Sea, air, land and space updates

Sea State

Just in time for President Modi’s visit to Washington, the Trump administration has agreed to sell 22 Guardian drones to India, in a deal that’s been described as a ‘game changer’ for US–India relations. The drones would be a ‘force multiplier’ for the Indian Navy, improving its maritime surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Though yet to be approved in India, New Delhi reportedly sees the deal as ‘a key test of defence ties’. Defense News speculates that the sale of the unarmed Guardians could be a precursor to the purchase of armed drones—something India has sought previously but which is currently prohibited by US export laws. Finalising the deal is likely to require a fine balance between Trump’s “America First” platform and Modi’s “Make in India” policy.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) successfully test-fired its Long-Range Artillery system (LORA) on 20 June. LORA’s strength is its portability: it launches from a container that can be trucked onto the deck of a cargo ship. According to The Drive, LORA’s relative low-cost and plug-and-play nature means that a range of auxiliary ships ‘could suddenly become impromptu combatants’. IAI says ‘several deals’ for LORA are underway, but it remains to be seen who’s in the market for the platform.

And for the final Sea State reads this week, here are two great pieces: one about how noisy herrings are creating (submarine) confusion; and another about marauding orcas fleecing fisherman.

Flight Path

A Polish NATO F-16 shadowed a Tu-145 plane carrying the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, in international airspace over the Baltic Sea last Wednesday. But it was quickly intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that had been escorting the VIP aircraft. NATO has denied any prior knowledge of the Russian defence minister’s presence aboard the plane, and says it scrambled its jets after the three Russian aircraft failed to respond to air traffic control requests that they identify themselves. Russian media aboard the MINDEF’s plane recorded footage of the incident, in which the Su-27 tilts sideways to show its munitions to the F-16.

Japan hopes to partner with the US to provide used aircraft to ASEAN countries. The director of Japan’s Ministry of Defense program—which has enabled the lease of TC-90 patrol aircraft to the Philippines—mentioned the possibility in an interview at the Paris Air Show, without naming which ASEAN countries or the types of aircraft. If the plan comes to fruition, it would be just the latest in a string of defence capacity-building initiatives Japan has pursued in Southeast Asia over recent years.

Satellite images captured in May show that China has deployed four Shaanxi Y-8Q anti-submarine aircraft to Hainan Island, which overlooks the South China Sea. The newest version of this PLA Navy aircraft shares some of the features found on USN P-3C Orion or P-8 Poseidon aircraft, including a magnetic anomaly detector boom, electro-optical cameras and a fuselage weapons bay.

Rapid Fire

Russia has apparently asked Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to send troops to help monitor Syrian ‘de-escalation zones’, as part of an attempt to end six years of brutal civil war in the country. The zones are part of a Russian, Turkish and Iranian backed deal signed in May 2017, which calls for the ‘cessation of hostilities’ between rebel groups and government forces in four mainly opposition-held areas of the country.

Was it Bill Cunningham who said that fashion was the ‘armor to survive the reality of everyday life’? Maybe, but it seems not even good fashion choices can save the Pentagon. A scathing report (PDF) from the US Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction accuses the Pentagon of ‘unnecessarily spending’ US$28 million on ‘forest’ patterned uniforms for the Afghan National Army, despite the country’s landscape being only 2.1% wooded. According to the report, former Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak chose the pattern ‘in the name of fashion… because he thought it was pretty’.

This week’s recommended reading comes from The New York Times, in the form of a startling exposé on child soldiers in Africa. The piece details the story of four young boys who were abducted by Boko Haram as young children living in Nigeria, and were then trained to fight and kill on behalf of the Islamist group. The photographer who worked on the piece spent most of January in northeastern Nigeria, embedded with Nigerian soldiers fighting against the group. She was able to get a rare insight into this underreported conflict and her images ‘tell the story of the high human cost in the battle against Islamic extremism in Africa’.

Zero Gravity

Sci-fi nerds, movie aficionados and strategists might already know of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. For everybody else, some homework will be required—especially if US lawmakers get their way. That’s because the bipartisan Subcommittee for Strategic Forces this week called for the creation of a ‘Space Corps’, which would be a separate service, like the Marine Corps, but would answer to the Secretary of the Air Force.

The move comes as some have recognised the inertia that has beset space policy for more than a decade. But it’s opposed by the current Secretary of the Air Force who argues that ‘the Pentagon is complicated enough’. There’s a predictable back-and-fourth on that point, but it’s true that, as other nations expand their forays into space, the operating environment is growing more challenging. That means the US won’t be able to take its space-based preeminence for granted, and will need to carefully adjust its force posture.

Meanwhile, on the home front, momentum is building behind the possibility of an Australian space agency. There’s been a $500 million funding boost for surveillance satellites, a small portion of which will support infrastructure, but the question of sovereign launch capabilities remains untouched. And as access to space becomes easier, there’ll be plenty of room for small fish in a big pond, even without home-grown rockets. (Provided, that is, our satellites stop running out of battery). At the end of the day, it’s about options going forward—a small, Australian NASA might be a good place to start.