Western ‘top guns’ are being ‘headhunted’ by China

United States and its ‘Five Eyes’ allies warn of the risks posed by the PLA recruitment drive

China’s military appears to be intensifying its efforts to recruit Western fighter pilots, employing new and more intricate tactics to snare Western expertise.

The United States and some of its closest intelligence partners issued a new warning last week. Washington cautioned that the People’s Liberation Army or PLA is using private companies, including corporate headhunters so that Western pilots are unaware of links to the Chinese military until it is too late.

The goal, according to a bulletin issued by the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – known as the Five Eyes – is for China to better train its own fighter crews while gaining better insights into how Western air forces operate.

And this could erode Western advantages or even give Chinese fighter jets a boost in case of a conflict.

The bulletin said the PLA is recruiting through private companies based in South Africa and China, trying to lure Western pilots with lucrative salaries.

Chinese military

Other recruitment efforts include leveraging personal acquaintances, professional networking sites and online job platforms, which similarly obscure links to the Chinese government or military.

“We’re issuing this joint bulletin today because this is a persistent threat that continues to evolve in response to Western countermeasures,” an official with the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center told Voice of America.

Like any illicit enterprise that seeks to conceal its activities, there have been efforts to incorporate entities [companies] in different locations under different names.

“There have also been variations in recruitment pitches and approaches. It’s critical that we keep our current and former service members informed about this threat, which is directly targeting them,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the rationale behind the bulletin.

‘Five Eyes’ warn of the dangers posed by the PLA. Photo: File / Online

The Five Eyes statement said the Chinese recruitment efforts appear to be targeting current and former military pilots from Five Eyes countries, as well as those from France, Germany and other Western nations.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the allegations in the bulletin about efforts by the PLA to hire Western fighter pilots.

But it pushed back against the accusations that private companies with links to China are engaged in improper behavior.

“Countries should not generalize and abuse the concept of national security and smear relevant companies,” the embassy said in an email to VOA.

The companies’ normal business activities should be respected.

The embassy added that the accusations are “not conducive to the healthy development of China-US relations.”

Defense officials

Concerns about Beijing’s pursuit of Western pilots and aviation expertise are not new.

British defense officials were sounding alarms about Beijing’s efforts to recruit retired members of the British Royal Air Force through companies in South Africa as far back as October 2022.

Australian defense officials raised similar concerns a month later, warning that retired military personnel had an “enduring obligation” to protect state secrets and “to reveal any of those secrets is a crime.” 

Britain, Australia and the other Five Eyes members have also taken action to curtail Beijing’s efforts.

A Navy J-15 fighter takes off from the Liaoning carrier. Photo: PLAN

Last year, the US, for example, placed restrictions on 43 entities tied to Chinese efforts to recruit and hire Western fighter pilots.

The targeted companies included a flight school in South Africa, a security and an aviation company founded by a former US Navy SEAL with operations in the United Arab Emirates, Kenya and Laos.

In turn, China has responded aggressively to the moves, rolling out new recruitment efforts aimed not only at hiring former Western fighter pilots but engineers and flight operation center personnel.

Washington and its intelligence partners also warned that could give the PLA insights into the operations and tactics of Western air forces.

Suspicious recruitment

Still, last week’s bulletin advises current and former US military personnel approached with suspicious recruitment pitches to contact their military services or the FBI.

Military personnel from other countries are encouraged to contact the appropriate defense agencies.

“PLA recruitment efforts continue to evolve,” US National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director Michael Casey said in a statement last Wednesday, adding:

[The new warning] seeks to highlight this persistent threat and deter any current or former Western service members from actions that put their military colleagues at risk and erode our national security.

Jeff Seldin is the Voice of America’s National Security Correspondent, tracking developments in intelligence, counterterrorism, and cyber since 2015 after a stint covering the Pentagon. 

This article is republished courtesy of VOA. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.