Sea, air, land and space updates

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Netsyscom.

Sea State

An Iranian ship came within 730m of three US Navy vessels (an amphibious assault ship, a guided-missile destroyer and a dry cargo ship) in the Strait of Hormuz last week. The Iranian vessel shined a spotlight on the destroyer before training a laser on a CH-53E helicopter flying alongside it, prompting the USN to label the incident as an ‘unsafe and unprofessional’ encounter. While this encounter isn’t the first instance of harassment by Iran in this strategic waterway, what was unusual was that the ship involved formed part of the Iranian Navy, rather than the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy which normally carries out acts of that nature.

Last Sunday Iran and China completed a joint naval exercise in the Strait involving 700 Iranian personnel. For an analytical deep-dive into the Strait of Hormuz’s strategic significance and the viability of Iran’s asymmetric warfare, check out a two-part series from the Center for International Maritime Security (here and here).

The USN, Boeing and Huntington Ingalls have joined forces in an underwater endeavour to build the Echo Voyager, a would-be ‘massive unmanned, autonomous submarine’ able to fire missiles, drop mines and stay submerged for months. Boeing is currently testing the drone off the coast of California.

Flight Path

Monday brought news that a USN F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian regime SU-22 on Sunday evening, after the Syrian aircraft bombed US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) south of al-Taqbah in Raqqa Province. Two hours earlier, at 16:30 Syrian time, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF in the town of Ja’Din, south of al-Taqbah, wounding several fighters and driving them from the area. Coalition aircraft then conducted a ‘show of force’ against the perpetrators, while simultaneously attempting to de-escalate the situation by communicating with Russian counterparts via the deconfliction phone line. The Syrian government claims that its jet had been conducting a combat mission against IS, despite IS forces not having occupied that area for some time. This is the first time in more than a decade that the US has downed a manned fighter jet, and its first air-to-air combat in the Syrian conflict.

The Indonesian Air Force has deployed three Sukhoi fighters to North Kalimantan to help interdict any attempts by IS-linked militant to enter Indonesia after fleeing their occupation of Marawi City in the southern Philippines, after being driven out by Filipino forces. The aircraft arrived at Tarakan Air Force base last Friday, and will be stationed there for a month.

Rapid Fire

We’ve written about this issue before, but Afghanistan is back in the news following a decision by the White House to give broad authority to the Pentagon to determine US troop levels. According to some reports, the implication is unmistakable: by outsourcing military decisions on Afghanistan to the Pentagon, Trump is breaking from the convention by which former presidents (namely Obama) dealt with the ‘anguished task’ of sending US troops into foreign conflicts. While the decision won’t result in an immediate military buildup, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that it ‘should improve management of the war effort’. Any increase in numbers will come in the wake of two attacks in as many weeks on US troops by Afghan soldiers. Writing for Foreign Affairs, Sameer Lalwani details ‘four plausible strategies’ the US could pursue with additional troops on the ground in Afghanistan: state building, reconciliation, containment, and basing.

In other news, Qatar’s foreign ministry has pulled its peacekeeping forces from the Djibouti-Eritrea border, where it was acting as a mediator. While no explanation was given for the removal of 450 troops, the decision is most likely linked to Eritrea’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar last week.

Zero Gravity

Released in late May (PDF), the US Air Force’s 2018 budget estimates have been percolating through the space sector—and the numbers tell an interesting story about procurement and previously cosy monopolies. Some background: from 2006 to 2016, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, enjoyed a controversial hold on military launches. That was finally broken in April 2016, when the US Air Force awarded SpaceX a contract to launch a GPS satellite.

The opacity of the business means it’s hard to unpack, but this week Ars Technica takes a stab at the budget documents. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison because of the difference in contract structure, but it seems that, for reasonably comparable launches, SpaceX is asking US$96.5 million against ULA’s US$422 million.

It’s a complicated assessment, and of course, the respective CEOs of the companies argue predictably polar viewpoints. It’s broadly true that ULA is running scared, looking to drive down costs, and maybe rethinking its previous stance against reusable rockets. But there’s more than money at stake, and unlike SpaceX’s early days and recent loss, ULA has an enviable track record of reliability—and that’s especially important for unique and time-sensitive national security payloads.

United Launch Alliance must maintain reliability while improving costs. SpaceX must maintain low costs while improving reliability. Sitting pretty in the middle of the newly-minted competition, things are looking up for the USAF.