The five-domains update

Sea state

The UK Ministry of Defence has named Babcock International as the preferred bidder of a £1.25 billion (A$2.27 billion) contract to build five Type 31 frigates for the Royal Navy. The vessels will be based on a Danish design and have been dubbed ‘Lidl frigates’ after a chain of cheap supermarkets because of their relatively low cost of £250 million (A$453 million) per ship. Construction is expected to start in 2021, with the first ship scheduled for launch in 2023. The government says the program will support more than 2,500 jobs across the UK.

The US Navy has achieved a major milestone in aquatic drone warfare, after completing a ‘single-sortie mine hunting’ mission using autonomous systems. The navy sent an unmanned boat equipped with sonar to identify underwater mines, before deploying a secondary autonomous system to destroy them. The ability to ‘get the man out of the minefield’ opens up the possibility of getting people out of harm’s way and allowing robots to sweep minefields instead.

Thailand and China have signed an agreement that will see state-owned company China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation construct a Type 071E amphibious transport dock for the Royal Thai Navy. The vessel is likely to be between 20,000 and 25,000 tons and will be able to carry amphibious vehicles as well as tanks and helicopters. This deal is the first time China has exported a landing platform dock warship.

Flight path

Poland will likely become the first ex-Warsaw Pact member to buy the F-35 fighter jet after a potential purchase was cleared by the US State Department. Warsaw wants to buy 32 of the conventional take-off and landing ‘A’ variants of the aircraft at a cost of US$6.5 billion to replace its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-22s. While Congress may still block the sale, it’s expected to approve the deal.

A new wedge-shaped aircraft that could be a supersonic drone has been spotted in images taken during preparations for a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The operational status and use of the craft are unknown, but the fact that China looks set to include it in a major parade means that it could be operational relatively soon.

Italy has become the second country, after Sweden, to join the UK’s Tempest project to create a next-generation fighter plane after signing a statement of intent to work on the project. The program aims to replace the current Eurofighter Typhoon program from 2040. Italy’s involvement in the Tempest project could spur a European fighter race, with France, Germany and Spain signed on to a separate effort to develop a next-generation combat aircraft.

Rapid fire

The British Army says it will continue down a ‘green’ path in order to protect the environment and raise recruitment numbers among young people, with recent evidence suggesting that environmental credentials increasingly contribute to a person’s career decision. Army chief Mark Carleton-Smith said that the current generation of weapons platforms and vehicles could be the last to rely on fossil fuels.

Indigenous soldiers now account for 40% of new recruits in the Australian Army’s 51st Battalion, a highly specialised Regional Force Surveillance Unit based in far north Queensland. The battalion is actively looking for the sorts of traditional skills that are passed down through the generations in Indigenous communities. Skills like moving silently and tracking and hunting translate well to the battalion’s border protection operations. The Australian Defence Force aims to increase its recruitment of Indigenous people to 5% of total recruits by 2025.

A study conducted by the University of South Australia and the US Air Force Academy has found that soldiers treat robots more like colleagues than machines. The study found soldiers work more closely with and value more highly robots that are more human-like. The study highlighted how emotional connections can affect battlefield decisions, with soldiers 12% less likely to risk the ‘life’ of a human-like robot than a non-human-like one.

Final frontier

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have made the first cement in microgravity. Cement might be useful for protecting astronauts and equipment from cosmic radiation and extreme temperatures if humans colonise the moon or Mars. Researchers hope colonists will eventually be able to use extraterrestrial materials, like moon dust, to form the material. The project found that cement made in space is much more porous than cement made on earth.

Business magnate Richard Branson revealed Virgin Orbit’s national security ambitions at the annual Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber symposium on Monday. He noted that the company’s recent modification of a Boeing 747 into a spacecraft carrier will make it possible to launch a satellite with just four or five hours’ notice. Branson said the ability to provide quick replacements should serve as a deterrent to adversaries who are contemplating knocking out US satellites.

Two graduate students have published a study on the feasibility of a ‘lunar space elevator’. They found that it was ‘technologically and financially feasible’ to transport people to and from the moon using a cable. The cable would be attached to the moon and stretch more than 300,000 kilometres towards the earth. Travelers would have to take a shuttle from earth to the end of the cable and then move up the cable using ‘solar-powered robotic vehicles’. The authors estimate that the cable system would cost US$1 billion (A$1.46 billion).

Wired watchtower

It’s been revealed that the Australian Signals Directorate knew that Beijing was behind the cyberattacks on the Australian parliament and the Liberal, Labor and National parties in March. The decision not to go public with the information was reportedly made in order to avoid negatively affecting Australia’s trade relationship with China.

Israel has been implicated in a spying operation in the US. Israeli operatives are reported to have placed mobile surveillance devices known as ‘Stingrays’ near the White House and other high-profile areas in Washington. The devices are known as ‘international mobile subscriber identity-catchers’ and can record information on the location and identity of a mobile user, as well as call content and data usage. Despite US security agencies reportedly finding that Israel was the most likely culprit, President Donald Trump has dismissed the allegations.

Huawei chief executive Ren Zhengfei has offered to share the company’s ‘5G patents, licences, code, technical blueprints and production know-how’ for a one-time fee. Significantly, buyers would be able to ‘modify the source code’. Aside from the financial benefit to the company, the move could foster a more competitive 5G industry and offer an alternative to outright bans of Huawei’s 5G technology.