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Or are they usually are? Take for example between US and its allies. In modern days, are there any safe guards for them to be kept classified. Or safeguards to be kept transparent?

Take for example: US selling bunker buster bombs to Israel. We only know about the deal after it has concluded.

Lets look at another example: Turkey's acquisition of the Russian S-400 system. As Turkey is also a potential customer of US arms, what would happen if they kept their Russian weapon acquisitions secret? Do they have the option too? Or could they break the agreement after they have received their F-35 (fighter jets) and had them transferred out to Turkey soil, for example?

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3 Answers 3

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As usual, there is no clear-cut answer.

  • Many nations try to keep some of their own military procurement secret. Consider the early years of the F-117, or the stealth Blackhawk that was wrecked in the 2011 Abbottabad raid. Many nations publish some of their budget, including totals for military spending.
  • Many nations try to publish some of their own military procurement for propaganda purposes. The propaganda may or may not be truthful and complete. For example, during the Cold War the US Navy stated that their subs can do over 20 knots. That was literally true, but the actual speed was well over 20 knots.
  • Many nations try to learn the secrets of other governments. If they do, they may or may not reveal that they know.
  • Nations may or may not reveal sales to other nations. The incentive to keep strategic secrets may be lower if the technology is being sold to foreigners, but there may still be advantages to keeping it secret.

Fellow NATO members generally try to coordinate their defense budgets and procurement, but individual nations may keep their little secrets.

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  • So you are saying Turkey could choose to keep their S-400 procurement a secret until they get their F-35s (or indefinitely thereafter), resulting in the US being able to do not much about it but they choose to defiantly go public and risk loosing it all just to convey a politically message of becoming cosy with Russia?
    – Nederealm
    Mar 12, 2019 at 19:43
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    @Nederealm, I suggest neither option. If they try to keep it secret and are found out, there will be political damage. If they manage to keep it secret until they announce it in their own timing, there will be political damage. If they make their plans public from their start, there may be political damage. If they do not look for other suppliers, they may look dependent on the West and there may be political damage. But 30 years ago, getting their hands on modern Soviet gear complete with the manuals would have been seen as a great coup, not a betrayal.
    – o.m.
    Mar 12, 2019 at 20:03
  • Hence it depends in part on the ability a particular government has to keep secrets, which depends in part on whether they have wide-ranging laws protecting state secrets or wide-ranging laws requiring information disclosure, as well as on things like freedom of the press. Some governments can spend $10bn without asking or telling anyone, others cannot.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 1 at 16:16
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It's almost impossible to keep secret something like the S-400 once deployed given US spy satellites. The Cuban missile crisis is an example of how hard it is to conceal large missiles, including SAM sites. (Also, specific radar emissions of SAM systems when turned on may give away their type, especially if any foreign jets are around, which is definitely the case in Turkey with a US base.)

Bombs are a bit different, much easier to conceal, but even then, see e.g. how HARM missiles were first spotted on the ground in Ukraine (from their wreckage), before there was any official ack of them being exported.

So, yeah, the answer is "it depends".


As for S-400 in Turkey, Russia also appears to have been interested in publicizing the deal, which would have made Turkey's attempt to conceal/delay the discovery of the deal more difficult.

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The Pentagon over the years has secretly acquired Soviet equipment as part of a clandestine program. Now these weapons are going to Ukraine.

These weapons are decades old and were obtained by the U.S. so it could examine the technology used by the Russian military and which Moscow has exported around the world (source).

Likely the acquisition of weapons intended for direct fighting is difficult to keep secret. But it may be possible to do so with the samples acquired for reverse engineering or capability testing.

Also, various components require to make the weapons may be secretly acquired. Russian weapons contain many electronic components of foreign origin that are banned by sanctions yet somehow have been obtained (source).

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