Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — Former Marine Daniel Duggan once flew Harrier jets for the United States, taking off and landing on Navy carriers during international missions as part of Marine Attack Squadron 214, based in Yuma, Arizona.
That was over 20 years ago, but his activity since leaving the service is now the subject of a US indictment that alleges he used his specialist skills to teach Chinese pilots how to land planes on aircraft carriers, claims he denies.
Since last October, Duggan, 54, has been held in a maximum-security prison in regional Australia as his lawyers fight an extradition order, approved by Australia’s attorney general, to return him to the US to face trial on charges including money laundering and conspiracy to export US defense services.
On Tuesday, Duggan’s lawyers argued for a stay of extradition while Australia’s Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) investigates claims of improper action by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), including that Duggan was “lured” from China, where he was living, to Australia, where the US had legal reach to arrest him.
The case comes as the US and its allies seek to unite against China in the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing has been fortifying islands with military installations that they fear may one day be used in a regional conflict.
From Lithgow Correctional Centre, where he’s being held, Duggan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that he was “living a nightmare.” “I strenuously reject the indictment in its entirety,” he said.
Duggan’s wife Saffrine wants Australian officials to block his extradition, and on Tuesday she and some of their six children stood outside court, holding signs calling for him to be freed.
“We’re horrified that something like this could happen, not only to us, but to anyone,” Saffrine Duggan told her supporters.
“I would never have thought this could ever happen in Australia, let alone to our family. My family is brave and strong and so are our friends, and so is my husband, but we are all terribly torn apart.”
After completing his final mission as a Major with the US Marines, Duggan moved to Australia in 2002. He met Saffrine in 2011, and a year later he became an Australian citizen, renounced his US citizenship, and the family moved to China.
Saffrine and the children moved back to Australia in 2018, and Duggan joined them in September 2022, after receiving Australian security clearance for an aviation licence, his supporters say.
But within weeks, that clearance was revoked and he was taken into custody.
The charges relate to a period between November 2009 and November 2012, when Duggan – then a US citizen – was alleged to have trained Chinese military pilots in China, according to a 2017 indictment that was unsealed last December.
The indictment said that “as early as 2008,” Duggan received an email from the US State Department telling him he was required to register with the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls and apply for permission to train a foreign air force.
Instead, it claims he conspired with others – including the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA) – to export defense services in violation of an arms embargo on China.
In a statement to CNN, TFASA said it complies with the laws of every jurisdiction in which it operates.
The statement said Duggan undertook one test pilot contract for the company in South Africa between November and December 2012, and “never worked for TFASA on any of its training mandates in China.”
The indictment alleges Duggan negotiated directly with a Chinese firm to provide other defense services for a fee, including “the evaluation of pilot trainees, testing of naval aviation related equipment, instruction on tactics, techniques, and procedures for launching planes from, and landing on, a naval aircraft carrier.”
Duggan told the ABC that none of the training involved the disclosure of secret or proprietary information. “It’s all public domain, open-source information that anybody, if they’re interested in, could Google it or look it up on Wikipedia,” he said.
The training offered by TFASA allegedly involved the use of a T-2 Buckeye, a twin-engine, straight-wing airplane, purchased in the US and exported to South Africa, without authorization from the US.
In its statement to CNN, TFASA said it only leased the plane from a business associate in South Africa, and never attempted to purchase it. Duggan flew the T-2, among other planes, during his contract, but the company ceased using the aircraft when approached by officials from the US Embassy in South Africa, TFASA added.
Training Chinese pilots
Duggan doesn’t deny training Chinese pilots, but he maintains they were civilians – plane enthusiasts seeking to improve their skills or prospective members of China’s then rapidly expanding aviation industry.
Glenn Kolomeitz, a former member of the Australian Defence Force and lawyer, who is advocating for the family, told CNN that it is “very, very common for people to leave the military and go work overseas.”
“Dan was just an instructor, just a pilot trainer. That’s it,” he told CNN.
“He wasn’t a part of the company (TFASA), he wasn’t in any way involved in any of the administration, the management, and how could he possibly have thought, or have even considered that there would be any illegality in this, when there are so many people, including high levels from the RAF, the British air force, involved in this training.”
On October 18, three days before Duggan was arrested in Australia, the UK Defence Ministry issued a statement warning that it was taking “decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots.”
The next day, Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles said he had asked his department to investigate reports that former Australian military pilots had also been recruited by TFASA to work in China. And a spokesperson for New Zealand’s Defence Force confirmed to Reuters that four of its former military pilots had been recruited by the company.
Two days after that, Duggan was taken into custody near his home in rural New South Wales, and only learned of the allegations against him 62 days later, Saffrine said. He faces up to 65 years in prison if found guilty.
“It has been devastating. The kids and I distraught. It’s just a struggle. It’s a daily struggle. The kids have lots of questions. Constant tears. I mean, it’s horrific,” she told CNN.
Since Duggan’s arrest, the UK and Australia have moved to tighten laws for former service members who train foreign forces.
“The new legislation being developed will remove any doubts about the application of these laws to the full breadth of our defence secrets,” said a spokesperson for Marles.
In a speech in February, Mike Burgess, Australia’s director-general of security and the head of ASIO, said a “small but concerning” number of Australian veterans were willing to put “cash before country.”
“These individuals are lackeys, more ‘top tools’ than ‘top guns.’ Selling our warfighting skills is no different to selling our secrets – especially when the training and tactics are being transferred to countries that will use them to close capability gaps, and could use them against us or our allies at some time in the future,” he said.
The T-2 Buckeye
News of Duggan’s arrest has spread through the ranks of former US Marines, says Ben Hancock, a retired colonel who served a rank above Duggan in the late ’90s when he was forward deployed on missions that took him to the Persian Gulf and around Asia, with a final stop in Townsville, Australia.
“He was what we called a weapons and tactics instructor, which is the highest instructor qualification you can get in the Marine Corps,” he said.
“It’s a very expensive course, you have to be hand-picked to be sent to it. And then once you return, you become the training guru for everybody else in the squadron,” he said. “He was top-notch. I trusted him with my life.”
Hancock said Duggan left the service as an “honorable Marine,” and while he hadn’t spoken to him since his arrest, they had kept in touch by email sporadically over the years.
Hancock said the T-2 Buckeye was used for many generations by US Navy and Marine Corps pilots to learn maneuvers on a ship – how to catapult off and trap aircraft as well as make arrested landings.
He said it was “unusual” to see a T-2 Buckeye at a civilian flight school, because most of them had been “mothballed,” but described it as a great introductory aircraft for military training.
“It’s great aerobatic airplane if you want to teach a guy to fly a twin-engine jet, how to handle jets, the speed of jet over propeller airplanes, and then do aerobatics and stall series … It’s a great airplane to train anybody in extreme flying environments that allow you to recover the airplane safely,” he said.
He said he hasn’t seen the evidence against Duggan, but questions why no one else has been charged and says the vast majority of Duggan’s experience was piloting Harriers that take off and land vertically, which requires a different approach.
“As Harrier pilots, all our time at sea, we did short takeoffs using the Harrier’s capability, not a catapult. We’d pick up under own power and then we did every landing was a vertical landing. And the Chinese don’t have in those kinds of jets,” he said. “So Dan didn’t have the expertise, in my opinion, to be training guys for that. It’s the wrong type of approach and landing.”
In its statement to CNN, TFASA denied teaching aircraft carrier approach and landing techniques to Chinese military pilots.
“TFASA provides training to test pilots, flight test engineers, and basic operational instructor pilots under closely controlled security conditions. All training aspects and material are strictly unclassified, and provided either from open source or the clients themselves. No training involves classified tactics or other information, nor any frontline activities,” the statement said.
Duggan’s supporters believe he’s been caught up in a hardened approach by Western allies towards China under leader Xi Jinping, who in recent years has expanded the military and expressed his intention to “reunify” the democratic island of Taiwan with the mainland, despite never having controlled it.
At the time Duggan was alleged to have been training Chinese military pilots, Xi was stepping out onto the international stage, visiting the US to meet then Vice President Joe Biden and proposing to strengthen their cooperation.
Several years later, under former President Donald Trump, relations deteriorated as both countries engaged in a trade war and ties remain deeply strained to this day.
Duggan’s arrest in 2022 came as the US, UK and Australia formed a stronger security bond under AUKUS, the deal they signed in 2021 to join forces in the Pacific to counter an increasingly assertive China.
Kolomeitz, the family’s supporter, says Duggan is being used to send a message to Beijing to back off from hiring its former military personnel.
“Don’t be recruiting Western former military people – that’s what it’s all about. Right?” he said. “It’s sending a message to China, and it’s helping to push through the legislative agendas of these agencies.”
The court is hearing arguments Tuesday, and will return its ruling at a later date on whether a stay will be granted.
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