China is continuing efforts to recruit Western military pilots to train its forces, often using privately-owned companies and “lucrative contracts” with vague terms to obscure the true customer.

That is the conclusion of a dossier released on 5 June by the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance, an intelligence-sharing and collaboration partnership between the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. 

While China’s efforts to use the expertise of Western aviators to benefit its own armed forces are not new, the intelligence summary offers new details about the programme.

“To overcome their shortcomings, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been aggressively recruiting Western military talent to train their aviators, using private firms around the globe that conceal their PLA ties and offer recruits exorbitant salaries,” says Michael Casey, director of the US National Counter Intelligence and Security Center.

PLAAF J-10 pilot 2

Source: Chinese Ministry of National Defense

A pilot with China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force in a Chengdu J-10 fighter trainer. Beijing has been seeking to recruit Western aviators to help train its own forces

The joint bulletin released by Five Eyes says the PLA’s recruitment efforts continue evolving despite recent actions to impede Beijing’s progress.

Those actions include sanctions against several flight-training providers, including the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, Beijing China Aviation Technology, and sanctions against 43 such firms in 2023, in connection to the training of Chinese pilots. The US Department of Commerce said the firms aided Beijing with pilot training, flight manoeuvres and tactics, hypersonic-weapons development and weapons life-cycle management.

The latest intelligence report suggests some targeted officers may be unaware who they are working for. It cites “lucrative contracts” and says “vague details on the ultimate customer” obscure connections to China. Such contracts also attract pilots with opportunities to “fly exotic aircraft”. The document does not specify how much money pilots have been offered for their services.

“Nefarious recruitment attempts are not always obvious, as companies may not initially promote the PLA’s role,” intelligence officials say.

However, the dossier acknowledges that attempts at “transparent recruitment” have also been made, without elaborating. Military pilots, flight engineers and air operations centre personnel represent the most sought-after targets.

Allied governments are urging current and former service members to be aware of possible Chinese recruitment efforts, and warning about consequences of revealing sensitive information and techniques.