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US ‘blacklists’ SA flight academy caught up in Chinese military training and security risk saga

US ‘blacklists’ SA flight academy caught up in Chinese military training and security risk saga

Last year, it emerged that a South African flight academy was embroiled in a saga involving an arrested former US Marine and the UK issuing a treason-type warning that ex-military pilots should not provide training to China. Now, the US has acted against the academy.

The United States believes a South African flight academy, which is caught up in a global skirmish involving defence services and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is acting against its national security interests and has placed trade restrictions on it.

It emerged this week that the US added the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), based in the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn and operational worldwide, to its Entity List.

‘Against US national security’

The list “identifies entities for which there is reasonable cause to believe, based on specific and articulable facts, that the entities have been involved, are involved, or pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”.

According to a US government document dated Wednesday, 14 June 2023, TFASA and several other companies were added to the list that came into effect on Monday, 12 June.

The document states: “These entities have been determined by the US Government to be acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

TFASA issued a statement on its website about the action by the US.

Business as usual

TFASA said because it was a South African company that was registered with the country’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, and because it did not rely on US exports, its daily operations were unaffected.

“Nevertheless, TFASA is disappointed that the United States Department of Commerce has taken this step without consultation,” the statement said.

“TFASA will be contacting the United States Department of Commerce to clarify its position.

“TFASA has strict protocols and a Code of Conduct in place that are designed to prevent any TFASA employee sharing any information or training that is, or might be considered to be, legally or operationally sensitive, or security classified.”

In December 2022, Daily Maverick reported that TFASA was caught up in an aviation saga that linked to various countries and looped back to the US.

UK, China, Australia and the US

On 18 October 2022, the UK Ministry of Defence’s press office posted a series of tweets hinting that there would be a crackdown on former British military pilots who provided training to the People’s Liberation Army of China.

The tweets implied the former pilots were putting the UK at risk.

At the time, TFASA issued a statement saying the UK Ministry of Defence had never raised any objections to its (the flight academy’s) operations.

Three days after the UK defence ministry’s tweets were posted, on 21 October 2022, Daniel Edmund Duggan, a military pilot originally from the US, was arrested in Australia where he has citizenship.

A few weeks after he was taken into custody in Australia, that country’s deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, said he was worried about “reports that China had approached former Australian defence personnel to provide training to Chinese.”

Duggan, who is detained in Australia, is wanted in the US where he faces charges there relating to money laundering, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and a conspiracy about providing defence services to China.

South African ‘co-conspirators’

Accusations that the US has made against Duggan, which he has denied, include that he conspired with people in South Africa.

The US’s indictment against Duggan showed that he had eight “co-conspirators” who were not identified by name.

Three had links to South Africa – a test flight academy based in this country that also had a presence in China; that flight academy’s South African chief executive officer, and a South African lawyer who was also an associate of Duggan’s.

The US indictment against Duggan alleged that the unnamed South African test flight academy contracted with Duggan, as well as a former US fighter pilot, “and others both known and unknown to the grand jury”.

“Duggan provided military training to PRC military pilots by, with and through [the South African test flight academy] in or around October-November 2010, March 2012, November 2012, and other times both known and unknown to the grand jury,” the indictment read.

Contract work and custody

This is where TFASA, although not named in the indictment against Duggan, seems to fit into the saga.

Duggan was once a contractor for TFASA.

A TFASA spokesperson previously told Daily Maverick that Duggan “undertook one test pilot contract” for the academy in South Africa “over 10 years ago”.

The spokesperson had said that since then, the academy “had no contact with Mr Duggan whatsoever” and that “Mr Duggan never worked for TFASA in China”.

Duggan is fighting his extradition to the US.

In an online petition to try to have him released from custody, his wife Saffrine said: “Daniel has been caught in a geo-political storm for working in China, doing work that has been done there for decades by Western, African and European pilots… with the full knowledge of these governments.

“Daniel’s unfair treatment has resulted in a formal complaint to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security who is now investigating whether any Australian authorities… acted illegally in Dan’s arrest.”

Pilot course and prison

Aside from links to Duggan, TFASA also had links to another pilot, from China, who was arrested on US orders.

A TFASA spokesperson previously confirmed that a Chinese client introduced Su Bin to academy officials in 2009.

“He facilitated a few test pilot courses in South Africa,” the spokesperson said.

“However, due to disagreements over working arrangements, [the academy] ended the relationship with Su Bin at the end of 2013.”

Su was detained in Canada the following year, 2014, for stealing sensitive military data and was sent to the US to face related charges.

In 2016 he was sentenced to 46 months in jail in the US.

TFASA, in its statement issued on Tuesday in response to the US’s trade action against it, again reiterated that its operations were above board.

“TFASA is, and always has been, in full compliance with the laws of South Africa, and every other jurisdiction in which it operates,” it said.

“TFASA highlights that the training it provides is also available from other civilian contractors, including organisations based in the United States of America, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and European jurisdictions.” DM

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