Amid reports that at least 30 former RAF pilots have taken advantage of the “very generous” recruitment packages offered by Beijing to provide training for Chinese military pilots, the U.K. government is now looking to introduce a two-strike rule, which would result in British pilots being given one warning before they were prosecuted.
A report in the Guardian quoted the U.K.’s armed forces minister, James Heappey, as telling Sky News, the government has “approached the people involved and have been clear of them that it’s our expectation they would not continue to be part of that organization.”
“We are going to put into law that once people have been given that warning it will become an offense to go forward and continue with that training,” Heappey said.
“China is a competitor that is threatening the UK interest in many places around the world. It is also an important training partner, but there is no secret in their attempt to gain access to our secrets, and their recruitment of our pilots in order to understand the capabilities of our air force is clearly a concern to us and the intelligence part of the MoD,” the minister added.
A report in the BBC said Britain first became aware of former military pilots being recruited to train Chinese pilots in 2019. The incidents were dealt with on a case-by-case basis. With the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel to China was almost impossible, the attempts slowed down. However, the attempts have now increased, leading to this alert.
Recent reports have said China is struggling to find enough trained pilots to operate fighter jets from aircraft carriers, prompting its navy with two aircraft carriers commissioned and another launched in June, to speed up the pilot training program.
A report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) citing a Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said, with its third and most advanced aircraft carrier Fujian, having started sea, the PLA needed at least 200 qualified carrier-based fighter jet pilots to operate 130 ship-borne aircraft.
Expressing surprise at China’s audacity in luring U.K. pilots and that there was nothing akin to the Official Secrets Act that prevented former RAF pilots from joining China as trainers, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood in a tweet on Tuesday, questioned the absence of patriotism of those who have taken up such assignments.
In a statement, the U.K.’s defense ministry said it was attempting to stop the recruitment of former and serving pilots, adding it was taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former U.K. armed forces pilots.
Even as it was reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across defense, the ministry added the “new national security bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one.”