US, 5 Eyes Partners Issue Fresh Warnings About China Recruiting Former Western Military Pilots

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
June 5, 2024China News
US, 5 Eyes Partners Issue Fresh Warnings About China Recruiting Former Western Military Pilots
Chinese J-15 fighter jets being launched from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the Yellow Sea, off China's east coast on Dec. 23, 2016. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The intelligence communities of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom published a joint bulletin on Wednesday, warning that China is continuing efforts to recruit current and former Western military officials to advance its military power.

The joint bulletin states the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is actively using private companies in South Africa and China as avenues to recruit former Western military officials, and former fighter pilots in particular, to train PLA Air Force and Navy aviators. The bulletin warns this recruiting effort has targeted former fighter pilots from Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and other Western nations.

“The PLA wants the skills and expertise of these individuals to make its own military air operations more capable while gaining insight into Western air tactics, techniques, and procedures,” the bulletin warns. “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.”

The United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom together comprise the five major English-speaking countries of the world. These five English-speaking countries together form a mutual intelligence alliance dubbed “Five Eyes” or FVEY, which pools some of its intelligence-gathering resources together for their mutual interests.

“Today’s joint bulletin by FVEY partners seeks to highlight this persistent threat and deter any current or former Western service members from actions that put their military colleagues at risk and erode our national security,” said Michael C. Casey, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Allies See Persistent PLA Recruiting Efforts

FVEY and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have previously raised concerns about Chinese efforts to recruit their former military pilots.

Reports began to circulate in October 2022 that the UK’s Ministry of Defense suspected China had attempted to recruit around 30 of its former jet and helicopter pilots. Days later, reports broke that the United States suspected retired U.S. Marine Daniel Duggan—who previously piloted the AV-8 Harrier vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) ground-attack jet—had been working to train Chinese military pilots. The U.S. government is currently seeking to extradite Mr. Duggan from Australia, to face prosecution in the United States.

In June 2023, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned several companies—including Frontier Services Group Ltd. and Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA)—for “providing training to Chinese military pilots using Western and NATO sources.”

In September 2023, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. issued a memo again warning U.S. Airmen of the Chinese recruiting efforts.

This February, U.S. Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) announced it had called a conference in Ramstein, Germany, to address continued Chinese efforts to recruit U.S. and NATO-trained former pilots.

The new FVEY joint bulletin marks just the latest warning about the Chinese recruiting efforts.

“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,” the new FVEY bulletin reads.

The new bulletin states that the recruiting efforts aren’t always obvious.

“Targets may be contacted directly by personal acquaintances from the military and through headhunting emails, or indirectly via professional networking sites and online job platforms,” one bullet point in the new bulletin reads.

Another bullet point warns job offers may come through privately owned companies located around the world that have hidden their ties to the Chinese military.

Bulletin Offers Words of Caution for Veterans

The bulletin warns former Western military pilots that they may face legal peril should they choose to work with PLA-linked training programs.

The new FVEY bulletin appeared to reference Mr. Duggan’s case, stating, “In 2022, a former U.S. Marine pilot on contract with TFASA was arrested in Australia pursuant to a U.S. indictment charging him with violating the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.”

Beyond the legal jeopardy, the bulletin warns former pilots that helping the PLA train its pilots may only “increase the risk of future conflict by reducing our deterrence capabilities” and that these former pilots could put their former colleagues at heightened risk in such a future conflict scenario.

The bulletin advises former military officials to exercise caution when posting online about their security clearances and other details of their military expertise; stay up to date on military, intelligence, and law enforcement assessments about foreign recruitment efforts; and do their due diligence before responding to communications from unknown parties.

The bulletin also lists ways current and former service members can contact authorities in their respective military branches and countries if they believe they or someone they know are being targeted by a suspicious recruitment effort.

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