Late in November Russian units engaged and took possession of three small Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews as the Ukrainian ships sought to operate in what are generally recognized as the international waters of the Sea of Azov. Tensions remained high in December, as both countries announced their intention of increasing their naval presence around the Russian occupied Crimean peninsula, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Continued Russian naval action in the Sea represents, as the New York Times puts it, the "slow throttling" of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russian action against Ukraine suggests to many observers that Moscow's territorial ambitions extend to the Black Sea as a whole, and European policymakers are particularly concerned about the conflict in the region. Hacked diplomatic cables from EU sources released in mid-December indicate widespread concern in European foreign ministries that Russia may have introduced nuclear weapons into the occupied Crimea. (The hacking itself has been attributed by many to Chinese intelligence services, but such attribution remains circumstantial.)
Ukraine has increased its electronic warfare capabilities in the region, and, in a gesture of warning toward Russia, the US has resumed Open Skies flights in Ukrainian airspace.
Conflict in Syria.
US President Trump has announced his intention of pulling US forces out of Syria on the grounds that the defeat of ISIS has been accomplished. Early announcements indicated an immediate withdrawal, but these have subsequently been clarified to specify that, first, US forces would remain in Iraq, adjacent to Syria and capable of swift intervention if required, second, that US air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria would continue, and finally that the withdrawal would be phased and gradual, taking several months.
The decision is thought to have been prompted by a mix of concerns about war-weariness, by a conviction that ISIS is indeed finished, and, probably most importantly, a desire to avoid becoming embroiled in a conflict with Turkey, whose forces are engaged with Kurdish separatists along the border that country shares with Syria.
Syrian President Assad has invited Iranian forces to take action against ISIS. The conflict has many parties with very different interests. Tactically it continues to present a complex and advanced electronic warfare environment.
The President's decision to remove ground forces from Syria prompted the resignation of US Defense Secretary James Mattis, whom the President asked to move on earlier than Secretary Mattis's announced February departure. Patrick Shanahan assumed responsibilities as acting Secretary of Defense on the last day of 2018. A permanent replacement has yet to be named.
Satellite security and insecurity.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 put a next-generation GPS satellite into orbit on December 23rd. The new GPS satellites are designed to be more secure, more jam-resistant than their predecessors. There have been demonstrations of kinetic anti-satellite weapons by both the US and China, but the more probable threat is cyber attack, and it's such an attack that GPS III is particularly designed to fend off. It also signals a further convergence of cyber operations and electronic warfare.
The Air Force is also advancing plans for hardening the Wideband Global satcom system against cyberattack. This work concentrates on software and ground stations, and is intended to meet security requirements the Air Force believes cannot be filled by commercial systems.
Hypersonic weapons, undersea nuclear devices.
Russia this month announced development of two new weapon systems which it maintains represent a distinct advance in strategic capabilities that will guarantee the country's defense for "decades."
The first is a hypersonic missile, fast enough, according to the Kremlin’s press agents, to render missile defense systems (and particularly US missile defense systems) ineffective and obsolete. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov described the “Avangard” glide vehicle as capable of Mach 27. A test shot on December 26th launched from a site in the Urals is said to have hit its target on the Kura range in Kamchatka, some 3700 miles distant.
Avangard is boosted by a UR-100UTTKh intercontinental ballistic missile (NATO code name SS-19 Stiletto). Unlike a ballistic missile, which follows a predictable trajectory, the Avangard is said to be capable of following a complicated flight path. Russian commentators called its motion chaotic—obviously chaotic within limits, if the claims of hitting its target are true—comparing its changes in course and altitude to a stone skipping across water.
The range achieved gives the system strategic reach, within the common understanding of the term. There’s no word on payload, but if one considers that Cold War nuclear weapons had been sufficiently miniaturized to be place in 203 mm or even 155 mm cannon shells, Avangard wouldn’t need to carry much to represent a strategic threat.
The other system is an undersea one, in effect an armed autonomous underwater vehicle. The Russians call this one Poseidon, formerly known as the Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System ("Kanyon," in rumored NATO nomenclature). The Russian Navy announced on December 25th that it was carrying out sea trials of the new submarine-borne system. Poseidon might be thought of as a nuclear torpedo designed for use against coastal targets. It’s been the subject of much speculation since September 2015, when reports began to circulate of a “city-buster” carrying weapons with yields in the ten-megaton range. So, a claimed city-killer, perhaps one capable, say the more breathless reports, of inducing an artificial tsunami that could wreak widespread devastation.
Avangard and Poseidon are both the stuff of Cold War, Strangelovian nightmares, and it’s good to remember that most of those nightmares never became reality. A great deal of secrecy surrounds Russian weapon development, and such information as is released tends to be as much an influence operation as are the traditional parades of missiles through Red Square. Good enough to frighten defense intellectuals about a missile gap, maybe, but not necessarily a realistic threat. Decades of guaranteed military superiority is a tall order, and such claims should be received with an open but skeptical mind. Still, both Avangard and Poseidon will bear watching.
Non-proliferation and arms control agreements.
The US has received support from its NATO allies concerning allegations of Russian cheating that accompanied the US announcement that it intended to withdraw from the agreement in response to a long history of Russian evasion and noncompliance. Iran continues to present proliferation concerns. In the case of Tehran there's less unity of opinion about whether carrots in the form of engagement or sticks in the form of tighter sanctions are likelier to move the Islamic Republic away from its widely feared nuclear ambitions. And there are signs from Pyongyang of nuclear brinksmanship, some it apparently designed to achieve some asymmetrical leverage over its long-time but ambivalent sponsor, China.
Space Force approaches.
US policy on the creation of a Space Force approached more clarity this month. Two related, but distinct, developments offer some indication of the direction Department of Defense space operations will take.
The first development involved creation of a unified Space Command, an operational command analogous to other combatant commands, like Strategic Command or Cyber Command. Such a unified command is familiar within the established context of US force structures, and in itself does not amount to a distinct service. It is, instead, a command that reports to the National Command Authority and can incorporate elements of any of the existing military services. President Trump’s executive order, signed on December 18th, in fact re-establishes a command that existed between 1985 and 2002.
Space Force is also coming, and that’s a different matter. The Space Force will be lodged within the Department of the Air Force, where it will be run by an Assistant Secretary who reports directly to the Secretary of the Air Force. The Space Force Chief of Staff is expected to receive a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with the Service heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
The organizational construct strongly suggests that the Space Force will bear some institutional resemblance to the Marine Corps, a Naval Service lodged within the Department of Navy but distinct from the Navy itself. Estimates place the annual Space Force budget at between $300 million and $500 million. The Department of Defense says it's committed to lean overhead for the new Service, but think tanks are speculating about recruiting, doctrine, acquisition, schools, and so on. A memorandum said to circulating and close to approval reportedly says, "The Space Force shall be organized, trained and equipped to provide for freedom of operations in, from and to the space domain for the United States and its allies” and “to provide independent military options for joint and national leadership and to enable the lethality and effectiveness of the joint force.” The new Service will have combat and combat support functions to enable prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations and joint operations in all domains." Space Force will have both active and reserve components.
Congress will still have something to say about the matter. Some Senators remain cool to the idea.
Oracle and Amazon are getting ready to square off in the US Court of Federal Claims over the Defense Department's very large ($10 billion) JEDI cloud contract. Amazon, widely regarded by the industry as having the inside track on JEDI, has joined the Federal Government as a defendant in the suit Oracle has brought to protest the contract.
A new moon race?
China has dispatched an unmanned mission, including a surface rover, to the dark side of the moon. It's a piece of technical virtuosity, and a matter of national pride. It also comes at a time of increased US plans for a return to the moon. Observers suggest that the Chinese mission and the US plans indicate an incipient moon race.
Concerns about industrial espionage.
The US is rumored, as 2018 closed, to be considering an emergency ban on equipment from China's Huawei and ZTE on the grounds that the manufacturers are too close to Chinese intelligence services, and therefore to those services' programs of industrial espionage.
Such concerns have also been felt in the aerospace marketplace. Boeing cancelled plans to build satellites with Global IP, a Los Angeles start-up that had been funded by the Chinese government. Boeing backed out of the arrangement over concerns that the arrangement amounted to little more than a workaround to get past export controls, and that it would have place sensitive Boeing intellectual property at risk.
Today's edition of the CyberWire reports events affecting China, the European Union, France, Colombia, Iran, NATO/OTAN, Russia, Syria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Gatwick chaos: drone attack farce(Times) The Gatwick airport investigation descended into farce last night after police said it was possible that no drones had been there in the first place. The officer leading the inquiry caused...
Welcome to Russia's Hybrid War in the Sea of Azov(The National Interest) Doubtful that Kremlin planners would commit to a full-scale land invasion, Moscow is likely attempting to use the Sea of Azov as a stepping stone to further develop their interests in the Black Sea
Russia Slowly Throttles a Ukrainian Port(New York Times) When Russia fired on Ukrainian naval vessels, some say it was looking to rewrite the rules in the Sea of Azov and possibly elsewhere, just as China has done in the South China Sea.
Syria’s Assad authorizes Iraqi forces to strike ISIS in Syria(Military Times) Syrian President Bashar Assad authorized Iraqi forces on Sunday to attack the Islamic State group inside Syria without waiting for permission from authorities in Damascus, the state news agency SANA said, as the two allies coordinate their fight against extremists ahead of a planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
Trump delays US troop withdrawal from Syria(Times) President Trump has rowed back from his surprise announcement that he would pull American troops swiftly out of Syria, saying that the plan would instead be implemented “slowly”. Mr Trump told...
New satellite images reveal activity at unidentified North Korean missile base(CNN) New satellite images obtained exclusively by CNN reveal North Korea has significantly expanded a key long-range missile base located in the mountainous interior of the country, offering yet another reminder that diplomatic talks with the US have done little to prevent Kim Jong Un from pursuing his promise to mass produce and deploy the existing types of nuclear warheads in his arsenal.
Senior Chinese military official urges PLAN t... | Taiwan News(Taiwan News) The Chinese tabloid Global Times hosted a conference in Beijing, Saturday, Dec. 8 which featured bellicose statements concerning Taiwan and the US.Chinese media reports that the situation in the South China Sea is expected grow more intense over the coming year, with one senior military official also declaring that China should be prepared to attack United States naval vessels, should the U.S. violate Chinese “territorial waters.”
Ukraine demands sailors’ release by Russia(Navy Times) The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday voted to withdraw from a wide-ranging treaty on friendship with Russia, the latest step in escalating tensions between the two neighbors.
China Maneuvers to Snag Top-Secret Boeing Satellite Technology(Wall Street Journal) The founders of a small Los Angeles company, which ordered a satellite from Boeing, say the firm was financed and is now controlled by China, in violation of rules designed to keep such technology out of Beijing’s hands. Some worry China could use the technology for military purposes.
SpaceX cancels first U.S. national security mission(WSAU) Elon Musk's SpaceX halted on Wednesday the long-delayed launch of a navigation satellite for the U.S. military, failing to complete its first designated national security mission for the United States due to a technical issue with its rocket. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a roughly $500 million global position...
Harris says first cubesat performing well in orbit(SpaceNews.com) Harris Corp.’s first small satellite, a six-unit cubesat, is fully operational, receiving commands and transmitting information to the satellite operations center in Palm Bay, Florida.
Branson’s Virgin reaches edge of space(Lifeboat.com) The latest test flight by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully rocketed to the edge of space and back.
The firm’s SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of 82.7km, beyond the altitude at which US agencies have awarded astronaut wings.
It marked the plane’s fourth test flight and followed earlier setbacks in the firm’s space programme.
Watch Rocket Lab launch 10 cubesats into orbit tonight for NASA(TechCrunch) It's been just over a month since Rocket Lab's inaugural (and long-delayed) commercial launch, "It's Business Time," and it's about to take another customer to space: NASA. Tonight's 8PM scheduled launch will take 10 small satellites to orbit as part of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (…
Reused rocket takes off carrying 64 satellites(Air Force Times) A SpaceX rocket carrying 64 small satellites lifted off from California on Monday, marking the first time the same Falcon 9 rocket has been used in three space missions.
New Delhi launches satellite for use by Indian Air Force(Jane's 360) The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a communication satellite on 19 December designed to “significantly enhance” the network-centric and communication capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF), officials have told Jane’s .
The GSAT-7A communication satellite,
Colombian Air Force operates first nano-satellite(Jane's 360) The Colombian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Colombiana: FAC) now operates its first nano-satellite, FACSAT-1, after a successful launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, on 28 November.
Is near-instant satellite imagery almost here?(C4ISRNET) Intelligence analysts and soldiers on the battlefield could have access to near real-time imagery from commercial satellites as soon as 2021 thanks to new industry partnerships.
Northrop Grumman Technologies Support NASA’s InSight Mars Lander(Northrop Grumman Newsroom) Six months after launch, NASA’s newest Mars explorer, InSight, made its dramatic entrance to the red planet on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018 at 2:52 p.m. EST. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will...
US Preparing to Withdraw Troops From Syria: What Does It Mean?(Atlantic Council) Media reports suggest that the Trump administration has begun planning the removal US armed forces from northeastern Syria , as US President Donald Trump believes “ we have defeated ISIS in Syria .” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee...
Space Force Will Have Seat On Joint Chiefs, Not Full Independence; Costs TBD(Breaking Defense) The Air Force has eked out a victory in the Pentagon’s latest proposal for a Space Force. While many in the Air Force would prefer to keep their current preeminent role in space operations and not create a new service at all, the current plan — to be submitted by year’s end for inclusion in the 2020 budget request — keeps the Space Force under the Air Force Department, rather than making it fully independent.
Trump establishes new military space command(Washington Examiner) President Trump on Tuesday signed off on the military’s first space combatant command, putting it on par with others such as U.S. Cyber Command, and taking a key step toward his proposed Space Force.
FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch(TechCrunch) Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency as well as extra…