Why China allegedly sought help from former Marine Daniel Duggan

In a 2017 indictment recently unsealed, U.S. prosecutors accuse Duggan of secretly using his expertise to teach Chinese fighter pilots.
Posted at 8:48 PM, Feb 02, 2023

China military expert Oriana Skylar Mastro says a military career has never really been a respected profession in China. That’s one reason why the People’s Liberation Army has has a problem: it lacks personnel with the expertise to operate its rapidly modernizing military equipment. 

"There is a saying in Chinese, 'you don't take a good fish and make a soup out of it.' You don't take a good man and put him in the military," said Mastro. "And Xi Jinping has tried to change some of these social views. But it's really hard to change people's minds over short periods of time."

She says one tactic has been to attract more educated recruits through blockbuster movies that glamorize the military. 

The U.S. and other countries say another tactic is to recruit skilled service members abroad: People like Daniel Duggan, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot who is currently fighting a U.S. extradition request, which Australia’s attorney general recently approved. 

According to Linkedin, Duggan previously lived in China and worked for an aviation consultancy firm. An old bio from an Australian flight adventure company describes him as having "several hundred carrier landings on seven different aircraft carriers" and that he "held every tactical instructor qualification." 

In a 2017 indictment recently unsealed, U.S. prosecutors accuse him of secretly using his expertise to teach Chinese fighter pilots to land on aircraft carriers. 

"The aircraft carrier is significant because it allows countries to project air power farther and farther from home," Mastro said.  

The U.S. says the state department warned Duggan to apply for written authorization to train a foreign air force in 2008, but he allegedly provided training and presentations in breach of arms control and trafficking laws from 2009 to 2012.

The indictment also says other conspirators lied to authorities to obtain a T-2 Buckeye, an aircraft Duggan flew as part of training in South Africa.

"About 10 years ago, pilots in China had very little realistic training. So what that meant is they had very few hours in the cockpit. They weren't doing their own flight plans, so they weren't trying to figure out where to maneuver, where to go. They were basically being told by ground stations, turn left, turn right whenever they had to. This is the first time they're engaging in things like air to air refueling," Mastro said. 

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Duggan’s legal battle began in October, after being arrested in Australia and around the time the British government warned their retired military pilots not to take offers from China.   

"Most cases with China and their influence, whether it's with foreign military officers, foreign governments, foreign companies, money is usually a good place to start," Mastro said. 

But Duggan’s wife, Saffrine, says her husband is "a victim of the United States government’s political dispute with China." She ignored numerous offers for an interview or comment, and requested that Duggan’s 12 older siblings refrain from speaking with Scripps News — including some who work in commercial aviation. 

Duggan’s attorney, who did not respond to requests for comment, has publicly said his client denies the allegations that he is under massive psychological stress since being designated an "extreme high-risk, restricted inmate." This is a classification used for prisoners who pose an extreme danger to other people or security; and could incite peers.   

"He's clearly in our view been singled out in circumstances where the Department of Defense has admitted that it has known of many Australian citizens who have performed foreign services in other jurisdictions with foreign states of a military nature. It strikes us as being highly unfair," said Dennis Miralis, Daniel Duggan's lawyer. 

With more court appearances ahead, Duggan’s lawyer and spouse have also pointed to Australia’s intelligence watchdog, saying a probe into the conduct of officers who interacted with Duggan must be concluded first. That office declined to comment on the status of the investigation. 

When asked about Duggan and the recruitment of western military officers, China’s Embassy in Washington told us, "we do not have the specifics regarding this issue."