China has recruited dozens of former Royal Air Force pilots to train members of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
Mark Landler, the London bureau chief writing in The New York Times (NYT) said that Britain wants to stop its retired military pilots from accepting lucrative contracts to train members of the PLA citing concerns over its national security.
China has recruited as many as 30 retired British military pilots, including some who flew sophisticated fighter jets, according to Britain’s Defence Ministry.
A senior official said the ministry worried that the practice could threaten British national security.
The recruited British pilots, the senior official said, included former members of the Royal Air Force and other branches of the armed forces.
Britain said it was working with allies to try to stop the practice, which the official said dated to before the coronavirus pandemic but had gained momentum in recent months, said Landler.
After a lull in recruitment during the months of pandemic-related travel bans, the official said, China’s efforts to lure pilots have since ramped up.
None of the retired pilots is suspected of violating the Official Secrets Act, the British law that covers espionage, sabotage and other crimes.
But the official said that Britain was determined to tighten the controls on retired service members to guard against training activities that could contravene espionage laws, reported NYT.
“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 Defence Ministry, who, under department rules, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The contracts are lucrative — about USD 270,000 a year — and are particularly attractive to pilots who retired from active duty several years ago, the official said.
Britain, however, does not have obvious legal tools to stop retired pilots from accepting training contracts from the Chinese army, said Landler.
The official also said that China has contracted the recruiting to a third party, a private test flying academy in South Africa, reported NYT.
None of the pilots recruited by the Chinese operated the F-35, the most advanced and expensive fighter jet in the British fleet. But several have flown older-generation warplanes like the Typhoon, Harrier, Jaguar and Tornado, according to the official.
Though the pilots train their Chinese counterparts on Chinese planes, he said, the Chinese were eager to learn about British and Western tactics and procedures, reported NYT.
Relations between Britain and China have deteriorated sharply in recent years, with the government in London denouncing Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, a former British colony.
In July 2020, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned the purchase of equipment from Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, for its high-speed broadband network on national security grounds.
Meanwhile, the current UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss has further hardened Britain’s stance. She is expected to designate China as a “threat” in an updated version of a defence and foreign policy review, said Landler. (ANI)