Saudis Join UAE in Push to Buy F-35s as Concerns About the Jet's Computer Network Grow

Expanding the program exacerbates fears that the central system could be a threat to national security and sovereignty.

USAF

Lockheed Martin continues to look at expand sales of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and now Saudi Arabia expressing an interest in buying the fifth generation aircraft. At the same time, though, there are increasing concerns that the aircraft’s centralized computer brain, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), could pose threats to the capabilities and national interests of individual operators.

On Nov. 12, 2017, Defense News reported that Saudi Arabia is now seeking entry into the F-35 club. At the 2017 Dubai Air Show, American and Emirati officials have also confirmed that the UAE is in discussions with the United States about buying as many as 24 Joint Strike Fighters. These announcements followed reports earlier in November 2017 that Germany sees the stealthy fighter jet as the “preferred choice” to replace its aging Panavia Tornados.

“We in the UAE already live in a fifth generation environment,” Brigadier General Rashed Al Shamsi, deputy head of the country’s Air Force, explained at air show. “So acquiring the F-35 fighter jet is only a step forward to cope with the fifth generation mindset.”

It’s not entirely clear what Shamsi was referring to. At present, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is part of the F-35 program and the only one actively seeking to acquire a fifth generation aircraft of any type.

Lockheed Martin

A US Air Force F-35A.

Shamsi was most likely referring to the increasing proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missiles, especially the potential spread of Russia's S-400 system, and long range radars throughout the region. Iran, the UAE’s principle regional rival, continues to be actively seeking to improve and expand its integrated air defenses. 

These assets could pose a danger to late fourth generation fighter jets in a conflict, especially given the proximity of the two countries and the relatively small air spaces between them. Even older road mobile systems, such as the S-300, which Iran could move from one location to another relatively rapidly, could be real real.

Whatever specific concerns Shamsi has in mind, it is likely that the Saudis share them, as well, driving their own interest in the F-35. We at The War Zone have long noted that any serious discussions between the United States and UAE would almost certainly prompt a similar request from authorities in Riyadh.

The overall security situation already prompted the U.S. Air Force to begin rotational deployments of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to Al Dhafra Air Base in in the UAE. Both the Emiratis and the Saudis may feel that their existing fleets of advanced fourth generation aircraft simply aren't enough to counter the growing threats. Rebuffed for years in its attempts to join the F-35 program, authorities in Abu Dhabi have, in the past, said they considered development of a fifth generation fighter jet important enough to entertain cooperating with Russia on such  project.

At present, the UAE's Air Force's fighter jet fleet includes a mixture of Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Desert Falcons, as well as older French-made Mirage 2000s. The Saudis have recently has received F-15SA Advanced Eagles from Boeing to join their existing F-15S aircraft and Eurofighter Typhoons.

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One of the UAE's F-16E Desert Falcons based in the United States for training purposes and wearing a US Air Force tail code.

At the Dubai Air Show, the UAE also announced a $1.6 billion deal with Lockheed Martin to upgrade its Desert Falcons. This will likely incorporate the new mission computers, navigation systems, digital multifunction displays, Advanced Identification Friend or Foe (AIFF) transponders, and the Link-16 tactical data links associated with the F-16V configuration. However, the E/F variants already feature a active electronically scanned array radar, which is the centerpiece of the V model upgrades for other countries.

With Joint Strike Fighters, the two Gulf countries could present a significant deterrent to any overt Iranian military action in the region. It would allow them to more readily consider limited, punitive air strikes, as well, without having to consider a larger aerial campaign to destroy air defense threats. On top of that, with their advanced sensor suite, the F-35s could potentially serve as important intelligence gathering platforms, even just during normal patrols in and around the Persian Gulf.

“As you look here in the Middle East they share common threats and so we’re looking at options on who we share those [F-35s] within the Gulf,” U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson told reporters at the air show in Dubai. “So the discussions are ongoing now with the new administration on selling F-35s to partner nations that need them and require them.”

But whether or not the needs and requirements of potential Gulf operations align with those of the United States, or could be expected to remain in sync for the foreseeable future, is much more of an issue that with previous combat aircraft given the inherently interconnected nature of the F-35 program as a whole. The ALIS computer system and its associated cloud-based network are central to the day-to-day operation of the Joint Strike Fighters.

Lockheed Martin has designed the system as single point of access for each aircraft’s digital information. As such, it is constantly gathering data about each plane and whether it might be in need of certain maintenance. It’s also serves as the load gate for packages of operational data, containing detailed mission routes, details about potential threats and hazards, and other information. When the F-35’s software needs a patch, it comes down to individual units through their on-site ALIS terminal.

The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor has been particularly guarded about the ALIS system. In October 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps F-35 units still did not have complete manuals and troubleshooting guides for their Joint Strike Fighters because American officials had not yet reached a final deal about sharing technical data with the plane’s manufacturer.

The most obvious concern, as we at The War Zone have noted many times before, is the threat of a cyber attack that could quickly hamper or shut down F-35 operations. I have outlined a worst-case scenario in the past:

“The nightmare scenario would involve an opponent causing a disruption during an actual crisis by either actively feeding bad information into the ALIS system or otherwise disabling some portion of it or its overarching architecture. The interconnected nature of the arrangement might allow a localized breach to infect larger segments of the F-35 fleet both in the United States or abroad or vice versa. It’s not hard to imagine the time and energy needed to sort out real inputs and outputs from fake ones hampering or halting operations entirely under the right circumstances. Given the jet's low-observable characteristics, advanced defensive systems, and other sensors, a cyber attack would be an attractive option for any enemy force. Why would an enemy use a $500,000 air-to-air or surface-to-air and put their personnel and equipment at risk in an attempt to down an F-35 when a simple worm may be able to do the same to a whole fleet of F-35s? It could also do so with plausible deniability, something kinetic weapons are far less adept to.”

As the aircraft’s user base has expanded and more countries have moved closer to putting their jets into service, new and more complicated problems have emerged. In particular, a number of America’s partners on the program have begun to raise concerns that ALIS threatens their national sovereignty by making too much operational information available both to other countries and Lockheed Martin.

“Italy, in [this] specific case, wants to preserve its sovereignty on some information, avoiding any unnecessary disclosure,” an unnamed Italian Air Force spokesperson told FlightGlobal at the Dubai Air Show. “In order to do so, like other partners do, Italy took some actions to grant an effective use of the weapon system, without disclosing some data that are deemed sensible.”

Italy, along with Australia and Norway, among others, have begun to push for some type of gateway for each nation that limits the flow of information back into the ALIS cloud and the main hub at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Texas. Reportedly the company has agreed to let countries modify the system to protect sensitive information and Italy and Norway now jointly operate a software laboratory at the U.S. Air Force’s Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, which serves as  a central point for multi-national F-35 testing and evaluation.

“Ultimately, there will be a standard gateway off of the program that we can all work with, but in the interim we’re thinking for each nation to bring a gateway along and have that integrated,” Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, head of that country’s portion of the F-35 program, told FlightGlobal. “We expect the gateway will allow us to inspect and decide when information gets passed.”

The only problem is that no Joint Strike Fighter operator, with the sole exception of Israel, will be able to utilize an alternate system to ALIS, at least at present. Whether or not individual countries can limit the outflow of data doesn’t free them from their reliance on the software and network for the host of functions we mentioned earlier.

It also doesn’t change the fact that each country will possess a number of local ALIS terminals that are connected to this world-wide infrastructure. So, among the concerns about adding additional partners, such as the UAE or the Saudis, to the program, is adding additional access points that will need protection from malicious actors.

Lockheed Martin

An F-35A for the Royal Australian Air Force takes off for its inaugural flight from Lockheed Martin's facility in Texas.

That both of these Middle Eastern countries are seeking closer cooperation with Russia, which the United States sees as a hostile actor that doesn’t share its policy goals in the region or elsewhere, only adds additional complexity to the matter. In another interview with FlightGlobal at the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference ahead of the air show, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, head of Air Forces Central Command, noted that it would be difficult if not impossible to develop a mechanism for F-35s to safely and securely share its wealth of information during operations with advanced Russian fourth generation aircraft, such as the Su-35S Flanker E, or a future fifth generation design, such as the Su-57.

“Frankly I’m not sure it’s doable,” Harrigian said. “You can figure out a way to do it but we’re protected with what’s coming off the F-35… To try and introduce it into something that we don’t operate it with is not some place I would expect we’re going to go.”

And though he was ostensibly talking about the technical difficulties of operating mixed fleet of American and Russian aircraft, he alluded to broader issues of keeping the ALIS system and its terminals secure in such an environment. Letting the UAE and the Saudis into the F-35 program can only add additional nodes for hostile actors to attack the larger, overall network.

“There’s a whole litany of things that would impact beyond just the policy problem you’re going to have,” Harrigian noted. “At the end of the day, it’s protecting our capabilities so that if your son or daughter is in that airplane, we haven’t given something away that an adversary could use against us in the future.”

Of course, the very nature of ALIS means these concerns go both ways. As we have noted previously, the network gives the United States an unprecedented level of active export control over any Joint Strike Fighters that ultimately arrive in the UAE or Saudi Arabia. In addition to just cutting off access to future software upgrades and other data, American officials could seek to use the system as a vector for a cyber attack to completely disable the jets.

At the moment, the UAE and Russia both say they are continuing to talk about a possible Su-35 sale for the Emirati Air Force. It is possible that the United States could make accession to the F-35 program conditional on ditching those plans, as well as any future cooperation with the Kremlin on a fifth generation design.

For its part, though, UAE officials have stressed they’re interested in keeping all the options on the table. This includes possible purchases of Eurofighter Typhoons or French Dassault Rafale fighter jets. It is very possible that the country could look at adopting a two-track plan to replace its F-16E/Fs with F-35s and its Mirage 2000s with a separate, fourth generation European design. 

“Nothing is finalized, we are talking to all,” Ishaq Saleh al Baloushi, executive director of Defense, Industry and Capability Development at the ministry of defense, told Reuters. “The technical team is working on this.”

You can be sure we'll be keeping an eye on how the UAE and now the Saudis progress through negotiations to finally join the F-35 program and just what types of stipulations the United States – or any other existing member of the project – insists upon in order to guard against various security concerns.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com