The five-domains update

Sea state

Australia has committed $175 million to upgrade the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The project will improve electricity and road infrastructure, provide accommodation for around 400 PNG military personnel, and support increased maritime patrols and cooperation with Australia. A significant naval base during World War II, Lombrum remains strategically consequential for Australia and the US, both of which pledged to improve the facility in 2018. This is the largest concrete financial commitment made to the project; however, commencement has been delayed by Covid-19.

The US Navy detonated 18,144 kilograms of explosives near its newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, to assess how the ship’s critical systems would cope in battle conditions. The shock test, which the US Geological Survey recorded at 3.9 on the Richter scale, is part of a six-month improvement process prior to the Gerald R. Ford’s first deployment, and the first of its kind to be conducted on an aircraft carrier in 34 years.

Flight path

On 16 June, two Russian Tu-160 bombers escorted by Su-27 and Su-37 fighters conducted an eight-hour mission over the Baltic Sea, prompting NATO aircraft to scramble. Italian F-35s, Danish F-16s and Swedish JAS-39s were mobilised to identify and track the Russian aircraft. This came just days after the Italian F35s, on their first-ever deployment to NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission, had a close encounter with a Russian Su-30SM fighter. It’s just one in a series of Russian exercises over the Baltic and the Pacific this year.

The US Air Force has issued a ‘sources sought’ notice for new aerial refuelling aircraft to bridge the gap between the completion of the over-budget and deficiency-laden KC-46A program and the development of a next-generation tanker. The request coincided with the announcement that two more category 1 deficiencies had been identified with the aircraft, which the air force has asked the contractor, Boeing, to address at its own expense, bringing the total out-of-pocket costs for the US$4.9 billion contract to more than US$5 billion since it began in 2011.

Rapid fire

The Australian Defence Force recently conducted Exercise Sea Explorer at Cowley Beach in North Queensland, with around 1,800 personnel. It marked the army’s first deployment of its M1A1 Abrams tanks on navy landing ships, which were used to practise beach landings along with Tiger and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Joint amphibious training will continue next month when the ADF engages in Exercise Sea Raider as part of the biennial multinational Talisman Sabre exercises.

On 17 June, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the US had agreed to sell two weapon systems to Taiwan, effectively initiating the US$2.8 billion deal first approved in 2020. Although the details of the two procurement contracts haven’t been fully disclosed, they are believed to involve the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Harpoon coastal defence system, which will greatly improve the island’s counterstrike capabilities.

Final frontier

Last week, China successfully launched its Shenzhou-12 spacecraft with three astronauts on board, its first manned space mission in five years. The three-month space outing is the third of 11 missions to build China’s Tiangong space station, expected to be completed next year. The project has raised concerns in Washington that China’s space program, which has strong ties with the Chinese military, may soon rival that of the US. In April, US Space Command warned of the threat posed by China’s rapidly maturing space enterprise and the development of military space capabilities.

On 15 June, Japan’s parliament passed legislation that allows companies to prospect for, extract and utilise space resources with government approval, joining the US, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates which have enacted similar laws as signatories to the NASA-led Artemis Accords. Japan’s Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions landed on and extracted mineral samples from asteroids in 2010 and 2020, paving the way for potential asteroid mining. However, states including Russia and New Zealand have called for greater international rather than national space mining regulation.

Wired watchtower

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has cited the success of the recent covert ‘Operation Ironside’ as a reason to support three bills that propose to expand authorisation for the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission to access and collect data. One of them, the controversial Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill, is now under review by a parliamentary committee and would allow new warrants enabling the AFP and ACIC to disrupt data, collect network activity and control personal online accounts. The Australian Law Council warns that these measures would further distance Australia from other Five Eyes alliance members that incorporate judicial safeguards for such surveillance.

Live Eye Surveillance, a US-based online surveillance company, provides a US$399 monthly service that remotely monitors businesses’ CCTV footage 24/7 using ‘process analysts’ based in India. The service includes ‘reporting suspicious activities’ and monitoring tasks, allowing operators to intervene by talking to employees through a speaker. 7-Eleven, Shell, Dairy Queen and Holiday Inn are listed as customers but the service may actually put lives at risk by startling armed robbers.