Sea, air, land and space updates

Sea state

The US Coast Guard is still looking for a vendor to equip its Legend-class national security cutter with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Lacking the expertise to operate UAVs itself, the Coast Guard wants the full package, ‘including the people, the antennas, [and] the software’. But to reduce costs, it’ll just be getting the basic capabilities for now—like electro-optical and infrared camera systems—with the more whizz-bang intelligence tools to come later, in pace with emerging technology. Eventually, the aim is to have a completely autonomous drone fleet. (But, according to The Drive, the Coast Guard might already have something pretty cool!)

A new report from the ICC International Maritime Bureau revealed the extent of international piracy in the first half of 2017. Overall, there were 87 attacks—10 fewer than in 2016. That included 63 hostage-takings, 41 kidnappings and two deaths. The report warns that Somali pirates still have the capacity to attack far offshore, and remain a threat to merchant ships. Southeast Asia was also identified as still being a high-risk area. The Diplomat provides a compelling argument for Australia’s interests in this area by looking at the threat to trade and economic prosperity should piracy spread to the Melanesian ‘arc of instability’.

Flight path

Austria will phase out its fleet of Eurofighter Typhoon strike fighters and Saab 105 OE training aircraft from 2020. The defence minister made the announcement last Friday after an expert commission, responsible for studying the air force’s options after 2020, found the €5 billion bill of maintaining 15 Eurofighters over 30 years to be unsustainable. While the Saab 105 is already scheduled to be retired after 2020, the Tranche 1 Eurofighter faces early retirement after only a decade in the sky. Austria’s decision to buy or lease 15 fighter jets that can operate by 2020 is apparently imminent, with Saab’s JAS Gripen and Lockheed’s F-16 rumoured to be the frontrunners.

Last Thursday, the US Air Force dispatched two NORAD F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts to intercept a Cuba-bound Canadian Sunwing Airlines plane over New York and escort it back to its departure airport in Montreal after a passenger made ‘non-specific threats’.

The US B-1B Lancer bombers at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam are getting plenty of action. A B-1B flew with its Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighters over the East China Sea last Thursday, conducting night-time training for the first time. After that, two B-1Bs flew over the South China Sea, marking the Trump administration’s first freedom of overflight operation in those contested waters.

Rapid fire

As tensions between India and China continue to simmer over parts of an 89-square-kilometre Himalayan plateau claimed by both China and Bhutan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted its first-ever ‘high altitude drill’. The exercise involved the PLA’s most advanced battle tank, the ZTZ-96B, and was aimed at testing the integration and readiness of military elements in the ‘complex high altitude environment of the Tibetan plateau’. In a series of conflicting narratives, China’s Global Times described the exercises as a signal to India to ‘drop [the] delusion of military strength’, while India Today accused China of wanting to ‘grab Bhutan’s land and blame India’.

The territorial dispute erupted in June, when Indian soldiers opposed China’s attempts to extend a border road through the Doklam plateau. While India has no official territorial claim there, the plateau is within artillery range of a significant Indian weak point—the Siliguri Corridor (or ‘chicken’s neck’), a narrow stretch of land that links India with its northeastern states.

Finally, as the nine-month battle for Mosul nears its so-called end, this devastating series of photographs from the Old City of Mosul lays bare the ‘full horror of the battle to defeat Islamic State’ and the extent of the destruction that’s been wrought on the city. The images, and recent drone footage, offer an ‘up-close glimpse of the apocalyptic suffering being inflicted in the name of the war against terrorism’—inviting the question: at what price?

Zero gravity

Relations between the US and the DPRK might be bottoming out after Kim Jong-un’s ICBM test, but that’s no reason to stop looking up (to space, that is). The Cipher Brief considers the role that space-based assets can play in ballistic missile defence, asking three questions: whether space is the next frontier in missile defence, how the space-based sensor system can be improved, and how space assets can be made more resilient.

People mean different things when they talk about space-based missile defence. At one end of the spectrum there’s the space-based sensor layer—that’s a critical component of existing capabilities provided by platforms like the SBIRS heat-detecting satellites. At the other end, the conversation turns to space-based interception—that’s a different ballgame and, after the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ initiatives of yesteryear, a controversial pitch. It’s true that space launches are coming faster and cheaper than ever before—but that’s probably not enough to revive what is, in the recent words of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a technological zombie.

And let’s finish on a high: watch—please watch—as four intrepid YouTubers travel to Kazakhstan, navigate booby traps and security patrols, infiltrate a military facility, and finally break into a cavernous aircraft hangar. Inside—rendered by stark photography and stunning drone footage—the Dutchmen camp among the wrecks of two abandoned Soviet-era space shuttles. Welcome to the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome. Born of the Cold War space race, it’s the oldest spaceport in the world, and still leased to Roscosmos today.