Comparisons between Canada and Australia are easy to make; history and geography are obvious starting points and many statistics for both countries are extremely similar. It is not surprising then that Canada looked to Australia when the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was in need of some additional jets to bolster the current fleet of CF-18s while Ottawa decides on a future aircraft to buy.
The Liberal government announced in December 2017 that it was cancelling a planned purchase of new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters from Boeing, originally intended as a stop gap measure, in favour of 18 used F/A-18A/B Hornets from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Choosing older Australian aircraft was seen as a much more affordable option while the government opens a competition to select a new aircraft for the RCAF. Australia is already in the process of procuring the F-35 and their experience in selecting a future fighter has many lessons for Canada.
The easy comparisons between the two countries extend to the respective air forces, the RCAF and the RAAF, making the decision to buy second hand from Australia an obvious choice. Because of this, it is tempting to stretch the similarities between Canada and Australia even further but there is a another way for Canada to consider Australia, one in which a smaller country lives in the shadow of a dominant neighbour. Canada is certainly very similar to Australia but, in many ways, it might more closely resemble New Zealand. Canada’s relationship to the US resembles New Zealand’s relationship to Australia and, if Canada is America’s New Zealand, then maybe the RCAF could look to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) rather than the RAAF.
The reason for buying second-hand jets to fill gaps in the ageing fleet of CF-18 Hornets, was to give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government more time to initiate a competition for the CF-18’s replacement but what if Canada decided to abandon a fast jet capability altogether, just as New Zealand did in 2001? Up until 2001 the RNZAF operated two types of fast jet aircraft, the Douglas A-4K Skyhawk and the Aermacchi MB-339, the decision to disband the RNZAF’s air combat capability was taken by an incoming Labour government who cancelled an order of F-16A/B jets intended to replace the ageing A-4K fleet. Labour Prime Minister at the time, Helen Clark, explained her decision "The simple fact is that New Zealand cannot afford modern combat aircraft and the weaponry needed to equip them, and also maintain adequate army and navy capabilities. This new defence plan aims to develop adequate depth in our defence capability, rather than try to carry on with inadequate breadth.". The decision faced much criticism and it was argued that New Zealand would be freeloading defence from its larger neighbour.
If RCAF followed in the RNZAF’s footsteps, whether by accident or design, the global political fallout would be far greater than New Zealand faced at the turn of the century. Canada has more obligations, through NATO and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), than New Zealand and Ottawa has been far more sympathetic to US foreign policy than Wellington. Canada regularly deploys jets on air policing missions in Europe and was engaged in bombing operations against ISIS targets until February 2016. The RCAF fleet is considerably larger than the 17 Skyhawks scrapped by the RNZAF in 2001; Ottawa’s current plan would see Canada procure 88 new aircraft by the mid-2020s. Abandoning current and future manned fighter capabilities would severely curtail the country’s ability to engage with allies on foreign missions and severely diminish Canada’s standing on the world stage. Such a retreat would be hard to imagine under Trudeau’s current aims but some believe it should be considered.
Critics of Canada’s fast jet capability see new aircraft as unnecessary and expensive, arguing that they are a throwback to the Cold War and likely to be surpassed by advancements in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or other weapon technologies. Some would rather see investments in alternatives such as early warning systems, anti-air missiles and patrol UAVs instead of traditional jets. Canada’s geographical requirements make jets more practical in patrolling the vast areas of the country’s North where it would be impossible to station adequate missile or radar systems. Jets also offer flexibility and interoperability to easily incorporate new technology over the aircraft’s lifespan. The 5th generation of jets might very well prove to be the last traditionally manned of its type but aircraft such as the F-35 are not expected to be superseded entirely in the next few decades. The case for the RCAF abandoning jets is generally built on the assumption that Canada will always operate alongside coalition partners and based on the West’s recent experience of UAV operations in uncontested environments such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Without a fast jet capability Canada would need to fulfill NORAD obligations in some other way, likely through the basing of US aircraft across the North. Any savings made from abandoning a fast jet fleet would likely be lost through increased spending elsewhere to mitigate the capability loss and restructuring the armed forces. The RCAF provides a small but vital contribution to NORAD and the basing of dozens of US jets and thousands of personnel across the country is unlikely to be popular.
Whilst Canada might share the anxiety of existing in the shadow of a larger cousin as New Zealand does, the RNZAF and the RCAF have varied greatly in their postwar experiences. The lack of NATO commitments has allowed New Zealand to forge a different foreign policy, distancing itself from US led interventions and focusing on United Nations-led peacekeeping missions in Africa and the South Pacific. Canada’s global influence has been growing steadily, Trudeau’s government has aspirations to develop the country’s foreign relations, particularly by growing military reach in areas such as peacekeeping and NATO operations. To abandon a capability such as conventional jets would hamper any progress and restrict Canada to acting as a regional rather than global power.
I have largely followed the story of the poisoning of the spy Sergei Skripal from a distance but his history, circumstances, and method of the attack certainly paint a picture of a situation very similar to that of Alexander Litvinenko. Nothing seems conclusive at this stage but it seems like the modus operandi of Russian intelligence is to take actions against former spies in order to send a clear international message.
While further investigation has been ongoing, the shocking details of the attack seem to have been overshadowed by the controversy and disagreement over the facts in the UK. There have been cries of conspiracy and confusion over how the situation was handled in the aftermath. While the official investigation goes on, details of the attack have been pieced together in a number of articles, the most recent of which revealed that an off-duty Army nurse was the first to treat the Skripals. The story was picked up by the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the UK who cast doubt over the likelihood of an Army nurse passing by (screenshot above).
“By pure chance, an army nurse was passing by the Skripals as they passed out, while by another pure chance army-trained doctors were on duty at the Salisbury hospital at that same moment. Sounds legit, @thetimes”
Russian Embassy Twitter accounts around the world have become a visible tool in generating an alternative narrative by muddying the waters of official narratives around any story that is deemed to be anti-Russian. In many cases the Tweets amount to low-level trolling, often with a tongue in cheek approach to some stories. There are serious implications to this sort of government delivered propaganda however; fuelling those in the fringes of politics who are already unhappy with the current government by legitimising the idea that the attack could have been a false flag designed to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.
Fortunately most of the attempts at this sort of trolling from Russian government outlets are thin on facts and easy to dissect. In this case, that an off-duty Army nurse was the first to respond is hardly an unlikely scenario. Most people following the Skripal story will be well aware that the UK’s chemical weapon research facility is remarkably close by and many will also know that Salisbury is an important training area for the Army but it is unlikely that the general public will realise quite how large the Army’s presence is in the local area. Salisbury and the wider Wiltshire area is the centre of the Army’s universe, thousands of troops are based within a few miles of Salisbury and Salisbury Plain is the Army's most important training ground, with troops exercising all year round.
I collated a map of the area surrounding Salisbury Plain, recording 14 separate Army or MOD facilities in the area, including Army HQ itself in nearby Andover. There are also a number of exercise areas in the plain that include extra accommodation for visiting troops and specialised training facilities. Undoubtedly I have failed to include a couple of local facilities as well and the entire region is undergoing a £1 billion redevelopment under the Army’s Basing Programme master plan which will see an additional 4,000 personnel relocate to the area from bases in Germany.
The new routine of Russian warship transits through the English Channel continues into 2018 as the sustained involvement of the Russian Navy in Syria delivers a regular series of headlines.
A number of ships returning from the Mediterranean generated some interest from the Royal Navy and UK newspapers as they neared UK and French waters. An official statement from the RN said that HMS Westminster was deployed to track the vessels on 05 January. Two Steregushchiy-class corvettes were transiting the channel, Boikiy and Soobrazitelnyy were supported by Paradoks and Kola tankers and activity in the channel on Monday 08 January pointed to a combined Anglo-French effort.
Kola has been a familiar sight on AIS tracking as the tanker supports most transits for the Russian Navy. RFA Wave Knight appeared to be returning to Falmouth or Plymouth whilst the appearance of newly commissioned RFA Tidespring on AIS tracking suggested it could be taking over to support RN tracking operations.
(Will update as necessary)
Russia’s prototype high speed helicopter, the Mi-24K, appears to have a series of aerodynamic modifications in the most recent images of the testbed airframe to appear online. The Mi-24K first flew in 2015 and is being used as a flying laboratory for the development of a new generation of high speed helicopters under the Russian Advanced Commercial Helicopter (RACHEL) programme. Testing of the airframe has been ongoing since 2016 and images of the helicopter since then have showed a variety of wing configurations. The most recent modifications appear to have taken the aerodynamics of the helicopter into careful consideration, with improvements seemingly designed to reduce drag. The photo, dating from October this year, shows the removal of external aerials and instrumentation; a smaller engine exhaust port; and a number of aerodynamic fairings covering protrusions on the aircraft’s skin. Russian media reported that the testbed airframe reached a top speed of 405 km/h in October 2016 and credited the speed to new composite rotor blades.
Russian Helicopters signed a two year development contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) in August 2017 during the Army 2017 showcase. The agreement promised the “formation of the concept of a high-speed combat helicopter” and will build on the development work carried out on the Mi-24K. “Both the Ministry of Defense and our holding believe the parameters received during the tests and the experience gained to be enough to move on to the next stage - the development of a high-speed combat helicopter.” Said Russian Helicopters CEO Andrey Boginsky. During an Air Force annual celebration last month, Oleg Chesnokov, commander of the combat training of the army aviation of the Air and Space Forces (VCS) explained to Russian media that the future platform will use lessons learned from the Mi-24K to develop a future platform “It will be a completely new aviation complex, not based on the Mi-24 helicopter” he said.
Whilst it is not clear how long the development project will take, the agreement between the MOD and Russian Helicopters aims to determine the requirements behind developing an entirely new aircraft. The recent improvements to the Mi-24K testbed airframe suggest that the two year assessment phase is underway and the particular platform will be integral to the work.
Credit to Oleg Podkladov and others at RussianPlanes.net for his great work in photographing the Mi-24K, see his work here.
The Russian Navy conducted simultaneous submarine rescue exercises in Kola Bay in the Barents Sea and Avacha Bay on the Pacific coast. The exercises were carried out on Monday 27 November and demonstrated a range of rescue capabilities including Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and the AS-34 Priz-class Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV).
Demonstrating the capability simultaneously on entirely different sides of the planet, on the same day, seems to offer a clear signal that this rehearsal was prompted by the recent loss of the ARA San Juan. The Russian Navy will be especially sensitive to the San Juan tragedy due to the loss of the Kursk and exercising their submarine rescue units might be just as much to boost confidence in the capability internally as it is for external demonstration.
The exercises are all the more significant as the navy has deployed rescue equipment to support the search for the San Juan. The support team flew to Argentina on Saturday 25 November and deployed on board a local vessel with a Panther plus ROV and a diving team.
Earlier this week the Russian Navy confirmed it was developing the next variant of the country’s strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). The Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces announced that the development of the Borey-B had begun and the General noted that 5 of the Borey-A are now under construction. The first of the Borey-A is due to launch this month so the announcement seems appropriately timed to coincide with this.
General Valery Gerasimov said "Work has begun on the creation of an atomic submarine cruiser with improved characteristics of Borey B," at a meeting of the Defense Ministry's board and he also pointed out that 102 ballistic missiles were acquired for the SSBN fleet in the past five years.
The announcement of a Borey-B variant and the imminent launch of the first Borey-A expected this month will likely cause some discussion over class naming as and when the various boats come into service and depending on how much the classes vary. The Borey-B announcement seems to meet with the rearmament programme announced by President Putin in May 2017, which mentioned a future ‘Husky-class’ SSBN through the 2025 timeframe.
The US Air Force announced last week that it would deploy F-35As to Japan for the operational debut of the variant in the region. The announcement stated that the 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings would deploy 12 F-35A Lightning II jets to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa for six months in ‘early November’ but RBC News showed the first 2 aircraft arriving in Kadena on 30 October turning ‘early November’ into ‘late October'.
Some 300 personnel will deploy for the six month period, joining US Marine Corps F-35Bs already in Japan and amidst rising tensions in the region. US President Trump is also due to arrive in Japan as part of a regional tour on 05 November so it is likely that the USAF are keen to demonstrate the F-35A’s deployment capability to such a high profile audience. It wouldn’t be surprising if the deployment is recognised or if Trump makes an official visit to US forces in Japan during his 3 day visit.
The USAF official statement said “This long-planned deployment is designed to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region.”
A series of reports by Zvezda News showed the Russian Navy using a brand new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) off the coast of Tartus in Syria in mine countermeasure (MCM) operations for the first time . The video and article call the AUV 'Galtel' which appears to translate as 'fillet' and Zvezda explain that the AUV is being used to 'illuminate' the seabed to search for mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and weapon caches.
The reports appear to outline that recent operations in Tartus represent acceptance trials for the Galtel AUV and that it will be used in conjunction with additional MCM equipment such as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and mine clearance divers. It goes on to state that the Galtel was developed by the Institute of Marine Technology Problems (IPMI), a government research agency based in Vladivostok.
It seems the Galtel began life as the ANPA MT-2010 back in 2010 when the IPMI developed the AUV, then under the name ‘Pilgrim’, for the Ministry of Emergency Situations and a series of trials were made between 2011 and 2013. The Galtel name appears in 2012 and it seems this is when a military role was spotted for the AUV.
The testing off the coast of Syria occurred in August and September of 2017, the use of an operational environment seeming to provide the perfect place to carry out acceptance trials of the AUV. The Zvezda videos show the AUV being deployed exclusively from shore or from the Grachonok-class anti-saboteur boat Unarmeec Kryma (pennant number 836). The Unarmeec Kryma travelled to Syria in April 2017 and does not appear to have returned to her home port at the time of writing.
It is unclear how much further testing will be carried out or whether it has successfully passed. Should the system enter regular service it will likely remain in use by MCM and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) forces before additional roles such as Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA) and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) can be considered.