China Hired British Ex-Military Pilots to Train Its Armed Forces

The pilots, lured by large paychecks, have been advised to discontinue their work.



Experienced military pilots, veterans of the British military, 
are in China working to train Chinese armed forces. The pilots were hired for their knowledge of Western air combat techniques and are helping Chinese pilots train to beat Western air forces. The expertise the pilots are selling will almost certainly accelerate the Chinese Air Force’s and Navy’s efforts to modernize their training and effectiveness against adversaries—including the U.S. military.
According to a Sky News report, there are around thirty British ex-military pilots currently working in China. The pilots are “mainly ex-fast jet but also some helicopter pilots,” with some in their fifties. The pilots are paid a salary of £240,000, or approximately $278,000.



China has a well-developed military pilot program where the expertise of foreigners isn’t exactly needed. Instead, the foreigners train Chinese pilots in Western air combat techniques, offering firsthand knowledge of how the Royal Air Force and other air forces fight.

any NATO air forces train against each other in dissimilar air combat training (DACT)— pitting, for example, U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors against German Eurofighters—allowing pilots to experience the capabilities of foreign aircraft and the skills and tactics of foreign pilots firsthand. This friendly training is invaluable and a major benefit of having military allies.

China’s isolated position in the global community makes DACT unavailable to Chinese pilots. The United States and Western Europe slapped an arms embargo on China after the June 1989 massacre of pro-democracy students and other protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, preventing China from buying western military hardware. While there is no similar policy against exporting training and expertise to China, the country’s increasing aggressiveness against U.S., Australian, and Canadian forces in the South China Sea, and against TaiwanJapan, and others has made many governments reluctant to supply military assistance to China in any form.

The British ex-military pilots were recruited by intermediary companies. Sky News reportedly identified one company, Test Flying Academy of South Africa. The company bills itself as “the only independent test pilot school outside Europe and the Americas.” It also says it provides “flight testing and consultation services,” and issued a statement claiming the Sky News report is “factually incorrect and misleading.” A request for comment by Popular Mechanics went unanswered.

The Sky News report states the British pilots working in China have been approached and warned their government disapproves of their new gig, and that the U.K. is working to dissuade other pilots from taking similar jobs.



an Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, tells Popular Mechanics, “The unfortunate reality is that this case is just a drop in the bucket in terms of all those experts from democracies who have naively helped the Chinese Communist Party and it’s armed wing prepare for a future war of aggression.”

The pilots are technically not doing anything wrong: they are not flying for a foreign power, and authorities in the U.K. believe the pilots have not breached the country’s Official Secrets Act.

“Legal loopholes obviously need to be closed,” Easton says. “But, at the same time, steps need to be taken to train government and military personnel regarding the China threat. This is not just a U.K. problem. It’s a U.S. problem, too.”

Still, many would find issue with working to improve the armed forces of the world’s most powerful authoritarian state, which is also setting itself up for a military takeover of the peaceful democracy in Taiwan—and possibly more. Earlier this monthThe Guardian reported the U.K. was planning to officially designate China as a security threat.

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