Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Gill.

Sea State

At last week’s International Maritime Security Conference in Singapore, Rear Admiral Lai Chung Han, Singapore’s Navy chief, announced a number of initiatives designed to promote regional submarine operational safety, including a US$7.1m upgrade to the RSN’s submarine rescue ship. The MV Swift Rescue is the only ship in Southeast Asia with the capability to conduct ‘collective rescue and transfer of distressed submariners while under pressure’. Singapore’s Defence Ministry has warned submarine proliferation would increase the risk of ‘miscalculations at sea’—it said the number of submarines in the western Pacific is projected to rise from 200 to 250 within eight years, with China alone set to grow its fleet from 62 to 78 by 2020.

Fancy building the US Navy of 2046? An app developed by CSIS lets you try your hand at just that! Integrating Navy budget data and accounting for key factors such as unit acquisition cost, capacity constraints and current procurement and inventory plans, the app aims to be an ‘interpretable analytic model of the Navy’s force structure’. And it’s pretty user-friendly: simply ‘slide’ your way to a 355-ship navy by using the controls to add or subtract everything from aircraft carriers to support vessels.

Flight Path

Two Chinese Su-30 fighters carried out a close intercept of a US WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in international airspace over the East China Sea last Wednesday. The US Air Force has described the intercept as ‘unprofessional’ because the Chinese fighters came within 45 metres of the Constant Phoenix and flew upside down above it. Also known as the ‘nuke sniffer’, the US aircraft is designed to detect radioactive debris in the atmosphere after a nuclear test. The US often conducts routine air patrols near Chinese territory, which Beijing has long characterised as acts of spying. A Chinese academic says that China may have been enforcing the ADIZ it declared over the East China Sea in 2013.

A private plane carrying four Americans, two of them children, disappeared near the Bahamas last Monday—in the ‘Bermuda Triangle’. Air traffic control at Miami lost radio and radar contact with the Mitsubishi MU-2B on its flight from Puerto Rico to Florida. A day later, search helicopters found an oil slick and debris 15 miles east of the Bahamas. Before jumping to conspiracy theories, however, it’s important to note that this twin-engine aircraft has had a higher than average rate of accidents, often, but not always, at the hands of  inexperienced pilots.

Rapid Fire

Just days into his first trip abroad, President Donald Trump has signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia  worth almost US$110 billion. The deal’s full inventory isn’t publicly available, but it is said to include ‘tanks and helicopters for border security, ships for coastal security, intelligence-gathering aircraft, a missile-defence radar system, and cybersecurity tools.’ Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told reporters in Riyadh that the arms agreements would help Saudi Arabia deal with ‘malign Iranian influence’. Meanwhile, reporters on the ground say the deal is an economic win-win for both countries, following the Obama administration’s decision to withhold arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to concerns about human rights. The new deal will include missile-defence systems and will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in both countries. Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, immediately expressed concern over the arms deal, saying it could narrow the military advantage Israel currently maintains over many of its neighbours.

A few weeks back, we wrote about the US Army’s new ‘Iron Man’ military attire, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS). The latest news coming out of the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference is that ‘it’s getting real’, with the first prototype expected to be fully built by the end of 2018. The director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force for the TALOS, Colonel James Miller, said that getting these suits right would be a ‘revolutionary achievement for the future special operator’.

Zero Gravity

Over at Aeon there’s a brilliant account of one man’s firsthand experience of space as the ultimate ‘hope-bringer’. The piece is a riposte to an essay that considered whether Elon Musk’s expensive push for Mars is morally defensible given the levels of poverty here on Earth. The whole ‘space dreams vs earthly needs’ business is a wicked problem with a long history, especially when it’s couched in the ethics of possible extinction; but the impossible calculus might be about to shift.

What’s changing? In short, the cost of getting to space, and thus the diminishing opportunity cost of doing so. When India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was launched in 2013, it cost US$74 million. Not bad compared to the hundreds-of-millions that are regularly budgeted for interplanetary missions. But the big revolution is closer to home, sparked by private companies, reusable rockets and cheap cubesats. The ‘space renaissance’ will mean wider access to near space—for everyone, not just the traditional space powers.

What will the onset of private space mean for the military? Over at The Cipher Brief this week, the experts give some thought to this question—competition will bring new, much-needed opportunities to enhance space resilience and make more missions possible, but it’ll need to be shepherded carefully to ensure that national security interests aren’t left behind.