U.S. Mulls Pulling Spy Planes From Britain, Not Basing F-35s There Over Huawei 5G Plans: Report

The United States says the Chinese firm’s work on the United Kingdom’s national 5G network is a major security risk.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Homeland photo


Members of the U.S. Senate are reportedly looking to block the future forward-deployment of two U.S. Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to the United Kingdom. This follows reports that the White House is considering withdrawing RC-135 spy planes and other intelligence assets, as well as other U.S. military personnel, from the country. At issue are security concerns over the U.K. government's decision to allow Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to be among those working on the country's national 5G mobile phone and WiFi networks.

The Telegraph newspaper in Britain first reported the effort to prevent the F-35As from going to the United Kingdom, which is a proposed addition to the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2021 Fiscal Year, on May 5, 2020. This same paper had reported that the White House was conducting its larger military and intelligence security review the day before.

The summary of the proposed addition to the NDAA, which is only now starting to take shape in Congress, would "prohibit the stationing of new aircraft at bases in host countries with at-risk vendors in their 5G or 6G networks." This could also upend any other forward-deployments of U.S. military aircraft to the United Kingdom or any other country that employs a telecommunications contractor, such as Huawei, that the United States deems to be a national security risk. 

If this provision were to become law, it's not clear how this might impact plans to deploy U.S. Marine F-35Bs on the U.K. Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth during that ship's first operational cruise, which is set to occur in 2021. How this prohibition might apply to rotational deployments, such routine visits by Air Force heavy bombers, is unclear, too.

With regards to the broader White House review, forward-deployed RC-135 spy planes at RAF Mildenhall in southeast England are high on the list to be withdrawn if the U.K. government goes ahead with its 5G plans involving Huawei. The U.K. Royal Air Force is also an RC-135 operator, with its variants known as Airseekers, a program that is heavily tied together with its American counterparts. It's unclear if that cooperation could also be put in jeopardy should the U.K.'s 5G plans go forward.

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Beyond that, the United Kingdom is part of the so-called "Five Eyes" intelligence network with the United States, along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. This arrangement allows these five countries to rapidly share very sensitive information back and forth with each other and means that the United Kingdom hosts a wide variety of other permanent and rotating American intelligence assets.

This includes, but is certainly not limited to, deployments of U-2S Dragon Lady spy planes to RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford and the large U.S. Intelligence Community presence at RAF Menwith Hill. The Telegraph also said that the White House review was exploring withdrawing up to 10,000 U.S. military personnel in total, including non-intelligence related elements, as well. The U.S. military has a large precense in the United Kingdom, in general, which includes other Air Force units, including a fighter wing equipped with F-15C/D Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles, an aerial refueling wing with KC-135R tankers, and a special operations wing.

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It's not news, of course, that the U.S. government has concerns about potential security risks posed by allowing a Chinese firm to have a significant role in establishing mobile data networks across the United Kingdom. The fear is that the Chinese government could leverage Huawei's involvement to either build in backdoors or otherwise gain access to these networks in the future and use them as a vector to penetrate into more sensitive systems. The Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly accused the company of having direct ties to the Chinese government, which is also well-known for using cyber attacks, as well as traditional espionage, to steal both commercial and government information.

The U.S. military, as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community, have only become ever-more reliant on computer networks over the years. The F-35, specifically, which the United Kingdom also operates, is heavily network-dependent, with its cloud-based Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) responsible for a host of mission planning, maintenance, and logistics functions. There have long been concerns about ALIS' vulnerability to cyber attacks.

"Our governments share a tremendous amount of security information," Mick Mulvaney, then Acting White House Chief of Staff, said at a gathering for students Oxford’s debating society in February. "We are very much concerned that integrity of that information is hardwired into your computer systems, and if you folks go forward with the decision to include Huawei, it will have a direct and dramatic impact on our ability to share information with you. Period, end of story."

That same month U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly harangued U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson over Huawei. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, and US President Donald Trump, at right, shake hands at the 2019 NATO summit in the United Kingdom in December 2019., Michael Kappeler/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Of course, there is no indication that the United Kingdom would ever allow Huawei to be involved in work relating to any sensitive portions of its national 5G network. At the same time, in an ever-connected world, even general access to commercial networks can still present real security risks to military and other government personnel.

Beyond all that, the U.S. government has been in its own protracted spat with the Chinese firm, which has also been tied to an ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing, since 2018. In May of that year, the Pentagon banned the sale of Huawei cell phones, as well as those from Chinese firm ZTE, on its bases, citing security risks. Seven months later, Canadian authorities then arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the U.S. government. 

In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice hit the company with a total of 23 separate indictments, including the theft of trade secrets and fraud. Then, in May 2019, President Trump essentially banned Huawei from operating in the United States entirely via executive order. The U.S. government has now also indicted Meng Wanzhou personally over stealing trade secrets and other charges, as well, which she denies.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou leaves her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada for an extradition hearing in January 2020., Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP

The U.S. has sought to pressure other allies to drop Huawei from their own 5G network rollouts, too. Australia, another Five Eyes member, ultimately blocked the Chinese firm from its own national network plans. Members of the U.K. parliament from Boris Johnson's own Conservative Party have also been pushing him to terminate the deal with the telecommunications company.

Relations between Washington and Beijing, as well as the Chinese government and those of other countries, have also cooled significantly in the past few months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Key issues are evidence that authorities in China covered up the initial outbreak and that they are still withholding important information that could help global efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

The White House security review and the push in the Senate to block the deployment of F-35s and other aircraft to the United Kingdom are only likely to add to the already mounting pressure on U.K. authorities to drop Huawei from its 5G plans.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com