Australia moves to block pilots from training Chinese military

Australian parliament told that it costs more than 15 million Australian dollars ($9.75m) to train a jet fighter pilot.

Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets perform air-to-air refuelling while participating in "Exercise Pitch Black", near Darwin, Australia, in 2004 [File: AP]
Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets perform air-to-air refuelling while participating in Exercise Pitch Black, near Darwin, Australia, in 2004 [File: AP]

Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles has ordered an urgent review of secrecy polices in the military in response to concerns that Australian pilots were among Western military personnel recruited to provide training to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

The defence minister said on Wednesday that enough evidence had been provided to warrant a “detailed examination into the adequacy of current defence policies and procedures”, and that to reveal Australian military secrets was a “clear and unambiguous” crime.

“It’s no secret that defence activities, people and assets are targets for foreign intelligence services,” the minister said in a statement.

“But let me be clear: Australians who work or have worked for the government in any capacity, particularly our ADF (Australian Defence Force), who come into possession of the nation’s secrets, have an obligation to maintain those secrets beyond their employment with, or their engagement with, the Commonwealth,” he said.

“This is an enduring obligation and to reveal any of these secrets is a crime,” he added.

Marles ordered the review of Australians training Chinese forces after asking the department of defence last month to investigate reports that China had approached former Australian military personnel to become trainers.

A Chinese J-11 fighter jet flying.
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a US Navy P-8 Poseidon spy aircraft east of China’s Hainan Island in this US Department of Defence photo from 2014 [File US Navy handout via Reuters]

The minister declined to say whether any Australians had been discovered to have provided military training to the Chinese. He said a joint police-intelligence service task force was investigating “a number of cases” among former service personnel.

“What we are focused on right now is making sure that we do examine the policies and the procedures that are currently in place in respect of our former Defence personnel to make sure they are adequate,” he said.

“And if they are not, and if there are weaknesses in that system, then we are absolutely committed to fixing them.”

An Australian parliament hearing was told by defence officials on Wednesday that it cost more than 15 million Australian dollars ($9.75 million) to train a jet fighter pilot, and any disclosure of official information by a pilot to an unauthorised person after they had left the defence force was an offence.

“Foreign actors will target our people for the unique skills they have,” said Celia Perkins, the Australian defence department’s deputy-secretary for security.

The UK and Canada have also expressed concerns that China is attempting to poach military expertise.

The UK’s Defence Ministry last month issued an intelligence alert warning former and current military pilots against Chinese headhunting programs aimed at recruiting them.

Broadcasters Sky News and the BBC reported that about 30 British former military pilots are currently in China training Chinese military pilots. The reports said the pilots are paid annual salaries of 240,000 British pounds ($272,000) for the training.

The media reports have focused on the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, which responded in a statement on its website saying it “strongly believes that its actions, and those of its employees, do not contravene any UK laws”.

The UK said that it would change its national security laws to stop former military pilots being recruited by third-party agencies to work in China.

Canada’s Department of National Defence was also investigating its own former service personnel, noting they remained bound by secrecy commitments after they leave the Canadian Armed Forces.

New Zealand’s defence minister has also requested advice on whether the its defence force needs laws implemented to stop former military pilots training pilots of foreign militaries, a spokeswoman from the prime minister’s office said.

Four former New Zealand defence personnel have worked for the South African flight training school.

The Australian Defence Department review will report on its findings to the minister by December 14.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies