US Marines with Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a hot load on the F-35B Lightning at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. Credit: US Marines.

They came, they saw, they listened … but did they influence the Danish fighter acquisition program?

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 jet fighter 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 US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter, according to a report by Thomas Newdick, in The War Zone

The report cites anonymous sources suggesting that the US 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, The War Zone reported.

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 US assistance, at Sandagergård on the Danish island of Amager, to which the NSA also has access, The War Zone reported.

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.

Five Eyes, by the way, is the same group warning the western world over using Huawei products, for fear of intelligence breaches. Yet the NSA does that and more, even against its own allies.

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, The War Zone reported. This is the competition that the F-35 won in June 2016.

According to DR, the NSA used its Xkeyscore system, which trawls through and analyzes global internet data, to seek information on Terma. Ssearch criteria includes 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 — the whole enchilada, as they say.

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, The War Zone reported.

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 Super Hornet. 

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 war Zone reported. 

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.”

Meanwhile, a 2019 Pentagon report warned that the US Marine Corps’ oldest F-35B Joint Strike Fighters could remain airworthy for just over a quarter of their expected lifespan due to “serious structural problems.”

According to Bloomberg, one early version of the jet, known as “early block F” and bought by the Marine Corps, could fly for just 2,100 flight hours, which the report says is “well under” the expected service life of 8,000 hours.

The plane has been hit by a huge list of issues, and is over a decade late, with final cost estimates for the US military expected to reach US$1.5 trillion.