With The Arrest of an Ex-Marine Corps Pilot, the ‘Working with China’ Problem Now Appears to be an American One

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Following the recent “threat alert” from British intelligence regarding 30 ex-RAF pilots working with the Chinese military, a Reuters report has confirmed what many suspected. The “working with China” problem is also likely an American military problem.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Australian Federal Police have arrested Daniel Edmund Duggan, a former U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier pilot at the request of U.S. authorities ahead of likely formal extradition proceedings. The charges against Duggan were not revealed but Reuters said that “an aviation source” had affirmed that the FBI sought the ex-Marine pilot because of his work in China.

His arrest follows last week’s news of Chinese recruitment of former U.K. fighter and helicopter pilots to provide adversary training to Chinese military pilots. Duggan was arrested in Australia last Friday (10/21). Earlier last week, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy responded to my queries about the possibility of ex-pilots working with China with each service saying that it was not aware of any former pilots doing so.

In response to a follow-up query yesterday, the Navy said it was “not aware” of the pending arrest of the ex-Marine Corps pilot last week. Marine Corps headquarters confirmed Duggan’s service record and his departure from the Corps in 2002 but did not answer a question as to any foreknowledge of his work in China or his arrest.

In an emailed response the Air Force repeated that, “At this time, we aren’t aware of any ex-Air Force pilots working with the Chinese.”

Reuters reported that Duggan moved to Australia after a decade in the U.S. military and started a business called Top Gun Tasmania, hiring former U.S. and British military pilots to offer recreational tactical jet rides to civilians. He moved to Beijing in 2014 after selling Top Gun Tasmania and Reuters pointed to social media indications that he had worked in Qingdao, China since 2017 as the managing director of AVIBIZ Limited, an aviation consultancy which was dissolved in 2020.

Chinese interest in a former Harrier pilot would coincide with decade-long rumors of its work on and development of a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) fighter like the AV-8B or the F-35B. Reports of a VTOL J-18 “Red Eagle” emerged around 2012 but little more has been heard about it. Nonetheless if China is developing such a capability or merely seeking to better understand U.S. and NATO VTOL tactical aircraft operations, Duggan could have proved valuable.

Former USN Captain, Bill Hamblet, is editor of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, a long-standing professional forum for the Navy/Marine Corps. He says that the phenomenon of ex-U.S. military pilots working with China is a new one.

“This is a new issue. Nobody’s ever written about it for Proceedings. It’s not something that people in [Navy/Marine] circles have ever heard about. But in the military Twitter world people have been really giving their opinions on it. There’s growing concern that this is a problem and people are wondering to what extent. How many NATO pilots have been helping the Chinese improve the proficiency of their air force?”

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It’s a question that bends right back to America’s military. Hamblet, a former naval intelligence officer, who spent time with an F/A-18 Hornet squadron and carrier air wing among other assignments, agrees it’s likely that Duggan is not the only former U.S. military officer who has been recruited by China.

“I can’t imagine that [China] would only hire one American [pilot] to provide advice to them. Do they have their tentacles into former submariners, former surface warfare officers or those in other warfare areas? I have no idea. But I’d imagine that if they’ve hired one American military pilot they’ve hired a cadre of them. The chances that this guy hasn’t helped them hire others would seem limited.”

Duggan’s consultancy, AVIBIZ Limited, could have been a conduit to former squadron mates or other associates, perhaps even Australian military pilots, though there is currently no concrete proof that the former Marine helped recruit anyone else.

Hamblet makes an interesting historical point based on recollections recently shared with members of the Hornet squadron he served with who’ve remained friends.

“We were remembering a couple guys who had been in our squadron back in the late 1980s who had left the Navy and gotten hired to teach the Saudi Air Force how to [operate] in Saudi Arabia. One former F/A-18 guy was in Saudi Arabia for a couple years as an advisor. He was on flight status, flying and teaching air combat tactics to the Saudis. I know they paid him well. So, this isn’t entirely a new thing.”

The situation with Saudi Arabia, a loose ally in that era, was different than the U.S. relationship with China today Hamblet emphasizes. Saudi Air Force pilots attended flight schools in the U.S. at the time he points out.

As with the U.K. situation, there also remains the question of whether Duggan and any other Americans potentially working with the Chinese have actually broken U.S. law. Hamblet admits he isn’t sure. A Navy source acknowledged on-background last week that the service does track ex-pilots to a limited extent and requires that they disclose working with foreign entities in certain cases. However, the source did not indicate whether there are specific legal prohibitions against working in an advisory capacity with China.

At the very least Hamblet agrees that former U.S. military personnel working as paid advisors with China have crossed what most consider a moral line.

“It’s unseemly for someone to have done this, particularly anyone who’s served in the U.S. military in the last decade or so, thinking about what China is up to. In my opinion, it indicates a pretty low level of professional ethics.”

Despite the limited responses from the Marines, Navy and Air Force, chances are high that the Pentagon is now energetically focused on the possibility that others may be, or have been, at work with China. Theoretically, China’s recruitment model could extend to former U.S. Army personnel and an interest in U.S. armor/artillery/infantry tactics, air and missile defense, and systems operation in all of the above.

Canada, France and Australia are apparently investigating reports of pilots recruited as contractors by the PLA, reinforcing the U.K. Ministry of Defense’ assertion last week that several other Western militaries have been targeted by China.

But with the arrest of former Marine AV-8B Harrier pilot, Major Daniel Duggan, there is little doubt that the “working with China” problem is now an American problem about which we will hear more.

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