(DW) For years, retired Bundeswehr pilots, hired by private companies, have been training Chinese military personnel. Germany fears that the practice puts defense secrets at risk.
In the past, Germany has had official military training programs with China. The exchange of technical and tactical experience between military personnel is common. Military personnel also often take their unique skills into the private sector after they retire.
But these days, when it comes to China, these standards are being scrutinized more closely. This was made clear recently by the strong reaction in Germany to a report that revealed a practice that is considered common: According to Der Spiegel magazine and the public television station ZDF, a “handful” of retired Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) pilots have been hired to provide training in China.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who was in Singapore attending a high-level defense summit when the story broke, could only tell his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, that he hoped “this practice would be stopped immediately.
It comes just as the German government, at the request of the United States, is reassessing economic and strategic relations with the world’s second largest economy and growing military power.
“The [defense] ministry must now do everything possible to stop this practice,” Marcus Faber, lawmaker and members of the parliamentary defense committee, told DW in a statement. “The rules for those who, due to their work for the German state, have access to security-relevant information urgently need to be strengthened,” he added.
The work itself does not violate any laws. But the legal gray area leaves the German government with limited authority to stop such knowledge transfer.
According to a German defense ministry spokesman, except in the clear case of sharing state secrets, retired military and other government employees are largely free to make use of their knowledge. They are subject to “‘retroactive’ service obligations,” he points out, which require them to report on their new occupation and “maintain secrecy about matters of which they have learned.” The ministry then conducts a “conflict of interest check” and may, if it finds any reason, deny the new job.
The ministry has expressed concern that the Chinese pilots are receiving not only basic flight instruction, but also information about NATO tactics and operational capabilities. It is unclear, however, whether this would constitute a breach of confidentiality.
In a statement to DW, the South African school TFASA identified in the Der Spiegel report, denied that it endangers the national security of any country. “All aspects and training materials are strictly unclassified and provided with open source or by the clients themselves,” said a London-based communications consultancy representing TFASA.
The employment of retired NATO pilots to train Chinese pilots may go back nearly a decade, say expert observers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s armed forces. In other words: this would be happening long before the European Union classified China as a “systemic rival” and the US national security strategy called China the “only competitor” with the means and desire to “reshape the international order.”
But China has a long history of successfully using foreign knowledge to accelerate its domestic development. Every Western advance in research, industry, and technology has a Chinese equivalent. And it doesn’t take a big leap to apply those efforts to the defense sector.
“‘For the PLA, working with retired Western pilots allows them to refine their doctrine and essentially steal secrets from Western countries’ military exercises,’ said Tzu-Yun Su, a researcher at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) in Taiwan.
The German media revelations come amid a flurry of similar cases in other countries. British and American pilots have also been cited for participating in Chinese training programs. As in Germany, the British Parliament is considering tightening the laws governing the matter.
In a more extreme case, an Australian former US Marine Corps pilot was arrested last year in Australia, where he now lives. Daniel Duggan faces extradition to the US on charges of conspiracy, arms trafficking and money laundering in connection with an alleged training mission in China under contract with TFASA. Duggan denies any wrongdoing, saying the case is politically motivated as US-China relations have deteriorated since the termination of his contract.