Ex-military pilots from the West are being attracted to China
meTHE APRIL A A Chinese fighter jet crashed in a rural part of eastern China. Both pilots ejected safely and were quickly surrounded by locals, who recorded the incident. “Who are they?” asked one of the townspeople, referring to one of the pilots, a white man with red hair who spoke in English. “This is our instructor,” said the other pilot in Chinese. “Don’t take pictures.”
In recent weeks it has become clearer why foreign pilots could be found in Chinese aircraft. On October 18, the British Ministry of Defense announced that it was trying to stop China from attracting ex-military pilots to train its air force. An official said a private company called the Test Flying Academy in South Africa (TFASA) has hired up to 30 former Air Force pilots to work in China at salaries of about $270,000 a year.
China’s efforts do not end there. Australia’s shadow defense minister said at least two Australian fighter pilots had been approached and declined. New Zealand’s defense ministry said four of the former employees were employed by TFASA. In France With Figaro report that “several” French pilots have been training the Chinese air force. Then there is Daniel Duggan, a former American pilot and owner of an aviation consultancy in China, who was recently arrested in Australia at the fbirequest. The charges against him are sealed.
Spokesman for TFASA insisting that Western governments knew what their former employees were doing. Pilots consulted with the British defense ministry about the work, he says. He says the academy only teaches basic flight training, such as how to keep an airplane level. “There’s nothing you wouldn’t get from a normal flight school curriculum.”
Western officials agree. They admit that their former pilots are not believed to have broken any laws. But they say that China’s goal is to understand the tactics of Western jets and helicopters that could one day face, say, a war against Taiwan. They also argue that foreign knowledge could help the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) close the gap with competitors, given the lack of combat experience over the past 40 years.
The sense of scandal surrounding such training efforts shows how quickly the West’s relationship with China has deteriorated. Until recently, formal arms exchanges were common. PLA officers attended the British military academy, Sandhurst, and the staff colleges. (The PLA students were often assumed to be intelligence officers and kept away from anything sensitive.)
Britain was hardly alone. New Zealand’s defense ministry signed an agreement for training PLA as late as 2019, says Anne-Marie Brady from the University of Canterbury. Australia hosted Chinese officials at their military bases until a few years ago, recalls a former official. America invited PLA to naval exercises off Hawaii in 2014 and 2016. The idea was that communication between Chinese and Western officials would build trust and understanding. That, says Ms Brady, was “wishful thinking”. ■
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