The five-domains update

Sea state

Two Australian frigates sailed to the waters off Guam to take part in Exercise Pacific Vanguard. HMA Ships Arunta and Stuart joined eight naval vessels from Japan, South Korea and the US and more than 1,500 personnel to practise naval operations, including combined manoeuvres, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and replenishment at sea. The quadrilateral activities aim to enhance cooperation and strengthen the position of the US and its allies in the western Pacific.

Ships and aircraft from the UK, US and Norway conducted maritime security missions last week in part of Russia’s exclusive economic zone in the Barents Sea. It was the first time since the 1990s that such activity happened without cooperation from the Russian Navy. The exercises aim to promote freedom of access and navigation in the international waters north of Russia’s Arctic coast. Russia’s northern fleet operates out of the Barents Sea, and as global warming opens up new sea lanes this maritime region will become increasingly important.

Flight path

The Defence Department has announced a $1.1 billion infrastructure upgrade of Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal as part of a broader $8 billion package for developing northern Australia. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said the upgrade, which includes airfield improvements and fuel storage,  ‘will further enhance Defence air combat capability and our engagement with allies and other nations through the conduct of joint exercises’.

The US will hold its first full-scale dogfight competition featuring AI-operated tactical fighter aircraft in October 2022. A virtual dogfight simulation held in August demonstrated the ability of AI algorithms to defeat human fighter pilots. Mark Lewis, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization at the US Department of Defense, said he doesn’t believe human pilots will be replaced, but rather sees ‘their effectiveness being enhanced by cooperation with artificial intelligence systems’.

Rapid fire

The US is withdrawing 2,200 of its 5,200 troops in Iraq by the end of the month, following President Donald Trump’s negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The number of US personnel stationed in Afghanistan will also be halved by November, as the Afghan government and the Taliban begin peace talks to officially end the country’s 19-year war. It’s thought the withdrawals could be an attempt by Trump to bring American soldiers home ahead of the US presidential election, but the decision’s implications in Iraq, Afghanistan and countries such as Syria are still unclear.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will consider introducing the feminine form of military titles in the country’s defence force. Military ranks take the masculine form in German and using the feminine would involve adding the suffix ‘-in’ to ‘Leutnant’, for example. The army has resisted such changes despite women now constituting up to 12% of its personnel, a number that’s risen steadily since 2001 when Germany first opened combat roles to women. Some women soldiers have come out against the proposed change, saying it would exacerbate differences between genders rather than promote equality.

Final frontier

State media reports that China has successfully tested an experimental reusable space plane. US space surveillance noticed the spacecraft apparently releasing an object before it descended back to earth. Secrecy has obscured details about the mission, but a Chinese military source suggested to the South China Morning Post that the spacecraft was similar to the US X-37B space plane. The lack of publicity given to the test could point to the craft having a military purpose.

NASA is offering to purchase lunar soil from private companies to stimulate the extraction of space resources. The solicitation will be competitive and not restricted to US companies. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says the agency is ‘trying to prove the concept that resources can be extracted, and they can be traded’ among individuals, companies and countries. Lunar materials will also be key to NASA’s Artemis program, which plans to develop a sustained human presence on the moon and prepare for future missions to Mars.

Wired watchtower

Zhenhua Data, a Chinese company with links to the country’s military and intelligence services, has compiled a database of more than 2.4 million people, including 35,000 Australians, that’s been leaked to the media. Known as the ‘Overseas Key Individuals Database’, it contains profiles of public figures with biographical information collated mainly from open sources. While there are differing assessments of the database’s value, it shines fresh light on the Chinese government’s long-established efforts ‘to expand the country’s ability to harvest vast amounts of data for strategic purposes’.

Microsoft has reported that the same Russian military intelligence unit that targeted the Democratic National Committee in 2016 is now focused on ‘campaign staff members, consultants and think tanks associated with both Democrats and Republicans’. Hackers have sought to access accounts and emails, but there’s no evidence yet that any of the most recent attempts have been successful. The findings from Microsoft are in line with statements from US agencies warning that Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers have been seeking to interfere in the US election.