China’s military is headhunting ex-British Air Force pilots for their training skills and expertise — and the U.K. government is working to stop it, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence said Tuesday.
“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,” an MOD spokesperson told CNBC in a statement.
Some 30 former British military pilots are believed to have gone to work for China to train personnel in its People’s Liberation Army, according to a BBC report on the topic published Tuesday. Recruitment is said to be ramping up, with former pilots being offered large paychecks to work for the Chinese.
“All serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defence, while the new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one,” the MOD spokesperson added.
While training and recruiting pilots is not illegal under U.K. law, the practice presents an intelligence risk as U.K. officials suspect China’s military aims to learn about tactics and operations employed by Western pilots. This knowledge would come in handy in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, for instance.
China’s Ministry of Defense was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
The Chinese “can use ‘instructors’ not only to train new pilots, which is also a threat, but also as intelligence assets to determine Western strengths and weaknesses,” Dave Des Roches, an associate professor and senior military fellow at the U.S. National Defense University, told CNBC.
The ex-pilots are also offered large sums of money, with one Western official cited by the BBC saying that paychecks were believed to be as much as $270,000 annually. One former Australian Air Force pilot, speaking to CNBC anonymously due to professional restrictions, said he was offered nearly $1 million a year to work for the Chinese military.
Tensions between China and the West have risen sharply in recent years. Jeremy Fleming, the head of Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ, said last week that Chinese technology presents a major threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity. And President Joe Biden, as part of the U.S.’s national security strategy, named China as America’s “most consequential geopolitical challenge.”
According to the national security strategy, China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.”