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Australia is investigating whether ex-defence personnel provided military training to China. Would it matter if they did?

This week, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles announced he had directed the Department of Defence to investigate reports “that ex-Australian Defence Force personnel may have been approached to provide military related training to China”.

This announcement comes just weeks after the British Ministry of Defence revealed around 30 of their former military pilots had been delivering flight training services to members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) through a company based in South Africa.

Marles has committed to conducting a

detailed examination [of] the policies and procedures that apply to our former Defence personnel, and particularly those who come into possession of our nation’s secrets.

He explained there’s a “clear and unambiguous” obligation on current and former Commonwealth officials to “maintain [government] secrets beyond their employment with, or their engagement with, the Commonwealth”.

Australia’s highly trained defence personnel are a huge asset to us, as much as our cutting-edge physical assets and technologies. As far as possible, we should ensure these assets are protected. There should also be clear guidelines around how and when privileged information can be employed.

Impending investigation

According to Britain’s Minister for Armed Forces and Veterans James Heappey, their authorities had been aware of the situation for several years. None of the pilots had broken existing British law.

The BBC reported the British government issued this “threat alert” to deter other would-be trainers from taking up similar offers. There’s also an updated National Security Bill currently before the House of Commons, which seeks to “create additional tools” to address security challenges like this one.

By comparison, it’s unclear whether any ex-Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel took up Chinese offers to train the PLA, or whether such an action would be considered a violation of the secrecy of information provisions of the Australian Criminal Code.

Marles explained the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce is “currently investigating a number of cases” identified by the department’s initial inquiries.

This investigation will also seek to determine whether current policies and procedures are fit for purpose when it comes to former defence personnel and the protection of official secrets.

Taking such measures has bipartisan support. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has indicated “if there is a hole in the legislation now, the Coalition will support a change which will tighten it up”. He added that Australia “can’t allow our secrets and our methodologies to be handed over to another country, and particularly not China under President Xi”.

Read more: Marles shifts tone on China at defence summit – but the early days of government are easiest

Exposing our tactics

Dutton’s comments highlight an important distinction: while the training of PLA (or any foreign) pilots by ex-ADF personnel may not necessarily constitute a disclosure of official secrets, it still risks exposing the ways in which the ADF is trained to fight to a potential adversary – what are referred to as its tactics, techniques and procedures.

There are many exchange personnel from overseas embedded in the ADF (and vice versa). But given the sensitivities involved, these positions are typically restricted to close partners such as the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand or Canada. One of the benefits of close cooperation between militaries is that they can then operate more effectively alongside each other in the event of a conflict.

But if ex-ADF personnel train the armed forces of potential adversaries, those opponents may be able to use this knowledge to better develop methods of their own to erode Australia’s military advantages.

Professor Alessio Patalano of King’s College London points out that

skilled personnel are valued capabilities and this know-how is a national security resource, and for the same reason a potential vulnerability.

He further explained the “reverse engineering of professional skills” has a long historical tradition. That is, personnel undergoing this training would improve their skills, but could also work backwards from the instruction they receive to draw further insights into how the other state might operate in the event of war.

For example, in the so-called “Sempill Mission” of British aviators to Japan in the 1920s, British personnel provided detailed instruction to their Japanese counterparts on how to conduct and train for aircraft carrier operations – at the time a brand new and rapidly emerging form of naval warfare. This training mission contributed significantly to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s prowess in aircraft carrier operations displayed in 1941.

While foreign governments and intelligence services are always looking for opportunities to obtain classified information about Australia and its partners, the converse is also true.

The Daily Express claimed British intelligence services used their knowledge of these recent activities as an opportunity for some pilots to obtain information on the current state of the PLA.

The pilots allegedly had first-hand experience flying China’s frontline combat aircraft, and relayed the information to British authorities on their return.

Protecting our assets

Nevertheless, despite the “clear and unambiguous” obligation for former Commonwealth officials “to maintain [Australia’s] secrets”, ex-ADF personnel have been engaged in training foreign militaries for many years. In an interview with the ABC, former Secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson noted his surprise “at some of the positions that some former ADF officers have occupied in other countries” and expressed his hope the government’s review “goes beyond China”.

The most prominent of these figures is Major General (Ret’d) Mike Hindmarsh, a former Commander of Australia’s Special Operations Command who was subsequently appointed as the Commander of the United Arab Emirates’ Presidential Guard.

Australia already has export control regulations, which limits the physical export and intangible transfer of controlled military and dual-use goods and technologies. Also, stringent limitations on international students undertaking postgraduate research in Australia on critical technologies were legislated in the last Parliament. However, these measures aren’t being currently being implemented until the government can more clearly define the relevant list of critical technologies.

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