The five-domains update

Sea state

France has weighed in on sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, announcing its intention to hold joint military exercises with Japan. Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review, French defence minister Florence Parley took aim at China, saying, ‘Just because you plant your flag somewhere doesn’t mean that territory changes hands.’ France’s immense exclusive economic zone in the Pacific region makes it a natural partner for Japan. The first joint maritime exercises are due to be held next month.

While the South China Sea is heating up, the US Navy’s newest warship, USS Little Rock, remains trapped in ice near Montreal. The newly commissioned Freedom-class littoral combat ship has been stuck since Christmas Eve, and it’s unlikely to break free anytime soon. The ship’s commanding officer said that there’s no set date for departure. Ice doesn’t usually clear from Montreal’s ports until March, so the crew looks set to endure a long winter.

Keeping with the icy theme, on Friday China outlined its ambition to develop a ‘Polar Silk Road’. In its first official Arctic white paper, Beijing declared itself a ‘near-Arctic state’ and said it would develop Arctic shipping routes as they become available as a result of global warming. The English version of the white paper can be found here.

Flight path

The Russian defence minister confirmed on Wednesday that another Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system had been installed in western Syria, bringing the confirmed total to two. The S-400 is a sophisticated layered system that can potentially engage 36 targets simultaneously, with a radius of 400 kilometres and tracking capabilities of 600 kilometres. Turkey purchased the S-400 system last year, and other countries in the region have expressed an interest in it. The S-400s in Syria have affected the ability of coalition aircraft to support Syrian ‘rebels’; deployment elsewhere in the region will likely make it more dangerous for aircraft in a crowded airspace.

In the wash-up of Australia’s contribution to air operations over Iraq and Syria, an Australian defence spokesman confirmed that RAAF missions over Iraq in 2016 had encountered several issues, including a shortage of qualified pilots, equipment problems, and a near collision with British fighter jets. According to the spokesman, the incidents were investigated and appropriate measures introduced to prevent recurrences.

For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the US is planning to send an aircraft carrier to Vietnam. US defence secretary Jim Mattis made the announcement last week during a summit in Hanoi, where he thanked Vietnam for approving toughened sanctions on North Korea. The move signals the strength of the US–Vietnam relationship, 50 years after the Tet Offensive.

Rapid fire

Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell has provided some insight into the future of the ADF’s communication network. Australian soldiers may find themselves operating in ‘real and augmented reality’, using iPad-like devices. Campbell also emphasised that the network is key to future defence developments, saying that new equipment—for example, the recently purchased Hawkei vehicle—would be designed ‘from the network up’. Similar aspirations are found in New Zealand’s Future Land Operating Concept 2035 document, which calls for keeping a close eye on developments in remote and autonomous systems and other killer robot technologies.

While we can’t see what the future holds, our troops are slated to see clearly in the dark. Queensland firm NIOA has been awarded a $100 million contract to supply 155-millimetre lightweight towed howitzer ammunition to the ADF. The acquisition of the howitzers promises to improve the army’s night-fighting capability.

Australia has carried out a joint military exercise with the US, New Zealand and Singapore at a military base it oversees near al-Taji, Iraq. The training was designed to improve coordination between medics and multinational forces in dealing with a mass casualty situation. The exercise also aimed to strengthen bonds and improve morale at the base, which has been criticised for having substandard living conditions.

Zero gravity

Australia’s space exploration is set to receive a $35 billion boost, after Boeing and CSIRO announced a new joint research project. Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Missile Systems, said the partnership will focus on developing emerging space technologies, space infrastructure and ground-based space facilities. Boeing and CSIRO have been working together since 1989.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk tweeted his excitement about the very first launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket set for 6 February. The launch got the green light after the rocket’s successful static fire test on 24 January. According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy Rocket will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world.

Not everything is lost in space. Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley has stumbled across the long-lost NASA IMAGE satellite. Tracking radio transmissions from his home in Vancouver in British Columbia, Tilley was searching for a classified US government satellite called ZUMA, but picked up a different signal that turned out to be from the IMAGE satellite. NASA lost contact with IMAGE in 2005. Tilley’s personal blog shows a selection of satellite images of the signals he has collected.

Wired watchtower

Cybersecurity qualifications will be offered at TAFE centres Australia-wide in 2018, in an effort to address the growing shortage of cybersecurity professionals in Australia. The minister for cybersecurity, Angus Taylor, launched the initiative at Parliament House on Thursday. AustCyber, which worked with multiple industry partners to initiate the TAFE qualifications, believes that Australia will need at least 11,000 new cybersecurity workers over the next 10 years.

An Australian National University student was the first to raise concerns about the fitness tracking app Strava, after he noticed that it reveals confidential military information. The company produced a global heat map in late 2017, which it said was ‘the ultimate map of athlete playgrounds.’ But, in unpopulated regions of Afghanistan and Djibouti where only military personnel are exercising, those ‘playgrounds’ are military bases.

The Australian Electoral Commission is in hot water after a recent audit revealed that cybersecurity standards weren’t adhered to for the 2016 federal election. Concerns over the electronic counting software led to a last-minute decision to manually count senate votes. The time constraints resulted in ‘last-minute exemptions from mandated cyber security rules’.