The five-domains update

Sea state

Spain and Saudi Arabia have finalised a €2 billion deal to supply five Avante 2200 corvettes to the Royal Saudi Naval Forces. Constructed by Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, the Avante 2200 corvettes are based on the Guaiquerí-class patrol vessels currently in service with the Venezuelan navy. The deal includes arrangements to establish a naval construction facility in Saudi Arabia. Navantia is constructing Australia’s final air warfare destroyer, HMAS Sydney, as well as competing to build future frigates for both Australia and the United States.

Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Dallas (SSN 700) has been decommissioned after 38 years of service. USS Dallas steamed over one million miles and visited over 30 countries. USS Dallas will be replaced by a future Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. Defense News has an excellent interview with Rear Admiral Michael Jabaley discussing the challenges of the Virginia-class shipbuilding program.

The USS Little Rock (LCS 9) has finally made its way home to Mayport, Florida, after spending three long months trapped in Canadian ice. The littoral combat ship was commissioned in Buffalo in December last year and then attempted to transit the Saint Lawrence Seaway. It became trapped by ice in Montreal on Christmas Eve. The ship was freed from the ice in early April, then stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Virginia Beach on its way home.

Flight path

US think tank New America hosted the Future of War Conference 2018 last week. Speaking about the US Air Force’s future capabilities, Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF General Stephen Wilson said that while war’s general calculus won’t change, the speed of connectivity will. As a result, the Air Force must focus on rapidly collecting and deciphering data, including in the space domain. Wilson also flagged artificial intelligence’s potential to help pilots make decisions and target adversaries. His comment adds to the debate about the role humans will play in future autonomous weapons systems, as we highlighted last month. General Wilson said that humans should be kept in the loop, but analyst Peter Singer noted that the key question is how to define ‘in’.

The European Air Transport Command (EATC) kicked off the European air-to-air refuelling training exercise (EART 2018) on 11 April in the Netherlands. The EATC comprises seven EU countries, 60% of Europe’s military air transport assets, and supports NATO in strategic transportation. EART 2018 includes the US, the first non-European country to participate, and runs concurrently with exercise Frisian Flag to improve the simulation’s realism. The move signals increasing US military engagement with Europe despite questions around US President Donald Trump’s commitment to NATO.

The number of times that Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces scrambled fighter aircraft in response to approaching foreign aircraft fell by 22.6% in FY 2017, according to Japan’s Ministry of Defence. This was largely explained by a drop in the number of times that Chinese aircraft approached Japanese airspace, though Chinese activities have expanded to cover a larger area.

Rapid fire

Myanmar’s military has been put on a UN blacklist of government and rebel groups suspected of using rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security’s extended policy brief includes recommendations on the use of UN sanctions—enabled by blacklisting—to address sexual violence against the Rohingya community. However, ongoing disputes among UN members on whether sexual violence is a priority in dealing with conflicts means that affirmative action following the decision is unlikely.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has unified its special operations unit under a single command. While the move seeks to remedy a range of past challenges—notably, the intelligence and information-sharing failures during the siege of Marawi last year—the restructure also suggests that the Philippines is still knee-deep in ‘the greatest terrorism threat in Southeast Asia’. While the changes can help foster interoperability between units, it’s by no means a ‘silver bullet’ for restoring stability in the Philippines.

After dozens of Sudanese soldiers were killed in Yemen by Houthis, Sudan reaffirmed its commitment to the Saudi-led coalition despite mounting domestic opposition. Withdrawal from the coalition would affect Sudan’s stability and its relations with the West. After Sudan severed its long-standing ties with Iran to gain Saudi support, Saudi Arabia gave Sudan a platform from which to pursue friendlier relations with the US. That spurred a range of developments, ranging from the removal of sanctions last year to the release of 54 political prisoners last week.

Zero gravity

CSIS and Secure World Foundation provide some ‘light’ reading about space. Secure World Foundation outlines the current space capabilities of China, Russia, the US, Iran, India and North Korea, particularly focusing on the extent to which those capabilities are being used for military purposes. The report highlights Russia’s significant use of electronic warfare in its military and space capabilities, for example to jam satellite communications and GPS receivers. And it outlines China’s rapid development of both co-orbital and direct anti-satellite capabilities. The CSIS report, which has a slightly more visually appealing layout, includes brief analyses on the kinetic, non-kinetic, electrical and cyber capabilities of Israel, Japan, Egypt, Libya, Ukraine and Pakistan, as well as of non-state actors.

The first quarter of 2018 has already seen US$1 billion ploughed into commercial space ventures. The Space Investment Quarterly report shows that rocket launches (approximately $700 million) account for over 72% of total investment, followed by satellites (more than $250 million). It’s no secret that Elon Musk’s company SpaceX leads the pack, and it alone received half of the total investment funds for the quarter in the form of a $500 million allocation from American financial services organisation Fidelity Investments.

Forget about rockets and satellites: NASA’s latest mission is sending sperm into space. NASA is researching the potential for humans to reproduce in space, in particular to what extent microgravity affects sperm cells. Previous tests using animal sperm showed that microgravity causes sperm cells to activate much more slowly.

Wired watchtower

China’s national security hotline received 5,000 tips last year as Chinese become increasingly suspicious of foreigners. The anti-espionage hotline offers a reward of up to RMB500,000 (US$79,590) for information that leads to the arrest of a spy. China’s anti-espionage efforts are boosted by annual public campaigns, the most infamous being a 2016 comic strip that warned of the dangers of dating foreigners—who may be spies.

Russia banned the encrypted app Telegram to give Russia’s security services increased access to private messages. A Moscow court considered the Russian government’s request to ban the app for only 18 minutes before agreeing. The ban went into effect immediately. However, the ban puts the Kremlin in a somewhat unusual position because the app is used by many Russian government agencies. Government officials have also said that Telegram can be easily replaced by other services such as Viber.

New Zealand is updating its national cybersecurity strategy to keep up with emerging technologies and evolving cyber threats. Its 2015 Cyber Security Strategy and Action Plan will be ‘refreshed’ to strengthen partnerships with the private sector and assess government’s and policing agencies’ resources to address cybercrime. Given that New Zealand aims to make ICT the second-largest contributor to GDP by 2025, this new cybersecurity strategy is pivotal.