ago. It is only now, after the Covid pandemic that poaching attempts have been reignited.

“We’ve seen it ramp up significantly,” the western official said.

”It is an ongoing issue.”

Mr Heappey told Sky News on Tuesday that the pilots have been warned not to work with China: “We’ve approached the people involved and have been clear to them that it’s our expectation they would not continue to be part of that organisation.

“China is a competitor that is threatening the UK interest in many places around the world. It is also an important training partner but there is no secret in their attempt to gain access to our secrets, and their recruitment of our pilots in order to understand the capabilities of our air force is clearly a concern to us and the intelligence part of the MoD.”

The Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, a former British soldier said the security lapse presented “serious questions for the RAF”.

Mr Ellwood said: “We should not be surprised by China’s audacity in luring UK pilots to learn about our tactics. But we should be surprised there’s nothing akin to the Official Secrets Act preventing this – and the absence of patriotism of those involved.”

A British Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: ”We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China. ”All serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defence, while the new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one.”


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