Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jessie Hodge.

Sea State

In its biggest show of naval force in the Asia–Pacific since WWII, Japan has unveiled plans to send its largest warship—the Izumo helicopter carrier—on a three-month tour of the South China Sea, kicking off in May. Stopping off in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, its destination is the Indian Ocean, where it will join India and the US in the Malabar naval exercise. Japan’s drills last week with South Korea and the US in the Sea of Japan further demonstrated that its ‘naval forces [are] playing a bigger part in the region.’ Unimpressed, China has promised to ‘take firm responsive measures’ should Japan ‘persist in taking the wrong actions’.

After last Monday’s hijacking of the tanker Aris 13 by Somali pirates off Somalia’s coast (the first since 2012), a new spate of attacks is feared, with one pirate warning: ‘In the coming days we are going to seize even more foreign ships.’ Somali officials have now called upon NATO—which ended its counter-piracy mission in November—to do more to stop illegal fishing in the area, which some believe provoked the attack.

Everyone’s favourite submersible, Boaty McBoatface, left Chile on Friday on board the RRS James Clark Ross. It’s headed to the Antarctic to explore ‘some of the deepest and coldest abyssal waters on Earth’… Better you than me, Boaty!

 Flight Path

The US Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program could receive a massive funding boost—from US$21 million to $168 million—as part of the White House’s 2017 supplementary budget request. That would expedite R&D efforts to develop a sixth-generation fighter to eventually replace the F-22. A US Air Force spokesperson says additional funding will be necessary for the fighter jet’s timely completion, which is expected to be some time in the 2030s. The eight-fold increase is unlikely to be approved in the Senate, however, since Trump would need to overturn the “sequestration” caps by winning at least eight Democratic votes and avoiding the threat of a filibuster.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced last Wednesday that his country will build its first indigenous fighter aircraft. Aeronautical design teams have apparently developed a ‘sketch outline’ of a twin-engine, multirole fighter that’ll bear an external resemblance to the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-29, but will use non-Russian on-board systems. The aircraft’s engine will be based on the AI-322F, which Ukraine hopes will be its first independently-designed aircraft engine.

The F-35 has fired its first non-American missile—the UK-based MDBA’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM)—during trials at US air bases in Maryland and California. MDBA currently produces the infrared-guided missiles for the Royal Air Force’s Tornado and Typhoon fighters, and it’ll now also be used to produce weapons for the UK’s F-35s.

Rapid Fire

Taiwan Ministry of National Defense this week released a report detailing its plans to beef up its military. The 2017 Quadrennial Defence Review, delivered to Parliament on 16 March, mentions the usual security concerns in the region; potential for conflict in the disputed South China Sea and the rise in military activity by the PRC. Given a limited budget and manpower constraints, Taiwan defence experts have suggested troops ‘hone their expertise in cyber warfare.’ To help them do this, a cyber-warfare unit will be established later this year to ‘defend Taiwan’s C4ISR and other key infrastructure against cyber-attacks’.

The UK is also considering a major re-organisation of its armed forces, set to include the transfer of more than 4,500 soldiers to new units. As part of the ‘Army 2020 Refine’ plan, the UK hopes to set up a ‘war-fighting’ division, form two new strike brigades and increase troop strength in existing battalions.

Finally, meet the man who voluntarily starts his day by doing 300 burpees. Appropriately nicknamed ‘the Cyborg’ in an interview by Vice News, this former US marine trains elite Southeast Asian military regiments. His job involves being ‘dropped into the Filipino jungle as a “bunny” for trainees to capture’. The interview details the mental control and survival tactics required to survive in the jungle, including fire and shelter building techniques. After four years of his extreme games of hide-and-seek, the Cyborg has never been caught… Guess those burpees are paying off!

Zero Gravity

The Trump administration released its 2018 budget proposal last week. All things considered, the outlook is decent for NASA (PDF p.43). Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting Administrator, released a statement averring that the US$19.1 billion earmarked was ‘in line with funding in recent years’ and would enable NASA to ‘effectively execute [the] core mission for the nation.’ The audacious asteroid redirection program has been axed, but there’s billions allocated for the Space Launch System and the Orion space capsule. These developments weren’t too surprising given the increasing political capital (and competition) that’s being staked on human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

At a time when civilian research funding is being channeled into defence, it’s reassuring to see that NASA wasn’t subject to outright fiscal pruning. That said, it’s worrying that four Earth science missions are on the chopping block—after the election in November, a Trump advisor stated that the president intended to defund NASA’s climate studies, labelling them ‘politicized science.’

And finally, the Japanese government’s latest spy satellite launched this week. Named the Information Gathering Satellite ‘Radar 5’, most operational details are secret. What we do know is that the satellite reportedly cost US$327 million to develop and US$93 million to launch, and commentators have been quick to link the bolstered surveillance capability with keeping an eye on an increasingly belligerent North Korea.