Air, sea and land updates

U.S. Army paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, from Vicenza, Italy, file into a C-130J Super Hercules at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Feb. 10, 2012. Flight path

It looks as if Russia isn’t just flexing its muscles in Eastern Europe. Last Wednesday, Japan reported Russian incursions in its northern skies. Along with Chinese combat aircraft in its southern airspace, this led to 944 responses from Japan’s fighters in the year ending March 2014. This is the second highest annual figure since records began in 1958, and indicate increased signalling.

In regional militarisation, Beijing is strengthening its air defence system with the procurement of S-400 surface-to-air missiles systems from Russia. Planned for deployment in 2017, the S-400 has a 400km range and is reported to be able to strike aerial targets over the island of Taiwan and as far away as New Delhi, Calcutta, Hanoi and Seoul if targeting data is available. It’s also capable of intercepting missiles, including air breathing cruise missile targets. The air defence technology can also extend to cover the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Last Wednesday the US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus argued that the future of carrier-borne strike would be via unmanned aircraft. He went on to say that the F-35C ‘should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly’. And in case you missed it, future UAVs will also have aerial refuelling capability, as evidenced recently by the first successful aerial refuelling by the US Navy’s X-47B combat UAV.

Whilst handheld tablet technology is the norm for telecommunications, last month the Marine Corps teamed up with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test-fire a precision-guided missile from an airborne Osprey using a tablet to link ground troops to those inside the aircraft.

Sea State

The RAND Corporation’s release of its report Australia’s Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise: Preparing for the 21st Century has inspired some heated debate on The Strategist this week (here and here). The report highlights the costs and risks of the Australian government’s three options: to build entirely in-country, partially in-country and partially overseas, or entirely overseas. It also offers two main findings: that it’s vital that the government only support an Australian shipbuilding industry if it’s cost-effective, and that a continuous build strategy that starts a new surface combatant every 18 months to two years would decrease the current price premium.

The Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence David Feeney drew attention to an interesting aspect of the report on The Strategist this week; that it largely ignored the SEA 1000 project. Feeney argues that this omission was due to RAND being informed that the submarines were to be built abroad at the start of the study. South Australia’s Defence Industries Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith echoed a similar sentiment, calling for a ‘second RAND report that includes submarines,’ and that Australia ‘must have a continuous build of both submarines and surface ships’ if we’re to have a viable shipbuilding industry.

Earlier today, Minister for Defence Kevin Andrews announced that he would be visiting Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and France as part of a commemorative trip for upcoming ANZAC Day services. In his media release, Andrews also made mention of meeting his French and German counterparts and various industry leaders to ‘discuss their involvement in the competitive evaluation process’ for SEA 1000. Andrews stated that:

‘For Australian industry to have the best opportunity to maximise their involvement in the future submarine programme they need to work with an international partner.’

And finally, looking at a different Future Surface Fleet, Boeing has announced a plan to upgrade its Harpoon Block II missiles with the objective of attracting the attention of the US Navy’s new frigate program. Dubbed Harpoon Next Generation, the missiles would increase the original Harpoon’s range of 67 nautical miles to 134 nautical miles.

Rapid Fire

US Army paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team commenced a joint exercise ominously named ‘Fearless Guardian 2015’ with Ukrainian National Guards yesterday in western Ukraine. Designed to bolster the country’s defence against Russian-backed separatists, the training includes combat skills, dealing with surveillance drones and defusing hidden bombs. The move was hailed by President Petro Poroshenko as a sign of Western commitment to defending Ukrainian sovereignty, while a Krelim spokesman warned the move ‘could seriously destabilise the situation’.

With the support of Shi’ite militia volunteers, the Iraqi Army began an operation on the weekend to stop Islamic State from further advancing into Ramadi in al-Anbar province, western Iraq. According to al Jazeera, the fighting there has displaced thousands. Last week US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey played down the significance of Ramadi falling, saying it was ‘not symbolic in any way’ while playing up the importance of another IS-target, the oil refinery Baiji which on Saturday was back in Iraqi forces’ control. Republican Senator John McCain called Dempsey’s statements ‘a denial of reality and an insult to the families of hundreds of brave young Americans’ that were killed in Ramadi during the surge against al Qaeda.

For an in-depth discussion of the campaign against Islamic State including the challenges the Ba’athist community in Iraq poses, listen to this War On The Rocks podcast (1hr) featuring J.M. Berger, William McCants, Denise Natali and Douglas Ollivant, with Ryan Evans (who reportedly moderated the podcast with a Lagavulin 16 neat in hand).