Ex-Marine Corps Harrier Pilot Who Worked In China Has Been Arrested

A former U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II attack jet pilot who had been working in China has been arrested in Australia. Daniel Edmund Duggan, 54, now likely faces extradition to the United States. It is an interesting development to occur in an ongoing crackdown on ex-military pilots from Western nations working in China, or on behalf of Chinese clients elsewhere. Namely, last week’s revelations that “at least 30” British former military pilots have been hired by China to provide training and intelligence to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Duggan was arrested last Friday in Orange, New South Wales, by Australian Federal Police. He appeared in court there the same day, according to court records, two police sources, and his lawyer, Reuters reports. A request for bail was reportedly denied, leaving Duggan in jail in nearby Bathurst.

An AV-8B Harrier II assigned to the “Bulldogs” of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 223 at Boca Chica Field, near Naval Air Station Key West, Florida. Duggan flew jets of this type while serving in the Marine Corps. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian Morales/ Released

“An individual was arrested on 21 October 2022 pursuant to a request from the United States of America for their provisional arrest,” a spokesman for the federal Attorney-General’s Department told Reuters. “As the matter is before the courts, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

According to one of the aforementioned police sources, the Australian Federal Police were acting on a U.S. request that will likely be followed by formal extradition proceedings. Ahead of any such move, Duggan is due to appear in court again in Sydney in November, where a further bail application will be considered.

At this stage, nothing more is known about the nature of the U.S. arrest warrant or the charges Duggan faces.

However, an unnamed “aviation source” told Reuters that the FBI is interested in Duggan specifically due to his work in China.

Duggan moved to China in 2014. According to his LinkedIn profile, he began working in Qingdao in 2017 as the managing director of AVIBIZ Limited, described as “a comprehensive aviation consultancy company with a focus on the fast-growing and dynamic Chinese Aviation Industry.” That company was registered in Hong Kong but formally ceased operations in 2020.

Prior to his work in China, Duggan had been active in Australia, where he ran Top Gun Tasmania, based at Hobart International Airport. Under the banner of “Australia’s premier adventure flight company,” it employed former military pilots from the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom and offered pleasure flights to paying customers. Its aircraft included Jet Provost T5A and L-39 Albatros jet trainers and Nanchang CJ-6A prop trainers and it also participated in Australian airshows.

Duggan’s prior military career saw him spend around a decade with the U.S. Marine Corps, from 1989 and 2002, during which he flew the AV-8B and served as a senior tactical instructor, rising to the rank of Major. He spent time as a Harrier exchange pilot with the Spanish Navy and eventually accumulated several hundred carrier landings on seven different aircraft carriers.

Cockpit footage from a Spanish Navy EAV-8B, a type Duggan flew as an exchange pilot:

Duggan’s arrest came the same week that the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MOD) confirmed that dozens of British former frontline military pilots had been hired “to help Beijing develop its tactics and technological expertise.” The pilots involved were mainly former fast-jet aircrew and all began working for China from the end of 2019 onward.

As well as working in China, some of the British pilots were engaged on behalf of the PLA via an intermediary, the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, or TFASA, a privately run training center in South Africa’s Western Cape.

So far, there is no indication that those British pilots did anything illegal or breached the Official Secrets Act — the U.K. legislation that protects state secrets and official information.

However, an unnamed Western official told a group of British journalists, “In supporting this training, these personnel are almost certainly enhancing China’s military knowledge and capability.” They added: “Without us taking action, this activity would almost certainly cause harm to the U.K. and our allies’ defense advantage.”

The U.K. MOD has issued a rare “threat alert” to dissuade British personnel and ex-servicepeople who may be targeted with job offers from China and a new National Security Bill and potentially other measures are intended to address the issue.

It’s worth noting, of course, that there’s no confirmation, so far, that Duggan was providing information on tactics and technological expertise to the PLA, or otherwise training Chinese military personnel, beyond the suggestion from the aforementioned unnamed “aviation source.”

However, it’s clear that the various loopholes by which relationships of this kind between former Western military personnel and the PLA are coming under a high level of scrutiny right now.

The U.K. MOD said last week that several other Western countries were currently being targeted by China as it seeks to gain military expertise via contractor personnel.

There are reports that Australia is also investigating claims some of its former fighter pilots have been approached to work in China.

Canada, also, is looking into allegations that China might have recruited former Canadian fighter pilots to train the PLA. “We are aware of these reports, and we are looking into this further with federal partners,” a spokesperson from the Canadian Department of National Defense said.

In France, too, there are reports of former military aircrew having been courted by China. In one case, this is said to relate specifically to a former French Navy pilot who was approached by Beijing for information on carrier operations — an area of particular interest for the PLA Navy. “I eventually turned down the offer as I did not want to get into trouble. And also for ethical reasons, as China is not on our side,” the pilot reportedly said.

Interestingly, there were also unconfirmed claims that the apparently non-Chinese pilot seen in video footage of the aftermath of a PLA training jet crash in Henan Province earlier this year may have been French.

Exactly how all these reports relate is unclear, as to the more specific question of whether or not any laws within the countries involved were actually broken.

But regardless of the legal aspect (let alone the moral one, in aiding a potential enemy), it’s becoming clearer that China is energetically attempting to secure former military aircrew from the West (and perhaps elsewhere, too) to gain tactics and technological expertise.

As we have noted in the past, this is entirely in keeping with China’s broader efforts to modernize its air force and its tactics, coupled with the introduction of far more advanced aircraft, and weapons, with even more sophisticated platforms due for introduction in the near future.

With the PLA air arms, in particular, in the midst of introducing more Western-style training and combat tactics, as well as organizational structures and doctrines, it’s hardly surprising that Beijing would be looking to former military personnel from the West to aid this process.

Pilots from the People’s Liberation Army pose in front of their Su-30MKK Flanker fighter jets. PLAAF

Perhaps more concerning, however, is the idea that China may also be attempting to gain an advantage over potential Western foes by gaining information on NATO and Western tactics and air forces that could be of use in future confrontations or contingencies. The extent of that, however, is also dependent on the degree to which Western personnel involved in these arrangements have willingly supplied sensitive information. So far, there’s no evidence that has happened.

Indeed, there are even reports in the United Kingdom that the former British military pilots in China have been actively working to extract useful classified information from their hosts, and feeding it back to their home countries, to give them an advantage.

This claim is attributed to anonymous “Whitehall sources” and, if true, it’s hard to see why the U.K. government would be happy to release this information, bearing in mind the impact it could have on U.K. personnel now in China, or in the future. On the other hand, with the program now “closed,” this announcement may be intended more to warn China against further efforts to recruit former military aircrew from the United Kingdom.

Of course, arrangements such as those that China has apparently established with individuals (and companies) in the West are inherently vulnerable to espionage. The simple fact that former military personnel from the West are even in China makes them vulnerable to coercion by Chinese intelligence services; the nature of the jobs that at least some of them are involved in only compounds that issue.

Ultimately, as long as Beijing judges that it’s gaining more advantages in terms of modernizing the PLA and its tactics than it’s losing in terms of sensitive military intelligence going in the other direction, it can be expected that these efforts will continue. How successful they will be in recruiting former military pilots from other countries in the future will likely depend heavily on how the wider legal ramifications play out for pilots involved in these arrangements.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com