The five-domains update

Sea state

China has announced its intent to deepen military cooperation with Sri Lanka by giving it a frigate and continuing to train the Sri Lankan military. The announcement comes amid escalating competition between China and India in the Indian Ocean region and adds to India’s fears about China’s debt traps and naval bases in its neighbourhood. It also strengthens the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ narrative popular in the Indian strategic imagination.

Vladimir Putin unveiled plans to add 26 new warships to the Russian fleet at an event to mark Russia’s Navy Day on 29 July. Four of the vessels will be armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, which were used to deadly effect in the Syrian war. The missiles’ speed, precision and long-range capabilities and their ability to be carried on small vessels lend a distinct advantage.

China’s navy has reportedly converted Jackson Atoll in the South China Sea into a ‘parking space’ for its ships. The atoll was once a fishing ground for Filipino fishermen, who have been driven away by Chinese encroachment as China and the Philippines battle for sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

The Israeli Navy seized a Norwegian ship in the Mediterranean Sea that was carrying medical supplies to the Gaza Strip. The ship’s passengers included pro-Palestinian activists, who reportedly intended to violate the naval blockade of Gaza in a display of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Flight path

The Indian Air Force is participating in Exercise Pitch Black 2018. It’s the first time the IAF has joined in on the biennial exercise, which started on 27 July in the Northern Territory. The Indian contingent includes four Sukhoi SU-30MKIs, which will be refuelled mid-air by the RAAF when they depart from the exercise. India’s participation is significant given that Australia wasn’t invited to take part in the 2018 Malabar naval exercise, reportedly because of New Delhi’s concerns about upsetting Indo-Sino relations.

Severe wildfires approaching an old firing range in Sweden prompted the Swedish Air Force to employ an innovative solution. An SAF Gripen Fighter dropped a GBU-49 laser-guided bomb on the fire—watch a video of the drop here. The shockwaves extinguished the flames within 100 metres, like blowing out a candle. The technique has been before used to fight oil fires. The wildfires started in early July and have spread across more than 250 square kilometres due to hot conditions—it’s Sweden’s hottest July in 260 years.

Rapid fire

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has dismissed reports the US is planning a military strike on Iran as early as next month. Last week the ABC reported that senior Australian government figures believed the US was planning to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, something Mattis described as ‘fiction’. ‘I have no idea where the Australian news people got that information’, he said. If Iran follows through with a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Mattis noted it would demand an international response. The strategic importance of the Persian Gulf shipping lane cannot be underestimated: around one-fifth of the world’s petroleum passes through it.

Members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army went 2 kilometres into the disputed territory of Sikkim, leading to a tense standoff with Indian troops. According to the Telegraph India, after the PLA troops refused to retreat to their border area, the Indian soldiers formed a human chain to block further advancement into the area.

Zero gravity

The edge of space is closer than we think, says Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In a controversial new paper, McDowell claims that the generally accepted 100-kilometre boundary known as the Karman Line is based on misinterpreted information. Considering the orbital trajectories used by space vehicles, McDowell argues that where the atmosphere ends and space begins is closer to 80 kilometres above sea level. The proposition throws into question the political and legal distinctions between airspace and orbital space.

Virgin Galactic has broken its own record in the private space race. On Friday, VSS Unity entered the mesosphere, approximately 52 kilometres above the earth’s surface. Despite numerous setbacks and one catastrophic failure, the flight was a welcome development for the 700 people who have already booked the out-of-this-world experience. Virgin’s new record comes amid increased competition from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The seas that once covered Mars may have been discovered under the surface of the red planet. Modern Mars is known to be a cold and toxic desert, but geological clues suggest that 3.8 billion years ago the planet boasted lakes, rivers and possibly a large northern ocean. The new imagery could give insight into Mars’ evolution, the practicality of human settlement and the possibility of extraterrestrial life forms. Click here for a timeline.

Wired watchtower

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that it plans to use artificial intelligence in diplomacy through a system that will to help bureaucrats make decisions. The ‘strategic decision support system’ is designed to analyse international politics by assembling a huge amount of data, drawing on information ranging from ‘cocktail-party gossip’ to images captured by spy satellites. In situations requiring urgent action, the system would provide a range of recommendations to policymakers.

The Pentagon has released a list of ‘Do Not Buy’ software associated with Russian and Chinese entities that don’t meet US national security standards. The Pentagon says it’s working with trade associations to educate defence contractors on the new protocols.

Democrat senators are among the victims of ‘widespread’ hacking efforts, purportedly by Russian entities, as the US approaches its crucial midterm elections. The attacks add to concerns about the level of Russian interference in US domestic politics and Moscow’s attempts to influence electoral outcomes.

A British parliamentary committee examining Russia’s interference in elections has issued a call for stricter regulation of social media companies. The committee accused Facebook of being disingenuous in some of its answers and avoiding other questions ‘to the point of obstruction’ in the course of the investigation.