Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense.

Sea State

Some worthy new analysis on the future of the US Navy surfaced last week. The crux of the analysis in Foreign Policy is that the three Congress-commissioned proposals for naval force structure—mentioned recently in this feature—‘are all overwhelmingly preoccupied with China’ and only tangentially address the threats posed by Russia and Iran. The author argues that Congress should be advised whether those proposals believe ‘a Navy built for the Spratly Islands will play just as well in the Black Sea.’ And, a Politico piece sets out ‘How Trump Can Build a 350-Ship Navy’. The writers acknowledge that growing the naval fleet will present both industrial and fiscal challenges, but nevertheless argue that taking bold actions now is the only way to meet President Trump’s goal of a highly-capable 350-ship Navy—by the end of his second term…

New research is challenging the traditional “bludgeoning” method of icebreaking, used by Russia in the Arctic to speed up melting and create clear shipping lanes. The research shows that using submarines and ‘flexural gravity-wave resonance’ would offer a faster and more elegant approach. Data demonstrates that, by using this method, a submarine could forge a passage through ice ten times faster than America’s heavy icebreaker, Polar Star. Read all about it in The Economist.

Flight Path

The US sent a ‘nuke sniffer’ aircraft to its Kadena air base on Okinawa on 7 April. The unarmed Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft would gather samples of radioactive debris from the atmosphere if North Korea carries out another nuclear test. The aircraft was meant to arrive earlier, but was forced to land in Banda Aceh on 24 March after suffering an engine failure. The nuke sniffer joined the massive US military contingent positioned near the Korean peninsula ahead of Kim Il-sung’s 105th birthday celebrations on Saturday, where Pyongyang, as expected, launched—albeit unsuccessfully—an as-yet-unidentified missile.

A ‘small’ (but unspecified) number of F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill Air Force Base in Utah will train with NATO allies for several weeks as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. While the deployment’s been in the works for a long time, the announcement followed shortly after President Trump’s admission that US–Russia relations may be at an ‘all time low’. European countries—namely the UK, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark—are scheduled to receive their first F-35s in the early 2020s, which are expected to strengthen NATO’s forward posture.

Rapid Fire

A reporter from BBC witnessed North Korea showing off its military strength to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding president, Kim Il-sung, amid growing tensions with the US. The ‘show of strength’ included thousands upon thousands of soldiers, military planes and what appeared to be new intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. According to Melissa Hanham from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, North Korea is sending a message that they are ‘moving ahead with solid-fuel missiles’. A worrying development as it ‘means they can launch a lot more [missiles] in quick succession without having to refuel’.

Some 40 American soldiers were deployed to Somalia to train and equip African Union and Somali forces. It is the first presence of US troops other than counterterrorism advisors since 1994, following the Black Hawk disaster when 18 special forces died during the Battle of Mogadishu.

Finally, Polish president Andrzej Duda welcomed the deployment of 1,100 NATO troops, including 900 US servicemen, to Orzysz, near the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Moscow has nuclear-capable missiles and an S-400 air-missile defence system installed in Kaliningrad. Alarmed by Russia’s assertiveness on NATO’s eastern flank, Poland has lobbied hard for the stationing of NATO troops on its soil, especially since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Zero Gravity

There’s movement at the station—China’s Tiangong-2 space station, that is. While Chinese astronauts lived in the station for 30 days last year, it has since remained empty. That’s a similar story to Tiangong-1, the initial space station China launched in 2011 and decommissioned in 2013, and which will fall back to Earth sometime this year. Although Tiangong-2 will remain vacant, it’s set to be visited by China’s first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, later this week. Tianzhou-1 apparently has a larger capacity than any vehicle used to resupply the International Space Station. China’s planning to build a three-module space station (about seven times the size of the Tiangong stations) by 2022, so we should expect these kinds of missions to ramp up in the coming years.

For more background, there’s a good summary of China’s human spaceflight program to date at Space Policy Online (PDF), or join with the Center for Strategic & International Studies to ask ‘what’s driving China’s race to build a space station?

Finally, Star Wars fans rejoiced as the new teaser trailer for Episode VIII dropped on the weekend. We get a glimpse of that galactic favorite: podracing. Fiction? Of course, but with the Hyperloop, SpaceX is working on it. SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition II was just announced, and, according to the official rules, would-be podracers face a single criterion: ‘maximum speed with successful deceleration’.