Chinese ‘Exploitation Campaign’

Our pacing threat is hiring military veterans with special skills.

WaPo (“China’s military seeks to exploit U.S. troops, veterans, general warns“):

China’s military is conducting a sophisticated exploitation campaign designed to “fill gaps” in its capabilities by targeting current and former U.S. service members and harvesting specialized knowledge they’ve gained, a top general warned in a message obtained by The Washington Post.

The document was distributed to Air Force personnel on Friday. It marks the Pentagon’s most direct attempt yet to call out and counter what U.S. officials characterized as an aggressive ploy by Beijing to leverage international firms that hire Americans to teach advanced military skills and tactics.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who heads the Air Force and is President Biden’s nominee to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the message that foreign companies doing business with the Chinese government are “targeting and recruiting U.S. and NATO-trained military talent across specialties and career fields.”

“By essentially training the trainer, many of those who accept contracts with these foreign companies are eroding our national security, putting the very safety of their fellow servicemembers and the country at risk,” Brown wrote, appealing to the recipients’ sense of responsibility, even after leaving the armed forces, to protect “our national defense information.”


A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, did not deny Brown’s assertions, saying in a statement that the Chinese government urges the United States “to respect the normal business activities carried out by relevant companies, and not to generalize and abuse the concept of national security and smear relevant companies.” U.S. officials in recent years have been “quick to accuse China,” he added, affecting “normal exchanges and cooperation” between the two countries in a way that is “not conducive to the healthy development” of bilateral relations.

A special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, who like some others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive national security matter, said that attempts by China’s military to exploit Americans have included marketing job openings to them that initially appear innocuous and approaching them directly at defense industry events.

While China routinely targets American pilots, the special agent said, veterans who’ve held a variety of other roles also are in demand. He cited former aerospace ground equipment maintainers and landing-signals officers as examples, jobs that entail handling specialized equipment and guiding pilots and their aircraft to safety.

The offers come from a mix of privately owned companies and those backed by the Chinese government, and are contracted by the Chinese government, officials said. The solicitations often include language that sounds customary in the defense sector, with references to consulting, advising or training.

A chief concern, the special agent said, is that some will rationalize that the work is legitimate even after they discover the connection to China’s military.

“We want to make sure that people understand: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” he said, describing the effort as “insidious.”

Officials are urging current and former military personnel to report if they have been recruited to train foreign militaries.

While one would certainly hope that veterans continue to prioritize US national security interests after they leave the service, It’s probably unreasonable to expect them to turn down lucrative employment offers from legitimate businesses. The economy has been globalized for decades now and the notion of a “Chinese company” can be quite murky.

If we want to keep the expertise that people have gained through government employment out of the hands of competitors, then we need to not only make that clear (Brown’s message is going to the active force, and only indirectly to veterans) and, preferably, do so by updating the law. We already do this in certain areas, such as with classified or otherwise sensitive information or by cooling off periods for people in certain posts.

And, indeed, the Biden administration has taken some steps in that direction:

The Pentagon’s warning to U.S. personnel and veterans comes as senior leaders there have identified China as the United States’ “pacing threat,” expressing alarm over Beijing’s military advancements, and efforts to expand its global footprint and influence.

It follows, too, a move by the U.S. government in June to blacklist dozens of companies across the world for alleged ties to the Chinese government, including several aviation training firms.

Among them are Frontier Services Group, a Chinese state-owned company founded by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide, and the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, which has faced scrutiny after reports it had hired Western military pilots to train Chinese aviators.

Frontier Services denied in June that it has used U.S. military personnel to train Chinese pilots. It did not respond to questions from The Post about whether it had hired former service members to do so.

The Test Flying Academy of South Africa said in a statement in June that it was “disappointed” in the decision by the U.S. Commerce Department and alleged that larger U.S. companies also train Chinese pilots. It did not respond to requests for comment.

An Air Force colonel with experience flying F-16 fighter jets said in an interview that he first received an email in 2019 seeking seasoned test pilots. His first thought, he said, was to ask his wife if she wanted to go to South Africa someday.

“It did not look particularly suspicious to me,” he said.

Two years later, he recalled, the message came to mind when he was briefed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations ahead of a professional conference and warned that such recruiting was happening.

The pilot shared with The Post a second recruitment pitch he says he received from the South African company in 2021. It sought helicopter and jet pilots for work in “Far East Asia,” requiring six years of experience as a test pilot and familiarity with teaching students whose first language is not English.

“They can appear very legitimate, to the point that I didn’t catch it until I had a little bit more background knowledge,” the officer said. “I would just say that I was kind of humbled that it basically escaped my detection for almost two years.”

It’s probably obvious in hindsight but the Chinese have bought up all manner of longstanding companies. Indeed, it was only this week that I realized that China now owns Volvo (indeed, they acquired a majority stake way back in 2010), and it turns out they also own Lotus and MG.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Slugger says:

    The first American pilot they hired was Claire Chennault as I recall.
    How fungible are skills from an American aircraft to a Chinese aircraft? Are there any secret flying skills? I do understand that the technology to build aircraft is important, but that requires engineers and an infrastructure of assembly plants not pilots.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Slugger: I presume the PLAAF knows how to fly and fix their own airplanes and are looking for exploits to defeat ours and our pilots.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    @James Joyner: That’s reasonable.

    I also wonder if they aren’t trying to solve a training bandwidth problem. They are only recently producing modern high-tech aircraft, and maybe there just aren’t that many people around who know enough to train other pilots to fly them effectively.

    I mean, it’s one thing to know how to operate all this stuff, and quite another to know just what situation(s) each thing is good for.

    I would also be surprised if the PLAAF didn’t end up being very doctrine-heavy. Allowing for individual autonomy and decision-making seems antithetical to what that government/army is doing. So it’s probably more that they are looking for good doctrine, which maybe is a more general category than “exploits”?

  4. Scott says:

    I’m not sure how the US Govt can prevent veterans with relevant experience from marketing their expertise anywhere in the world. There can be more strings attached to retirees but even there limitations on future employment are temporary. On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to get insight into Chinese operations by placing Americans in strategic locations.

  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    Funny how Erik Prince comes up in these corrupt schemes.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    We should not have to tell former American soldiers not to help the enemy. FFS, I turned down Chinese money when they asked me to change a few scenes in a book, and no future US soldier was ever going to die from my book. As to ‘Chinese companies,’ they are either owned outright by, or controlled by, or under the threat of the Chinese Communist Party, one reason why Big Business is starting to class China as ‘uninvestable.’

    Did patriotism cease to be a thing at some point?

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Did patriotism cease to be a thing at some point?

    Possibly as early as FDR becoming President for some people on the ideological spectrum.

    In 1933, [Butler] became involved in a controversy known as the Business Plot [linked at Wikipedia article], when he told a congressional committee that a group of wealthy industrialists were planning a military coup to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler selected to lead a march of veterans to become dictator, similar to fascist regimes at that time. The individuals involved all denied the existence of a plot, and the media ridiculed the allegations, but a final report by a special House of Representatives Committee confirmed some of Butler’s testimony.

  8. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Did patriotism cease to be a thing at some point?

    It’s enriching the rich, white supremacy, misogyny, Christian supremacy, and guns now.

  9. DK says:

    @Kathy: Then meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Maybe it’s always been those things?

  11. DK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Patriotism is becoming better, kinder collective and individual good unassociated from the party that supports the Jan. 6 terrorists.

    Hence the backlash and right wing anger. Conservatives’ narrow bigotry is losing control of the flag and the people.

  12. Jay says:

    While one would certainly hope that veterans continue to prioritize US national security interests after they leave the service, It’s probably unreasonable to expect them to turn down lucrative employment offers from legitimate businesses.

    Counterpoint: Why is it unreasonable not to expect (or allow) veterans to monetize the (proprietary) knowledge they obtain in the military? Why shouldn’t they be subject to a lifetime “noncompete?” If the answer is, “we could not staff our military if we could not recruit people whose motivation is to sell on the skills they obtain to the highest bidder” then we are doing something fundamentally wrong.

  13. Mike Burke says:

    In addition to Volvo and MG, among other companies, the Chinese own Smithfield–they are the major US pork processor now. Almost all the companies providing services to west coast ports are Chinese owned as well. Elaine Chao’s family is part of this:

  14. Tony W says:

    Security clearances obligate us to protect classified data for life. And military pensions provide financial benefits to retired military folks for life. I think it’s reasonable to request our military honor those commitments the same way we require civilian folks to.

  15. gVOR10 says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I would also be surprised if the PLAAF didn’t end up being very doctrine-heavy.

    Mimicing, obviously, Russia. Very top down. Something the Ukrainians have been able to exploit. Although the Ukrainians inherited some of it.

    Long ago the USAF insisted controllers are advisory, subject to the pilot on sites judgement, not command. If you remember long ago the shoot down of KAL007? The Russian pilot reported it looked like a commercial 747, not the electronic reconnaissance 737 he’d been sent to look for. The controller said shoot and he shot. I doubt an American pilot would have