Global militaries: the dangers of revolving door schemes

Global militaries: the dangers of revolving door schemes

Plus: Australia and Japan deepen their security ties, Singapore pledges to reach net zero by 2050, and making sense of Russia’s ‘dirty bomb’ accusations

Hi there Intriguer. Madrid is always a wonderful city to visit, but especially so last Sunday, when hundreds of sheep and goats descended on the city centre as part of the annual ‘Fiesta de la Trashumancia’, an ancient ritual marking the end of summer. Call us softies, but we think this tradition is utterly delightful.

Today’s briefing is a ~5.2 min read:

  • 🎖️ Global militaries: the dangers of revolving door schemes.
  • ➕ Plus: Australia and Japan deepen their security ties, Singapore pledges to reach net zero by 2050, and making sense of Russia’s ‘dirty bomb’ accusations.

Out one army and into the next

In brief:

  • Hundreds of retired US military personnel have taken up jobs as advisors to foreign militaries (with China, in particular).
  • Though working for a foreign power is often legal for retired military brass, it can introduce conflicts of interest and undermine democracies’ messaging on autocracies.

Source: Giphy

Western military officials are in high demand

Veterans make great employees: they’re hardworking, analytical, and team-oriented, even when that team is a foreign power.

  • According to a new investigation by the Washington Post, over 500 US military personnel have taken up jobs with foreign governments since 2015.
  • According to the UK Ministry of Defence, China has recruited as many as 30 former UK pilots to help train its air force.

While the practice is allowed, it has obvious risks, especially when former service members collaborate with authoritarian regimes that shower recruits with generous salaries and benefits packages.

Learning from the best

The US and the UK have two of the world’s most advanced militaries, so it’s no wonder that countries like Saudi Arabia and China look there to recruit their retired personnel.

While we would never discourage international learning opportunities (take that year abroad!), officials worry these particular schemes could promote espionage.

According to an unnamed Western official:

“[China]’s not training Chinese pilots on Western jets. It’s taking Western pilots of great experience to help develop Chinese military air force tactics and capabilities”. 

The problems with split loyalty

Even when permitted, cross-national military exchanges can be problematic for several reasons:

1. 🤫 The relationship is often kept hush-hush 

Given the national security concerns raised by collaborating with a foreign power, US personnel must first obtain approval from the State Department for any collaborations.

  • But according to the Washington Post, scores of US veterans-turned-contractors didn’t file for federal approval.

In fact, the highly-influential Brookings Institution’s former president, retired four-star General John Allen, is under FBI investigation for failing to disclose lobbying work for the Qatari government.

2. 🤷🏻‍♀️ It can give the appearance of a conflict of interest 

Appointing public officials who have closely collaborated with a foreign military (and could do so again in the future) opens the door to potential conflicts of interest.

  • General James Mattis was a military advisor to the UAE before he was appointed US Defence Secretary during the Trump Administration.

Of course, the counter-argument is that senior officials collaborating with foreign countries present an important opportunity to win friends and influence people.

3. 📢 It undermines Western diplomatic messaging

When former high-ranking Western military officials – many of whom have been responsible for developing anti-authoritarian policies and messaging – agree to work for authoritarian countries, it risks sending a message that their principles are for sale.

  • That could undermine diplomatic messaging: how seriously should the world take a general’s robust defence of liberal values if an illiberal regime will employ them within a few years?

What’s next

Legislation has been introduced in the US to bar senior military and intelligence officials from working for foreign governments for 30 months after retirement. The UK has announced it will also take “decisive steps” to stop foreign powers from recruiting its former pilots.

But until those laws are passed, jumping back and forth over the fine line between the military and the private sector will remain too lucrative to resist.

🪖 Poll: Do you think retired military personnel should be allowed to advise foreign governments?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.


The Red Line

3 experts. One key story. Every fortnight.

The RedLine’s host, Michael Hilliard, is a journalist reporting from countries including Iran, Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and works with sources from the White House to the Taliban. He also serves on various committees and councils for the Australian Government.

Take a listen.

Southeast Asia & the Pacific

🇦🇺 Australia

The leaders of Australia and Japan signed a new security agreement during last Saturday’s annual Australia-Japan Leaders’ Meeting.

  • The two countries agreed to boost intelligence sharing and expand joint military training programs.
  • To sweeten the deal, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese presented his Japanese counterpart with baby koalas – a diplomatic manoeuvre with an assumed near-perfect success rate (if you forget that ~100% of koalas have chlamydia) 😧.

🇮🇳 India

India’s Congress Party has elected its first non-Gandhi leader in 24 years in an effort to revitalise the party ahead of the 2024 general election.

  • The Congress Party dominated Indian politics for decades before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took centre stage.
  • However, experts doubt that its new leader Mallikarjun Kharge will seriously threaten Modi’s re-election.

🇲🇲 Myanmar

The Burmese Air Force conducted a raid on a concert last Sunday, killing at least 80 people.

  • The ruling military junta insisted the concert, which was attended by some Kachin Independence Army members (KIA), was a legitimate target.
  • The Burmese military has been fighting the KIA and several other ethnic armed groups since it came to power in a coup last year.

🇸🇬 Singapore

Singapore has unveiled new plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

  • The city-state has struggled to decarbonise so far, leading to its less ambitious emission forecasts for 2030.
  • Singapore’s ambitions are contingent on new technologies such as green hydrogen, which officials hope will contribute ~50% of the country’s power needs by 2050.

🇻🇳 Vietnam

Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong will travel to China as the first foreign leader to meet with President Xi Jinping since he secured a third term in power.

  • Even though Trong stepped down as the Vietnamese President in 2021, he remains the most powerful political figure in the ruling party.
  • The visit signals that Sino-Vietnamese relations are sound, despite their competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The Kremlin ups the ante

A Russian vehicle outside Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power station. Ukraine has invited experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify it is not building a dirty bomb. Credits: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko.

Fighting dirty: The US, UK, and France published a rare joint statement rejecting Russia’s claim that Ukraine was preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’ on its own territory.

  • According to the statement, the three countries’ foreign ministers talked to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to “reject Russia’s transparently false allegations”.

A dirty bomb isn’t as powerful as a nuclear bomb, but it is highly radioactive.

  • A dirty bomb is designed to spread terror amongst civilians, rather than destroy entire towns.

Worrying signs: According to the three countries, Russia’s claim is an “attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation”.

  • This latest development is particularly concerning given President Putin’s ongoing cascade of nuclear threats.

Don’t panic: Nuclear expert Andrey Baklitskiy points out that Moscow has made similar accusations against Ukraine in the past, which didn’t result in Russian escalation:

“If the past is any guide, [the dirty bomb claims] will just fade in the background but will periodically resurface as the “US bio laboratories” story.”

In response to Russia’s claims, Ukrainian officials have invited experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to certify that Kyiv does not possess or plan to develop such bombs.


We got tons of submissions for last week’s book recommendations and we must say: wow, you all are smart. Every suggestion was excellent (and we’re serious, there were no duds!), but here are some of our favourites.

  • The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan. Other Intriguers should read it because it helps you understand what’s happening in Iran right now! It is very much related to the authoritarian regime; the oppression of Iranian women.”
  • The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “It gives an insight into Putin and the Russian psyche.”
  • The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafrian War by Alexander Madiebo. “It would be cool if fellow intriguers picked it up as I believe Madiebo as much as possible presents an interesting, factual and non-biased account of these events in Nigeria’s history.”

This was fun. Let’s try it again, but with your favourite podcasts this time!

Drop the name of a must-listen podcast and why Intriguers ought to know about it, and we’ll put the best of the bunch in next week’s “Letters” section.

Latest Author Articles
Xi weighs his next move as Biden slaps more tariffs

As foreshadowed, US President Joe Biden announced more tariffs on China-made products this week. The 46th president said China was “cheating” on trade, so he slapped or raised tariffs on EVs and other goods like batteries, critical minerals, medical equipment, and chips, to “protect US workers and businesses.”

17 May, 2024
Protests rock Georgia as parliament passes ‘Russian law’

Today’s main story takes us to a capital that’s closer to Kabul than Paris and further east than Moscow, but where sentiment is leaning west towards Brussels. Welcome to Tbilisi, Georgia, where protestors are still filling the streets as outrage grows over a bill that passed parliament yesterday (Tuesday).

15 May, 2024
The two key lines from Putin’s Victory Day speech

Cue another Putin speech! The Russian leader addressed his nation on ‘Victory Day’ yesterday (Thursday) – it’s a key public holiday commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

10 May, 2024
What a Rafah operation could look like

Israel is now pushing forward with its long-foreshadowed operation in the city of Rafah, at the southernmost point of the Gaza Strip bordering Egypt.

8 May, 2024