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Allies Warn Former Fighter Pilots Not to Train Chinese Military Members

For years, U.S. officials have accused China of stealing American technology to design and build fighter planes. But while China learned how to build advanced fighters, its pilots could not fly them so well.

That may be starting to change, according to American officials.

U.S. and allied intelligence officials warned on Wednesday that Beijing was intensifying a campaign to entice former fighter pilots from Western nations to train Chinese pilots.

The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — an intelligence-sharing partnership known as the Five Eyes — said in a bulletin that China’s People’s Liberation Army was trying to tap the “skills and expertise of these individuals” to improve its own air operations.

“To overcome their shortcomings, China’s People’s Liberation Army has been aggressively recruiting Western military talent to train their aviators, using private firms around the globe that conceal their P.L.A. ties and offer recruits exorbitant salaries,” said Michael C. Casey, the director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

China has been building up its air and naval forces, and leaders in Beijing have warned that they could eventually be open to using force to unite their country with Taiwan. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the findings, say there is little doubt that Chinese fighter pilots appear to be getting better.

But officials debate how much of the improvement can be attributed to training by foreign pilots versus an increase in hours that Chinese pilots are logging in homegrown training programs.

Officials say China’s efforts to entice pilots to train the People’s Liberation Army stretch back years but have intensified. Britain issued a warning in September after it strengthened laws against training foreign pilots

American officials said the Chinese military has set up a number of nominally independent training centers in several countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. They say the recruited pilots have been offered the chance to fly in a variety of exotic and advanced planes and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their services.

While the pilots may not initially know they are training the Chinese military, it quickly becomes apparent, according to officials briefed on the findings.

Officials would not say how many allied pilots have been involved in training the Chinese military, but American officials said it was easily in the dozens. Britain has reported that at least 30 former British pilots have trained the Chinese military. Three Canadian former pilots, seven from New Zealand and a group from Germany have also been accused of training China’s military.

In addition to the centers in other countries, training has also occurred in China, according to American officials. In 2022, a Chinese fighter plane crashed and the pilots ejected. In a videotape of the incident, one of the pilots on the ground is a Westerner speaking English.

In September, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., then the head of the U.S. Air Force but who later became the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, warned American aviators against assisting the Chinese. “The People’s Liberation Army wants to exploit your knowledge and skill to fill gaps in their military capability,” he wrote in a memo to Air Force service members.

Asked at a news briefing on Wednesday how the Pentagon would get American pilots to refrain from training their Chinese counterparts, Sabrina Singh, the deputy press secretary, said, “You know, loyalty for your country, I think, is certainly one that we always impart on our service members.”

Teaching advanced warfighting skills to foreign nationals can quickly bring legal action. In addition to banning weapons sales, the Arms Export Control Act also prohibits training of foreign militaries without the permission of the U.S. government.

The United States has been trying to bring a former Marine pilot, Daniel Duggan, to trial on charges that he trained Chinese pilots.

Mr. Duggan was indicted in 2017, on charges that he trained Chinese pilots in 2010 and 2012. But the indictment was not unsealed until 2022, when he was arrested in Australia. Mr. Duggan denies the accusation and has been fighting his extradition to the United States.

Intelligence officials said the bulletin released on Wednesday was meant to deter current or former service members from engaging in training. Mr. Casey said such efforts would “put their military colleagues at risk and erode our national security.”

American officials say China has not only tried to learn American and allied air tactics from former pilots. It has also stepped up surveillance of military exercises using drones, balloons and other technology, efforts that sometimes have led to reports of unidentified objects near military bases.

Pentagon officials have attributed some puzzling sightings of unidentified objects to relatively ordinary drone technology. They say surveillance, by drones and balloons, is part of Beijing’s effort to learn more about how American fighter planes fly off aircraft carriers and conduct operations.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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