Australia investigates if its former pilots are being recruited by China after UK’s own warning

Canberra investigates Beijing’s alleged attempts to hire ex-airforce pilots

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Wednesday 19 October 2022 10:20 BST
Related: China complains over Biden’s comments on defending Taiwan

The Australian military is investigating whether its former air force pilots are being hired by China, the defence ministry said, after Britain raised warnings against similar recruitments of its ex-pilots by Beijing.

Australia’s defence minister Richard Marles said he has asked the military to investigate claims the former pilots are being recruited to join a South African flight school that operated in China.

“When our Australian Defence Force personnel sign up to the defence force, they do so to serve their country and we are deeply grateful of that,” Mr Marles said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I would be deeply shocked and disturbed to hear that there were personnel who were being lured by a pay check from a foreign state above serving their own country,” he added.

“I have asked the department to investigate these claims and come back to my office with clear advice on this matter.”

His announcement follows the UK government's confirmation that as many as 30 British military pilots have been recruited by the People’s Liberation Army to pass on their expertise on ways to defeat western warplanes and helicopters.

Officials on Tuesday claimed Beijing lured these retired military pilots, including those who flew sophisticated fighter jets, for a hefty annual salary of around £240,000.

Britain’s defence ministry said the pilots involved have been informed that they risked prosecution under the Official Secrets Act along with a national security bill that would provide other paths to prosecution.

The recruitment, however, does not violate any existing laws, including the Official Secrets Act which covers espionage and sabotage. But officials are ramping up efforts to deter such hirings due to the “threat” they posed to “the UK and western interests”.

Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA) – the South African company in question – said in an undated advertisement that it was seeking fixed-wing and helicopter test pilot instructors to work at an undisclosed location in “Far East Asia”.

The company, which also runs a flight school in South Africa for Chinese airline pilots, was looking for graduates from military test flight schools in the US or Britain for an initial contract commitment of four years.

The advertisement was sent to all Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) members, according to one based in Australia. SETP is an international organisation that seeks to promote air safety and helps in the professional development of experimental pilots, its website states.

“I don't know anyone who has gone, but they're clearly targeting Western/Five Eyes test pilots,” the SETP member told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The Five Eyes is a western intelligence group made up of Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.

“We all go to the schools they listed.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in