Sea, air, land and space updates

Sea State

The Pentagon is looking at equipping the US Coast Guard’s planned three new medium icebreakers with heavy weapons. Speaking to a House subcommittee on Homeland Security, Admiral Paul Zukunft said it was necessary to ‘look differently at what an icebreaker does’ and that ‘US presence in the Arctic is… a matter of national security.’ The USCG currently has only two active icebreakers, which are split between the Arctic and the Antarctic. America’s arctic capabilities are far out-stripped by that of Russia, which has a fleet including a (huge!) ‘research’ submarine and around 40 icebreakers. And, in the last few years, Russia has activated 14 new operational airfields and 16 deep water ports as part of an arctic military build-up that one US commander has likened to China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Surprising evidence has emerged that the first ever Australian ship to reach Japan was in fact sailed by convict pirates from Tasmania. The Cyprus was hijacked by convicts in 1829, and, according to fresh translations of samurai accounts, anchored off the town of Mugi on Shikoku island on 16 January 1830—at the height of Japan’s feudal isolation.

Flight Path

It seems hardly a week passes in which a US aircraft doesn’t have a close shave with a peer from China or Russia. The Pentagon said two Chinese J-10 fighters ‘unprofessionally’ intercepted a US Navy P-3 Orion in international airspace above the South China Sea last Wednesday—one week after a similar encounter over the East China Sea. US officials have characterised the incident as ‘unsafe’, with one Chinese fighter flying approximately 180 metres in front of and 30 metres above the P-3, conducting multiple turns and restricting its ability to fly. China’s foreign ministry wasted no time hitting back, claiming the US had entered its airspace and infringed its sovereignty.

French officials are investigating the possibility that an iPhone 6S and iPad Mini 4 caused EgyptAir Flight 804 to crash in May 2016, after the devices were plugged into the wrong sockets in the cockpit, causing their batteries to overheat and burst into flames. Apple has agreed to participate in the investigation, but claims that it’s not aware of any evidence linking its devices to the crash. In contrast, Egyptian investigators still believe the crash was a result of criminal efforts. The results of the French investigation are expected on 30 September.

Rapid Fire

In a report citing a 2016 US government audit, Amnesty International has accused the US Army of ‘failing to monitor’ the transfer of over US$1 billion of military equipment to Iraq and Kuwait. According to the report, ‘lax controls’ in record-keeping by the Iraqi army resulted in weapons ‘winding up in the hands of armed groups such as the Islamic State’. That’s a worrying accusation considering the transfer allegedly included mortar rounds, hundreds of armoured Humvees and tens of thousands of assault rifles. Amnesty’s Arms Control and Human Rights Researcher Patrick Wilcken added that the audit provides a ‘worrying insight’ into the flawed system by which the US Army controls its weapons transfers in a volatile region.

In other US Army news, are the US armed forces ready for what’s next? In an interview with Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry discussed the strains the US military faces in its 16th year of continuous operations. Alongside military ‘readiness’, Thornberry touched on the need to constantly modernise and ‘continue fostering innovative change’ as major considerations for the future.

Zero Gravity

This week DARPA announced that Boeing will build and operate an experimental spaceplane, designed to provide ‘aircraft-like access’ to space. ‘10’ is the takeaway message from the ‘Phantom Express’: the program aims to reduce launch costs by a factor of 10 and, by around 2021 or so, execute 10 launches in 10 days. Over at DefenseOne there’s some discussion of what cheap, reliable and rapid launches will mean for the US military; in short, a massive boost to space-based resilience.

Elsewhere it’s been a big week for big space science projects. The world’s most sensitive dark matter detector is up and running, scientists report. XENON1T is housed deep beneath a mountain in Southern Italy and, shielded from cosmic radiation, it’ll be trying to spot thus-far hypothetical dark matter particles as they stream in from space.

Meanwhile, in the driest desert on Earth, construction has begun on the world’s biggest telescope. Located in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the drily-named Extremely Large Telescope will eventually feature a mirror some 39 metres in diameter. Its completion is slated for 2024 and, once finished, it’ll gather 13 times more light than any existing telescope (and more than 100 million times that of a human eye).

At a time when international cooperation is being challenged around the world, big projects like these emphasise the collaborative dimension of science. The billion-dollar Extremely Large Telescope is funded by a consortium of European and Southern-hemisphere nations, while XENON1T is the baby of various institutions in North America, Europe and the Middle East.