Despite J-20, China Keen To Unravel F-35 Mystery; US Accuses Chinese Of Spying On Swiss Stealth Warplanes

Chinese military experts often call their J-20 ‘stealth’ fighters comparable to F-22 Raptors and superior to single-engine F-35s. Despite tall claims, Beijing remains interested in ‘decoding’ Lightning II jets supplied to its key European and Indo-Pacific allies.

The US understands this spying threat very well and is going all out to keep China away from its ‘cutting edge’ fighters.

Interestingly, a small hotel in a quaint village of Switzerland’s Alpine Valley could have become a breeding ground for spying on a key F-35 Lightning II base.

Hotel Rössli, a 100-year-old log cabin in the Alpine town of Unterbach, provides guests with stunning views of the surrounding waterfall and snow-capped mountains. However, US intelligence officials have been interested in the hotel’s rear rather than its scenic beauty and touristic charm.

Just about a hundred meters behind the hotel lies the Swiss Meiringen airfield, which is home to the F-35 Lightning II fighter jets that the Swiss Air Force operates.

The F-35s are believed to be the world’s most advanced fifth-generation stealth combat jets and have become the hot-selling aircraft in Europe, thus intriguing US adversaries.

Surrounded by the Alps, the Swiss Base looks astounding, but its accessibility has raised concerns. For instance, some areas of the base where the F-35 jets will be stationed lack a fence or barrier. It has been reported that local farmers often cross the airstrip with their cattle.

With rising tensions between China and the West, national security experts from the US and the UK have claimed that Beijing’s espionage services view the hotel’s attractive facade as the perfect sentry on the front lines of the growing spy war between the two countries, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

United States officials cautioned that Chinese intelligence services would go to great lengths to gather intelligence on stealth aircraft often dubbed ‘Flying Computers.’

As per the recent WSJ report, the Wang family, who are Chinese owners of Hotel Rössli, were detained by Swiss federal police during a raid last summer. With hiking trails and a cable car ride close, the Wangs, who are now in China, have categorically denied that their lodge catered to anyone beyond Unterbach hamlet guests.

On its part, the Swiss government took more than a year to take the US allegations leveled against the hotel seriously.

Last summer, when the Chinese owners were first detained, an official speaking with the publication stated that Chinese intelligence officers stationed in the lakeside city of Geneva under diplomatic cover were attempting to gather information about US F-35 jets.

In the face of the Swiss government’s largely lax attitude, US intelligence officials and diplomats headquartered in Switzerland started sending out regular warnings about spying. The risks were manifold. For instance, Swiss Air Force fighter pilots informed their friends and aviation hobbyists about their flights beforehand, posing a significant risk.

When US aircraft sales representatives visited Unterbach, they proposed the construction of screens surrounding the runway, among other things.

Last year, frustrated US officials’ warnings became more pointed and urgent. The irate US ambassador emphasized that Unterbach had to be secure if it was to be the base for the F-35s.

A few more months went by, and nothing happened. Eventually, in the middle of summer, when hikers with backpacks clogged the trails, a squad of civilian police officers showed up at the Rössli. The Wangs were fined $5,400 for relatively insignificant infractions of Swiss catering legislation.

While no evidence of spying was found in the raid, the suspicions have largely remained.

The Wangs Did Not Spy, But US Believes They Could

Western intelligence agencies were concerned for several reasons, including the Wang family’s lack of familiarity with Swiss culinary customs and the high cost of labor in the area. To top it all, the Wang family frequently returned to China, even during the busiest holiday seasons.

Suspicions were heightened by the hotel’s downfall and the entry of new Chinese employees, some of whom had residency permits.

Additionally, the Wang family’s history also sparked controversy because Wang Jin claimed to be the son of a diplomat who was raised in Germany and Switzerland.

US officials contended that the Wangs would be required to cooperate with Beijing in obtaining intelligence if requested to do so by China under the country’s 2017 national security statute.

While no criminal intent could be established, the raid on Hotel Rössli served as a focal point for a larger geopolitical conflict between superpowers over control of technology and the military. The location is considered sensitive due to the presence of F-35 fighters. To add to the worries of the US, Switzerland is politically neutral and does not consider China an adversary, unlike several other European states.

The US or UK officials have yet to provide concrete evidence to prove that the Chinese nationals were involved in spying on the F-35s.

F-35 Lightning II – Lockheed Martin

The West Is On High Alert 

There has been a major uptick in spying incidents across Europe. For example, three German nationals were detained last month in Germany on suspicion of planning to arrange the transfer of sensitive technology information to China.

In another case, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak disclosed that Chinese hackers had gained access to payroll details belonging to the UK armed forces.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, Frank Creyelman, a far-right politician, was subjected to a criminal inquiry in January after publications like the Financial Times, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde claimed that he had been a Chinese intelligence agent for several years.

Experts claim that the current spike in inquiries and arrests is indicative of a shift in European perceptions toward the threat posed by Chinese ethnic people working as spies.

Washington has also not managed to remain immune from the potential risks of Chinese spying either. Citing fears about espionage, US President Joe Biden ordered a Chinese-owned bitcoin miner and its partners to sell land they hold close to a US nuclear missile station.

The White House claimed that MineOne Partners is primarily owned by Chinese nationals. The company has been given 120 days to sell the land on which it operates a cryptocurrency mining business. The site is near an Air Force installation in Wyoming that houses intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The proximity of the foreign-owned Real Estate to a strategic missile base… and the presence of specialized and foreign-sourced equipment capable of facilitating surveillance and espionage activities, presents a national security risk”, the White House said in a statement.