China continues to recruit former NATO fighter pilots to sharpen and advance its air force’s fighting skills, striking deals that have raised security concerns in several Western countries.
Ex-NATO German fighter pilots are now paid handsomely by Beijing to share their expertise in Western aircraft, tactics and strategy.
This month, Der Spiegel reported that three former German fighter pilots who flew Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon jets had trained People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLA-AF) fighter pilots.
The report said the German ex-pilots earned princely sums for training the PLA fliers in military expertise, reputedly confidential operational tactics and even attack scenarios such as an air offensive to liberate Taiwan.
In a similar case, news.com.au reported on October 2022 that China is recruiting former Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter pilots for the same purpose, with an anonymous former RAAF pilot saying that he has been offered nearly US$1 million a year to train PLA-AF fighter pilots.
The report said that such incidents warranted an investigation by the Australian government to develop recommendations to deal with the problem.
That same month, Asia Times reported on China’s efforts to lure former British fighter pilots to work as trainers for its air force, with 30 British pilots being offered US$270,000 a year.
While none of the former pilots have flown the F-35, currently the most advanced fighter in the Royal Air Force (RAF), the pilots have flown older sophisticated aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Jaguar, and Tornado.
China has also dangled cash to recruit former US military pilots.
In the same month, Forbes reported that a former US Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8B Harrier pilot was arrested in Australia following reports that China has recruited ex-RAF pilots to provide adversary training to Chinese fighter pilots.
Although the recruited former NATO pilots are unfamiliar with the latest fighter jets, they will still approach mission planning and operations the same way as their active-duty counterparts, helping modernize the PLA-AF’s institutional mentality.
In January 2023, Asia Times reported that PLA-AF fighter pilots fresh out of training are sometimes rushed into action over the South China Sea, in some cases just a month after completing their training program.
Der Spiegel notes that one possible objective of the former German pilots working in China may have been to train Chinese pilots to break free of their command control mentality, which can eventually translate into more extensive PLA-AF institutional and cultural changes.
Former NATO pilots have multiple reasons for taking up China’s offer. Der Spiegel notes that German fighter pilots usually retire at 41 when their reflexes slow and vision deteriorates.
The report also says that German fighter pilots who begin flying at 20 receive half their salary when they turn 41, which is insufficient for most and incentivizes them to look for secondary employment.
China’s efforts to recruit ex-NATO pilots may be part of a normalize deviance strategy to gain information on top-tier Western aircraft, such as the F-35.
It may also be to convince these former elite military pilots that signing a contract from China is not different from taking one from Saudi Arabia, which unlike China is perceived to be a US ally.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2023.