The five-domains update

Sea state

The Royal Australian Navy has commissioned an experimental squadron called 822X to test the use of unmanned aircraft at sea. The Schiebel Camcopter S-100 and the Insitu ScanEagle are being trialled for use in surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations. In June, the Australian government allocated $7 billion to the program for six Triton unmanned surveillance planes to be deployed across the Indo-Pacific, including in the South China Sea. The navy also commissioned its second Hobart-class air warfare destroyer, HMAS Brisbane, in Sydney last week.

Fast boats from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps faced off against USS Essex and USS Rushmore in the Persian Gulf last week. The Iranians warned the US ships that if they continued to fly one of their helicopters over the Iranian boats, they would open fire. The US ships ignored the warning and downplayed the threat. The IRGC conducted a massive military exercise in the Strait of Hormuz in August, purportedly in response to the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran.

The Indian navy’s Boeing P-8 long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft carried out its first landing at Car Nicobar airport in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The new location provides India with an alternative to the main Andaman airport, giving it a tactical advantage in the increasingly contested spaces of the Indian Ocean region.

Flight path

Belgium has selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35A as the replacement for its fleet of F-16 fighter jets, over models offered by Dassault (Rafale) and BAE (Eurofighter Typhoon). The 34 fighters are expected to cost US$3.5 billion and deliveries will commence in 2023. Belgium is now the 13th country to join the program, alongside other European countries including Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. The decision has been criticised as a blow to efforts to unify European defence capacity, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying it ‘goes against European interests’.

Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee has approved the sale of three PAC JF-17 Thunder fighters to Nigeria. The fighters, co-manufactured with China and also known as CAC FC-1 Xiaolong, are promoted as a more affordable alternative to US fighters and cost US$25–32 million each. The fighters have previously been purchased by Myanmar, and Pakistan is reportedly in talks with Malaysia and Azerbaijan over future sales.

The US has confirmed that 17 F-22 Raptors were sheltered at Florida’s Tyndall air base in Florida during Hurricane Michael, but there’s no word yet on how many were damaged or what level of damage they sustained. Eight planes have left the base and the rest are meant to fly out this week; see photos here. US Vice President Mike Pence toured the damaged base and pledged it would be fully reconstructed, announcing that pilot simulator training and air operations would recommence by early 2019.

Rapid fire

The South Australian government wants access to the world’s largest land-based defence testing site, the Woomera Prohibited Area. SA Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan has suggested the land could be holding a large deposit of mineral resources in its highly prohibited ‘red zone’. The site also serves as a testing ground for Australia’s space industry. Commonwealth approval is needed to access the area for non-defence purposes, but the minister says that if a large deposit of gold or copper is found there, it could be in the national interest to begin mining operations and adjust military testing.

Russian dissidents are exposing agents from the GRU military intelligence unit with databases purchased on the black market. The identities of the agents allegedly involved in the use of a nerve agent in an attempt to kill a former Russian spy in the UK have already been revealed, but Russian crime reporter Sergei Kanev, a critic of the Kremlin, has exposed several other agents’ identities using information obtained from Russian law enforcement.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a four-day visit to Southern Theatre Command in Guangdong province, warned troops to be in a state of combat readiness to enhance their capabilities and prepare for war in the event of ‘provocation’ in the region. The Southern Theatre Command is tasked with monitoring the potential flashpoints of the South China Sea and Taiwan. The warning comes in the wake of a high-profile near miss involving a US destroyer and a Chinese warship in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Zero gravity

China’s first private three-stage rocket launch failed on Saturday. The ZQ-1, developed by Beijing-based  Landspace Tech, took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia. The rocket was intended to deliver a satellite for Chinese state media into sun-synchronous orbit—an orbit useful for imaging, spy and weather satellites. However, the mission failed when something went wrong after the second stage of the launch.

Pakistan’s information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, announced that the country, with China’s assistance, will send a manned mission to space in 2022. Pakistan Space and China’s Upper Atmosphere Research Commission have already signed an agreement to collaborate on the project. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his country is aiming to launch its own space mission in 2022 during his independence day address in August. Concerns have been raised about whether this indicates a new frontier for the India–Pakistan rivalry.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been ‘revived’. The telescope suffered an operational breakdown three weeks ago when its gyroscope—a device that measures speed and enables manoeuvring towards targets—failed, rendering it inoperable. Part of a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency, Hubble was launched into low-earth orbit in 1990 and has become a vital research tool, making 1.3 million observations that have contributed to more than 15,000 research papers.

Wired watchtower

In a rare public appearance, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate spoke at ASPI’s national security dinner last night. He said his agency advised the government that Australia’s 5G network could not be completely protected if ‘high-risk vendors’ like China’s Huawei and ZTE were allowed to participate. Burgess also noted ASD’s broadening scope and use of offensive cyber capabilities to assist in military and counterterror operations.

The Reserve Bank of Australia says major banks and smaller financial institutions need annual ‘penetration testing’ to gauge their cyber capability, the ‘equivalent of an annual cyber-roadworthy certificate’. During the SIBOS 2018 conference in Sydney, major financial institutions including the RBA, the European Central Bank and JP Morgan discussed the need to ensure banks of all sizes are equally prepared to face cyber risks.

Police in New Delhi have arrested 24 people running a tech support scam. The criminals posed as Microsoft staff and duped several US citizens into paying between US$100 and US$500 to remove malware from their computers. Microsoft’s Digital Crime Unit in the US helped bust the racket by sharing real-time data analytics with Indian authorities, leading to the arrests.