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US Air Force fires warning as China attempts to recruit US airmen

20th February 2024 - 15:03 GMT | by Flavia Camargos Pereira in Kansas City


Experienced US pilots have been among Chinese’s recruitment targets. (Photo: US Air Force)

US Air Force authorities have warned that Beijing has been trying to contract experienced US personnel to fill PRC training gaps in tactics, techniques and procedures.

A third dimension has been added to the great power competition between the US and China as the training realm becomes the latest area of focus alongside the ongoing technological and military races. US Air Force (USAF) authorities have recently warned US airman that Beijing has been attempting to recruit trained personnel to fill tactics, techniques and procedures gaps in its own air force.

US authorities said that Chinese’s targets have included experienced personnel such as pilots, maintainers, members of air operations centres and other technical experts.

Recruited as advisors, active duty and veteran airmen have been enabling the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to better prepare its instructors and improve training efforts.

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To counter the developing scenario, the USAF has been taking measures to hamper Beijing’s advancements over its skilled in-service and former working force. Steps have included warning its personnel against opportunities that seem too good to be real. 

A warning issued by the USAF on 8 February stated that the “job offers come from a mix of privately-owned companies backed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and those directly contracted by the Chinese government”.

“PRC recruitment of this nature primarily occurs through seemingly typical job listings, using online job sites or through headhunting emails sent straight to targeted individuals,” the paper stressed. In general, recruitment has comprised working opportunities located in or around China with vague details on end customers.

In June 2023, the US government included several companies in its trade restriction list due to their connections with the Chinese government, including Asian and African military training firms.

Published in 2022, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) placed emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region and considered China the most comprehensive and serious challenge to the US. Gen Charles Q Brown Jr, then-USAF chief of staff and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo in September 2024 stating those who accepted contracts with such foreign companies that support Beijing were “eroding” US national security.

He claimed they were “putting the very safety of their fellow servicemembers and the country at risk, and may be violating the law”.

Under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the US State Department regulates the provision of defence services such as assistance and training to other countries’ military. Intentionally offering classified information to a foreign government, however, would be against the Uniform Code of Military Justice and US Federal Law.

A USAF airman performing maintenance on an aircraft at Cannon Air Force Base. (Photo: US Air Force)

China’s attempts to contract military-trained personnel has been of general concern among NATO countries. In January 2024, members of the alliance discussed the issue during the Securing Our Military Expertise from Adversaries Conference at NATO Allied Air Command in Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

NATO nations attempted to address best practices to avoid PRC efforts to tempt personnel and expertise with intentions to establish shared goals in the domain.

Recruitment remains a concern for NATO allies

In addition to Chinese interest in skilled professionals, the US and other NATO states have been facing other challenges to both recruit and maintain personnel.

The USAF, for example, missed its recruitment quota in 2023 by 10%, which represented a 2,700-people deficit. To overcome the issue, the branch last year launched two programmes to encourage new enlistments: Stellar Talent Acquisition Recruiting Referral (STARR) and Stripes for Referrals.

STARR awards Air and Space Achievement Medals to airmen who refer a recruit departing for basic training while the Stripes for Referrals enables junior members to increase in rank by referring other candidates.

On the European side of the alliance, the UK’s military and defence industry have been facing problems in recruiting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals.

The report Delivering the Defence Workforce of the Future, issued by Guidant Global, pointed out that 83% of key decision-makers and influencers in the UK defence sector believed the country would fall behind other nations in terms of technology development due to a lack of skilled workforce.

The paper noted that 48% of employers in the defence domain experienced a shortage of engineering skills, 33% experienced shortages in cyber and digital skills, while 25% experienced deficiencies in manufacturing and mechanical areas of expertises.

Flavia Camargos Pereira


Flavia Camargos Pereira

Flavia Camargos Pereira is a North America editor at Shephard Media. She joined the company …

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