Around 30 veteran pilots of the British armed services are or have been in the pay of Communist China, receiving lucrative contracts to help the regime’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquaint itself with “the way in which Western planes and pilots operate,” per an Oct. 18 BBC report.
The revelation, which is based on information provided by unnamed “Western officials,” comes as the PLA ramps up efforts to headhunt foreign military pilots and other high-value personnel to boost its own expertise.
“A spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence said the training and the recruiting of pilots does not breach any current UK law but officials in the UK and other countries are trying to deter the activity,” the BBC report states.
“We’ve seen it ramp up significantly – it is an ongoing issue,” one official said in a briefing to journalists, the BBC said, noting that the UK government first became aware in 2019 that military pilots were being hired to work in China.
The pilots are lured with handsome remuneration in the six-digit range, with one package being valued at £237,911 (US$270,000).
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Coming to power through civil war in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), of which the PLA is the military wing, traditionally has relied on guerrilla insurgency and mass “people’s war” strategies. The last military conflict the PLA fought was in 1979, when Beijing launched a punitive operation against Vietnam that ended in effective defeat for the Chinese.
This means that despite hundreds of billions of dollars in annual spending, the Chinese military’s actual capabilities are untested; moreover, the PLA has a dubious reputation of being more an organization that helps aspiring CCP officials purchase titles and do business, rather than wage war.
Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, that has been changing slowly as he pursues an ongoing anti-corruption campaign and ambitious reform of the PLA, something reflected in the recent increase in efforts to recruit foreign know-how.
“The pilots have experience on fast jets and helicopters and come from across the military and not just the Royal Air Force. They have flown Typhoons, Jaguars, Harriers and Tornados,” the BBC states, referring to different types of UK and other European combat aircraft.
The Official Secrets Act bars current and former British military personnel from divulging confidential information. While the BBC states there’s “no evidence” the Act was broken by the pilots who took on the Chinese offers, they would have plenty of opportunity to do so when working with the PLA.
James Heappey, Britain’s Minister of State for the Armed Forces and Veterans, said the UK “must change the law” with regard to the pilots being recruited by Beijing.
According to the BBC, a spokesman for Prime Minister Liz Truss said “decisive steps” were being taken to end the recruitment of military pilots and “protect our national security”.