NSA Spied On Denmark As It Chose Its Future Fighter Aircraft: Report

Reports in the Danish media allege that the United States spied on the country’s government and its defense industry, as well as other European defense contractors, in an attempt to gain information on its fighter acquisition program. The revelations, published online by DR, Denmark’s Danish public-service broadcaster, concern the run-up to the fighter competition that was eventually won by the U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter. 

The report cites anonymous sources suggesting that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) targeted Denmark’s Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the defense firm Terma, which also contributes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. 

Allegedly, the NSA sought to conduct espionage using an existing intelligence-sharing agreement between the two countries. Under this agreement, it is said the NSA is able to tap fiber-optic communication cables passing through Denmark and stored by the Danish Defense Intelligence Service, or Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE). Huge amounts of data sourced from the Danish communication cables are stored in an FE data center, built with U.S. assistance, at Sandagergård on the Danish island of Amager, to which the NSA also has access.

This kind of sharing of confidential data is not that unusual within the intelligence community, in which the NSA is known to trade high-level information with similar agencies within the Five Eyes alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), as well as other close allies, such as Germany and Japan, for example.

It would be hoped, however, that these relationships would not be used by the NSA to secretly gather information on the countries with which it has agreements, which is exactly what is alleged to have taken place in Denmark.

A source told DR that between 2015 and 2016 the NSA wanted to gather information on the Danish defense company Terma in a “targeted search” ahead of Denmark’s decision on a new fighter jet to replace its current fleet of F-16s. This is the competition that the F-35 won in June 2016.

A Danish F-16 painted in the same colors as the upcoming Danish F-35, over the capital, Copenhagen, in October 2020., Flyvevåbnets Fototjeneste

According to DR, the NSA used its Xkeyscore system, which trawls through and analyzes global internet data, to seek information on Terma. An unnamed source said that search criteria had included individual email addresses and phone numbers of company employees.

Officially described as part of the NSA’s “lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system,” Xkeyscore is understood to be able to obtain email correspondence, browser history, chat conversations, and call logs.

In this case, the sources also contend that the NSA used its access to Danish communication cables and FE databases to search for communications related to two other companies, Eurofighter GmbH and Saab, who were respectively offering the Typhoon and Gripen multi-role fighters for the Danish F-16 replacement program. While the Gripen was withdrawn from the Danish competition in 2014, the Typhoon remained in the running until the end, alongside the F-35 and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. 

A photo taken from a Royal Danish Air Force Challenger during joint training with Italian Air Force F-35A fighter jets over Iceland., Forsvaret/Steen Lee Christensen

DR says it has so far not been able to “determine exactly what information the NSA was looking for, or how the US intelligence service may have used the information about the fighter companies.” 

Importantly, however, it is alleged that the NSA’s use of Danish-American intelligence channels to “listen in” on Danish organizations was illegal. Concerns about the breach of trust led to an internal whistleblower making at least two confidential reports for the FE, some of the contents of which have now apparently been leaked. 

The whistleblower reports are said to have warned the FE leadership about possible illegalities in an intelligence collaboration between Denmark and the United States to drain Danish internet cables of information that the intelligence services could use in their work. Furthermore, the reports allegedly warned that the NSA was also targeting a number of Denmark’s “closest neighbors,” including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden and that some of the espionage conducted by the NSA was judged to be “against Danish interests and goals.”

The DR investigation admits it’s currently impossible to determine whether the FE acted on the basis of the whistleblower’s reports. Intelligence-sharing between the two countries has been a public issue since last summer, when it first emerged that the NSA was accessing data from the Danish cables, apparently including Danish citizens’ personal data and private communications. At the time, the Danish government suspended the head of the FE and three other officials.

As for the Joint Strike Fighter purchase, it seems likely to escape any fallout from the revelations. There is currently no evidence that the government’s decision to procure the F-35 was in any way influenced by alleged activities by the NSA, although it’s worth noting, too, that the country’s decision to choose the stealth fighter has been the subject of its own criticism. Denmark’s national audit agency, for example, identified serious shortcomings in the decision-making process and calculations used as the basis for selecting the aircraft.

However, the country is still on track to receive 27 F-35As and Lockheed Martin reported on October 21, 2020, that Denmark’s first example, AP-1, was headed to final assembly at its Fort Worth, Texas, production facility. The delivery of the first aircraft is due next year. 

Denmark’s involvement with the Joint Strike Fighter program dates back as far as 2002, when it joined the System Development and Demonstration phase and, according to Lockheed Martin, “influenced technical elements of the F-35.” In October 2008, meanwhile, a Danish F-16 was delivered to the 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, to serve as a chase plane for the F-35 Development, Test and Evaluation program, further enhancing the Royal Danish Air Force’s partnership with the program. 

Terma, for its part, is still a major player within the multinational F-35 production effort, producing more than 70 mission-critical parts, including missionized gun pods for the F-35B and F-35C variants. The company did not respond to a request for comment from DR.

A graphic showing components produced by Terma for the Joint Strike Fighter., Terma/Lockheed Martin

Regardless of how the FE and the government react to the latest allegations, if they are substantiated, then the terms of the current U.S.-Danish intelligence-sharing agreement may be judged to be in need of at least a major review. If there is any substance to these allegations, then it’s possible other countries that have made controversial choices to select the F-35 may come under new scrutiny, as well.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.