The RCMP are investigating three former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilots who are training military and civilian pilots in China, even though their employer, a South African flying academy, insists no sensitive information is being passed on to Chinese authorities.
The work the three pilots are doing in China has also come under scrutiny from Canadian security officials, who reached out to the former top guns in late August. The Department of National Defence says it referred the matter to the RCMP.
“The RCMP is aware of the report of former RCAF pilots taking part in training People’s Liberation Army Air Force pilots. As the RCMP is investigating these incidents, there will be no further comment on this matter at this time,” RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival told The Globe and Mail in a statement.
The Globe contacted former RCAF pilot Paul Umrysh to seek comment on speculation in Canada’s aviation community that he and two other former fighter pilots, Craig Sharp and David Monk, have been teaching flying skills in China.
Mr. Umrysh did not reply but instead forwarded the e-mail to his employer, Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), which is based in the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn.
Edward Lee, a spokesman for TFASA, confirmed that Mr. Umrysh, Mr. Sharp and Mr. Monk are under contract to train pilots in China, adding that the company would speak for its employees. In fact, it issued several statements to address questions.
“Training always involves unclassified procedures, and materials are derived either from open source or from the clients themselves. The training TFASA provides never includes information about NATO,” Mr. Lee said. “TFASA has strict protocols and a code of conduct in place that are designed to prevent any TFASA employee sharing any information or training that is, or might be considered to be, legally or operationally sensitive, or security classified.”
The issue of Western military pilots instructing Chinese students arose last fall after British media reports that as many as 30 former U.K. top guns were working as instructors.
In June, the U.S. government targeted TFASA by imposing export controls on it and other companies for allegedly “providing training to Chinese military pilots using Western and NATO sources.” This activity “is contrary to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” the U.S. Department of Commerce said at the time.
Mr. Lee confirmed that Canadian security officials identifying themselves as Public Safety Canada employees had contacted “a number of TFASA employees” on Aug. 24 to request that they stop working for the Chinese. He noted that “those conversations are ongoing.” However, he maintained that “any suggestion that the company, or its employees, offer assistance in equipping foreign powers with advanced tactics, techniques or procedures, or advanced technology, is simply incorrect.”
Eric Balsam, a spokesman for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, declined to discuss any possible dealings with the three pilots.
“In a world marked by economic competition and confrontation, some states pursue a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts – economic, technological, political and military – and using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty,” Mr. Balsam said.
Former CSIS director Richard Fadden said it is very concerning that former RCAF pilots would be helping China’s military.
“Just the fact that they are training is worrisome. But they are also taking with them all of their experience and knowledge of Western tactics and Western ways of thinking and, even inadvertently, if they pass this onto the Chinese, this is not helpful,” he said.
Mr. Fadden acknowledged that legally it would be difficult to instruct the three men to stop what they are doing and come home, but in the future, he said, the government needs to change the terms and conditions of military service and employment to prohibit former military officers from co-operating with China and other hostile states.
Mr. Lee insists TFASA is not doing anything illegal, citing discussions with U.S. and British officials.
“Recent communications between the FBI, the USAF Office of Special Investigations and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots indicates TFASA has broken no laws, as have communications from the U.K. Ministry of Defence,” he said, without providing any supporting documents.
When The Globe asked whether the Canadian men are training members of the People’s Liberation Army, the South African company said some students may end up in the military – but they are not being given Western defence secrets.
“TFASA notes that to do so would be illegal and that false allegations of illegality from whatever source are, of course, defamatory,” Mr. Lee said.
The Globe asked Mr. Umrysh in an e-mail to address speculation that the Canadians are training students on Chinese warplanes such as the Chengdu J-10 or J-11B, both multi-role fighters. He did not respond, and TFASA did not comment on this.
The flying academy said it’s not the only company providing training to clients in the Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Mr. Lee pointed to recently published information by China’s Ministry of Transport that authorized it to contract pilot training with three Canadian-based schools.
But none of those Canadian schools offers fighter jet training or operates in China.
“We don’t do fighter training,” said Josée Prudhomme, president of Montreal-based Cargair Flight Academy. “The only thing we do is train for airlines.”
Ian Kenney, vice-president of operations and training for B.C.-based Montair Aviation, said his company “does not send any of our instructors to China to deliver flight training,” nor does it have any former RCAF pilots on staff.
“We do not do any training on jets – military or otherwise – nor does our Transport Canada flight training unit operator certificate allow for that,” he said.