British ex-military pilots are lured to China with huge sums of money to lend their expertise to the Chinese military.
Up to 30 ex-UK military pilots are believed to have gone to train members of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
British intelligence has issued a warning to ex-military pilots working for the Chinese military.
Western officials say efforts to hunt down the pilots are ongoing and have increased recently.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said the training and recruitment of pilots did not breach current UK laws, but authorities in the UK and elsewhere were trying to stop the activity.
“It’s a lucrative package offered to people,” said one Western official, “and money is a strong motivator.” Some sets are believed to go for as much as £237,911 ($270,000).
Retired British pilots are used to understand how Western aircraft and pilots operate, information that can be critical during conflicts such as Taiwan.
“They are a very attractive group of people to pass on this knowledge,” said one Western official. “Experienced Western pilots are needed to improve Chinese military air force tactics and capabilities.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister Liz Truss said the government was taking “decisive steps” to end recruitment and “protect our national security”.
He pointed out that confidentiality clauses and non-disclosure agreements were amended in contracts signed by ex-servicemen.
Armed Forces Minister James Heapy said the UK “needs to change the law” to ensure pilots do not pass information to China in future.
“It certainly doesn’t fit with my understanding of service to our nation – even in retirement – to go to work with a foreign power, particularly one that is against the interests of the UK,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The UK first became aware of a small number of cases involving ex-military pilots recruited in 2019, which were dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed efforts, making travel to China nearly impossible, but efforts have now increased, leading to this warning.
“We’ve seen it increase significantly – it’s a persistent problem,” a Western official told reporters. Current service personnel are being targeted, but none are believed to have accepted.
Pilots are jet and helicopter experienced and come from across the military, not just the Royal Air Force. They flew Typhoons, Jaguars, Harriers and Tornados.
F-35 pilots are not believed to be involved, although China is believed to be interested in them. Some pilots are over 50 years old and have left the military some time ago. Pilots from other Allied countries were also targeted.
Officials said they were being recruited through middleman headhunters and a certain aviation academy based in South Africa was involved.
There is no evidence that either pilot violated the Official Secrets Act or committed a crime. The purpose of the alert is to try to prevent the activity and inform current employees and business partners and remind employees of their obligations to protect confidential information.
“We are taking decisive action to stop Chinese recruitment programs that attempt to poach ex-UK Air Force pilots to train People’s Liberation Army soldiers in the People’s Republic of China,” a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.
“All current and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure agreements across Defense, while the new Homeland Security Act will create additional tools to meet the challenges of contemporary security systems — including this one.”
Author’s note: The video below, taken in April this year, shows two pilots exiting a JL-10 training jet from China. One of the group is not Chinese.
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