Australia’s defence force has launched an investigation into allegations that a number of its former air force pilots were offered lucrative packages to teach Chinese pilots how to fly western attack aircraft.
Australian pilots were among those approached by a South African flight school to train Chinese pilots to operate warplanes that included Typhoons, Tornados and Harriers.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said this week that 30 former Royal Air Force pilots had been offered salaries of up to £237,000 a year to train People’s Liberation Army pilots. One official said serving personnel had also been approached.
The New Zealand Defence Force told the Financial Times that four former pilots were employed by the Test Flying Academy of South Africa but that no serving personnel were involved.
The recruitment drive to strengthen the skills of China’s air force comes at a time of high tension in the Indo-Pacific region. In May, a Chinese J-16 fighter intercepted an Australian P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft over international waters and released “chaff” including aluminium that was ingested by the engine of the plane.
Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, said Canberra had ordered an urgent review of the recruitment drive and would seek “clear advice” on what had occurred.
“When our Australian Defence Force personnel sign up . . . they do so to serve their country and we are deeply grateful of that,” Marles said. “I would be deeply shocked and disturbed to hear that there were personnel who were being lured by a pay cheque from a foreign state above serving their country.”
The New Zealand defence force said: “NZDF personnel are free to be able to gain employment once they leave service, however depending on their decisions, there may be repercussions to any future employment with the NZDF.”
Conditions that could block employment with the New Zealand Defence Force include working against the country’s national interest and providing services to a foreign defence entity.
Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank, said that the prospect of former Australian fighter pilots training their Chinese counterparts seemed “outlandish”, particularly after the incident in May and it would be perplexing if any had taken up the offer.
“Teaching PLA pilots to do air combat could mean revealing how our air forces operate, including our tactics. If it’s true, it would be profoundly concerning,” he said.
Senior government and military officials in Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and has threatened to annex by military force, said that while there were retired Taiwanese military pilots serving in the Chinese civil aviation sector, the country was not aware of any former air force personnel having been recruited by the Chinese military.
But defence minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said Taipei could not restrict former members of its military from pursuing such activities in China long after they had been discharged.
“We have restrictions on retired soldiers and military officers and people with special skills, but after they leave the armed forces, they are normal civilians,” Chiu told lawmakers on Wednesday. “As long as they [do not violate] the discharge period, the defence ministry does not have any mandatory regulations.
Members of Singapore’s air force, who are often trained by the US or European militaries, would be seriously punished if they were found to have helped the PLA, according to a person specialising in security policy.
The person said such training would probably be illegal and would violate export controls.