The White House announced Monday it was closing the Russian consulate in Seattle in response to Moscow's involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Britain. The administration said it chose to close the Seattle facility because of its proximity to a U.S. Navy submarine base and Boeing.
The U.S. government’s mention of Boeing as a possible target of spying in Seattle caught company executives off guard. On Monday, Boeing officials, who had not heard the news in advance, “declined to comment or speculate” on what is behind the U.S. action.
Still, the everyday working security assumption must be that a superpower wanting to spy on U.S. technology must routinely try to get a look inside Boeing, the nation’s second-largest defense contractor.
Boeing has very close commercial contacts with Russia, including large and vital contracts to supply titanium for its commercial jets. While it’s possible the Russians may have engaged in commercial espionage, attempting to learn the secrets of Boeing’s more advanced commercial jet technology, there’s been no public hint of that, nor does the White House statement suggest that.
Assuming the concern is military technology, then the focus could be on the Navy’s P-8 anti-submarine hunter, the Air Force KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, or on the Boeing Field flight test center where airplanes such as the various AWACS (airborne early warning and control) aircraft developed by Boeing are flight tested after upgrades.
The P-8 anti-submarine plane is designed to hunt, find and destroy submarines, especially those great-power submarines potentially armed with nuclear missiles. This aircraft is therefore an important part of U.S. defenses against any threat from a nuclear superpower.
Among potential aggressors, only Russia and China operate submarines known to have nuclear-weapon capabilities. And late last year, Russia raised concern at NATO when Russia’s submarines were seen to patrol close to vital undersea data cables in the North Atlantic that provide Internet and other communications connections between North America and Europe. This activity was seen as a deliberately aggressive naval maneuver, suggesting that Russia might choose to sever or tap into the cables.
In response, NATO mounted a hunt, presumably including the P-8 fleet, for Russian subs in the North Atlantic.
The White House’s specific mention of concern about Russian spying on this region’s U.S. submarine base and the size and aggression of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet raise the chances that it’s the P-8 that’s considered vulnerable to spying.
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The P-8 is assembled in Renton. However, the important secrets would be at the facility beside Boeing Field in Seattle where all the P-8’s military systems are installed, including the sensors that detect undersea activity.
In any potential conflict with Russia, Boeing’s KC-46 tanker is also a key military asset and therefore also a potential target.
The tankers are what allow the U.S. to project its formidable military air superiority to distant places and will be a key part of future conflicts anywhere on the globe.
The first KC-46 refueling tankers are supposed to be delivered to the Air Force this year. Though the program is running late and delivery of the initial 18 aircraft due by October under the contract will likely be delayed until next year, the first tankers are already in flight test, flying out of Boeing Field.
Even driving by on I-5, it’s not unusual to see three tankers parked there between flights. Anyone with binoculars can take a close look, though such external surveillance would likely yield little information beyond what can be seen in photos released by Boeing.
The tankers, based on a 767 airliner body, are assembled at Boeing’s main Everett jet plant. Yet again, the focus of any spying would be elsewhere. The tanker’s military systems are now being installed in a separate modification building at the south end of Paine Field.
The key technology, the refueling boom and the software that allows operators to control it, is also developed there. Getting to people who work inside that facility would likely be a priority for any spying activity.
The various aging, 707-based AWACS aircraft, and some newer 737-based variants, are sometimes based at Boeing Field for flight tests after upgrades. These could be a target of spycraft simply because they are key communication nodes for command and control in any potential conflict.
There is also a separate Moscow-Seattle connection at Boeing that Russian spies could potentially try to exploit.
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If the Russians want to spy on Boeing, an obvious entry point is its roughly 2,500 employees in Moscow and various Russian nationals, including full-time employees and contractors, working throughout the enterprise.
Those Russian engineers have a constant dialog with their counterparts in Seattle, including daily contact across cyber networks and also through some engineers routinely traveling back and forth between Seattle and Moscow.
That said, Boeing’s Russian engineers in Moscow work exclusively on commercial jet programs, for the most part doing basic design work more cheaply than American engineers. They collaborate with their U.S. counterparts through extensive use of virtual private network technology.
Boeing vice president Phil Musser said in an email that the company has “rigorous IT and security protocols.”
There’s been no previous public hint of any worry at Boeing about attempted spying through the Moscow engineering design center.
The only previous U.S. concern about Boeing’s Moscow-based employees came six years ago when Customs and Border Patrol at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport blocked a group of Russian engineering contractors from entering the country for a short while. The concern then wasn’t spying, but that they might be misusing the visa system to do jobs that American engineers could be doing. Boeing swiftly moved to smooth over the glitch in its visa application system and the Russians were allowed in.
The president of Boeing Russia is Sergey Kravchenko, who before he joined Boeing in 1992, was a professor and lead scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In a 2016 lecture, Kravchenko declared that “we can proudly say that today Boeing is probably the largest high-technology investor into Russia.”
His official bio on the Boeing website notes that “in June 2013, Kravchenko received the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Moscow Kremlin.”