Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor
Tue, 18 October 2022 at 12:01 am
British defence intelligence is to issue a rare “threat alert”, warning that China’s military is trying to recruit serving and former RAF jet pilots to help train its own air force with generous recruitment packages.
Officials expressed “concern and disapproval” of these schemes because they posed “a threat to UK and western interests”. Although they are not explicitly banning pilots from providing training, they aim to take steps to “manage the risk”.
About 30 former pilots are already believed to have taken advantage of “very generous” recruitment packages offered by China to work for the country’s air force through third parties, including, in particular, a flying academy based in South Africa.
But the warning, or threat guidance, will remind British pilots not to disclose any sensitive information to the Chinese military and ask those approached to tell the Ministry of Defence what is going on so that it can be monitored.
So far there is no evidence that any former RAF pilot has broken the Official Secrets Act in providing training to China, but western officials said they were “taking steps to mitigate this risk” by issuing the guidance.
China is keen to modernise its military and emulate Nato standards and has a particular interest in fast-jet tactics, techniques and procedures. There were also signs it wanted to recruit helicopter personnel as trainers, a western official said.
A US assessment released last year concluded that China’s president, Xi Jinping, wanted to complete the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army by 2035 and transform it into a “world-class” military by 2049.
Beijing’s leadership continues to insist Taiwan should be reintegrated with the mainland China, forcibly if necessary, despite growing tension with the US over the issue. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force,” Xi told the 20th Chinese Communist party congress on Sunday.
Headhunters began approaching serving and former pilots in 2019, but the effort is believed to have stepped up since the end of pandemic restrictions, and those targeted are not just from the UK but from other western countries.
An MoD spokesperson said: “We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK armed forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China.”