Sea, air, land and space updates

Sea State

How many sheep does it take to sink a Russian naval ship? Turns out, about 9,000. The “research ship” (read: intelligence collection vessel) Liman was sunk in the Black Sea on Thursday after a collision with a merchant freighter carrying sheep. All 78 Russian crew members were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard and the Togo-flagged Youzarsif-H suffered only minimal damage. The accident occurred about 30km northwest of the mouth of the Bosphorus, which was closed due to poor visibility. Currently the only route to the Mediterranean from Russia’s Black Sea bases, the oft-choked strategic entry-point is considered to be driving Russia’s active search for ‘military bases along the Mediterranean’.

China’s Defence Ministry seemingly turned a PR blunder into a PR save last week, after posting a poorly photoshopped image on their Weibo and WeChat accounts to mark the PLAN’s 68th birthday. The picture depicted the Liaoning aircraft carrier, plus warships, fighter jets and submarines, but—as internet users were quick to point out and ridicule—the warships were American vessels, and one of the aircraft Russian. Apologising, the Ministry’s spokesman said the image and unfavourable comments would remain online as a ‘warning’ to the editors. This is apparently the first ever public apology for an error, prompting messages of praise from internet users for being ‘magnanimous’ and ‘bravely accepting responsibility’.

Flight Path

Indonesia will acquire Lockheed Martin’s Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods (ATPs) for its F-16A/B fighters as part of the US$10 billion trade and investment deal signed during Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Jakarta last month. Indonesia has received 19 of 24 refurbished F-16s it agreed to purchase from the US in 2011. Equipped with the ATPs, the US Embassy says Indonesia’s F-16s will enhance its ‘maritime and territorial defenses while operating seamlessly with the United States and other partners.’ The ATPs will be produced at Lockheed’s Missiles and Fire control facility in Orlando, Florida, where a cadre of Indonesian Air Force pilots and maintainers will also be trained.

The US State Department has given the green light to the possible sale of four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to New Zealand in a package worth US$1.46 billion. The New Zealand government is looking to replace its retiring fleet of P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The New Zealand Defence Force says the government has not yet committed to the purchase, and will also look to other competitors.

The world’s largest amphibious aircraft, the Chinese-built AG600, has successfully completed its first ground-test in Guangdong Province. The maritime rescue and environmental monitoring aircraft is expected to make its maiden flight later this year.

Rapid Fire

US soldiers from the Marine Corps have returned to Afghanistan’s Helmand province nearly three years after the US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in the country. As part of President Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan (announced in January), the first-batch of nearly 300-strong Marines arrived in the Southern Afghan province on Saturday. The deployment to Helmand came a day after a resurgent Taliban announced the launch of their so-called Spring Offensive. The soldiers will train and advise Afghan security forces fighting against the Taliban, who have suffered various setbacks recently, including the attack on a military hospital in Kabul, and the most recent attack on an army base in northern Afghanistan.

It looks like 2018 could be the year the ‘Iron Man’ military suit joins the US Army. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) was first presented as an idea in 2013, following the death of an American Special Forces soldier killed during a raid in Afghanistan. Designed in conjunction with universities, laboratories and the technology industry, the brief for TALOS was that it must be ‘bulletproof, weaponized, and able to monitor vitals.’ While it won’t have flying capabilities, TALOS will be made using liquid armor that can ‘solidify when it’s hit by a bullet.’

Zero Gravity

‘Water is the new oil of space’—at least according to Tom James, a partner in the energy consultancy Navitas Resources, in a feature published by Bloomberg last week. The word choice isn’t accidental—for one, water’s going to be critical as fuel in any space-based economy. And as Middle Eastern oil states shift from petroleum-based to knowledge-based economies, analysts argue there’s plenty of scope for the Gulf states to expand into the space sector. Countries in the Middle East are ideally located for space launches given their latitude. And the money’s starting to flow: while only a few years old, the UAE’s space agency has already seen billions in state investment, along with some ambitious planning.

It’s not just water that’ll be the prize—minerals that are rare on Earth are common in asteroids. In April, Goldman Sachs circulated a memo essentially arguing that the barriers to asteroid mining were more psychological than technical, and that it’s ‘more realistic than perceived.’ By some estimates, the cost of a lucrative asteroid mining venture would be roughly equivalent to opening two or three ground-based rare earth metal mines. At the end of the day, though, the real question will be whether the demand for these minerals can match the potential oversupply that asteroid mining may bring (particularly if the big money lies mostly in precious metals like platinum, for which the markets are relatively small). But maybe The Washington Post wasn’t as outlandish as you’d first think when it ran last week’s headline: ‘Space-mining may be only a decade away. Really.