ORLANDO: Three PLA Air Force (PLAAF) were identified by a senior defense official roaming this year’s Air Force Association conference here.
The exhibit floor here boasts scale models of a wide array of America’s highest tech weaponry. Just outside the main hall, for example, is a large scale model of Boeing and SAAB’s offering for the Air Force’s T-X trainer competition.
The senior defense official, who clearly wanted reporters to note the Chinese presence, was sanguine about their attendance but a bit miffed they were walking around in civilian clothes. After all, it makes such folks harder to spot. Many of their colleagues from other countries wore uniforms. (They may all have, but we can’t confirm that).
The PLAAF officers were spotted by the senior defense official who knew at least one of them from a previous encounter. One of the PLAAF officers may have been a J-20 pilot. Folks manning the booths at the show said they had seen the PLAAF officers taking photos all around the floor. Those who’ve read Nick Eftiamedes’ groundbreaking book, Chinese Intelligence Operations, and the occasional reports by American counterintelligence on foreign espionage know how prevalent this behavior is. The FBI mounts serious counterintelligence efforts at some events to discourage, or at least monitor and complicate, the lives of foreign intelligence and military officers.
Foreign militaries are welcome at the conference, but the great majority come from allied and partner nations — America’s friends, in other words. Foreign military get a special rate to attend the conference. Military and intelligence industry events are notorious centers of espionage by both friendlies and what we can smilingly call our competitors: Russia and China et al.
I heard about these gentlemen too late in the day to get a chance to find and interview them. Here’s hoping they got better photos than they could download from defense company websites (or this reporter could shoot) and didn’t overhear any unguarded hallway conversations.