China Is Reportedly Hiring Ex-NATO Pilots to Beef Up Its Aircraft Carrier Tactics

 Lured by easy money, Western military pilots are working in China—but will their efforts really matter in the long run?



A scandal involving British ex-military pilots widened this week with reports that at least one American and several French ex-military pilots were also working for the Chinese military. The pilots are allegedly paid hefty contracts to train active-duty Chinese Air Force pilots in Western tactics. Whether or not China’s investment will pay off in the long term, however, remains to be seen.

Who Did China Recruit?



Last week, Popular Mechanics reported that 30 ex-British military pilots—including those from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and possibly the Royal Navy and British Army—were working in China as consultants to the People’s Liberation Army. Mostly in their fifties, the pilots are predominantly “fast jet” pilots, veterans of aircraft such as the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon. They are paid a salary of approximately $271,000, easily double an airline pilot’s salary, and in return, they are teaching the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Western flying tactics.

Now, new reports have emerged that ex-French military pilots are also working in China, lured by the high pay. The French newspaper Le Figaro reports that China is targeting French pilots because France is one of the few countries that operates an aircraft carrier fitted with catapults and arresting gear for takeoffs and landings. Although China’s two operational aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, use ski ramps instead of catapults, Beijing’s third carrier, Fujian, will use catapults. In other words, China is renting foreign expertise in taking off and landing from modern aircraft carriers.

In yet another report, authorities arrested a U.S. Marine veteran in Australia last week on behalf of the FBI. Daniel Edmund Duggan, a former AV-8B Harrier jump jet pilot, had reportedly worked for the Chinese military, living in Qingdao. According to Reuters, Duggan had been an air combat instructor in the Marine Corps, and per his LinkedIn profile, he had been working in Qingdao, China, as the managing director of AVIBIZ Limited since 2017. Qingdao is the headquarters of China’s Northern Sea Fleet and the home port of the aircraft carrier Liaoning, considered the Chinese Navy’s training carrier.

Why Is China Interested in Western Pilots?



The pattern of Chinese recruiting concentrates on two key areas: how Western air forces fight and how they train—particularly carrier operations. Liaoning, China’s first carrier, was only commissioned in 2012, and Chinese carrier-based aviation is still in its infancy. The world of carrier aviation is dangerous and unforgiving, and is hard even for the mighty U.S. Navy, which has been at it for 100 years. China’s pilots and flight deck crews probably need all the help they can get.

Insights into how Western pilots fight is another area of interest. Western air forces often train with one another to disseminate newly discovered aerial tactics and provide new challenges for their pilots. China cannot learn how Western air forces fly by training with them, as most are—to put it mildly—skeptical of China and of providing Beijing with any type of military benefit.



One thing that China does not need Western help with is improving Chinese tactics. Like all totalitarian countries, China’s air forces (the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force) exercise strict control from the top down, with formations of planes typically taking orders from a ground control station or airborne command post. The PLA, like the Chinese Communist Party that it serves, prefers a high level of control exercised at the top with little room for initiative at lower levels. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, so knowledge of Western tactics is not useful beyond knowing how a hypothetical enemy will fight.

What Will Chinese Air Forces Gain by Renting Western Pilots?

China’s carrier force might glean some benefit from working with Western ex-carrier pilots, as new techniques—particularly safety techniques—are worked into China’s procedures.

But even 50 RAF pilots, plus an unknown number of American, French, and possibly Australian and Canadian pilots, are not likely to move the needle much. It’s unlikely that any of these pilots have hands-on experience with fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which are gradually replacing older jets. These fifth-generation planes have a totally different fighting style that largely consists of using stealth to hide and then ambush adversaries, making older styles obsolete. If anything, it might demonstrate to Chinese pilots how inferior their system of aerial combat is.


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