The Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Loyalty for sale

RAF veterans compromised British ideals by assisting the Chinese

Artillery Row

In the week that witnessed the resignation of the shortest serving prime minister in British history, it was revealed that as many as thirty ex-Royal Air Force fast jet pilots had travelled to China to train the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Earning up to £240,000, these former UK “top guns” could have passed on highly sensitive information to their Chinese students. China is currently modernising and expanding its air force. It is anxious, therefore, to acquire specialist knowledge on how best to counter and neutralise the air capabilities of the US, UK and Western air forces.

This national scandal has elicited an unprecedented “threat alert” from UK defence intelligence, along with the ire of Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of the House of Commons select committee on defence. In light of the “absence of patriotism of those involved”, Ellwood, himself a former British Army officer, has called for the thirty “unpatriotic” former pilots to be “stripped of their citizenship”. Those under investigation have technically not broken the 1989 Official Secrets Act, however, though in theory this legislation was designed to prevent the unlawful disclosure of official information.

The moral divergence exhibited by a coterie of ex-pilots defies easy repudiation

This cause célèbre has erupted at a critical juncture in Sino-British relations. In early October, the former British Prime Minister Liz Truss officially designated China a national security threat to the UK. Truss’s “hawkish” stance with regard to the existential threat posed by China was consistent with the 2021 Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. Misreported in the media as having portrayed China as merely a “systemic competitor”, this ambitious geo-strategic re-evaluation had in fact branded China an “authoritarian state”, whose “increasing international assertiveness” poses a “systemic challenge” to the “security, prosperity and values” of the UK and those of her “allies and partners”. The on-going conversation in defence circles as to the desirability of operating “East of Suez”, in order to engage more deeply in the Indo-Pacific region, has only served to sharpen minds as to the future trajectory and character of Sino-British relations. 

From a defence perspective, it was hoped the Integrated Review would supercharge the “fighting power” of UK armed forces, enabling them to counter the emerging security challenges posed by Russia and China. “Fighting power”, as classified by UK military doctrine, “defines armed forces’ ability to fight and achieve success in operations. It consists of three main components: “the physical”, the “conceptual” and the “moral”. 

The physical component “furnishes the means to fight i.e. manpower, equipment, logistics, training and readiness”. The conceptual element embraces, “The thought processes behind military actions that involve the principles of war, doctrine and development of military forces and equipment for the future”. Finally, the moral component addresses the ability to get soldiers to fight, encompassing four fundamental elements: “the motivation to achieve the task in hand; effective leadership from those placed in authority; adequate and appropriate welfare provision; and sound management of all personnel and resources”.

Defence commentators are in general agreement that, alongside the Army, the RAF was a major casualty of the Integrated Review. It suffered severe cuts to the number of frontline fighter jets, helicopters and transport aircraft it operates. The depletion of its physical component has also shone an interesting sidelight onto the RAF’s conceptual and moral shortcomings. Accused of losing sight of its core business, namely aerial warfare, the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, has also been charged with lacking a defining vision whilst pursuing a “woke” agenda.

To compound matters, a lack of military flying opportunities for UK fighter pilots; the resignation of the head of RAF recruitment due to an “unlawful” directive to offer jobs to women and ethnic minorities over white men; the reduction of fitness levels for RAF personnel; and claims of bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment against the famous Red Arrows flying team call into question the integrity, professionalism and operational readiness of the world’s oldest independent air force. 

The latest revelation that former RAF pilots are assisting a hostile state not only raises, in the opinion of Tobias Ellwood, “serious questions for the RAF”, but adds to a growing list of scandals which confirm the presence of a moral malaise within the “junior Service”. At the time of writing, no former members of the Royal Navy or British Army have been discovered travelling to China or Russia in order to sell their professional skill-sets and knowledge to the King’s enemies, making this defence controversy a uniquely RAF issue.

Unfortunately for the RAF’s senior leadership, the moral divergence exhibited by a coterie of ex-pilots defies easy repudiation. The “rotten apple” theory, whereby a serious breach of trust is attributed to one, corrupt individual (a particular favourite of UK Defence when it wishes to explain away reprehensible behaviour within a particular branch or Service), cannot be employed. Nor can RAF commanders find convenient “scapegoats” on whom they can pin charges of treasonous behaviour. The numbers involved in this particular scandal, regardless of whether they are retired or not, are simply too great.

Have the RAF’s ethos, core values and standards been compromised to such a degree that Air Chief Marshal Wigston and his command team are no longer able to deliver on key elements of the RAF’s moral component — specifically the provision of “effective leadership from those placed in authority” and the “sound management of all personnel and resources”? It is perhaps not surprising that prior to this latest incident the RAF had very publicly become subject of a Defence Operational Readiness Audit, an independent inspection of its internal affairs. 

21st century politics has stress-tested this Victorian-era etiquette to near destruction

Yet institutional failings within the RAF only tell part of the story. The key question as to why former RAF pilots felt free to betray their country for financial reward still remains largely unanswered. One possible clue, however, may lie in the “good chap theory of government”, a term first coined by Professor Lord Peter Hennessy, the doyen of constitutional historians. Predicated primarily on relying on the right sort of politician to do the right thing at the right time, it first entered the collective consciousness in light of Boris Johnson’s egregious behaviour as Prime Minister. Yet this “good egg” theory has also traditionally called upon crown servants to adhere to the very highest standards of personal and professional conduct in public service. 

Largely un-codified, this brand of “gentlemanly conduct” has characterised public administration since the 19th century. Yet the increasingly irreverent nature of 21st century British politics has stress-tested this Victorian-era etiquette to near destruction. This was amply demonstrated by Boris Johnson who, in the wake of the “party-gate” scandal, sought to excise passages of the ministerial code governing “honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability” in public life. This flagrant disregard for established convention is symptomatic of a system of public service which is open to corruption, possesses few checks and balances, and is quite simply not fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Regrettably, the same is applicable to today’s UK armed forces. In common usage around the turn of the 20th century, the “good egg” theory has continued well into the new millennium to govern the behaviour and actions of those holding the Queen’s or King’s commission. Officers were, and still are, expected to act like gentlemen (and ladies) and to remain unswervingly loyal to sovereign and country. For those who dared defy these unspoken rules and assumptions, disgrace and social ostracism awaited. 

The opening words of the late Queen’s commission (“We, reposing especial Trust and Confidence in your Loyalty, Courage, and good conduct”) affirmed that fealty to the Commander-in-Chief (the reigning monarch), brother officers and subordinates was a sine qua non of a dependable and trustworthy leader. Yet in light of the Chinese pilot scandal, it is patently obvious that “loyalty”, at least for these ex-RAF pilots, was not only provisional, but transactional in nature.

General James Mattis, leading military thinker and former US Defense Secretary, asserted in his memoirs that, “History teaches that we face nothing new under the sun”. With regards to the betrayal of the modern British state, we have been here many times before. Two espionage cases from the inter-war period in particular are highly germane to the current scandalous episode. They centre on the pioneer aviators Lord William Forbes-Sempill and Squadron-Leader Frederick Rutland.

Sempill, an Eton-educated scion of the aristocracy, served in the Royal Flying Corps, RFC, Royal Naval Air Squadron, RNAS and the nascent RAF. A long-time associate of Winston Churchill’s, Sempill was charged with spying for the Imperial Japanese Navy during the years 1923–25 and 1939–41. A fervent anti-Communist, Sempill encouraged the Japanese to develop naval air power as part of its national strategy. He facilitated this by passing on classified material relating to Britain’s own naval aviation programme, which greatly assisted his Japanese contacts in creating their own naval air service and developing their own aircraft carriers. 

Sempill rapidly came to the attention of the Security Service, MI5, after the Government Code & Cipher School, predecessor to today’s GCHQ, intercepted and broke Japanese diplomatic codes which revealed Sempill as a Japanese agent. Although interviewed about his espionage on behalf of the Imperial Japanese Navy, it was decided not to prosecute Sempill as the case would have been too embarrassing for the British establishment in general, and King George V in particular: Sempill’s father was aide-de-camp to His Majesty.

Yet at the outbreak of war in 1939, Sempill, now working for the Admiralty, resumed his spying on behalf of his Japanese friends. He not only disclosed details of Fleet Air Arm aircraft and the carriers from which they flew, but divulged sensitive information about Churchill and his government. A week after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thereby facilitating America’s entry into the war, Sempill was still in contact with the Japanese embassy in London. Despite MI5’s success in accessing Sempill’s treasonous chatter by means of tapping the embassy’s phone lines, it was once again recommended not to prosecute the renegade peer for espionage. He was allowed to retire quietly from office.

Separated by a century, the Sempill-Rutland and Chinese pilot controversies have much in common

Also spying for the Japanese was Frederick Rutland, or “Rutland of Jutland”, a British military aviator who, like Sempill, had served in both the RNAS and RAF. Having left the Service at the end of the Great War, Rutland came to the notice of MI5 in 1922 in light of secret talks he had convened with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Possessing expert knowledge of aircraft carriers and deck landing techniques and procedures, Rutland, who resided in both the UK and USA, was an excellent source of intelligence for Tokyo during the 1920s and 1930s. Like Sempill, he aided the Japanese in developing their aircraft carrier capabilities, then was eventually unmasked as a traitor by signals intelligence, SIGINT, decrypts. Unlike the well-connected Sempill, Rutland was interned in December 1941 under the infamous Defence Regulation 18B for his pro-Japanese sympathies. He committed suicide in 1949.

Despite the fact that the former UK military personnel at the centre of the Chinese pilot story were subject to the Official Secrets Act, and may well have signed confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements, the MoD was forced to admit that, technically, these individuals had not breached UK secrecy laws. When challenged, these ex-aircrew will unquestionably parrot this official line as their defence, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from public prosecution. Lord Sempill did exactly this in the 1920s when he confessed to having only technically breached the 1911 Official Secrets Act by divulging secret information to foreign air officials. 

Incredibly, an apologist for the Scottish peer, emboldened by the imprimatur of the present Sempill family, has moved to rehabilitate his reputation by means of a recent academic article, which queries his guilt on the specious grounds that as MI5’s case against him was “inconclusive” and never examined in a court of law, he must therefore be innocent. This is despite the mountain of prima facie evidence supplied by MI5 and GC&CS regarding Sempill’s treachery, and the existence of a signed note from Churchill to the Admiralty, dated October 1941, urging it to “Clear him [Sempill] out whilst time remains”. 

Although separated by the passage of one hundred years, the Sempill-Rutland and Chinese pilot controversies have much in common. Both episodes focus on former UK military aviators assisting Asiatic nation states to acquire the means to achieve air superiority in the Indo-Pacific region. Both Japan and China were, at the times of these respective espionage cases, technically not regarded as hostile states. Both instances highlight the perennial challenge of preventing serving and retired officers from disseminating the secrets of the nation’s defence capabilities to hostile foreign states. Each case-study casts light on the degree to which the culprits and their apologists indulge in semantics, legalistic contortions of morals and truths, and the simple exploitation of existing legal loopholes to avoid punishment.

The military talks a lot about “ends”, “ways” and “means”. The ways and means by which former military personnel betray our country may have altered, but the ends remain the same — namely the potentially fatal compromising of our security and defence. As a consequence, the UK government can no longer rely on the 19th century “good chap” theory to govern the personal and professional conduct of military personnel. Thanks to the immoral actions of a few ex-pilots, who are using skills and knowledge paid for by the British taxpayer to aid a hostile foreign state bent on hegemony in the Indo-pacific region, the Victorian ideal of officers and gentlemen defending “Queen and Country” has been dealt a fatal blow. 

Whilst the government will now be obliged to strengthen existing secrecy laws, the chiefs of the three armed services may wish to reflect upon the moral components of their respective organisations, and the degree to which they have been compromised by a growing cynicism amongst serving personnel. Loyalty is not a provisional and transactional commodity that can be sold on the open market to the highest bidder. 

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