The revelation of former UK military fixed-wing and rotary pilots training China’s military while the UK struggles with its own fast-jet training pipeline delivers a dose of irony that few, even those covering defence matters, would have thought plausible.  

The report, first broken by Sky News, revealed that China was paying significant sums of money to former UK military pilots to help train their own military aviation personnel. This is not to say that China cannot train its own pilots, it is perfectly able to do so, but what gaining access to the thought processes of western pilots will do is provide insight into doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), that underpin how NATO responds to certain situations.  

Know the TTPs of the enemy, and you can anticipate their response and counter accordingly. 

Already, the repercussions are being felt across the UK Government, as Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace was dispatched, or even potentially hailed, for talks in Washington, DC, on 18 October with a US Pentagon doubtless none-too-pleased that one of its closest allies, a Five Eyes partner, member of the AUKUS tripartite defence agreement, and Tier 1 partner on the F-35 programme, could have allowed this to happen. 

Wallace had been due to sit before the UK Defence Committee the same day to provide evidence on the UK’s own defence situation, notwithstanding the latest crisis, on a defence budget under threat and key programmes faltering. Instead, the conversation in DC promises to be more than just a wrap on the wrists.  

At the time of publishing, the MoD had not responded for requests from Airforce Technology for comment.  

The UK’s faltering military aviation training capability 

The irony is that the UK is struggling with its own fast jet training pipeline, as the T1 Hawk trainer aircraft are retired from service and issues remain with the T2 variants that still exist. A process that should take around three years to complete could now run to up to eight, with ‘pilots’ in the meantime consigned to desk duties before they learn how to fly combat relevant platforms.  

On 11 October, James Heappey, Minister of State at the MoD and Minister for the Armed Forces, in a written parliamentary response, stated that measures to offset delays in UK military pilot training included sending trainees to NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training in the US, as well as accelerating planning for No 11 Squadron (the joint Qatar/UK Typhoon unit) to train pilots from late 2022 until 2027.  

In addition, the MoD was “working with allies and partners to examine where UK pilots could be trained overseas”, Heappey stated. 

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Personnel from the Red Arrows aerobatic team are being investigated following allegations of inappropriate behaviour, another poor headline in what is turning into a bad year for the RAF. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

The news that former RAF personnel are training Chinese pilots will also have been met with some resignation by the service, which has endured a difficult year dealing with issues regarding recruitment, amid more controversy that it reportedly marginalised the hiring of white male applicants in a bid to create a more diverse workforce.  

In a September Freedom of Information response to Airforce Technology, the MoD stated that there was no quota of acceptance of RAF recruits from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, under effort to “improve the diversity” of the RAF, the service is targeting to achieve an in-year intake of 20% of ethnic minority entrants by 2030.  

In addition, earlier this year it was revealed that personnel from the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatics display team, comprising some of the best fast jet pilots in the service, is being investigated for alleged inappropriate behaviour

The fallout from the affair

One consequence of the UK-China training crisis will see the UK Government attempt to change the law to prevent, or at least register, former UK military personnel from accepting lucrative contracts from rivals such as China. The US already operates a similar law that requires registry of citizens working in such locations. 

The damage to US relations, already on shaky ground in the eyes of a Biden administration that has a noticeable dislike for the UK and recently broke with diplomatic protocol in commenting on UK national decision making, is likely to be further strained.  

Daniel Morris, lead analyst at GlobalData Research and Analysis, says that the incident could be damaging not just for the UK but also the US. “Best case scenario is that they are old pilots who haven’t flown in uniform for many years. The worst-case scenario would be that recently retired pilot having been giving feedback to China on modern tactics. Even if the pilots were careful not to tell the Chinese the full extent of western aircraft capabilities, they would probably subconsciously give some reference to how to evade etc.” 

Pointing to the fact that Wallace missed the long-scheduled defence committee meeting in order to travel to Washington, Morris says it would be “surprising for [Wallace] to be dragged in front of senior US military figures over this blatant security breach”, and that while ministers do cancel parliamentary meeting it was unlike the Defence Secretary to do so.  

“I think at this stage it will be damage limitation from both the US and the UK, the worst-case scenario security wise would be if any of these pilots had experience on the F-35 or other modern technology, it has the potential to damage the credibility of the UK military if more damming information is to come out.  

“This is at a time when UK could really do with some good global headlines, and the MoD especially,” Morris states, adding that the incident “could kill UK efforts to work with the US in relation to China”, if not handled correctly. 

Concern in Washington, DC, will be centred on whether former UK military personnel who are aiding the training of China’s pilots also operated the secretive F-35 platform during their service. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

For the RAF and MoD, the assistance provided by UK advisors to the Chinese military also pointed to former personnel that both organisations could, and perhaps should, have had a better understanding as to what they were doing after leaving the service.  

“I think it speaks volumes that pilots are desperate to take the money, maybe Covid-19 didn’t help that retired pilots couldn’t get work. But the most damning thing will be if the MoD or government knew this was happening and allowed it to happen and why,” Morris says.  

“I don’t know for sure but fast jet pilots are likely to have DV level of clearance, they will have been advised during these checks, ‘probably best not to go to these countries’, so there is no doubt the pilots knew what they were doing is wrong, [although] maybe not at the start because I understand it was through a South African company.”