06 June 2017

Think Tank: Sea, air, land and space updates (6-Jun-2017)

Zoe Glasson, Sophie Qin, Madeleine Nyst and Patrick Kennedy
Sea State
DARPA is looking for a way to improve US Navy capability by making it possible for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to communicate underwater. DARPA thinks the answer might be AMEBA (A Mechanically Based Antenna) which could enable wireless communication and data transfer, with antennae  small enough to be installed on UUVs or carried in troops’ packs.
While US Navy UUVs are used for intelligence operations and minesweeping, others have a somewhat different purpose—such as BIKI, the ‘world’s first bionic robot fish’. Though marketed as an underwater camera or monitoring device, BIKI is the real deal, carrying advanced bionics tech of the kind built for artic research.
In an interview with a Chinese State TV channel, a top Chinese naval engineer has revealed that PLAN’s newest nuclear attack submarines (the Type 095 SSN) will be fitted with a ‘revolutionary and silent propulsion system’—a ‘shaftless rim-driven pumpjet’. Analysis of the announcement is just beginning to roll in, but one commentator views the development as ‘an attempt to leap beyond current submarine technology’, which if successful could see the PLAN outpace the US and Britain, whose SSBNs carrying the option for rim-drive pumpjets won’t enter service until 2030.

Flight Path
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has unveiled the world’s largest aircraft, the Vulcan Aerospace Stratolaunch carrier—a twin-fuselage jet with a wingspan of 117 metres.
When the behemoth debuted at the Air and Space Port in Mojave, California last Wednesday, the plane’s two Boeing 747-400s fuselages and six 747 engines were on show. The aircraft is now moving into the ground and flight testing phases, and is expected to be operational by 2019.
The Stratolaunch carrier will eventually be used to drag rockets and smaller satellites to an altitude of around 35,000 feet; the rockets will be launched from the aerial platform, boosting the satellites to a low-earth orbit. After that, the plane would return to base, refuel and then repeat the cycle. Earth-based launches of satellites are typically expensive, but the Stratolaunch project could provide a cheap and reusable launch platform. Conducted in this manner, satellite launches could be made more rapidly and safely.
Finally, the Australian government has awarded a $37.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin to build portable, ‘secure and environmentally-controlled workspaces’ for RAAF personnel operating the service’s F-35A, F/A-18F, E/A-18 Growler and P-8 Poseidon aircraft. These deployable units will allow RAAF to ‘operate in remote and all-terrain areas’, either housing an Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS) or connecting it to one elsewhere in the world.
Rapid Fire
The US has carried out its first successful live-fire test of a system designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). An interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California destroyed an imitation ICBM over the Pacific. The test had been planned for a long time, but it came shortly after North Korea conducted its ninth missile test of 2017. It was intended to demonstrate America’s ability to defend itself against a missile attack using a ‘ground-based midcourse defense system’, as well as to test an upgraded component of the system.
If you’re after a jolting read, check-out Jonathan Gillis’ piece from War On The Rocks, where he argues that US ground forces are ‘dangerously unprepared for enemy drones’. According to Gillis, after decades of uncontested air dominance, the US isn’t well placed to deal with the ‘proliferation of small, low-cost drones’. Previously referred to as the ‘democratization of airpower’, this development means that both state and non-state actors are now capable of coordinating precision air attacks at a remarkably low cost.
Finally, Engineers Australia and the Defence Science and Technology Group are hosting a series of open lectures—the first of which will take place in Canberra on 15 June—that look at ‘maximizing Australian defence force personnel performance in austere environments’. For those interested in human engineering, this event is a must-see!
Zero Gravity
After the skies cleared on 3 June, SpaceX’s latest mission was off and away. The Falcon 9 rocket launched the cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft toward the International Space Station and, after the now-routine recovery of the first stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s business as usual. The normality of recovery is a good thing, as Elon Musk tweeted, but that’s not why people are excited.
It’s the second time that this Dragon module has flown, and SpaceX is now breathing rarefied air. The private company joins an elite club; excepting NASA’s space shuttles, only two other orbital vehicles—the X-37Bs belonging to the US Air Force and an old Soviet platform—have been successfully re-flown.
The demonstration of reusable capability dovetails nicely with the all-round push for cheaper space access, not least in the halls of NASA. But there are other dynamics at play—significantly, a Chinese science experiment will be headed to the ISS for the first time.
NASA and others haven’t publicised the Chinese experiment and, out of security concerns, it’ll be carefully quarantined from other technical systems on board. That’s not surprising, given US–China space cooperation is still taboo, as Ars Technica reports. In fact, NASA is prohibited in most cases from working with China by a controversial law known as the Wolf Amendment. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see whether the experiment signals a thaw in relations, or just an aberration in the status quo.
Zoe Glasson, Sophie Qin, Madeleine Nyst and Patrick Kennedy are research interns at ASPI.

This article first appeared on the ASPI "The Strategist" Blog and is reposted here under a Creative Commons license.