United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense issued an alert advising former pilots (of fixed wing and helicopters) that China is recruiting from their talent pool for the purpose of teaching the PLA Air Force tactics of western air forces.  One would think that such a warning would never be necessary, yet it is, given China’s success in their recruiting efforts. The UK MOD made it clear, that they are not telling pilots that they may not engage in aviation training, or specifically the programs associated with China. They are being told they may not disclose sensitive information to China.

According to the Guardian, citing the MOD Alert, China is being somewhat circuitous in its efforts to recruit western pilots by utilizing third parties in the recruitment efforts. One such entity is located in South Africa, and is characterized as a “flying academy.”

This tidbit aligns nicely with prior reporting on how western pilots were involved in training China pilots via the South African a test flying Academy of South Africa (AIFA) which according to its own website has a “China connection.” Epoch Times, admittedly somewhat biased when it comes to its criticism of China, highlights the type of training being conducted at AIFA by China and who is doing the training. In a May 2022 piece, it is revealed western pilots are training China’s PLA Air Force pilots in China. With the AVIC (Aviation Industry Corporation of China) hiring via IFIA  and TFASA (Test Flight Academy of South Africa) western pilots, thus China creates a daisy chain of entities in an apparent attempt to obfuscate the connection.

Any bites at China’s recruiting?

According to the UK’s Express, “Beijing is reportedly seeking pilots with experience flying British and other NATO warplanes, including the Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets and the Harrier jump jet.” A sure fire way for China to obtain western pilot training and tactical knowledge.

Citing UK MOD officials, the government of the UK believes there are as many as 30 former Royal Air Force personnel engaged in the China training program. Intelligence Online, advises that AVIC’s partner in South Africa, TFASA, “recruits former Western air force pilots by offering them attractive salaries [of up to $30,000 per month] and then sends them to China.”

UK MOD officials noted, “We are taking measures to dissuade current and former pilots from being recruited, and we want to avoid any perception by China that our previous silence on this matter is misinterpreted as our acceptance or approval of this activity. Without us taking action, this activity would almost certainly cause harm to the UK and our allies’ defence advantage.

REasons for Recruiting

Perhaps it is time to remind those who have taken oaths of secrecy that the oath is a lifetime oath and not one which is bracketed by one’s years of service. China will use every arrow in its offensive quiver to acquire knowledge of western strategy and tactics, the very ballsy overt recruitment of western pilots serves two purposes.

First, it accomplishes the strategic goal in a straight forward manner. Western pilots jump at pay packages which far exceed what beginning commercial pilots receive, even those with years of cockpit experience. The second reason is more subtle. But it is the equivalent of sticking a sharp stick in the eye of the west by highlighting that loyalty and the moral dilemma is just a large paycheck away.

No doubt, NATO members are all taking on board the UK MOD advisory and sharing it down stream with the respective air forces to stop the flow of pilots to China.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com