Turkey Wants to Link Its F-35 Computer Brains to Networks That Will Include Russian Systems

The Turkish military says it wants to make sure there is a secure link between its future F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and the Turkish Air Force’s main computer networks that will prevent the inadvertent sharing of classified information. This comes as many of the countries involved in the international stealth fighter program increasingly worry about the security of the jet’s main data transfer setup and as the United States expresses concern about Turkey’s growing ties with Russia.

Earlier in January 2018, Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, the country’s top military procurement arm, also known by its Turkish acronym SSM, launched a competition to buy the necessary equipment and software to connect the F-35s to the rest of the Air Force’s systems, Defense News reported. SSM’s cybersecurity and electronic warfare division is in charge of the project and is asking for anyone interested in submitting a bid to do so by the end of February 2018.

“The program involves safe connection of information systems elements between the F-35 aircraft and the Air Forces’ information systems network as well as safe sharing of classified information between these systems,” SSM said, according to Defense News. “The political idea is to earn as much indigenous software space as possible while at the same time remaining within the [JSF] program,” an anonymous source also told the outlet.

Though it’s not entirely clear from the report, the goal of the Turkish effort seems to be gain more control over what information goes into and comes out of its F-35s, improving its ability to share information across the country’s air force. This is particularly important given the Joint Strike Fighter’s sensors’ ability to vacuum up important information, especially about electronic emitters such as enemy radars. 

A US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter., USAF

Being able to rapidly move that data around a variety of networks would give pilots in aircraft with less capable radars and other sensors a significantly improved view of the battlefield during missions, as well as allowing commanders to better plan future missions. Finding ways to link the F-35, especially using its stealthy Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), to fourth generation aircraft has been a major goal for the U.S. military services flying the jets, as well. Joint Strike Fighters have coordinated with older planes using the non-stealthy Link-16 data link during past exercises

There is also a concern that without a filter, the Joint Strike Fighter’s cloud-based computer brain, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), might automatically send sensitive data to the United States or other partners in the program, or to the manufacturer Lockheed Martin. ALIS’s main job is to collect data on the jets’ figurative health, but monitoring information from various sensors about parts that are in need of routine maintenance or may be likely to fail for some other reason. Ground crews download these details from the aircraft via a secure laptop and then upload them into a larger system that, at least in theory, is supposed to help streamline the maintenance process and identify points of concern in need of improvement or upgrades in the future.

On top of that, though, it’s how Lockheed Martin plans to release software patches for the jets. Most importantly, the system acts as the load point for mission data packages, containing route plans, locations of potential threats and hazards, and other similar information.

Many of the countries involved in the Joint Strike Fighter Program are increasingly fearful that ALIS might be scraping information from those packages during uploading or downloading of other data and that it might end up on the system’s main servers or just be worryingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. Italy and Norway now have a shared software laboratory at the U.S. Air Force’s Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, which is working on a secure filter to prevent any unauthorized transfers. Australia has also expressed interest in its own such firewall.

A Norwegian F-35A Joint Strike Fighter at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for training in 2015., USAF

There is also the possibility the United States could use ALIS in the future as an unprecedented export control. It could allow Lockheed Martin, at the direction of the U.S. government, to disconnect a country’s F-35s from vital updates and potentially disrupting the jets’ operational capabilities remotely, if necessary. American authorities might also be able to use the network as a vector for a cyber attack to more completely disable to the aircraft.

For Turkey, as with the other countries pursuing national-level solutions to these data sharing and sovereignty issues, the main problem is that they will all still have to use ALIS in the day-to-day operation of their F-35s. So far, only Israel has managed secure the rights from Lockheed Martin to install its own software on the jets that would allow it to operate independently of the company’s cloud-based network.

Some Joint Strike Fighter program members may be able to negotiate their own country-specific arrangements with Lockheed Martin with the U.S. government’s blessing. It seems very unlikely that either the Maryland-headquartered defense contractor or U.S. authorities would be willing to extend the same privileges to Turkey, at least in the near term.

A member of the US Air Force connects to the F-35’s computer system using a laptop., USAF

Relations between Washington and Ankara have steadily cooled since 2014 in light of the U.S. military’s increasing support for Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS. Turkish authorities see the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria, also known by the acronym YPG, in particular as indistinct from the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey.

Both the United States and Turkey have designated the PKK as a terrorist group. However, the U.S. government vehemently disagrees that the YPG and PKK are inseparably linked and that the former has plans to seize Turkish territory. The YPG form the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S.-backed force in Syria, which has been instrumental in routing ISIS.

Ties between the two countries only deteriorated more in 2016, when Air Force officers attempted to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a coup. Erdoğan and his political allies promptly launched a massive crackdown, arresting tens of thousands of people, and accused the United States of sheltering the man they allege to have been behind the putsch, Fethullah Gülen. It’s worth noting that the U.S. military still keeps a stockpile of approximately 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which has increasingly become a separate security issue.

But the series of events also led to warming ties between Turkey and Russia, though. In July 2017, Erdoğan confirmed his country would buy the Russian S-400 air defense system, prompting statements of concern both from the United States and the country’s other NATO allies.

The eight wheeled 5P85SM2-01 transporter erector launcher, part of the S-400 air defense system. , Vitaly Kuzmin

With regards to the F-35, there is a distinct concern that Kremlin may be able to exploit the deal, which will reportedly involve some level of technical cooperation with Turkey’s defense industry, to see how its anti-aircraft system fares against the fifth generation fighter. Russia could then use that information to refine and expand its existing anti-stealth research and development work. There have been similar concerns about plans to add the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to the Joint Strike Fighter program.

“We’re going to have to start looking at, if they are going to go through with this [S-400 purchase], how we can be interoperable in the future,” Heidi Grant, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, told Defense News in November 2017. “But right now, I can tell you our policies do not allow us to be interoperable with that system.”

“It’s a significant concern, not only to the United States, because we need to protect this high end technology, fifth-generation technology … [but for] all of our partners and allies that have already purchased the F-35,” she added. Turkish officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to back out of the deal, unlike in 2015 when they cancelled a similar plan to buy Chinese FD-2000 air defense systems in the face of pressure from the United States and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a shared press conference in Ankara in December 2017., Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik  via AP

There had already been some calls to block sales of the F-35 to Turkey in 2017 following a incident outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, in which Erdoğan’s personal security detail attacked Kurdish activists peacefully protesting, triggering a brawl and censure from city and U.S. federal authorities.

In July 2017, David Cicilline, a Democrat Representative from Rhode Island and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed an amendment in the Fiscal Year 2018 defense budget that would have halted the sale of Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey. This did not make it into the final version of the law.

Limiting Turkey’s access to the F-35 program may not be an easy prospect in the future, either, as a result of efforts to incentivize partners to join in the first place. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is responsible for the construction of portions of the jet’s center fuselage and could service the aircraft’s Pratt and Whitney F135 engine for other NATO operators in the future. In total, 10 different Turkish firms have contributed in some fashion to the project.

Any restrictions of Turkish involvement in the program could therefore negatively affect both the construction of jets now and the ability for NATO allies to sustain their own F-35 fleets. At the same time, Turkey has been pursuing an indigenous fifth generation fighter jet, the TFX, in cooperation with BAE Systems in the United Kingdom.

A composite of TAI concept art for the proposed TFX fifth generation fighter jet., Mehmet Delice via Wikimedia

As such, the Turkish government could conceivably threaten to back out of the Joint Strike Fighter program entirely, and focus on the TFX instead. Of course, this would significantly delay when Turkey’s Air Force would get its first fifth generation fighter jets, given the protracted and expensive development cycles for such aircraft. At present, TAI doesn’t expect to have a flyable prototype until at least 2023 and the quality and capabilities of that aircraft are still very much up in the air. It is doubtful that it will feature as advanced a capability set as the F-35 offers. 

It would also squander significant existing Turkish investment in the program, including plans to buy at least 100 F-35As. There are also reports that the country’s military might be interested in purchasing a number of short and vertical take-off and landing capable B models. Lockheed Martin says Turkish defense contractors could expect to see a windfall of up to $12 billion from supporting the Joint Strike Fighter project, as well.

Though 2017, the U.S. military’s main F-35 Joint Program Office said it had no immediate plans to change its cooperation with Turkey, though they did say there were reviewing the issues at play. With the S-400 deal moving ahead and Turkey now pushing for greater control over how the jets will interact with its other information networks, there may be a greater impetus to study the implications of Turkish policies on the rest of the Joint Strike Fighter program.

How the situation plays out could be an important test case for how the F-35 project manages increasing concerns from partner nations about the heavily intertwined nature of both its computer networks and its physical industrial base.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.