NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- The Air Force's top general is warning that China is recruiting the service's veterans and troops for their institutional military knowledge, and an official told Military.com that "hundreds" of allies and service members could be targeted.
In a Sept. 5 memo sent out to the service late last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown warned airmen and allies that China's People's Liberation Army "wants to exploit your knowledge and skill to fill gaps in their military capability."
The memo details that "foreign companies are targeting and recruiting U.S.- and NATO-trained military talent" and -- added in a subsequent Air Force press release -- the exploitation usually comes in the form of vague contracts or subcontract offers where China is the ultimate recipient of the military expertise.
While the exact number of airmen targeted is not known, a Department of the Air Force official told Military.com at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Monday that it likely numbers in the hundreds and extends to other service branches and allies overseas.
One such example, according to the Air Force, came in June 2023 when "the government placed the Test Flying Academy of South Africa on an export control list based on its work to facilitate training and technical support for the PLA using a former U.S. military member."
The warning comes as Department of the Air Force officials continue to highlight China as a national security threat and that commanders are preparing their strategies with the People's Liberation Army in mind. It also represents one of the strongest and most direct warnings from the service about China's bullish tactics.
An Air Force Office of Special Investigations supervisory special agent said in a press release Friday that "multiple members of the U.S. military who span several specialties are currently being targeted for recruitment by PLA-associated companies."
The OSI agent, who was not named in the Air Force's release, said contracts that "seem too good to be true" or lack info about who is receiving the service are a red flag.
Brown also added in his memo that if service members choose to accept those problematic contracts, they could face legal consequences.
"By essentially training the trainer, many of those who accept contracts with these foreign
companies are eroding our national security, putting the very safety of their fellow
service members and the country at risk, and may be violating the law," Brown wrote.
The Air Force said in the press release that offers could come in the form of "seemingly innocuous business deals or tech partnerships" that could "gradually pull them into covert activities that serve the interests of the Chinese government."
"These opportunities may be advertised on typical job listings or professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Indeed, and targeted headhunting emails are being sent directly to the inboxes of individuals with desired skill sets," according to the release.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, when asked about the memo at a press gaggle Monday, told Military.com that he saw Brown's warning as a good reminder for veterans to be cautious of what jobs they take after they leave the ranks and not an indication of an increase in the threat that China poses.
"As part of the training that we receive on operational security, and particularly as you retire from the military, you're required to receive briefings in terms of what you can and can't do when it comes to working for foreign governments," Ryder said. "So, I think Gen. Brown's point was, again, to just flag that you have to keep your head on a swivel in terms of who is asking you to do what in light of the threat that China poses as the pacing challenge."
Other services have also faced issues with service members being allegedly compromised by Chinese agents.
Last month, Military.com reported that two Navy sailors in California were indicted on espionage charges by the Justice Department in cases that allege they provided classified documents and information to Chinese agents in exchange for money.
Additionally, last year, a Navy flight officer was sentenced to four years in prison after federal officials discovered he lied on his security clearance paperwork to hide his connections to China and the head of a Chinese defense contracting firm.
The Air Force's sensitivity to China's access to insider military knowledge comes as the service still recovers from a high-profile intelligence leak from a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman earlier this year. It also comes as more alleged espionage efforts from China are revealed.
Chinese nationals, sometimes under the guise of being tourists, accessed U.S. military bases and other installations around 100 times in recent years, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
In his keynote address at the Air Force Association's conference Monday, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall underscored the threat from China.
"Today, the intelligence couldn't be clearer," Kendall said. "China is preparing for a war, and specifically for a war with the United States."
-- Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.