(MENAFN- Asia Times) China continues to recruit former NATO fighter pilots to sharpen and advance its air force's fighting skills, striking deals that have raised security concerns in several Western countries.
this month, der spiegel reported that three former German fighter pilots who flew Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon jets had trained People's Liberation Army-Air Force (PLA-AF) fighter pilots.
The report said the German ex-pilots earned princely sums for training the PLA fliers in military expertise, reputedly confidential operational tactics and even attack scenarios such as an air offensive against Taiwan.
Der Spiegel reports that in response the Bundestag's Parliamentary Oversight Panel has addressed the“professional activity of public servants following the end of their employment.”
The report also said that the German Defense Ministry has confirmed that China is using external agencies to recruit former NATO pilots as trainers, posing a significant danger that not only basic flight skills would be imparted but also sensitive tactics, techniques and procedures.
In a similar case, news.com.au reported on october 2022 that China is recruiting former Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter pilots for the same purpose, with an anonymous former RAAF pilot saying that he has been offered nearly US$1 million a year to train PLA-AF fighter pilots. The report said that such incidents warranted an investigation by the Australian government to develop recommendations to deal with the problem.
that same month, asia times reported on China's efforts to lure former British fighter pilots to work as trainers for its air force, with 30 British pilots being offered US$270,000 a year. While none of the former pilots have flown the F-35, currently the most advanced fighter in the Royal Air Force (RAF), the pilots have flown older sophisticated aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Jaguar, and Tornado.
An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon armed with a Storm Shadow missile. Credit: Handout
China has also dangled cash to recruit former US military pilots. in the same month, forbes reported that a former US Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8B Harrier pilot was arrested in Australia following reports that China has recruited ex-RAF pilots to provide adversary training to Chinese fighter pilots.
The source notes that a former USMC AV-8B Harrier pilot would be an invaluable resource to China as it is developing its J-18 Red Eagle vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fighter jet and seeks to better understand US and NATO's VTOL operations.
Although the recruited former NATO pilots are unfamiliar with the latest fighter jets, they will still approach mission planning and operations the same way as their active-duty counterparts, helping modernize the PLA-AF's institutional mentality.
The Ukraine war has exposed the flaws of Russia and China's“command control” top-down, centralized leadership structure, contrasting with NATO's preference for“mission command” lower-level leadership to take the initiative in operations.
Russia and China's command control may be suited for large-scale operations due to a perceived necessity to maintain tight political control over their militaries.
However, it may also be due to their reliance on hastily-trained and rapidly-mobilized mass forces, which may not have the operational and tactical skill and initiative to execute sophisticated plans.
Such weakness may be reflected in China's fighter pilot training, which it now seeks to address with the help of former NATO pilots.
in january 2023, asia times reported that PLA-AF fighter pilots fresh out of training are sometimes rushed into action over the South China Sea, in some cases just a month after completing their training program.
Although the PLA-AF has made significant progress in fielding increasingly advanced aircraft, it's not clear whether its pilots have been able to keep pace with the advances.
The PLA-AF's pilot training program is known to have several shortfalls, which may be connected to China's command control culture.
These are believed to include poor lead-in flight skills, complacency in conducting flight exercises, insufficient coordination between PLA-AF sub-branches, lack of experienced flight instructors, a“nanny approach” to training, and assessing pilots on how precise they can perform heavily scripted mission plans instead of flexibly completing objectives.
People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighter pilots pose at the Jiuquan space base, in Gansu province. Photo: China Out / AFP
Der Spiegel notes that one possible objective of the former German pilots working in China may have been to train Chinese pilots to break free of their“command control” mentality, which can eventually translate into more extensive PLA-AF institutional and cultural changes.
Apart from breaking pedantic training practices, former NATO fighter pilots may be instrumental in helping the PLA-AF learn Composite Air Operation (COMAO) mission planning, which entails organizing larger numbers of combat aircraft to multitask over multiple sub-missions and use diversionary tactics.
Former NATO pilots have multiple reasons for taking up China's offer. Der Spiegel notes that German fighter pilots usually retire at 41 when their reflexes slow and vision deteriorates.
The report also says that German fighter pilots who begin flying at 20 receive half their salary when they turn 41, which is insufficient for most and incentivizes them to look for secondary employment.
China's efforts to recruit ex-NATO pilots may be part of a“normalize deviance” strategy to gain information on top-tier Western aircraft, such as the F-35. It may also be to convince these former elite military pilots that signing a contract from China is not different from taking one from Saudi Arabia, which unlike China is perceived to be a US ally.
Poor economic and career prospects after retirement may also push former NATO fighter pilots to sign training contracts with China, as older pilots are perceived to be uneconomical to train in newer aircraft, leaving them with bleak career prospects in the commercial aviation industry.
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