Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of Pixabay user NeuPaddy.

Sea State

There’s been an alarming update on 30 January’s Saudi frigate attack by Houthi rebels. Initially believed to be a suicide boat attack, the US Navy declared on 18 February that it was in fact carried out by ‘an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind’—what DefenseNews is calling a ‘drone boat’. This raises serious concerns about the source of the Houthi’s foreign assistance—the US is pointing the finger at Iran—and is further indication that Yemen’s conflict is spreading offshore, something that hasn’t previously occurred in 15 years of fighting in the Middle East.

Reports suggest that Japan is intending to speed up its warship construction, from one 5,000-ton class destroyer to two 3,000-ton class ships per year. Commentators are attributing this upscale to Japan’s need to patrol the East China Sea around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in order to curb China’s aggression in what Japan perceives to be its sovereign territory—and put an end, for instance, to incidents like this. An 8-strong fleet of the new ships at a lower cost will allow Japan to increase its naval reach; it’s also expected to boost the JMSDF’s mine-sweeping and anti-submarine capabilities.

Finally, read about the incredible science behind launching an underwater missile and why submarines sometimes use the stars to navigate (bonus: sweet video of a pin-wheeling missile).

Flight Path

A new piece in The National Interest shows how Iran’s political and economic isolation has hampered its defence industry’s efforts to domestically build fighter jets. The best attempt thus far has been the HESA-Saeqeh—a reverse-engineered version of the F-5 Freedom Fighter aircraft, which was a common acquisition for less wealthy US allies. Iran received around 300 of these from 1965–1976, but the revolution rendered a shortage of spare parts to maintain that fleet. In 1997, another fighter, The Azarakhsh—a reverse-engineered F-5E—was announced, but never appeared to reach operational stages and was terminated in 2010.

The folks at Defense One have supplied us with some useful resources this week. They’ve used Pentagon data to create graphs charting the price reductions of each F-35 variant since 2007. (Check out ASPI’s versions of those charts here and here.) And in light of Defense Secretary Mattis’ review of the Joint Strike Fighter program, they’ve provided an analysis of whether the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a ‘comparable’ replacement for the F-35.

A Russian Mi-8 military helicopter made a surprise landing on a snowy highway in rural Kazakhstan earlier this month, while carrying out training exercises practising landing in rough weather conditions. The pilot seemed to be lost, having to clarify his location with an onlooking truck driver, who filmed the entire incident.

Rapid Fire

In his report on Iran’s new military strategy in Syria, Paul Bucala argues that Iran is altering the balance of power in the Middle East by transforming its military to be able to ‘conduct quasi-conventional warfare’.

Over 15 months of operations, the Iranian military deployed thousands of troops across its various military branches as part of a campaign to help recapture Aleppo in December 2016. Could these developments signal a larger shift on behalf of Iran towards a more assertive posture in the region? Their success in the Aleppo campaign certainly reflects the benefits of this new approach. Increased ground troops apparently enabled Iran to ‘boost the capabilities of Iranian-backed proxies and enabled pro-regime forces to seize and hold key terrain from opposition forces’.

Speaking of the Syria regime, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Syrian government of using chlorine gas attacks as part of a military strategy to retake Aleppo. HRW says Syrian regime forces timed the gas attacks to coincide with military offensive pushes on the ground. The US has also confirmed accusations it used depleted uranium munitions against Islamic State targets in late 2015, despite earlier promises not to.

Finally, for those who missed it, tune into Four Corners’ most recent episode. ‘Highway to Hell’ takes viewers to the battlefields of Iraq and looks at the ‘gruelling street-by-street fighting’ taking place on the ground in Mosul right now.

Zero Gravity

India grabbed headlines this week with the successful, simultaneous launch of 104 satellites. The majority of them were international which reads well for India—foreign parties shouldered half the launch cost and already there’s talk of snowballing this victory into more technological innovation.

One company, Planet Labs Inc., had 88 micro-satellites on board. Planet recently purchased Google’s existing in-house satellite business. Google will license Planet’s imagery, but by ceding space, so to speak, to a nimbler start-up, Google’s anticipating a growing trend in near-Earth commercialisation. For now, though, Planet’s fleet of newly-launched cubesats will be used in a historic first—imaging the entirety of Earth’s landmasses daily!

There have been a few dry months since the last juicy story about Martian colonies, so props to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, who announced the ‘Mars 2117 Project’. Space pundits will know that plans for human settlement, however well-intentioned and received, generally rest on wildly ambitious timeframes and grand rhetoric rather physics, physiology and economics. So it’s refreshing to hear talk of centuries rather than years. With an initial focus on shorter Mars missions, spinoff technologies, international collaboration and education infrastructure, there’ll be near-term payoffs too. That said, if you’re aiming for a 600,000-inhabitant robot-built city, it’s going to be one rocky ride.