A former Marine Corps and Navy pilot was charged with illegally providing aircraft carrier flight training to Chinese military pilots, according to court papers in the case of Daniel Duggan.
A federal grand jury indictment unsealed last week provides the first details of the case against Mr. Duggan, a dual U.S.-Australian citizen who was arrested in Australia Oct. 21 and is facing extradition to the United States.
Mr. Duggan is charged in the 2016 indictment with conspiring with Chinese, South African, British and U.S. nationals to violate U.S. export law that requires a license before providing defense services such as aircraft carrier training to states like China.
Mr. Duggan, who also lived in China and is also known as Ding San Qing, worked to provide “aircraft carrier approach and landing training to PRC military pilots,” the indictment stated, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China. The training took place in China, South Africa and elsewhere.
The operation also involved the illicit sale of a North American T-2 Buckeye jet trainer to China, made possible by disguising the buyer as a South African company.
According to the indictment, Mr. Duggan conducted the training of Chinese pilots in October 2010, March 2012 and November 2012, a period that covers deployment of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in September 2012.
The Liaoning itself was originally an unfinished Soviet-era Kuznetsov-class carrier first built in 1985. China’s military purchased it in a deal disguised as a purchase for a commercial firm in Macau that was going to turn it into a floating casino.
China launched a second carrier similar to the Liaoning called the Shandong and is building its first indigenous carrier, called the Fujian. The Fujian is the military’s largest carrier with an 80,000-ton displacement and an electromagnetic catapult-assisted launch system.
Critics say China’s carrier force lags far behind the U.S. force of 11 aircraft carriers. The current deployed Chinese carrier fleet often sails without its warplanes.
Mr. Duggan provided evaluation of Chinese pilot trainees, tested naval aviation equipment and taught tactics and techniques used in launching and landing aircraft on carriers, the indictment stated, with Chinese carrier pilot trainees learning on a carrier landing site in South Africa.
Mr. Duggan also traveled to Shenyang, China for the training that included a program for practice landings on the ground that mimicked carrier landings. The Chinese pilots also were given “landing signal officer” training, known in the U.S. Navy as “paddles” who guide aircraft landing on carriers.
Mr. Duggan received multiple payments of in installments of $6,365, the indictment said. Mr. Duggan’s associates and at least two companies involved in the operation were not named in the indictment.
In October, U.K. defense authorities disclosed that around 30 former British military pilots had helped teach Chinese air force pilots how to defeat Western warplanes. The British Defense Ministry issued a threat alert that cautioned against working with the Chinese military.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that China’s military sought Western pilots as part of a program to learn to fly from aircraft carriers and acquire other skills useful for a future potential conflict over Taiwan. The report said the training was led by Test Flying Academy of South Africa, near Cape Town, which hired former military pilots from Britain, France, Norway and other countries
A spokesman for the company denied its work with the Chinese posed a security threat.
The pilots made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the training in China and at least four pilots involved in the training were skilled in flying the Pentagon’s most advanced jet, the F-35, the report stated.
A lawyer for Mr. Duggan told the Wall Street Journal his client denies violating any laws.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former aircraft carrier intelligence officer, said he was surprised to learn in 2012 that Chinese navy J-15 jet pilots were conducting flight training on the Liaoning.
“When I read this indictment against Maj. Duggan, I am left scratching my head as to how it is that someone who grew up and operated in the world and culture of U.S. naval aviation could have shared this information with the PRC,” Capt. Fanell said.
“The lessons that Maj. Duggan passed on to PLA naval aviators are lessons that have been learned in blood over 100 years of U.S. naval aviation,” he added.
Landing signals officer training is “the most important of all training” for carrier pilots and is “the very essence of life and death and the success or failure of the mission of the carrier. This kind of training is extremely specialized and rare,” Capt. Fanell said.
If the charges prove true, he said, “what Maj. Duggan has done is advance the PLA Navy’s timeline for creating a lethal carrier aviation force.”