The five-domains update

Sea state

Supporting documents for the Pentagon’s Future navy force study suggest it’s considering expanding the US Navy to as many as 534 vessels, up from the service’s current target of 355 manned ships by 2030. Many of the new vessels would be smaller and lightly or optionally crewed, and the navy is likely to shift from focusing on large and expensive ships like aircraft carriers to smaller vessels. However, the navy has been struggling to meet the 355-ship target and may face challenges meeting the even larger goal.

Iranian and Russian vessels have conducted joint exercises in the Caspian Sea as part of the multinational Kavkaz exercises. The drills are held each year in one of Russia’s four military districts (western, southern, central or eastern), and the southern district was chosen for 2020. The exercises, held from 21 to 26 September, also included forces from Pakistan, China, Belarus and Armenia. Russian military cooperation with Iran has continued while the US has increased its efforts to embargo arms deals with the country.

Flight path

The US Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin will be conducting ‘unique sea trials’ of F-35 fighter jets for potential international customers. The trials are part of a broader US$245 million contract to the company to provide ‘engineering, maintenance, logistics manpower and material support’ for the US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force and other non-US participants. Countries that have procured the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B jets include the UK and Italy, but the trials indicate interest from other militaries.

By a tiny margin, the Swiss people have voted in favour of buying new fighter jets worth up to US$6.5 billion to replace the country’s F-5 Tigers and F/A-18C/D Hornets. Just 50.2% of voters polled in favour of the proposal in the third national vote on the purchase of new combat aircraft for the Swiss Air Force in 30 years. The candidates for the fleet of up to 40 jets are the Eurofighter Typhoon, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale and F-35.

Rapid fire

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of causing violent clashes over the disputed border region of Nagorno-Karabakh that have led to the deaths of dozens of people. Armenia’s defence ministry blamed Azerbaijan for air and artillery attacks targeting civilian areas and at least two civilian casualties, and reported that two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones had been shot down in retaliation. Azerbaijani officials said only one of their helicopters had been downed. Soon after, both countries introduced martial law. The decades-long tensions could escalate further; Turkey has expressed strong support for Azerbaijan and Russia maintains an alliance with Armenia.

According to a draft investment document from Italy’s industry ministry, the country might soon be the first to acquire next-generation helicopters under the US Army’s ‘future vertical lift’ program, which includes the development of an armed reconnaissance aircraft. Italy would subsidise the investment through its share of the recently approved EU recovery fund in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Final frontier

Swedish Space Corporation, a state-owned space services provider, has decided not to renew a contract giving Beijing access to a space tracking station in Western Australia. According to Chinese state media, however, there are at least 10 years left on the current contract, which allows for scientific missions and manned space flights. The Yatharagga satellite station was reportedly last used by China in 2013 to support a series of space docking tests. China is expanding its access to overseas ground stations and last year restored ties with Kiribati which is the site of a mothballed Chinese space tracking station.

The US has deployed its first Space Force squadron to an overseas airbase, Al Udeid in Qatar. The squadron commander, Colonel Todd Benson, said other countries were becoming ‘extremely aggressive in preparing to extend conflict into space’, though he did not name specific nations. The deployment comes amid heightened US apprehension about the threat Iran’s missile program poses in the region and allegations of Iranian attempts to hack and jam satellites. In January, US satellites provided advance warning after more than a dozen Iranian missiles were fired at US bases in Iraq.

Wired watchtower

Australia’s National Broadband Network will undergo a $3.5 billion upgrade over the next three years. The work will include reducing the distance between existing ‘fibre to the node’ systems and offering households the option of a ‘fibre to the premises’ connection. The package also includes $300 million to improve broadband connections for governments and local councils. The announcement has drawn criticism from Labor, which proposed an FTTP system in 2013. The Coalition opted for a faster and cheaper rollout using a mix of technologies, a move that is now being labelled as wasteful in light of the planned upgrade.

Research from Amnesty International has found that companies in France, Sweden and the Netherlands have sold surveillance technology to Chinese security agencies. Facial-recognition equipment and security cameras were sold to public security and law enforcement bodies in China, and in some cases have been used in the Xinjiang region to monitor and suppress the minority Uyghur population there. The findings have prompted calls for the EU to reform its export regulations, particularly for dual-use technologies.