White House conducts major Huawei review
RC-135s at risk after Britain lets Chinese telecoms giant build 5G network
By Ben Riley-Smith, US Editor 4 May 2020 • 9:00pm
The White House has launched a major review looking at whether spy planes, intelligence officials and other US assets need to be pulled out of Britain after Downing Street agreed Huawei can help build its 5G network.
Half a dozen sources including current US and UK officials have told The Telegraph that the review - not yet announced in public - is underway, carrying potential ramifications for the ‘special relationship’.
Every military and intelligence asset the Americans have in Britain is being assessed to understand the knock-on implications of letting Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, construct part of the new wireless network.
A group of RC-135s, highly sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft based in Britain that are used to gather intelligence from the battlefield, are thought to be among the most vulnerable, according to well-placed sources.
Whether highly classified missions increasingly should be carried out from countries other than Britain due to confidentiality fears is also being considered, which could see US agents being redeployed.
One former official who only recently left the White House’s National Security Council (NSC), which is leading the review, said it was “likely” some assets would be removed from Britain.
The source said: “This was not a bluff. You cannot mitigate the danger Boris Johnson is exposing the UK to by letting Huawei into the network.
"This review is not a punishment. This is the White House saying 'okay, if they're going to go down this path and put themselves at risk then how do we protect ourselves.'”
The review marks a significant escalation in the Huawei row, with the US now going beyond words of warning and taking concrete steps that could end up harming military and intelligence ties.
NSC spokesman John Ullyot declined to comment. The UK has always maintained giving Huawei limited access will not compromise its 5G network. Number 10 and the Ministry of Defence declined to comment.
It comes as Donald Trump takes an increasingly confrontational approach towards Beijing, who he has blamed for not doing more to stop the coronavirus outbreak when it first emerged in China.
The pandemic has triggered renewed debate over the Chinese government’s trustworthiness amid allegations it failed to show transparency over Covid-19, with calls for a harder line emerging in Washington and London.
Boris Johnson announced in January that Huawei would be allowed to build some of Britain’s 5G network - defying sustained lobbying by the Trump administration, which opposed the move.
But the Prime Minister set restrictions, barring the Chinese government from “core” parts of the network, such as near military facilities and nuclear sites, and capping its share of non-sensitive parts to 35 per cent.
The UK’s insistence that the proposal ensured security has been rejected by the US, however, including in a heated phone call where Mr Trump was said to have been “apoplectic” with Mr Johnson.
Not long after the decision was taken the White House’s National Security Council, which advises the president on security and foreign policy matters, ordered a review to look at every military and intelligence asset in Britain for potential exposure.
The Trump administration has long maintained that letting Huawei build any part of the 5G network would effectively give access to the Chinese government.
The totality of the review means everything from the more than 10,000 US military personnel in Britain to half a dozen barracks to scores of military vehicles will be looked at, not to mention intelligence operations.
It is an inter-agency review which means all relevant parts of the US government - in this case the Pentagon, State Department and 17 different intelligence agencies - will give input to the NSC.
It is understood there are already some areas of concern. One is over the RC-135s, which while officially assigned to a base in Nebraska are effectively operated out of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.
Around half a dozen RC-135s are often at the base, where 500 Americans are stationed as part of the mission. They are reconnaissance aircraft, used recently in the war against the Islamic State in the Middle East.
But the amount of technical equipment on board - they has been likened to “flying computers” - and their role in intelligence gathering have triggered doubts about whether they can continue to be stationed in Britain.
Another issue is US agents who carry out secret missions in Britain. For decades the strength of cooperation and trust between both sides, bolstered by the Five Eyes alliance, made the UK a low-risk country in which to operate.
But some familiar with the review questioned whether agents using personal phones and other internet-connected devices throughout the country - not just on parts of the 5G networks deemed “core” - could really keep their messages safe.
There remains optimism that the UK can be convinced into a reversal, with Mr Johnson’s decision yet to be written into law and a band of senior Tories leading a rebellion - cheered on by some in the Trump administration.
Yet Republican senators and congressmen are among those calling for consequences, with some seeing a pulling back in Britain as matching their believe in the need for a US military refocusing towards Asia.
One Republican congressional adviser said: “Britain is forcing us into a corner to make decisions and ponder consequences that we don't want to make or ponder.
“We would rather the special relationship be renewed and revitalised in this new era of great power competition but it is difficult to do when genuine security interests were discarded.”
The issue is also becoming complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which is dominating the attention of governments and leading to increased criticism of China.
Mr Trump and his likely Democratic rival Joe Biden are now trading blows on who is weaker on Beijing ahead of November's election.
UK officials have heard little about the review from the White House. It is understood Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, was not informed of it by counterparts when he visited Washington DC in March.
No final recommendations have been made. The review is on-going and is yet to rise to the NSC’s most senior figures. Mr Trump would ultimately have to approve any changes to military deployment in Britain.
But the frustration is clear. Robert O'Brien, the US national security adviser and successor to John Bolton who heads up the NSC, did not hide his disapproval at Britain's decision during a radio interview in January.
He likened the UK letting Huawei build its 5G network to allowing “the Communist Party of China to have access to their health care records and their tweets and their social media and their bank records”.
Mr O'Brien said that UK-US intelligence cooperation would continue but added, in a joke now pointed to by Trump administration insiders, it may have to be done with “carrier pigeons".