RAAF pilots investigated over concerns they trained Chinese military
“As Defence undertakes this examination, which it is doing right now, if there are any weaknesses in the policies and procedures that do currently apply in respect of our former Defence personnel, then the Albanese Labor government is absolutely committed to fixing those weaknesses so as to keep Australia safe.”
Mr Marles refused to be drawn on whether any Australians had actually provided training to Chinese pilots, or how many were suspected of doing so.
“Defence is supporting the Joint AFP-ASIO Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce, which is currently investigating a number of cases,” Mr Marles said.
Defence Department deputy secretary for security and estate, Celia Perkins, told Senate estimates the review would look at how the department managed security clearances and other controls for people taking jobs after their military careers that may be needed in response to foreign interference threats. She said it would be finished by December 14.
“All our people, particularly our highly trained people, we know are attractive targets and the onus is on us in our security policy controls and settings to support them and build deep awareness in our community that foreign actors will target our people for the unique skills they have,” she said.
Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie promised bipartisan support if any law changes were needed, describing the reports that fighter jet pilots had been approached to provide training in China were deeply concerning.
“Such conduct, if these allegations are verified, is highly improper and contrary to the Australian national interest,” he said.
“Our national military secrets – including tactics, techniques and procedures for our elite fighter pilots – must be safeguarded by serving defence members and our veterans. They are not for sale to another country.”
“The responsibility for protecting these national secrets does not cease when personnel separate from the ADF. It is a continuing obligation on our veterans and the ADF must ensure that this obligation has both moral and legal foundations.“
Mr Marles commissioned the review after asking defence officials last month to investigate British media reports that a South African flying school was acting as a middleman for the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army to recruit Australian, British and New Zealand pilots to provide training.
But former Defence Department deputy secretary Peter Jennings said “no one should imagine the risk is just about pilots”.
“China will be doing what it always does, which is industrial-level activity targeting people with a range of skills,” he said.
“They will be targeting people who know submarine operations, who know surface ship operations, intelligence, any area of defence capability.”
Mr Jennings said recruiters targeted social media profiles. He said ex-military personnel who assisted China would do so with a range of motivations “including a strong dose of naivety”.
A former US Marines fighter pilot who worked in China as an aviation consultant, Daniel Edmund Duggan, was arrested in the NSW town of Orange last month in the same week the UK media reports emerged.
The American arrest warrant and charges against Mr Duggan remain sealed but he is facing potential extradition to the United States. His lawyer maintains Mr Duggan has not breached US or Australian the law and will fight the extradition attempt.