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The US military pilots training China's Navy
Meet former Maj. Daniel Duggan, and another American yet to be identified.
SOMETIME AROUND 2008, the U.S. State Department sent an email to Daniel Duggan, a former Marine Harrier pilot, informing him that he was legally required to seek authorization before training a foreign air force. A couple of years later—according to a recently unsealed federal indictment—Duggan, who moved to Australia after leaving the Corps as a major in 2002, allegedly exchanged emails with a fellow ex-Navy fighter pilot about instructing “Chinese pilots in Field Carrier Landing Practice” in South Africa. By 2012, Duggan and others from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and China were allegedly involved in a scheme to train Chinese military pilots to master one of naval aviation’s most critical skills: landing on an aircraft carrier.
The fine art and science of landing on a carrier deck is best accomplished with three main components: advanced flight control systems, a well-trained naval aviator using their aircraft and instruments to land and catch an arresting wire safely, and a fellow pilot working below as a landing signal officer to talk them through a maneuver “similar to a controlled crash” onto a ship potentially sailing through a storm under blackout conditions with its runway pitching from side to side. It’s incredibly difficult and dangerous.
The Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military notes that its “growing force of aircraft carriers extend air defense coverage of deployed task groups beyond the range of land-based defenses and will enable operations at increasingly longer ranges.”
The key to that extended air defense is a skill that most militaries don’t have, but China—with its three aircraft carriers of the People’s Liberation Army Navy—now has indigenous pilots who were apparently trained by at least two of America’s best.
Duggan maintains his innocence, and his wife, Saffrine, says her husband has “been caught in a geopolitical storm for working in China, doing work that has been done there for decades by western, African and European pilots for decades with the full knowledge of these governments.”
But the U.S. government disagrees. “Neither Duggan nor any of the coconspirators sought or obtained an export license or other authorization” to export defense services, articles, “and/or military training to the [People’s Republic of China] or Chinese foreign nationals, as required,” the indictment says.
The former Marine could soon be extradited from Australia to the United States for trial and, if convicted, faces a lengthy prison sentence on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and violating arms export regulations. The indictment, filed in 2017 but only recently unsealed after Duggan’s arrest in Australia, reveals more specifics of his alleged side hustle training Chinese pilots in South Africa when he wasn’t flying corporate clients on mock “Top Gun” missions over Tasmania.
Duggan, who boasted of “several hundred carrier landings…a third them being at night” on American, British, and Spanish carriers during a 12-year career in the Marines, got an interesting email in September 2010. A British executive of a South Africa-based test flight academy recently negotiated the purchase of a T-2 Buckeye jet trainer from an American aircraft dealer and needed help. Named as the firm’s chief operating officer and anonymized as “Coconspirator D” in court documents—the executive allegedly described “aircraft carrier training Coconspirator D had been conducting for Chinese pilots and solicited Duggan’s help in conducting that training.”
Two more events from Jan. 11, 2011, stand out in the indictment: Duggan giving a presentation called “The Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Mission Success,” according to an email from a Chinese national who owned a business in China that “acquired military training, equipment and technical data for the PRC government and military.” The other is a payment to Duggan of $9,500 Australian (about $6,377 US) from that same firm. It was the first of many alleged payments to Duggan for “personal development training” that would add up to more than $100,000 Australian from the company, which sometimes picked up the tab when Duggan traveled to Beijing, Shengyang, and Hulodao.
Also in the indictment:
“In or around March 2011, DUGGAN drafted and gave to Coconspirator B a multi-page assessment that reviewed aspects of the PRC’s aircraft carrier training program and proposed carrier aviation training-related services.”
“Between on or about March 5, 2012 and April 15, 2012, DUGGAN provided defense services in connection with the military training described…to Chinese pilots in South Africa.”
“On or about September 10, 2012, DUGGAN, while in the PRC, was negotiating the terms of his services and wrote in an email that he hoped his children would be set for life as a result.”
It’s worth mentioning that these are allegations, and Duggan’s lawyers will challenge them vigorously in court. Indeed, his attorney is fighting extradition and maintains that his client is an Australian citizen who renounced his U.S. citizenship and broke no laws.
Nevertheless, the indictment gives us a window into how Beijing apparently convinced “at least 30” former Western jet and helicopter pilots to train its military using a colorful cast of characters:
Duggan is currently in jail in Australia. When and if he’s brought back to the U.S., I’ll be watching closely because I’m curious how and why a former Marine officer would do something like this. Still, most of this occurred at a time when the U.S. military delivered relief supplies to Beijing and invited Chinese officers on its ships. And the timeline of allegations against Duggan ended after 2012; an indictment was filed in 2017, and he was arrested in 2022. What took so long?
Duggan moved to Australia in 2002 after a decade in the U.S. Marines, later moving to Beijing in 2014 where he worked as an aviation consultant. He returned to Australia from China weeks before he was arrested, according to his lawyer.
Perhaps the former Marine thought those days in South Africa were old memories, but the U.S. government didn’t forget.
Meanwhile, according to media reports, the unnamed South African flying school is apparently the Test Flying Academy of South Africa. Australian police “have searched the property of, but not charged” Keith Hartley, a former British military pilot serving as the company’s COO, Reuters reported.
And what of the former U.S. Navy officer and fighter pilot known only as “Coconspirator E?” E also allegedly instructed Chinese pilots and made the introduction to Duggan, but little is known beyond that. Except for this, mentioned later in the indictment:
We know the name Daniel Duggan and the charges against him. But there may still be another indictment in a federal court being kept under seal—perhaps identifying a second U.S. instructor of Chinese military pilots. This person’s existence is reported here in The Ruck for the first time, but all we know is they flew F-18s for the U.S. Navy. Their identity remains unknown.
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The State Department Inspector General opened an audit on Dec. 14 to determine "whether U.S. Embassies Kabul and Kyiv managed, safeguarded, and disposed of sensitive security assets in advance of the evacuation and suspension of operations at each post.”
US Green Berets are testing a new highly mobile 120mm mortar system known as “Sling,” which comes mounted on the back of a vehicle and can apparently fire 16 rounds per minute out to 4+ miles. In an era of counter-battery radar, this is an impressive “shoot and scoot” indirect fire capability for small special operations teams.
A remarkable visual investigation by The New York Times using security camera footage, documents, eyewitnesses, and cell phone cameras shows the culprit of war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine: Russia’s 234th Air Assault Regiment led by Lt. Col. Artyom Gorodilov.
“A chilling pattern emerged: soldiers routinely used the phones of victims to call home to Russia, often only hours after they were killed.”
“Sometimes Chinese pressure on Taiwan has been military, involving the issuing of threats or the launching of missiles. But in recent years, China has combined those threats and missiles with other forms of pressure, escalating what the Taiwanese call ‘cognitive warfare’: not just propaganda but an attempt to create a mindset of surrender.”
TikTok spied on Forbes journalists covering the company, “improperly gaining access to their IP addresses and user data in an attempt to identify whether they had been in the same locales as ByteDance employees.” If you’re shocked, you shouldn’t be…
Federal prosecutors arrested an employee of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, “on suspicion of treason after an internal BND investigation revealed that he had allegedly been leaking classified information to Russia.”
According to Reuters, a tip from a “Western intelligence agency” of BND material in Moscow’s hands helped Berlin find the suspected mole. He was identified as Carsten L. and was reportedly head of technical reconnaissance for the German spy agency.
The US Army is buying prototype “Tactical Dronut” systems that can fly in tight spaces. The small drone has no exposed propellers and “can operate in buildings, tunnels, and other enclosed spaces” to capture video and snag data for ground troops.
You can see one of them flying on the company website.
A Chinese J-11 fighter pilot “performed an unsafe maneuver” that brought it within 20 feet of the nose of a US RC-135 aircraft flying over the South China Sea. The Air Force spy plane captured video of the PLAN jet while flying in international airspace.
President Biden signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act into law on Dec. 23, allotting $816.7 billion to the Department of Defense.
China predictably blasted the bill for providing aid to Taiwan and said it hyped the “China threat” (which is quite real). Beijing then tamped down the rhetoric and showed it desired peace. Just kidding! It launched a show of force against its island neighbor with “71 planes and seven ships” scrambling around Taiwan over a 24-hour period.
Chinese airpower can “communicate the ability to bring dominant military power to bear in and around Taiwan, countering the undercurrent of US strength,” an Air Force officer wrote of such sorties last year, saying they were a form of psychological warfare.
“The message [Chinese Air Force] incursions communicate is clear. Gone are the days of asymmetric airpower advantages that allowed US political leaders to defend Taiwan at a relatively low cost. Instead, the [Chinese Air Force] poses a credible threat to US air superiority and will impose great costs on defenders of the island.”
The State Department has approved the sale of the Volcano anti-tank mine-laying system to Taiwan. The system can transform a vehicle or helicopter into “something like a Pez dispenser for mines,” according to Defense News.
Taiwan has extended mandatory military service from four months to one year. "Peace will not drop from the sky... Taiwan is on the frontline of authoritarian expansion," said President Tsai Ing-wen.
Flashback: There’s much more to Taiwan’s defense.
Documents stolen in a hack of Russian state broadcaster VGTRK “show that China and Russia have pledged to join forces in media content by inking cooperation agreements at the ministerial level,” according to the Intercept.
Signatories to the 2012 agreement “include large state media outlets as well as online media companies and businesses in the private sector. Among those who signed were the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which has a streaming service; Migu Video, a gaming company under the state-run China Mobile; and SPB TV, a streaming service headquartered in Switzerland and owned by a Russian national…The agreement lists 64 joint media projects that had either been launched or were in development.”
New & notable reports:
Combat Drones in Ukraine (Air & Space Operations Review)
Hypersonics: Between Rhetoric and Reality (Air & Space Operations Review)
The Global Economic Disruptions from a Taiwan Conflict (Rhodium Group)
That’s everything in The Ruck this week. Thanks for reading. It’s wonderful to be back. Happy New Year!
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