Top guns for hire: British pilots training Chinese military slammed as ‘morally repugnant’

London: About 30 former British fighter pilots have been training Chinese pilots how to shoot down Western aircraft, according to the UK government.

Their actions are not illegal unless they have betrayed any official secrets.

The practice of pilots being offered lucrative contracts worth around £250,000 ($449,000) to train Chinese fighters has been going on for years, according to Britain’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey.

An RAF F-35B aircraft in Cyprus in 2019.Credit:AP

“I’ve been aware of it for a number of years and our counter-intelligence team from defence intelligence have been working on it to speak to those involved and to be very clear with them that what they’re doing is not something we support and we would prefer they weren’t,” Heappey told London radio LBC.

“What they were doing was not illegal, unless of course they explicitly compromised secrets that they were told under the Official Secrets Act, and there’s no evidence that they have.

“But, nonetheless, we are going to strengthen the law through the National Security Act to make sure that when people are told that they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing, it becomes an offence if they continue to do it,” he said.

Insider a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.Credit:Getty

A third-party company based in South Africa, Test Flying Academy of South Africa, hires the pilots on behalf of a range of unspecified clients.

The company says on its website that it has been operating since 2003, to “meet the highly specialised flight test training needs of domestic and foreign aerospace industries and governments.”

SATFA was contacted for comment.

When questioned if the pilots in question were being “anti-British,” Heappey said in some instances the pilots had not been aware of precisely who they were training.

“What we’ve heard back is they weren’t clear,” he said.

“A lot of them had entered into these arrangements in good faith, a lot of them unwittingly is the honest answer.

“The company involved does not say the ‘PLA Air Force Academy’ – it’s named something slightly more euphemistic.

“When we’ve told them what we believe the consequence of their actions to be, most have been concerned to reassure that they are not betraying secrets.

“We don’t want our pilots and crucially those who are familiar with some of our most sensitive capabilities to be working for a foreign power that we consider to be a competitor and in some cases, a competitor that is acting in a malign way to challenge the UK’s interests,” Heappey said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said the UK was acting to shut down Chinese attempts to headhunt serving and former UK RAF pilots.

“We are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defence, while the new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one,” the spokesperson said.

Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer, who the Chinese have previously tried to recruit, said any pilot arriving in China would have immediately understood who they were working for.

“I’m gobsmacked,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. ”Of course they know who they’re training.”

“It’s morally repugnant, when you get the Prime Minister and Secretary of State calling China the number one threat, it’s morally wrong at every level.”

He said he was almost certain that classified information would have been revealed.

“It is almost certain that these pilots will have given away classified information,” he said.

“In these situations you get into military speak and therefore capabilities of aircraft and weapons system will almost have come up in conversation, whether that be formally or in social events afterwards.

“The Chinese will have tried every tactic possible to compromise the individuals and exploit that.

“It almost certain that some of those individuals have been compromised where they have worked or are working for elements of Chinese intelligence,” he said.

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