The British Defense Ministry says it is seeking to ensure retired members of the British Royal Air Force who were recruited via a South African company to train pilots in China’s People’s Liberation Army are fully aware of the risk of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.
China has been recruiting former British military pilots to train their own personnel, Britain’s defense ministry said in a statement this week, warning that it “erodes the UK’s defense advantage” and that steps are being taken to stop it.
The Ministry’s Defense Intelligence Service issued a rare “threat alert” on Tuesday and its officials said that British pilots who transfer expertise to the Chinese military – possibly even teaching them how to defeat Western helicopters and warplanes – could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
Many of the 30 pilots believed to be involved were lured to work in China with the promise of lucrative salaries, officials said. Pilots from other allied nations have also been targeted.
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey spoke to Sky News about Britain’s concerns.
“There is no secret in their attempt to gain access to our secrets, and the recruitment of our pilots in order to understand the capability of our air force is clearly a concern to us,” he said.
Multiple media outlets reported an unnamed Western official as saying many of the pilots were being recruited through the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, a private company in a remote, semidesert area in the Western Cape, which allegedly was acting as a headhunter for the Chinese.
The company has a long history of involvement with China, saying on its website that it provides training to cadets from various Chinese airlines, as part of a deal with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned aerospace and defense conglomerate. The website also says the company has experience with several aircraft used by the People’s Liberation Army.
Thomas Newdick, a writer specializing in air warfare at The Warzone, an American defense website, told VOA the company had made no secret of its relations with the Chinese on the commercial side.
“They have broader relationships with Chinese aviation industry, including parts of the industry that are responsible for military aviation as well, so it’s not a huge leap to imagine they may also have connections with the People’s Liberation Army as well,” he said.
Darren Olivier, director at the African Defense Review, said the aviation center has been operating openly for a number of years.
“With the caveat that we don’t have specific detail on what type of training the company’s been providing, what’s been revealed so far does indeed seem legal,” he said.
However, he said, what made it controversial was that this kind of training would dramatically help accelerate China’s military aircraft programs. It comes as geopolitical tensions between China and the West are on the rise, he noted.
A receptionist at the academy told VOA on Wednesday that she was aware of the controversy surrounding the company and would pass on a request for comment. Multiple emails then went unanswered.
However, the academy’s president, Jean Rossouw, told Business Insider South Africa that no laws had been broken and the company did not deal with any client projects that could include classified information. He said the company had never recruited pilots directly from the British military, but that they were all retired pilots already working as contractors in the Middle East.
Jasmine Opperman, a South African security consultant, said there are many former army personnel in South Africa who provided training or acted as private military recruiters. But she said the reports about the flight academy were concerning.
“The problem for South Africa is you have a registered South African company responsible for training now acting as a go-between for two foreign entities,” she said.
In his speech to the Communist Party Congress in Beijing this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of security and the need to grow the country’s military – the world’s second largest after that of the United States. He also reiterated that China reserved the right to use force, if necessary, regarding Taiwan.