U.S., Allies Discuss China's Recruitment of NATO-Trained Military Personnel

China's recruitment involves online job listings and targeted headhunting emails, enticing individuals with lucrative contracts.
  • Defensemirror.com bureau
  • 09:00 AM, February 13, 2024
  • 1388
U.S., Allies Discuss China's Recruitment of NATO-Trained Military Personnel

U.S. and NATO officials addressed growing concerns about China's attempts to manipulate Airmen for employment during the "Securing Our Military Expertise from Adversaries" conference at NATO Allied Air Command in Ramstein Air Base on January 30-31.

The focus of the event was the increasing worry over the People's Republic of China's (PRC) efforts to manipulate Airmen trained by the U.S. and NATO, with a particular focus on experienced pilots, maintainers, air operations center personnel, and technical experts.

Representatives from the U.S., including the National Security Council, and 22 NATO allies participated in the conference. Key topics included best practices to counter PRC recruitment efforts and the establishment of shared goals to combat the emerging threat to U.S. and NATO security. The conference marked the first broad NATO participation in addressing the ongoing PRC targeting of military personnel.

Since 2022, incidents involving retired American, British, and German fighter pilots working with the Chinese Air Force and Navy have been on the rise. Notably, a 2023 report from the German publication Der Spiegel revealed that former German Air Force officers were training Chinese pilots, potentially divulging sensitive NATO deployment strategies and aiding in designing tactics for a Taiwan attack scenario.

In 2022, a former U.S. Marine pilot, Daniel Duggan, was arrested in Australia for violating U.S. arms control laws by training Chinese military pilots to land on aircraft carriers. Duggan denied the allegations, asserting that he was only improving the skills of Chinese civilian pilots. In 2023, two U.S. Navy sailors were also arrested and indicted for allegedly sending classified information to Chinese intelligence officers.

The U.S. Air Force acknowledged both overt and covert recruitment drives by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) directed at current and former U.S. and NATO members with air operations experience. The recruitment methods employed by the PRC involve job listings on online platforms or headhunting emails sent directly to targeted individuals, often offering lucrative contracts. To combat this, the U.S. Air Force has urged its personnel to promptly report any approaches to authorities and provided a formula to contact the local U.S. Air Force Office of Investigations detachment.

In a memo from September 2023, former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., highlighted the rising recruitment trend and its potential risk to sensitive national defense information. Providing classified information to a foreign government is illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and U.S. Federal Law, with severe penalties, including dishonorable discharge, imprisonment, fines, and even the death penalty in extreme cases.

The PRC has not outrightly denied the recruitment accusations, but the Chinese embassy in Washington accused the U.S. of attempting to smear companies engaged in "normal exchanges and cooperation." In response, the U.S. government added dozens of companies, including Frontier Services Group and the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, to its trade restriction list due to alleged connections to the Chinese government.

Concerns over Western pilots training China's military have also prompted action from Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. The UK Ministry of Defense disclosed that up to 30 former British military pilots were providing training in China, leading to increased scrutiny and preventive measures in these countries. In November 2022, Australia's defense minister, Richard Marles, confirmed reports of Australian pilots providing military training to China and called for a review of safety procedures to safeguard against foreign intelligence threats.

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