The Most Dangerous Space Weapons Ever

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The Most Dangerous Space Weapons Ever

By Staff December 21, 2016

Space-based laser offers a powerful pulse of energy to destroy missiles in flight.(Image: © U.S. Air Force.)

Wild Space Weapons Ideas

U.S. Air Force

While space has been an excellent forum for peaceful exploration, it is also an excellent high ground from which to gain a military advantage. Spy satellites have been in use for decades. And in one form or another, as long as the Space Age has been around, various agencies have envisioned using space as a platform for missile launches or other activities. In this slide show, check out the top 10 space weapon concepts from over the years. (This slideshow was updated on Dec. 21, 2016).

FIRST STOP: Missiles


Missiles have actually been used for about 1,000 years, although Encyclopedia Britannica points out that there is no authoritative history of the first rockets. China is usually cited as the location where rockets first appeared, followed by Europe. Metal-cylinder rockets were first used in India in the 18th century, which sparked an English version from Sir William Congreve. Rockets were also used in a limited way in the Mexican-American War, the American Civil War and the First World War.

Vast improvements in rocketry, however, began to show up in the military field in the Second World War. Both the Axis Powers and the Allies used missiles, but it was the German V-2 rocket that attracted the most attention, due to the more than 1,000 missiles that were fired at Britain. When Germany lost the war, several of the nation’s rocket scientists were picked up by the Soviet Union and the United States. This helped improve rocket technology in both countries and spurred the space race between the superpowers. Missiles are, of course, still in use today, especially as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs, see future slides for more information).



Enemies facing down a device that blasts streams of molten metal probably won’t stand much of a chance. This idea, popularized in science fiction novels such as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Earthlight” (1955), may become real someday thanks to the funding of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition (MAHEM) was announced in 2008. While no updates have occurred for quite some time, the page for MAHEM is still active on DARPA’s website. The program promises “the potential for higher efficiency, greater control, and the ability to generate and accurately time multiple jets and fragments from a single charge,” with what DARPA officials wrote is “lethality precision.” MAHEM could possibly be deployed on rockets, the officials added.

Project THEL

Northrop Grumman

The Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) program ran between 1996 and 2005, according to Northrop Grumman. THEL was created as a joint project between the United States and Israel. During that decade of development, the ground-based system destroyed 46 mortar rounds, rockets and artillery —  all of which were airborne.

While the program is no longer active, Northrop Grumman says the technology is now being reconstructed for the U.S. Army’s Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment that, like THEL, will take place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

NEXT: Weaponized Satellites

Weaponized Satellites

With so many satellites orbiting the Earth, how hard would it be to outfit one with a weapon ready to fire at the Earth, or other satellites, as needs dictated? While such a concept would go against agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty, which bans weapons of mass destruction in orbit, a few military organizations have discussed it in recent years by.

One famous U.S. project from the 1950s was Project Thor, which never got past the conceptual stage. Various concepts for space weapons over the years included “Rods from God,” which would drop kinetic-energy weapons from orbit, as well as small satellites that would have onboard targeting systems allowing them to aim at other satellites or at the ground below. 

NEXT: Soviet Almaz Space Station

Soviet Union’s Almaz Space Station


The Almaz space station was conceived in the 1960s, designed to make it easier for the Soviet Union to search for sea-based targets, according to Russian space expert Anatoly Zak, who runs the website Russian Space Web. It was believed that having humans in orbit would provide a powerful platform for orbital reconnaissance and allow the rapid changing of targets as battles evolved.

The Soviet Union focused on the race to the moon in the 1960s, delaying the first deployment of Almaz until 1973. It was announced to the world as Salyut-2, the second Salyut space station, so as not to make others aware the Soviets had two space station projects, let alone a military one, Zak wrote.

A failure in Salyut-2 prevented a crew from visiting, but the subsequent Almaz space stations Salyut-3 and Salyut-5 did have crews on board. (Salyut-4 never was sent to orbit.) The cosmonauts are reported to have performed surveillance on at least one mission, and to have fired a cannon in 1975, but technical problems with the stations prevented most missions from running for their scheduled lengths.

NEXT: U.S. Manned Orbiting Laboratory

U.S. Manned Orbiting Laboratory

U.S. Air Force

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was a U.S. Air Force project that, despite never launching an astronaut, had an eventful life from 1963 to 1969 (the program’s years of activity). Some of the milestones the project saw included selecting 17 astronauts, creating a launch site at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and modifying the NASA Gemini spacecraft to accommodate the new program.

One of the program’s main objectives was reconnaissance, under a code name of Project Dorian. The camera system was intended to get photographs of the Soviet Union, among other hotspots, with a resolution better than any satellite of its time could have achieved. MOL also could have carried missiles (not nuclear, but something to cause a scare) and nets to nab enemy spacecraft. Many new details were unveiled in late 2015 with the release of more than 20,000 pages of MOL documents.

The program was cancelled after estimated costs ballooned. (MOL was expected to cost more than $3 billion in dollars of the day, with $1.3 billion already spent, at the time of cancellation.) Some of the would-be MOL astronauts, such as Bob Crippen and Richard Truly, transferred to NASA for the first space shuttle flights.

NEXT: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley

ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) are land-based missiles that can fly more than 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers), according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The Soviet Union sent aloft the first ICBM in 1958, and the U.S. first fired one in 1959, followed by a few other nations. Israel, India and China have recently developing ICBMs, and North Korea may be doing so as well.

ICBMs can be navigated by computer or satellite and pinpointed to land on a particular city or, if sophisticated enough, a target within a city. While they are most famous for being able to carry nuclear weapons, they could also deliver chemical or biological weapons — although as far as people know, that potential has never been realized. The Soviet Union and United States agreed to reduce their ICBM stockpiles in 1991 as part of the Start I treaty, but Russia and the U.S. still have and test ICBMs today.

NEXT: U.S. Air Force’s X-37B

X-37B orbital test vehicle

U.S. Air Force

After four missions in space, it’s still not fully clear what the X-37B space plane is doing up there in orbit — but some people have speculated that the vehicle could be some sort of Air Force weapon.

The reusable plane looks like a smaller version of NASA’s space shuttle, but it is operated robotically and can stay in orbit for more than a year at a time. For its fourth (ongoing) mission, in 2015, the U.S. military confirmed a couple of the payloads — a NASA advanced materials investigation and an Air Force experimental propulsion system, for example — but most details about X-37B missions remain classified.

An Air Force Tech Report video in 2015 had many ideas about what the plane could be doing up there, such as bombing from space, interfering with enemy satellites, performing reconnaissance or perhaps doing all of the above at the same time. But Air Force officials have always denied that the X-37B is a weapon, stressing that the spacecraft is testing out technologies for future spacecraft and carrying experiments to and from space.

NEXT: Anti-Satellite Systems

Anti-satellite Systems

Air Force photo illustration

In 1985, an F-15A jet fired an anti-satellite missile at Solwind P78-1, a satellite that discovered several sun-grazing comets but was scheduled for decommissioning due to its instruments beginning to fail. Solwind P78-1 was destroyed with the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle (ALMV) fired from the plane, but the test generated more than 250 pieces of space debris big enough to show up in tracking systems. Congress forbade further tests by the end of year, and the Air Force stopped the program in 1987.

The successful test was part of a larger U.S. push at the time to find a way to destroy satellites without breaking the rules of treaties that banned nuclear weapons on spacecraft. Examples listed by the Union of Concerned Scientists included the Strategic Defense System (sometimes called “Star Wars”) and the Air Force/Navy Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser that was designed to be fired from the ground. A test in 1997 appeared to overwhelm or damage the satellite sensor that was targeted. Later efforts included the kinetic-energy ASAT (which was cancelled) and the Counter Communications System, which used radio-jamming capabilities.

Anti-satellite systems have also been investigated by the Soviet Union, China and India, among others. For example, a famous 2007 anti-satellite test by China generated a huge cloud of space junk. In 2013, a shard of the destroyed satellite hit a Russian satellite and destroyed that, too.

NEXT: Asteroid Projectiles

Manipulating an Asteroid

NASA/Don Davis

Scientists know that asteroids are the ultimate killers. After all, a 6-mile-wide (10 km) space rock is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs roughly 66 million years ago. Audiences have seen the potential human impacts in movies such as “Meteor”(1979)“Deep Impact”(1998) and “Armageddon”(1998). And even relatively small asteroids can have a big impact, thanks to the tremendous speeds at which space objects travel. For example, scientists think the object that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013, generating a shock wave that shattered thousands of windows and wounded 1,200 people (as a result of the flying glass shards), was just 66 feet (20 meters) wide.

But manipulating an asteroid is in the realm of science fiction, for now. NASA does have a proposed asteroid mission on the books; initially, the agency proposed moving a small asteroid close to Earth for scientific investigation, but elected to pluck a boulder off an asteroid instead. This Asteroid Redirect Mission is currently scheduled to launch in the early 2020s.

Even though some experts say asteroids are “lousy weapons,” because they’re only useable once every few hundred years, science fiction has you covered there as well. Aliens wipe out Buenos Aires with an asteroid in the 1997 film “Starship Troopers,” for example. Space rocks have even wiped out Martians in books such as “Protector” (1973), by Larry Niven.

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China’s New Laser Gun Can Zap You with a Silent, Carbonizing Beam

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China’s New Laser Gun Can Zap You with a Silent, Carbonizing Beam

China's New Laser Gun Can Zap You with a Silent, Carbonizing Beam

Members of the People’s Liberation Army perform drills during a demonstration on June 30, 2018, in Hong Kong. China’s military may soon have laser guns in its arsenal.

Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty, file

The laser blasters in “Star Wars” are no longer a thing of science fiction. Chinese researchers have developed an actual laser gun that can ignite a target on fire from a half mile (800 meters) away, the South China Morning Post reported.

But this new weapon, called a ZKZM-500, has a few differences from the “Star Wars” version. Based on an artist’s depiction of the gun published in the South China Morning Post, this real-life version is a boxy-shaped assault rifle that resembles a large toy gun more than a sleek “Star Wars” blaster. The 15 mm caliber weapon weighs about the same as an AK-47, 6.6 lbs. (3 kilograms), and can fire more than 1,000 laser shots, each one lasting up to 2 seconds.

The South China Morning Post reported that the weapon produces a silent, invisible energy beam — a  characteristic that makes it stealthy, but likely not as satisfying to shoot as a “Star Wars” blaster would be. It’ll be powered by a rechargeable lithium battery similar to what’s found in smartphones. [The 22 Weirdest Military Weapons]

Although the gun is classified as a nonlethal weapon, its laser shots can cause “‘instant carbonization’ of human skin and tissues,” according to the South China Morning Post, which means skin would burn and be reduced to carbon like the outside of a charred marshmallow. It can also fire through windows, burn through gas tanks and ignite anything that’s flammable. And, because the shots are silent and invisible, “nobody will know where the attack came from. It will look like an accident,” one of the gun’s creators told the South China Morning Post.

But it’ll take several zaps to burn a hole through a body and kill someone with this gun. The South China Morning Post reported that it’s not designed explicitly for killing like a gun that uses bullets, which is why the Chinese government classified the laser weapon as nonlethal. A government document suggests the laser gun could be used to do things such as setting fire to illegal banners at a protest or setting fire to the hair or clothing of a protester.

The weapon is ready for mass production, but its creator, ZKZM Laser, hasn’t found a licensed weapons-production company ready to take the guns on at $15,000 a unit, yet.

Sorry, “Star Wars” fans — once they’re made, these futuristic weapons will be distributed only to Chinese military and police.

Original article on Live Science.

Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

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Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

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Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

A research plane equipped with a powerful, weaponized laser

Credit: U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force fighter jets may soon be able to instantly disable enemy targets using invisible, energized beams of light shot from a small, compact laser cannon. The laser-equipped vehicles might call to mind the heavily armed “helicarriers” from Marvel’s “Captain America” films.

Yesterday (Nov 6), the U.S. Air Force Research Lab signed a $26.3 million contract with Lockheed Martin to develop high-energy laser weapons that are lightweight and compact enough to be mounted on fighter jets. Lockheed Martin is a defense, aerospace and technology company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

There’s nothing new about laser weaponry, but most laser systems that are powerful enough to be effective are too heavy and bulky to be carried by a plane. Rather, most of these lasers are limited to ground and sea use. But now, that’s changing. Lockheed Martin conducted flight tests in 2015 with laser-equipped research planes to determine whether mounting powerful lasers on planes was feasible.

“Earlier this year, we delivered a 60-kW [kilowatt]-class laser to be installed on a U.S. Army ground vehicle,” Rob Afzal, a senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. “It’s a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform. It’s exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft.” [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]

The new contract is part of the LANCE program, or Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments, which seeks to develop a high-power laser that can disable military targets without weighing down the plane carrying the weapon. LANCE, along with research developing targeting and cooling systems, falls within the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) initiative.

Unlike the colorful, bullet-like lasers that fly back and forth between Stormtroopers and Rebel soldiers in the “Star Wars” films, real-life laser weapons are invisible and travel to their targets at the speed of light. The weapons can be used to destroy or disable rockets, drones and vehicles, sometimes without leaving any external sign of the damage — although some lasers can burn holes into their targets.

Lockheed Martin said that it envisions that lasers, once they become more commonplace and lightweight, better equipping soldiers to disable new threats that didn’t exist a few years ago. For instance, lasers could help U.S. armed forces target small, cheap drones or explosives that are hard to hit with traditional guns and defense systems. The company refers to those traditional systems as kinetic weapons, because they launch physical projectiles, such as bullets or missiles.

“I really see laser weapons and kinetic weapons being side by side on the battlefield, and together providing the defense that our forces need against traditional threats — kinetic weapons — emerging, inexpensive proliferated threats — laser weapons,” Iain McKinnie, the business development lead for laser sensors and systems at Lockheed Martin said in a video the company produced about laser weaponry.

“This advanced turret design will enable tactical aircraft to have the same laser-weapon-system advantages as ground vehicles and ships,” Doug Graham, the vice president of missile systems and advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a statement after the 2015 test flights.

Under the terms of the contract, Lockheed Martin plans to test a high-energy laser weapon mounted on a fighter jet by 2021.

Original article on Live Science.

Fire and Fury: How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

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Fire and Fury: How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

A gigantic mushroom cloud billowed over Nagasaki, Japan, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the city in 1945.

Credit: U.S. National Archives

North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could be fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, and has now threatened to attack Guam, a U.S. territory, according to several news reports.

In response, President Donald Trump used some apocalyptic rhetoric of his own.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to news reports. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” [7 Strange Facts About North Korea]

The saber rattling has raised concerns about the possibility of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil and heightened fears of doomsday. But is a global nuclear winter just around the corner?

While the effects of a detonation on American soil would certainly be scary and could set off a larger global catastrophe, one nuclear attack in itself isn’t a certain death sentence, as many people assume, said Michael May, a professor emeritus at the Engineering-Economic Systems and Operations Research Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

In addition, survival rates depend on whether the weapons are deployed by a well-armed hostile nation like Russia; a country, like North Korea, that has with a limited nuclear arsenal; or a terrorist group, he said. It also depends on how far people are from the epicenter, May said.

When most people think of nuclear war, they imagine a Cold War-type, mutually assured destruction scenario in which two countries lob a flurry of nuclear weapons at each other, decimating each other’s military, food and power infrastructure and raining radioactive fallout on large swaths of the world.

But despite the current tensions with Russia, a terrorist attack using a dirty bomb — a nuclear weapon patched together from explosives and radioactive nuclear waste — or a lone attack from a country such as North Korea is slightly more likely, May said. While the United States has a prototype nuclear missile-defense shield, this technology doesn’t work very well, Live Science previously reported. Still, the likeliest scenario would be one detonation, rather than the hundreds that would leave America a post-apocalyptic wasteland, May said. [Doomsday: 9 Real Ways Earth Could End]

“If it’s a lone, single weapon, [then] outside that central area, there’s a pretty good chance of survival,” May told Live Science.

Even Cold War analyses that forecasted a complete war of annihilation between Russia and the United States would likely result in “only” 40 million casualties on American soil, said May. Of course, the food and water infrastructure would likely be destroyed in such a scenario, leading to catastrophe, he added.

The worst effects would likely be felt in the heart of an urban blast zone, May said.

For instance, for a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon, equivalent to the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, would immediately kill about 50 percent of the people within a 2-mile (3.2 kilometers) radius of ground detonation, according to a 2007 report from a Preventive Defense Project workshop. Those deaths would be caused by fires, intense radiation exposure and other fatal injuries. Some of these people would be injured by pressure from the explosion, while most would be exposed to injuries from collapsed buildings or from flying shrapnel;  most buildings in a 0.5-mile (0.6 km) radius of the detonation would be knocked down or heavily damaged.

Injuries to extremities would be extremely common, according to the Preventive Defense Project study. A few people would be injured by thermal burns caused by the fireball after the detonation. People in this area may also be exposed to extremely high levels of radioactivity, and many first responders and search-and-rescue workers would have to wait to enter these areas until the radiation levels had dropped, meaning assistance would be limited. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

People with subsurface basements in the primary blast zone may be able to survive the primary blast, assuming there’s only one, May said.

Even those who are a mile away from the epicenter of the explosion may have time to increase their survival odds; the light flash from the detonation travels much faster than the pressure and shock waves, meaning people may have a bit of time to close their eyes, move away from windows, duck and cover themselves, according to the Preventive Defense Workshop report.

The next immediate hazard to deal with is the radioactive fallout. When a nuclear bomb explodes, it pulverizes thousands of tons of earth, comingling that material with radioactive particles from the explosion. This process forms the iconic mushroom cloud, and as those thousands of tons of radioactive bits of ash, rock and dust float toward the ground, they emit radioactivity. The largest, heaviest particles of this nuclear snow settle first and are mostly contained in the initial blast area.  Smaller particles may float higher and farther and reach 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 km) downwind, but the bulk of their radioactivity rapidly decays over time and they often take a long time to settle back to ground level.

In the absence of snow or rain — which would help to pull the fallout to the ground faster — far-flung particles may have minimal radioactivity by the time they float to Earth, according to the handbook “Nuclear War Survival Skills” (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1987)

By 48 hours after the blast, an area that is initially exposed to 1,000 roentgens per hour of radiation will experience only 10 roentgens per hour of radiation, according to “Nuclear War Survival Skills.” About half of the people who experience a total radiation dose of about 350 roentgens over a couple of days are likely to die from acute radiation poisoning, according to the handbook. (A typical abdominal computed tomography scan may expose people to less than one roentgen.)

Those in the blast area can take some measures to protect themselves, if they have some warning. For example, they can go into a heavily reinforced building and stay away from windows; fall to the ground and cover their bodies (duck and cover), waiting at least 30 seconds after the blast for the shock wave to hit; and remain in a shelter until word comes that it’s safe to evacuate. After the blast, people should remove their outer clothing and shower if possible to remove radioactive particles. [Top 10 Largest Explosions Ever]

In a full-scale nuclear war, there may be more long-term contamination of the food supply. For instance, fallout may land on croplands and be taken up by the food supply, which could then cause longer-term problems such as cancer, May said. Radioactive iodine, in particular, could be a problem, he said.

“Cows are concentrating the iodine in the milk, and children concentrate the iodine in the milk into the thyroids,” leading to thyroid cancer, May said.

Nuclear detonations also cause electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that can damage a wide range of electrical and communications equipment, especially within a radius of 2 to 5 miles (3.2 to 8 km) from a ground-level, 10-kiloton explosion. Vehicles could stall, communications and cell towers would be disrupted, computers would be destroyed, and the water and electrical grid could also be destroyed. First responders that come in from outside the area with unaffected electronics should still be able to operate their devices, according to the 2007 report.

Among preparatory steps people can take, the coordination and planning of first responders would likely have the biggest effect on casualty levels, but individuals can also take a few easy preventive steps, May said. The ultrawealthy may build high-end bomb shelters, but even the average person can take steps to minimize risks, he said. Some of those steps — such as having extra food, water and first-aid supplies available — will work for other emergencies, too.

Other steps may be unique to a nuclear attack. For instance, respiratory protection, such as cheap face masks or even cloths held over the nose and mouth, can help reduce radiation exposure, according to the workshop report.

Nuclear attacks would also necessitate equipment for measuring radiation. People who are waiting to emerge from their shelter after a blast will want to know which areas have dangerous levels of radiation.

“You might get yourself a radiation meter. They don’t cost very much,” May told Live Science.

Other safety tips: Keep a radio to maintain communications with the outside world. This radio can be placed in a metal storage box to protect it against EMPs, along with a sealed, large plastic bag for containment to protect against humidity, according to the “Nuclear War Survival Skills” handbook.

Originally published on Live Science.

The U.S. Navy is Screwed

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The U.S. Navy is Screwed

In May, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley appeared before a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to discuss the recently unveiled fiscal year 2018 defense budget and its effects on the Navy. The news was not good about the state of the Navy and where the service is headed.

Despite campaign promises to rebuild the military from the twin disasters of sequestration and the 2011 Budget Control Act combined with nearly 16 years of combat deployments, the first Trump budget for the Navy does little to look to the future. This proposed budget only begins to fix the neglect of the past, placing more emphasis on getting the ships and submarines the repairs they desperately need.

The Navy has been in a long budgetary downward spiral since the Cold War ended. Back then, the Navy had just over 500 ships. Since then the fleet has dropped to 275 ships. And the number of ships that are available to deploy in a combat ready status has dropped to embarrassing lows, putting into question its ability to perform its central missions without further straining material and crews. Shipboard maintenance has been backlogged and ships that should be out to sea are instead sitting pierside, making the 275-ship number much, much smaller in an operational sense.

According to Stackley, the primary goal of this budget is to fix the lack of spare parts and attempt to get a handle on the lagging maintenance issues which have kept ships in the yard much longer than planned, rather thansolving the complicated problems of how to grow the fleet not only in numbers but in capability. By getting the ships out of the yard and back to the fleet the Navy is “actually” increasing the size of the current fleet by having more ships available for duty.

When candidate Trump pledged to expand the U.S. Navy to 350 ships it was expected he would at least try to move in that direction. Instead, the budget he put forth does nothing to take the Navy beyond the 308-ship target set by the Obama administration in 2012. Eight ships have been requested this year: an aircraft carrier, two submarines, two destroyers, one littoral combat ship (LCS) and two auxiliaries. Hardly the meteoric expansion promised.

While the idea of promising a 350-ship Navy may grab headlines and votes, the reality of the Navy landing on that number of ships anytime soon is almost impossible. Yet a 350-ship fleet is a necessity if the U.S. desires to maintain its naval advantage.

The United States is a naval power and has been since World War II. America depends on the sea for commerce as a nation with 53 percent of imports and 38 percent of exports delivered by sea and with global security interests as well that demand a need for a strong Navy—one that can deploy when it is required to and not be tied pierside as it chokes to death on a maintenance backlog. Many thought after the Cold War ended that the security challenges would greatly diminish, but that has not been the case at all.

The challenges are more numerous and more complex. China is asserting its growing strength in the South China Sea and will have to be confronted at some point. Russia is slowly trying to rebuild its naval force, and while it can’t operate globally anymore, it must be taken seriously for what it is. Strategic waterways are becoming more crowded and important and will need to be defended by a strong navy.

No longer can America afford to inadequately fund the Navy unless there is an equal desire to watch the further erosion of the Navy’s global reach.

Last December, the Navy issued its 2016 Force Structure Assessment, which called for a future ship strength of 355 ships—an increase from the 2012 assessment which called for a 308-ship fleet. To reach 355, according to the report, the Navy would be required to double its current annual budget, which is essentially unrealistic in both current and expected future fiscal environments.”

Which means it’s never going to happen, no matter what anyone says or promises to do.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled ‘Costs of Building a 355-Ship Navy’ on April 24 that addressed the reality of what it would take to reach this target number. The report states:

“The earliest the Navy could achieve its goal of a 355-ship objective would be in 2035, or in about 18 years, provided that it received sufficient funding….CBO estimates that, over the next 30 years, meeting the 355-ship objective would cost the Navy an average of about $26.6 billion annually for ship construction, which is more than 60 percent above the average amount the Congress has appropriated for that purpose over the past 30 years and 40 percent more than the amount appropriated for 2016….To establish a 355-ship fleet, the Navy would need to purchase around 329 new ships over 30 years.”

The CBO report also gets into the costs above and beyond the price of the ships themselves. Don’t forget, more ships mean more helicopters and aircraft to fly from them, more unmanned systems to support them and more weapons to arm them. And more personnel to train and pay, more sailors and civilians to train the larger force requirement, more fuel and supplies to operate the additional ships not to mention the increased maintenance budgets needed to keep the ships combat ready. It is not a cheap proposition.

The CBO estimates that the annual cost of operating a 355-ship fleet would be $94 billion. Today, the 245-ship fleet costs $56 billion. Where will an extra $38 billion come from?

And it’s not just the lack of money that is a problem; it is the lack of an adequate industrial base to build the new influx of ship orders. After years of making less than 10 ships per year it cannot be expected to see a rapid increase in the number of ships under construction at one time.

No magic wand or bucket of cash will change this overnight. Building aircraft carriers and submarines requires a skilled labor force and while the shipyards today are designed to handle the current level it will take years to acquire and train the additional shipbuilders. And that process can’t even begin to start until there are more ship orders.

Another potential issue is the granting of security clearances to workers who will build the growing fleet. Reuters reported that many union members are unable to obtain the required clearances, especially as far as submarine construction is concerned. In fact, General Dynamics Electric Boat begun developing its own grass roots campaign to secure future workers. Partnering with local schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Electric Boat is hoping to train its future submarine workers before they even are hired.

As the Navy struggles with putting ships to sea, three critical areas exist. They are the future of the submarine fleet, the Navy’s aging cruisers and what to replace them with, and the need for a true small surface combatant.


On its books, the Navy has 52 fast-attack submarines (SSNs) and a requirement for only 48 according to the 2012 FSA. So, the Navy is four boats ahead and should easily be meeting the needs for Navy submarines worldwide. That is not the truth, however.

One report suggests the attack submarine fleet is only meeting 40 to 45 percent of combatant commanders’ needs and with the aging fleet of Los Angeles-class not being replaced as quickly as needed the fleet is expected to fall to 41 submarines by 2029.

That number is below the 2012 assessment’s requirement of 48 and well below the 2016 version which calls for 66. The SSN was partially bolstered by the conversion of four Ohio-class SSBNs that were converted to cruise missile submarines but even those hulls are to be out of service by 2028.

The Navy is expected to continue to buy two Virginia-class attack subs per year for the foreseeable future even with construction looming for theColumbia-class ballistic missile submarine. Initially, it was expected that construction of future Virginia-class boats would drop to one per year as Stackley explained during the appropriations hearing:

“In the past we had anticipated dropping down our submarine construction, our attack submarine construction, during years of theColumbia program procurement. In fact, we intend to, and we’re laying the groundwork, to sustain two submarine per year procurement rate – because that is our number one shortfall.”

It’s not only about getting new attack submarines. It’s about keeping those in the fleet seaworthy, and making sure trips to the shipyard are completed correctly and in a timely manner.

For instance, USS Boise has been sitting pierside at Norfolk Naval Base for 47 months—yes, almost four years!—because it has lost its dive certification. This means the submarine cannot submerge and that is a fundamental problem. Work to begin to repair Boise is not even slated to begin until January 2019 so the SSN has six more months tied to the pier. Boise is not alone however. Connecticut and Albany, two fast attack submarines, also had extended absences from the fleet. In each case, the maintenance period was expected to take approximately 24 months. Instead, it took four years for each submarine to return to the service.

The problem is only going to get worse as the backlog at
U.S Navy shipyards keep growing and SSNs continue to receive lowest priority at those shipyards.


Currently the Navy has 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers in its inventory. Easily the most powerful surface combatant the Navy possesses, the type introduced the AEGIS combat system to the world when the first ship of the class was commissioned in 1983.

Since then AEGIS has been the gold standard in fleet air defense and now forms an integral part of the nation’s ballistic missile defense. The first five ships of the class have all been decommissioned as the earliest Ticonderogashad older guided missile launchers rather than the current ones.

The youngest cruiser in the fleet is USS Port Royal, commissioned on July 4, 1994. With a projected 35-year service life that the Navy hopes to possibly extend for the final 11 cruisers built to 40 years, the Navy cruisers are closer to the end than the beginning—and with no replacement in sight.

Later this year, USS Bunker Hill will deploy to the Pacific on what will be its final mission. The cruiser was the first Ticonderoga built with VLS and the Navy will decommission it in 2019, closely followed by a second cruiser, USSMobile Bay.

A huge problem for the Navy with the Ticonderoga-class was that of the current 22 ships they were all commissioned during an eight year window between late 1986 and 1994. This means that the ships will all be approaching the end of their service lives together and therefore will all need to be replaced together.

The Navy has tried to replace the Ticonderogas, but balked at the price when it was estimated to at $6 billion per copy. The Navy has done what it can to upgrade and make the cruisers available for service.

In early 2015, the Navy adopted a plan put forth by Congress to modernize its cruisers with what was called the 2/4/6 plan. This means that no more than two cruisers per year can go into extended modernization periods, those modernizations can take no longer than four years, and no more than six cruisers can be undergoing the modernization at the same time.

The oldest 11 cruisers have already received upgrades yet are quickly sailing towards the end of their designed lifespan. As the Navy looks to modernize the remaining 11 Ticonderoga cruisers, it more importantly needs to be looking for a fiscally appropriate replacement.

Small Surface Combatant

By any measurement, the Littoral Combat Ship has been a failure. With a series of well-publicized mechanical failures the LCS has fallen well short of its lofty predictions. The Navy wanted a multi-mission ship that could be tasked with one mission, return to port, and be quickly outfitted with a different warfighting module and dash off to the next hotspot ready for action.

Unfortunately, the mission modules never worked and the ships themselves are less than inspiring though the Navy did its best blame the crews for the breakdowns by issuing orders for the LCS crews to be retrained.

Originally designed to replace the ships of three classes (Perry-class frigates,Osprey-class coastal mine hunting ships and Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships) the LCS program has flopped harder than a fish on land. It has been mockingly labeled the “Little Crappy Ship” and “Little Chance of Survival” due to its deficient performance and its inability to survive an attack from even a semi-determined foe.

As a result, the Navy is finally looking to terminate production at 30 ships, though what the eventual purpose of those ships will be is open for debate. Moving forward the Navy has decided to develop a new frigate to fulfill the small surface combatant mission.

An award for design and construction contract will not even be issued until FY 2020 to allow the Navy appropriate time to evaluate what the new frigate will need as far as mission capability and integration into the fleet defense structure known as Naval Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA).

At this point, the main purpose of buying the LCS from shipyards in Wisconsin and Alabama is about keeping the industrial base ready and prepared to begin building the future frigate. Reports surfaced days after Trump’s budget request that the administration was going to ask for two LCS ships rather than the one included in the FY 18 budget. This “budget errata” is highly unusual, but illustrates the desire to keep the shipyards working until a replacement comes along. Now, the only trick is to find the extra $600 million it will take to build the second LCS now added to the budget.

In the Navy, standing watch is the essential mission of each sailor. One of the most essential elements to that duty is the saying “Not on my watch”, meaning those with vigilance will provide security for the rest of the crew, providing a warning of a threat so that the threat can be met.

Yet under a lot of people’s watches, the Navy has fallen hard. Three successive administrations—Clinton, Bush, and Obama—didn’t prioritize resources in a way that kept the Navy properly funded and a pillar of strength. One political party is not to blame—this is a bi-partisan collapse of responsibility and abject ignorance across 25 years.

America’s future naval force is now an asterisk of what should have been. It is not too late to turn the tide and change course, but Congress, the Navy and the president cannot keep kicking the can down the road to be perpetually somebody else’s problem.

The problem is here today and will only become more challenging the longer it is ignored. The sailor on watch deserves better.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.

Why China’s Nervous Over South Korea’s New Missile Defense System

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Why China’s Nervous Over South Korea’s New Missile Defense System

FILE – In this Tuesday, May 2, 2017 file photo, a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, is installed at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea. Clashes between residents and police over the deployment of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system highlight a divisive issue ahead of South Korea’s presidential election on May 9. (Kim Jun-beom/Yonhap via AP, File)

Chinese officials have long protested the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to South Korea because they believe it can spy on its military activities deep inside its mainland. Well, on Tuesday, Beijing’s fears were pretty much confirmed when military officials in South Korea reported that they were in fact able to detect North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test Sunday with THAAD.

Reuters reports that South Korean officials were able to determine that the missile was an IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile), which can travel between 1,860 to 2,485 miles. The country’s defense minister, Han Min-koo, added that the North’s missile program is developing faster than expected.

While we are not sure how, exactly, the South used THAAD to track the north’s missile test, the accompanying X-band AN/TPY-2 radar may have played a role. To recap, THAAD uses powerful radar systems to track short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles similar to the ones North Korea could use in a hypothetical a nuclear shooting match. THAAD then uses non-warhead equipped missiles to destroy the enemy projectile.

To be sure, China is not worried about THAAD’s missiles; again, they are not armed with warheads, so they are not offensive weapons. What’s really at issue here is the radar.

At the same time, as The Diplomat explained in March, there are some technical issues countering the argument that the system is as powerful of the Chinese claim it is. For example, this isn’t the first time the U.S. has deployed AN/TPY-2 radar. There are already two in Japan, specifically the Shariki, Aomori prefecture. Also, the surveillance range of the AN/TPY-2 may not be able to monitor the locations where the Chinese do more of their missile testing, as The Diplomat explains:

Second, while we have no watertight estimates on just how capable the AN/TPY-2 radar is and in what configurations, even the most generous estimates don’t leave the Gyeongsangbuk-do unit capable of any useful surveillance deep into the Gobi desert, where China has its most active and sensitive missile testing ranges. (AN/TPY-2 range estimates go from “several hundred miles” to 3,000 km.) I’ve mapped out the ranges below with the most generous range estimate of 3,000 km, using a Chinese ballistic missile impact range that Thomas Shugart at War on the Rocksrecently revealed as a test-bed for potential People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force preempetive warfare tactics (i.e., a site of surveillance interest for the United States).

Adding the westernmost AN/TPY-2 in Japan — the Kyogamisaki Communications Site unit — the map doesn’t change drastically, either. (Incidentally, North Korea’s latest missile test resulted in three missiles splashing down in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, between the two AN/TPY-2s in the country — a less-than-subtle show of confidence.)

There is an argument that THAAD could threaten China’s second-strike capabilities—its ability to respond in kind to a nuclear attack, and minimize its chances of being obliterated or crippled by an enemy’s first strike.

Li Bin, a nuclear weapons expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in March that THAAD’s radar would “would undermine China’s nuclear deterrence by collecting important data on Chinese nuclear warheads.”

More specifically, as the New York Times explains, Beijing fears Washington can use the radar to get a jump start on its nuclear weapons strike response (China as a no first use nuclear weapons policy), weakening its capabilities to the point of uselessness:

He and other Chinese experts say the radar could identify which Chinese missiles are carrying decoy warheads intended to outfox foes. That would be like being able to see what cards China holds in a nuclear poker game, and that could weaken China’s deterrent, they say.

“For China this is a very important point, because its missiles are limited in number to begin with,” Wu Riqiang, a nuclear expert at Renmin University in Beijing. That meant, he said, “China could lose its nuclear retaliatory capacity.”

For China, it does not matter that the American and South Korean governments have said Thaad is meant only to foil North Korean missiles. Mr. Wu said.

“What we worry about is the ability. It doesn’t matter to us whether the United States says this is aimed at North Korea or China,” Mr. Wu said. “If there’s this ability, then China must worry.”

What this comes down to is trust. Beijing doesn’t believe that the U.S. will use THAAD solely as a defensive measure against a North Korean missile attack. If the Chinese truly believe THAAD can track which of its missiles is carrying a warhead, it is a moot conversation to argue that it will not be used for that.

The fact that THAAD can determine the success of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test will not make China feel any more secure about it being deployed in South Korea. If it can be used to track Pyongyang’s actions, to what extent can it be used to do the same against Beijing?

That is what has China up at night.

Trump May Have Just Derailed A Crucial Part Of America’s Future Aircraft Carrier Fleet

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Trump May Have Just Derailed A Crucial Part Of America’s Future Aircraft Carrier Fleet

Today 11:35am

Pre-commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

It looks like after almost a decade of development, the ultra-advanced Gerald R. Ford supercarrier will be commissioned this year. An important detail about this ship, the first of its class, is that it does not use steam catapults to launch planes as is traditional, but instead uses an electromagnetic system to fling them into the air. And then President Donald Trump opened his mouth.

From a Time interview with the president that went live this morning:

You know the catapult is quite important. So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]. I said you don’t use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, “Ah, how is it working?” “Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power.

You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air.”

It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said–and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be–”Sir, we’re staying with digital.”

I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.

Emphasis mine. What’s not immediately clear is whether or not this change is occurring because of the president’s suggestion; I called the office of the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, which oversees the program, to see if they knew anything about this massive new procurement change and its implications. I have yet to hear back.

I really am at a loss here. First, yes, there are “planes thrown in the air.” That’s the entire point. Modern aircraft are too heavy to fly off an aircraft carrier on their own, that’s why carriers have used steam catapults ever since the 1950s to help them get going. You need to throw them in the air.

They do indeed have, uh, “digital” now. To people afraid of computers, the digital might sound bad. But “digital”—or as it’s more properly known, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, also known as EMALS—is not Bad. The officer who said “sir, we’re staying with digital,” is, in fact, Good.

And that’s because there’s a reason why the latest and greatest aircraft carriers will use EMALS, and not steam catapults. It works just fine for a lot of the aircraft on ships now, but for the drones that will be flying in the skies more than 50 years from now, when the Ford-class is still expected to be in service, a new solution is needed.

And just in case you’ve never tried to examine the internals of your home heating system, steam systems in general are extremely complicated. Steam catapults on an aircraft carrier are even more so. The inner workings are huge and heavy, requiring enormous amounts of maintenance, and aren’t easy to control.

Here’s how steam catapults work, in an extremely simplified nutshell:

EMALS, on the other hand, works a lot like the magnetic levitation trains you may have seen testing. And no, you don’t need to be Albert Einstein to understand it.

The system uses electric currents to charge up a carriage-and-track system, and once full energized, the carriage (with a plane attached) is propelled at high speeds down the carrier’s deck. And since it’s all computer controlled – ahem, digital – it can be used for quite delicate operations. Or for launching trucks off the deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford, as it did in testing last year:

Maybe I’m crazy though. So to find out, I asked Dr. Robert Farley, a specialist in military diffusion, maritime affairs, and national security at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and our resident carrier expert, if this was all nuts. And it turns out, maybe not.

“I can confirm that this is absolutely nuts,” he said. The whole idea of ripping out the launch system in the already-built Ford, and re-designing the following carriers (including the already-under construction USS Enterprise), would be “immensely expensive.”

As with any new system, its development hasn’t always been a smooth ride. It’s been beset by reliability issues over the years, and if anything, carriers need to be reliable. Without the ability to launch planes, the ship is a proverbial sitting duck.

But like most new things, the kinks will probably be worked out. The system is needed for the future, and if we turned our back on every system that was necessary but didn’t quite work out perfectly as a prototype, we’d still be living in the stone age.

We’ll update this post if we hear back from the Navy.

UPDATE 7:07 PM: The Navy declined to comment.

h/t to Ned Donovan!

US Military’s ‘Gremlin’ Program Lets Pilots Launch and Snag Drones in Midair

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US Military’s ‘Gremlin’ Program Lets Pilots Launch and Snag Drones in Midair

Israel’s Submarines Acquisition – Strategy or Greed?

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Israel’s Submarines Acquisition – Strategy or Greed?

INS Rahav undergoing sea trials in the Baltics, 2015. Photo via Israel Navy

Stretched along the eastern Mediterranean Sea and linked to the Indian Ocean through the Gulf of Eilat and the Red-Sea, Israel has always strived to maintain a naval force to protect its maritime border and sea lines of communications. Since the 1970s, following repeated terror attacks from the sea, the Israeli Navy assumed the responsibility to combat terror at sea and along the coast. Since the late 2000s, after major discoveries of natural gas reserves offshore, the Navy also added a new role – the security of the country’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) and protection of offshore marine infrastructures.

Since the induction of the Dolphin class submarines in the 2000s, the Israeli Navy also assumed a strategic Deterrent role. According to unconfirmed foreign reports, Israel’s Dolphinclass submarines are equipped with oversized tubes capable of launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can provide the country a retaliatory second strike capability, in case Israel is attacked and its first line of strategic assets – ballistic missiles and attack aircraft – are destroyed by surprise, nuclear attack.

These added responsibilities come with a growing piece of Israel’s defense pie, a larger share of the acquisition budget and more attention at the highest levels in the Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister office. In recent years, senior naval officers were selected for prominent positions in the MOD R&D department (DR&DD), Defense Export Agency (SIBAT), Intelligence agencies (Mossad), the National Security Council (Malal) and major government operated defense companies, to name only a few.

Unlike the air and land forces, that rely heavily on US Foreign Military Sales (FMS), the Navy maintained independent procurement sources in Israel and Europe. Since the 1960s Israel’s Navy surface ships were all constructed in Israel by the Israel Shipyards and IAI. The exception were two Shimrit class hydrofoils built in the USA in the 1980s (and scrapped a few years later), and three Saar V corvettes, constructed in the 1990s in the USA and are in service today.

As for the submarine force, since the late 1960s Israel maintains a fleet of three submarines (which allows the Navy to keep at least two operational subs at any time). The loss of INS Dakar in 1968 left the Navy with only two subs for eight years, until the first Type 209 Gal class submarine 1976 was launched. Type 209 were the first subs designed and built specifically for the Israeli requirements by the German submarine designer Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW), although these boats were built in the UK.

The Israel Navy maintained close relations with HDW in the following years, with the design and construction of a larger class subs – the Dolphin. These submarines were built in Kiel in Germany and provided a significant boost strengthening the German shipyard.

The acquisition cycles of Israeli submarines accelerated over time. From 20 years between the Gal and Dolphin generation, the period reduced to 12-16 years between Dolphin I and Dolphin II (AIP). The reduced cycle means the Israel Navy can now operate several submarines simultaneously, while the other are undergoing heavy maintenance. The recent decision to buy three additional, yet unnamed submarines in the next ten years sets the next cycle at only 10-13 years, from the current buy, maintaining Israel’s capability to operate four submarines simultaneously through the 2030s.

What is the rush? Why does Israel require such increased capability?

The simple answer: increased operational tempo that evolved with the growing operations of naval forces in the area; however, this argument is weak. The ongoing peace with Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and crippled state of Libya all mean reduced threat to Israel’s security, at least from the symmetric, naval side.

However, the Iranian threat is growing. The reasonable need to maintain long-range deterrence patrols added new missions to Israel’s submarine force. According to foreign sources, Israel’s submarines carry cruise missiles that can attack targets at ranges beyond 1,000 miles. While such missiles could hit targets in western Iran, when launched from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Israeli subs could hold the entire territory of Iran at risk, from positions in the Indian Ocean or inside the Persian Gulf.

Israel would likely keep these patrols secret and avoid sailing in the Suez Canal, thus sending its subs on voyages that would take weeks, through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Once one operational submarine is committed to such extended patrols, the Navy would likely require two boats for missions in the Mediterranean.

Such arguments would likely be part of the rhetoric used by Israel’s leadership, arguing for the increase of the nation’s submarine force to six, even nine boats. However, this recommendation faced stiff opposition from the Ministry of Defense, due to the high acquisition and operational cost (€500 – 650 million per boat) competing with other priorities. The resignation of Defense Minister Ya’alon from office paved the way for the submarine deal to continue.

But there is another side of the coin – the German side. As explained above, the Israeli Navy has been a loyal and regular client of the HDW shipyard in Kiel, which is now part of the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) industrial conglomerate. These close relations are likely to continue – despite the revelations that Iranian and UAE corporations have minority holding in it. Notwithstanding these ties, Israel and Germany have signed a contract worth €430 million to build four Saar VI Magen stealth corvettes, based on the German Blohm & Voss designed Classe 130. Soon to be launched third Dolphin II class submarine – Dakar is also a major undertaking soon expected in Kiel.

But the workload at the shipyards has diminished dramatically in recent years. As Type 212 deliveries to the German and Italian Navies completed and construction of Type 214 designs moved overseas, the shipyard will be under pressure to lay off part of its workforce. These hands are critical to maintaining the skills and know-how for the two Type 218SG submarines on contract for the Singapore Navy (the first slated for delivery in three years). Earlier in 2016 TKMS management still hoped to win an A$36 Billion mega-deal in Australia, but after losing this opportunity, the submarine shipyards are striving for a sustainable business for the remaining of the next decade. The prospects for the near term are slim – a future submarine support program in Peru and shortlisting as one of two bidders in Norway. Hence, reaffirming Israel’s commitment to buy three submarines in the future would be a life saver for the crippled shipyard, even if it means a long term prospect.

The decision to proceed with a memorandum of agreement between the Governments of Israel and Germany at this stage is understandable and serves the interests of both sides. But the attempts on both sides to cover the deal are wrong.

Prime Minister Netanyahu claim that the decision is a matter of national security is true but, setting all strategic arguments aside, these moves should be managed by Government officials and diplomats, not by sales agents or private counselors. Furthermore, the investigation of the former deputy of Israel’s National Security Council, who was an active supporter of the submarine deal, adds an unpleasant odor of corruption to the top of Israel’s national security pyramid.

Israel readies for ‘super-tech’ stealth fighters

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Mike Smith,AFP Fri, Dec 9 6:27 PM PST

Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel will on Monday receive its first F-35 stealth fighter jets, hailed as technological marvels whose helmets alone cost more than most people’s homes but criticised for their price and initial flaws.

Built by US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, the first two planes’ arrival in Israel is being welcomed as a major event for the country’s military as it seeks to maintain dominance in the turbulent Middle East.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is to attend the arrival along with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman at the Nevatim air base in the country’s south.

The delivery of the first two of 50 F-35s to be purchased by Israel comes as the years-long development of the most expensive plane in history reaches a critical stage.

While a list of countries have ordered the planes, Israel, which receives more than $3 billion a year in US defence aid, will be the first with an operational F-35 squadron outside the United States.

“I think we don’t fully understand the big advantage of the F-35,” an Israeli air force official said.

“I think it’s going to be learned in the next few months, maybe years. I think it’s a very super-tech airplane.”

Israel has given it the name “Adir” — which means “mighty” in Hebrew. Its first planes are expected to be operational within a year after delivery.

It will be receiving the F-35A model for standard takeoff and landings. The B and C models are for short takeoffs and aircraft carriers.

Among their main features are advanced stealth capabilities to help pilots evade sophisticated missile systems.

The single-pilot jets can carry an array of weapons and travel at a supersonic speed of Mach 1.6, or around 1,200 miles per hour (around 1,900 kilometres per hour).

It is unclear if Israel’s planes will be able to deliver nuclear bombs. Israel is believed to be the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed power, though it has never acknowledged it.

– High-tech helmet –

The ultra-high-tech helmet, at a cost of some $400,000 each, sounds like something out of a science-fiction film.

It includes its own operating system, with data that appears on the helmet visor and is also shared elsewhere.

Thermal and night vision as well as 360-degree views are possible with cameras mounted on the plane.

Israeli firm Elbit Systems has been involved in the helmet’s production.

In Israel, the planes, designed for multiple combat situations, will initially replace a group of ageing F-16s.

They are seen as helping the country maintain its edge in the Middle East, particularly as its main enemy Iran seeks further influence in the region.

“The F-35 has been designed to deal with the most advanced threat systems now being fielded in the Middle East,” Lockheed Martin’s Steve Over told AFP by email.

Israel is especially concerned over whether Iran will seek to develop nuclear weapons by violating the international accord it has signed with world powers aimed at preventing it.

The country is also keeping an eye on Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah, with which Israel fought a devastating war in 2006.

Beyond that, in neighbouring Syria, Russia has deployed the sophisticated S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems as it conducts an air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

– ‘Only game in town’ –

Israel is buying its first 33 jets at an average price of about $110 million (103.5 million euros) each.

The government last month approved the purchase of the remaining 17.

As a comparison, in 2001, Israel agreed to buy 52 additional F-16s from Lockheed Martin at a total cost of $1.3 billion.

While the technology can seem dazzling, there have been questions over whether the plane will be worth the cost.

A list of flaws have been uncovered, including one where pilots who weighed less than 136 pounds (62 kilos) risked being killed by its eject system.

There have also been software bugs and technical glitches, though Lockheed Martin assures such issues have been overcome.

Some in Israel have also said the price of the planes will limit the number that can ultimately be purchased, while losing any in combat will be particularly costly.

There have also been questions over whether upgrades to the air force’s existing fleet could have sufficed.

But the F-35 was “the only game in town” since Israel relies so heavily on US defence aid, said Yiftah Shapir of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“We couldn’t go and buy French or British or Russian,” he said. “When you have an ally like the United States, the United States would not have allowed that.”

In the United States, the air force declared an initial squadron of F-35As ready for combat in August, without giving a timeline for actual combat.

The US Marine Corps in 2015 announced that a first group of F-35Bs had attained initial operational capability, though these too have not yet been used in combat.