The DC region was invaded by naval demonstration drones with varying degrees of impact. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator), the drone designed to launch from carriers and begin the replacement of manned fighter jets, made its way cross-country to Naval Air Station Pax River in Maryland after successfully completing its first major phase of testing. En route it rounded DC’s beltway and, as in other places it was seen by the public, it sparked some humorous befuddlement.
Earlier in the week another U.S. Navy drone demonstrator at Pax River made a more literal impact into Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This was an RQ-4A BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator), a modified version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, and one of only two of the “A” variants. As the linked AOL Defense article points out, Northrop Grumman has continued to make major improvements with the more advanced “B” and “C” variants.
CGBlog has a good run down and analysis of the Coast Guard’s future shipbuilding plan, including the views of a just-released GAO report. If you’re not familiar with the debates, this a good chance to get caught up on the future of another service with a global impact on maritime security.
In case you missed it, CIMSEC’s Kurt Albaugh delves further into Lloyd’s new Convoy Escort Programme, a private counter-piracy effort we first discussed here, on the new USNI News Analysis site with his article The Return of the Privateers.
While the company’s official site is undergoing development, interested parties (shipping lines and perhaps sailors seeking new employment opportunities) can check out this official mission statement and use a link on the site to make enquiries:
The Convoy Escort Programme Limited (CEP) will provide an escort service to protect shipping within the Gulf of Aden, while transiting the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC).
This service is an insurance industry initiative designed to protect the lives of seafarers, ships, cargo and the environment by keeping the threat of piracy, and the risks of armed conflict, away from ships engaged in innocent passage through this key trade route.
There were fortunately only minor injuries in the grounding, and the set-up reminded me of common saying and a joke: the Army has more ships than the Navy, the Navy has more planes than the Air Force, and the Air Force has more golf courses than Donald Trump.
Bryan McGrath posted his third in a series on Directed Energy/Electromagnetic Weapon Systems on Information Dissemination, discussing Chinese advances in the field and their possible parity with/lead over American developments.
Cyber warfare received prominent coverage this week thanks to Stuxnet, Flame, and revelations of backdoors embedded in Chinese-produced chips. A Washington Post’s article discussed the authorship of Stuxnet, which demonstrated the potential of cyber warfare to shut down industrial machinery (like a ship’s engines). DefenseTech reported on Flame, an intel-gathering piece of malware that can be reprogrammed to disrupt its target’s functions like Stuxnet. Another DefenseTech post claimed proof that military grade chips produced in China contain backdoors for future exploitation, and detailed their wide use in the hardware of Western militaries.
The U.K. and Spain had row after a confrontation between fishing vessels and maritime authorities in the waters off Gibraltar. Like China and the Philippines in Cambodia this week over the South China Sea, both sides agreed to work towards a peaceful resolution.
Two Kenyan naval patrol boats shelled Kismayo a Somali town held by the Al-Shabaab militia, after the militia reportedly fired on the vessels with 106mm recoilless rifles.
At USNI blog LT Rob McFall called for a focus on tactics among junior officers. LTJG Matt Hipple responded on the problem with learning and innovating tactics at the junior officer level. Questions raised in the discussions that ensued debated the incentive structure, formal structures to test and innovate tactics, and ability to capture lessons learned.
gCaptain published an update on a European Commission-funded study on the effects of sleep deprivation on maritime watchstanders and some sobering findings from previous research.
Civilian authorities spot a foreign fishing vessel trawling their nation’s territorial waters. The authorities move to intercept but are held at bay by the offending vessel’s government escorts. The scene: Gibraltar. The actors: The U.K. and Spain.
The long-running territorial dispute between Spain and the U.K. over the famous gateway to the Mediterranean has grabbed headlines locally in recent weeks as Spanish trawlers have twice fished in Gibraltar’s territorial waters while Spanish Civil Guardia vessels escorted the vessels.
According to the BBC, in the latest incident four police vessels and a British Royal Navy patrol boat intercepted a single trawler but did not attempt to board the vessel as it was shadowed by two Civil Guardia vessels. Spokesman for the Royal Gibraltar Police, Richard Ullger, said “we avoid active enforcement because it could provoke an incident.” Yet the captain of the Spanish trawler, Francisco Gomez, highlighted the tenseness of the confrontation claiming the vessels were so close that some of the hulls scraped each other. After 6 hours the vessel left. The Royal Gibraltar Police will issue a court summons for the crew, but it is not expected that they will appear in court.
In light of the incident a Member of the European Parliament for Gibraltar, Julie Girling warned, “What we don’t want in Gibraltar is a situation like the Falklands: there seem to be disturbing parallels in attempts to damage the livelihoods of Gibraltar’s fishermen.”
Girling was of course referring to the current situation in the Falkland’s, not the situation preceding the 1982 war. Yet a comparison between Gibraltar, the Falklands (then and now), and the South China Sea yields interesting insights.
In all three locales, resources contained therein play a role in pushing confrontation. In the South China Sea, rich fishing banks and oil exploration are primary causes for the scramble for territory. In Gibraltar, resources are not really the prize (besides for the local small-scale fishing operations) – the fishing expeditions merely provide a convenient means for pushing the larger territorial claim. Resources didn’t play much part sparking the Falklands War, but today many believe the resurgence of Argentine clamor for the islands is due to the potential oil reserves and fishing that invigorated the islands since the war. Today, the U.K. claims harassment of its own boats in Falklands water by Argentine coast guard vessels.
With regards to both the Chinese and Spanish fishing vessels, one of the more interesting questions is whether it is fishermen or government officials who are the driving force for journeys into contested waters. Are the maritime officials simply assisting their citizens in pursuit of excellent fishing grounds, or are they providing safety to vessels recruited and sent forward in calculated moves? How high in the government do such sensitive expeditions need approval?
The strategic value of these bits of territory also plays a role in their attraction. Gibraltar, dominating the chokepoint between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, also oversees much traffic that heads through the Suez Canal. Islands in the South China Sea sit astride trade routes vital for many economies, and can serve as forward operating bases or logistics and communications relays. The only exception is the Falklands, despite one Argentine paper’s claim at the time of the war that the islands were “strategically important because they were on a direct maritime route to India.”
One of the most important distinctions between the South China Sea and the other two instances is that of self-determination. On the issue of sovereign control of territory, international law, international institutions, and disinterested intentional sentiment routinely come down on the side of the principle of self-determination. In Gibraltar the locals have voted in referendums for continued British rule (by 98.9% in 2002). The British meanwhile say they are open to a UN-sponsored referendum in the Falklands, where a similar result is likely, and tellingly it’s an offer the Argentines ignore. This makes it hard for Argentina or Spain to rally legal or global public opinion to their side. The difference for the South China Sea islands is that by and large there are no locals. Most of the bits of territory are tiny non self-sustainable pieces of rock or submerged reef, making resolution harder.
Of these points of conflict, the only that so far turned into a shooting war in modern times was the Falklands. In that case the dictatorship generated a nationalist distraction from a plummeting economy. As smarter people than me have said, this is one good reason no one should wish for the Chinese economy to slow precipitously. While Spain and Argentina today are in their own economic messes, both have the safety valve and check on their actions of democracy.
The good news is that the most common denominator in all of these cases is at least lip service towards peaceful resolution. Despite the nationalist push for the Falklands, President Cristina Kirchner has stated she will obtain the islands only through peaceful means. Foreign ministers of Spain and Britain met Tuesday and urged a peaceful resolution to the fishing issue. In Cambodia the defense secretaries of China and Philippines did the same on the same day.