Germany Demands China Stop Using Ex-Luftwaffe Fighter Pilots For Training

The German government has promised to “immediately” shut down the training of Chinese fighter pilots by former German Luftwaffe aircrew, in the latest development involving former personnel from a variety of NATO nations assisting Beijing’s expanding airpower ambitions. The move comes after an exposé in the German media that provided details of how one particular former Luftwaffe officer — an ex-Eurofighter EF2000 pilot — had been recruited by China to share his expertise.

According to Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine, which originally reported the story, Germany’s Minister of Defense, Boris Pistorius, in a recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu, called for the training of Chinese fighter pilots by former German personnel to end immediately. The meeting reportedly occurred on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a prominent Asian defense summit.

Boris Pistorius, the German minister of defense, speaks on stage at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, on June 4, 2023. Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images

Furthermore, Pistorius apparently told Li Shangfu “that he would certainly not be amused” if Germany were to attempt something similar to gain insight into Chinese military expertise. Pistorius described the meeting as a “very open” conversation that allowed differences of opinion between Berlin and Beijing to be voiced but noted that the Chinese defense minister had reacted “very cautiously” to his demand.

Reportedly, Li Shangfu attempted to “relativize” the importance of the former German personnel who, as far as is known, were recruited via legal channels.

China’s Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu delivers a speech during the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 4, 2023. Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

According to the German press report, the former Luftwaffe pilots were recruited by companies in New Zealand and South Africa and then took up positions in China, where some of them reportedly earnt “six-figure annual salaries.”

Not surprisingly, the revelations have led to harsh criticism from political opponents of Pistorius and his Social Democratic Party (SDP).

“It’s about time that this naivety and German naivety came to an end,” Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the chairwoman of Germany’s defense committee, told Der Spiegel. “The fact that former Luftwaffe soldiers are training fighter jet pilots in China after their period of service is an outrage, we cannot accept that,” she added.

Ground crew signal to the pilot of a Luftwaffe Eurofighter during Exercise Blue Flag 2021 at Ovda Air Base in Israel, in October 2021. Bundeswehr/Falk Bärwald

Strack-Zimmermann called for a clampdown on the rules governing what kinds of jobs former soldiers can take, suggesting that they only be allowed to provide instruction to NATO allies and other “strategic partners.” A similar response followed the revelation last year that pilots from the U.K. Royal Air Force had also been training the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under seemingly very similar arrangements. You can read more about that here.

Meanwhile, Green Party politician Konstantin von Notz, chair of the German government’s Parliamentary Oversight Panel described the situation, if confirmed, as an “outrageous, scandalous and problematic situation” that presented “an enormous security risk.” The Parliamentary Oversight Panel has begun its own investigation into the training these former pilots provided.

As to the details of German involvement in the training of PLA personnel, the number of pilots involved is apparently small, described as only “a handful.”

However, extensive details have been published about one of those individuals, known as Alexander H. Under the callsign “Limey,” he had been a Eurofighter pilot with the Luftwaffe’s Tactical Air Force Wing 73 “Steinhoff,” based at Rostock-Laage in eastern Germany. Here, Alexander H. had served as an instructor pilot with the German Eurofighter training unit.

A pair of Eurofighters from Tactical Air Force Wing 73 “Steinhoff” during air-to-air training. Bundeswehr/Bicker

In 2013, Alexander H. left Germany, presumably on completing his commission, and reportedly registered a move abroad. His destination was Qiqihar in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province. This base is currently home to the J-16 Flanker multirole fighter-bombers of the PLA Air Force’s 3rd Air Brigade, although when Alexander H. was first working there it seems that the unit was still equipped with the older J-8 Finback fighter jet. Transition to the J-16 at this base followed in 2018.

A Chinese J-16 fighter jet takes off for a mission during the Sino-Russian Aviadarts exercise in 2021. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

As to what kinds of training and expertise Alexander H. passed onto the PLA, this remains unclear, although unnamed German security officials have confirmed that it is “very possible that the pilots have passed on military expertise and confidential operational tactics, and even practiced attack scenarios, such as an offensive against Taiwan.”

The German Ministry of Defense has also not provided any specifics about what these ex-Luftwaffe personnel were doing in China, or whether they are still there. But the ministry did confirm that “China is attempting, via external agencies, to recruit former NATO pilots as instructors,” and that former German Luftwaffe pilots were targeted in these efforts. The ministry further warned that the situation risked the PLA gaining insight into “relevant tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

It seems that, for former Luftwaffe pilots in particular, who normally retire at 41, the lucrative offer from China may have been especially attractive. Rather than a pension amounting to half of their final monthly salary, those taking on jobs in China could receive very lucrative offers. The U.K. pilots who took on similar employment, from the end of 2019 onward, reportedly received salaries of around $270,000 a year.

According to Der Spiegel, former Luftwaffe pilots have been working on behalf of the PLA for more than 10 years, with the first such individual apparently having been recruited by the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, or TFASA — a company that has trained PLA pilots in South Africa. No laws seem to have been broken and, at the same time, the German government was also providing formal training to PLA officers.

An image from the TFASA website apparently showing Western aircrew in front of a Chinese FTC-2000 jet trainer. TFASA

Another ex-Luftwaffe pilot, named Peter S., who also served at Laage, is also said to have provided training to the PLA, in China, under the auspices of the TFASA.

A third former German military pilot alleged to have assisted the PLA has also been identified, Dirk J., having flown the Tornado strike aircraft with the German Navy before that service gave up its fast-jet fleet in 2005. In 2013, Dirk J. began work as a “senior aviation consultant” in China, according to reports.

The issue of former NATO aircrew working on behalf of the PLA came to prominence very publicly last year, when Daniel Edmund Duggan, a previous U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II jump jet pilot was arrested in Australia. Allegedly, he’d been helping train Chinese naval aviators to operate from aircraft carriers. Duggan was also said to have trained Chinese aviators with the TFASA, as part of a program that allegedly involved the potentially illegal procurement of at least one T-2 Buckeye naval jet trainer capable of carrier deck takeoff and landings.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15 fighter lands on the aircraft carrier Liaoning in April 2018. AFP via Getty Images AFP via Getty Images

Duggan denies breaking any laws and is still detained in Australia. He may yet face extradition to the United States.

Also last year, the U.K. Ministry of Defense revealed that dozens of British former frontline military pilots had been involved in providing pilot training to the Chinese military, including via the TFASA, with others actually working within China. The pilots involved were said to be mainly former fast-jet aircrew but also included helicopter pilots.

“We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former U.K. Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel in the People’s Republic of China,” a U.K. Ministry of Defense spokesman said at the time. “All serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defense, while the new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges — including this one.”

Other countries, too, have made efforts to address the issue of former military personnel providing services to the PLA. There have been reports that Australia has investigated claims that some of its former fighter pilots have been approached to work in China. Canada, too, has been looking into similar allegations involving some of its former fighter pilots.

While it seems likely that, in at least some of these instances, no rules were broken, it’s equally clear that there is a growing concern about the sharing of sensitive information with the PLA at a time when relations between Beijing and the West are particularly strained. In the foreground is China’s increasingly assertive stance over Taiwan and fears among U.S. and other officials that a Chinese invasion of the island could happen sooner rather than later. Reflecting the tensions surrounding Taiwan, only this weekend the U.S. military claimed a PLAN Navy warship made an “unsafe” maneuver in the Taiwan Strait when it cut sharply across the path of a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Then there are the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, which, in recent weeks, have included a close encounter between a PLA J-16 fighter and a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane, as seen in the video below. The Pentagon blamed the Chinese pilot for an “unnecessarily aggressive” maneuver.

As China has increasingly been identified as the number one challenge to U.S. security, it is by no means surprising that the issue of former pilots from Western air arms assisting the PLA in any capacity, legal or otherwise, has become a significant concern. Once again, it’s hard to determine to what degree the PLA might have benefited from the expertise of these individuals, and whether they imparted tactically sensitive information as well as more routine assistance. Either way, however, Germany will likely not be the last country compelled to take action to crack down on what is a potentially alarming security loophole.

Contact the author: