Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Sea State

A Saudi Arabian frigate was attacked by Houthi rebels in waters west of Yemen on 30 January. Conflicting reports are floating around about the attack method—while the official Saudi Press Agency attributed it to “suicide boats,” the rebels themselves (and Iran) claim to have used anti-ship missiles. At least two other Houthi attacks on navy vessels have occurred in the Bab el Mandeb strait recently, including a successful cruise missile strike against a UAE Navy vessel last October.

The pacific hagfish (or slime eel!) is on the menu of new defence tools being investigated by the US Navy. In a cool example of biomimicry, researchers are using the fish’s slime to develop a new synthetic material which they hope could provide an extra layer of defence on warships. The slime has properties similar to Kevlar and could also be used for anything from ‘ballistics protection, firefighting, anti-fouling, diver protection or anti-shark spray.’ The research team has recreated the slime’s distinctive proteins, and are now working to refine and then mass-produce the synthetic slime.

Finally, we said farewell this week to the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, as it was decommissioned on 3 February. Read more about its important legacy here.

Flight Path

The Myanmar government is in the advanced stages of negotiations with Pakistan to licence-build its own version of the JF-17 Thunder fighter. The deal would follow Rangoon’s purchase of 16 JF-17s in 2015, expected to enter service later this year. Originally jointly developed by Pakistan and China, the JF-17 is a single-seat, multi-role combat aircraft capable of deploying air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. Late last year, Nigeria ordered three JF-17s, while Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia have also expressed an interest in acquiring the jet.

Trump v Lockheed Martin continued this week with the defence outfit confirming that the F-35 will cost below $100 million per unit. In the LRIP-10 deal to purchase 90 planes—eight of which are ear-marked for Australia—Lockheed Martin has brought the cost per F-35A plane down to $94.6 million, and promised that the plane and engine will cost between $80–85 million by 2019. Trump would like to have you believe that he should get the credit for that impressive cost reduction, but The Strategist recently clarified that the reduction’s consistent with the program’s longer-term development.

Rapid Fire

Reports emerged late last week that the Islamic State has been spending freely on drone technology in an attempt to adapt to a diminishing numbers of fighters and increasing pressure from coalition forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria. In what’s a notable change in the group’s land-based strategy, IS has apparently been using store-bought drones to conduct surveillance operations, with some even being used to guide car bombs in real time. A recent video released by the group demonstrates their increasing confidence in using such technologies to assist fighters on the ground.

And speaking of new drone technology, this one’s a doozy. Intended to support their forces on the ground, the US Army is reportedly in the research stages of designing a missile that will ‘spew clusters of deadly quadcopter drones.’ Okay, then…

The US Army’s infantry school will have some unfamiliar faces added to its ranks this week, when it welcomes its first contingent of female trainees; four female Marine recruits are also set to join the US Navy, having recently graduating from boot camp. These development come more than a year after the Defense Department lifted the long-term ban on women serving in combat positions. The move generated significant debate; with supporters and detractors alike making their cases. Australia meanwhile was a few years ahead of the US, opening up combat roles to women back in 2011.

Zero Gravity

Literal cracks are appearing in the plan to launch the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 by late 2017, after a ‘persistent cracking of vital propulsion-system components’ was highlighted this week by US congressional investigators. Despite assurances that the rockets are ‘robust,’ faults in the turbopumps will prompt a redesign of the ‘Block 5’ vehicle. Safety concerns in companies like SpaceX and Boeing will be front and centre in the next two years, as both look to begin crewed test flights commissioned by NASA. To comply with their standards, the loss-of-crew risk mustn’t exceed 1-in-270—analysis suggests both companies are ‘struggling to meet this requirement. That all seems to indicate that plans for manned tests in 2018 aren’t necessarily grounded in reality.

If all goes according to plan US Congress will soon pass a new NASA authorisation bill, calling for a roadmap focused on future human space exploration. High-powered commentaries from the Cipher Brief speak to the role of exploration and ‘The New Space Race’, examining both the changing threat environment and the growing pivot toward public-private partnerships in space.

Finally—twins in space! It’s no paradox, but it is a NASA study. Scott Kelly, returning from a year in orbit, was tested against his ground-based brother Mark. Preliminary results suggest intriguing physiological differences, for example in the gut microbiomes and in the level of blood lipids. An in-depth investigation may even identify a ‘space gene’ activated while Scott was in space.