Category: Asia-Pacific

No Time To Dispute: Russia’s A2/AD in the South Kurils

Remote and derelict, riddled with active volcanoes and disputed between Russia and Japan, the South Kurils make the perfect secret lair for any self-respecting evil genius. It’s no wonder the…

Remote and derelict, riddled with active volcanoes and disputed between Russia and Japan, the South Kurils make the perfect secret lair for any self-respecting evil genius. It’s no wonder the writers behind No Time to Die, the latest Bond film, chose the South Kurils as the setting for the film’s final act. While not directly named, the South Kurils are clearly referenced by Q’s description of Safin’s island – “part of a chain disputed between Russia and Japan.”

A closer inspection of the Russian military presence in the archipelago suggests [spoilers] that Q’s “donut” flight over the island could have ended poorly. Likewise, the Royal Navy’s HMS Dragoon would have probably faced immediate retaliation for its missile strike on Safin’s bioweapons facility. As for Bond, he didn’t just break our hearts, he also broke into Russia’s A2/AD bubble.


KEY JUDGEMENTS

I. Together with the rest of the archipelago, the southern Kurils form a natural barrier, protecting the Russian Pacific Fleet’s naval bastion in the Sea of Okhotsk from threats in the Pacific

II. Russia has significantly enhanced its posture in the South Kurils by deploying advanced air defense systems including the S-300VM4, several Su-35 air superiority aircraft, and coastal missile systems in the past decade. By establishing an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) zone in the South Kurils, Moscow signals to Japan that it will never forfeit its easternmost territory. 

III. Russia’s militarization of the South Kurils will continue in the coming years and focus on the archipelago’s largest islands. Plans for further investment suggest that the South Kurils will no longer be a semi-dormant military outpost but could “go active” for Russian operations in the West Pacific. 

FLASHPOINT: NORTHERN TERRITORIES OR SOUTH KURILS?

1. Disputed between Russia and Japan, the southern Kurils are the southernmost islands in the chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. More specifically, the southern Kurils consist of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shibotan (Shikotan), and the Habomai islets. 

copyright Australian National University

2. Russia exercises de facto control over the islands, but Japan has a historical claim to them. The ongoing Russo-Japanese dispute prevents the two countries from signing a formal peace accord to end World War 2 and foster closer economic ties. The rest of the Kuril island chain is internationally recognized as Russian territory. 

  • RUSSIA: Russia calls the archipelago the “South Kurils” and administers it as a district (Yuzhno-Kurilsky) in the Sakhalin oblast. Over 7,000 km from Moscow and only 20 km from Japan, the South Kurils district is Russia’s easternmost territory. Russian control of the southern Kurils can be traced back to 1945 when the Soviet Union seized the archipelago from Imperial Japan. The Soviets planned to use the islands as a springboard to invade mainland Japan in competition with the US. 
  • JAPAN: Japan refers to the southern Kurils as “Northern Territories” and considers them part of Hokkaido prefecture. The Japanese settled and administered the southern Kurils centuries ago and have a series of bilateral treaties with Russia that recognizes Japan’s sovereignty over the islands. 

3. It is virtually certain that Russia will never concede the southern Kurils to Japan, despite the recent detente in bilateral relations. Moscow fears that conceding even a part of the Kurils could create a dangerous precedent for its territorial disputes in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. While not at the top of the agenda, Tokyo is unlikely to shelve the southern Kurils dispute without significant concessions, such as free movement of Japanese fishers and/or demilitarization. However, there is a possibility, albeit low, that Russia might concede the Habomai islets and/or Shikotan islands to Japan as promised in an unratified 1956 Soviet-Japanese peace proposal.

SOUTHERN KURILS: BARRIER, GATEWAY, AND MINERAL DEPOSIT

4. BASTION BARRIER: While not strategic by themselves, the southern Kurils are critical components of the greater island chain, which serves as a natural barrier for Russia’s naval “bastion” in the Sea of Okhotsk. As a whole, the Kuril reef holds great military value from both defensive and offensive standpoints. 

  • DEFENSE: The Kurils can be flooded with air defense and coastal defense batteries combined with long-range artillery to keep adversaries at range. Invaders must adopt a costly leapfrogging strategy, contesting each island, if they wish to move surface vessels in the Russian Pacific Fleet’s Okhotsk bastion. 
  • OFFENSE: The USSR seized the South Kurils exclusively for offensive purposes in 1945. While military action against Japan is unlikely today (except retaliatory), the southern Kurils, particularly the Habomai islets, are valuable to monitor the US presence in Japan. 

5. GATEWAY TO PACIFIC: Russian naval movements indicate that the straits towards the southern Kurils are the Pacific Fleet’s most used passageways into the West Pacific. Even naval units based in Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan prefer to sail through the Kuril straits, via the Soya strait, over alternate routes (Tshushima and Tsugaru straits). The main reason is that the Kurils offer a more direct route to Alaska and the US mainland. Freedom of movement through the myriad of Kuril  straits is also important to diversify’s the fleet’s routes to and from the Pacific. Although some of the straits between South Kuril islands are difficult to navigate during winter due to ice formation.

6. RHENIUM: While underdeveloped, the south Kurils have always had some economic value. During the Cold War, it was fishing. Nowadays, rethium is the islands’ treasure – a rare earth element crucial for rocketry, aircraft production and the high-tech industry. Rhenium is widespread in the Kuril Islands, especially in the Kudryavyi volcano on Iturup. Given decades of underinvestment and poor infrastructure, Russia has barely tapped the islands’ mineral potential. 

GEOINT: RUSSIA’S A2/AD BUBBLE  IN THE SOUTH KURILS

South Kurils A2/AD (T-Intelligence)

7. Russia established an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) in the southern Kurils throughout the past decade. The purpose of A2/AD is to deny adversaries freedom of action in a given theater and keep them at range. A combination of multi-layered air defenses and long-range strike platforms is the most common form of A2/AD composition, and the Kurils make no exception. 

  • AIR DEFENSE: By parrying a long-range S300VM4 with two short range systems (deployed in 2020), the Buk-M1 (d. 2012) and Tor M2 (d.?)Russia achieves a multi-layered air defense network that can monitor and threaten enemy aircraft. A variety of general surveillance and coastal radars are also likely based in the South Kurils. 
  • STRIKE PLATFORMS: Russia amassed the Bal and Bastion surface-to-surface missile systems (SSMs) to the Kurils in 2016. The Bal system (in Kunashir), and Bastion-P, (in Iturup), are capable of engaging both land and seaborn targets, and can be upgraded to accommodate newer missiles as they become available. 

ITURUP/ETORUFU

Overview: Locations of interest on Iturup/Etorufu Island (T-Intelligence)

Measuring 1,210 square miles (sq. m.), Iturup is by far the largest and most militarized island in the southern Kurils. Iturup absorbed the bulk of Russia’s military investment in the South Kurils with regard to hardware and infrastructure. Two airfields, a major infantry base, and several training grounds exist on Iturup. In the past decade, they have been modernized and expanded. Harbours and naval facilities have also improved over the years, but there is still no major naval base on Iturup. 

Russian forces have been sluggish in exploiting Iturup’s (dramatic) high ground for radar surveillance. There is also no visible progress on overhauling the islands’ WW2-era littoral defenses. Iturup’s fixed beach fortifications are overwhelmingly derelict. 

  • Burevestnik air base

Burevestnik Air Base on Iturup (T-Intelligence)

Built during WW2, then named “Tennet airfield,” Burevestnik is one of the largest airfields in the whole Kuril chain. The airfield hosted over 100 aircraft at the height of the Cold War. In 1965, the airstrip was extended to a length of 2,4 km, according to a declassified CIA assessment.  

In recent history, Burevestnik AB saw a significant all-around modernization. Nowadays, the airfield mainly hosts rotary-wing aircraft. The most notable improvement is the construction of an air defense site [44°55’7.77 “N 147°38’31.61 “E] dedicated to the S-300V4 systems (NATO reporting name: SA-23 Gladiator) that the Russia Eastern Military District deployed to Iturup in December 2020. Geolocation of the S-300’s first readiness exercise in Iturup to this location suggests that the air defense site was designed to host advanced hardware like the S-300. 

Geolocation of S-300 exercise in December 2020 to Burevestnik Air Base (T-Intelligence)

The air defense site and subsequent warehouse were built sometime between September 2012 and November 2015. Due to lack of open-source satellite imagery coverage before 2012, we could not pinpoint the exact timeframe. 

  • 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division [45° 2’3.68 “N 147°45’19.18 “E]

Temporal analysis of the 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division camp in Iturup shows significant infrastructure enhancement between 2005 and 2019 (T-Intelligence)

In the past, the base was a typical case of Soviet-era ghost military base. Still, imagery from August 2019 shows an explosive expansion and modernization of the military camp, especially compared to the previously available imagery from Google Earth from September 2005. The old and decayed buildings in the base’s midsection have been demolished and replaced with new, modern facilities. The base expanded eastwards, where a warehouse of interest, among other structures, emerged. A review of Planet’s RapidEye satellite imagery suggests that the warehouse was built in the second half of 2016. 

A GEOINT assessment conducted by Israeli company ImageSatIntl in July 2019 named the warehouse as a deployment site for coastal missile defense systems and identified two Rubezh systems (SSC-3) parked on the cement pad nearby. The newly deployed Bal (SSC-6) or Bastion (SSC-5) systems have likely replaced and retired the ageing Rubezh systems.  

  • Iturup Airport [45°15’28.50″N 147°57’16.53″E]:

Su-35 presence at Iturup airfield (T-Intelligence)

Built in 2014, Iturup airport (also known as Yasny) is a rare case of an entirely new facility constructed in the South Kurils. Iturup airport is also the first airfield to be built from scratch in post-Soviet Russia. With a 2,4 km airstrip and modern facilities, Iturup Airport is a dual-use airfield serving both civilian and military flights. In August 2018, Russia deployed three Su-35 air superiority (Flanker-E) aircraft to Iturup airfield. 

Image shows the three Su-35s on the Iturup airport’s apron in May 2020. Photo credits: Vera Bykova

  • Naval areas 

While the island does not host a military naval base, there are several noteworthy ports or small wharves that small vessels of the Russian Border Security Force (BSF) – Coast Guard or Russian Navy can use. Iturup’s coastline contrasts from flat beaches to sharp cliffs. Therefore artificial docking facilities, like wharves, are needed to accommodate vessels. 

  • Kurilsk Harbor [45°15’24.7 “N 147°52’55.9 “E]- Iturup’s largest port has seen significant modernization in the past years, which undoubtedly expanded Kurilisk’s military potential. 
  • LLC Fish processing plant and wharf [45°06’12.2 “N 147°41’53.0 “E]
  • “Autumn” fishing village [45°00’34.4″N 147°31’11.2″E]

KUNASHIR/KUNASHIRI

Overview of Kunashir island (T-Intelligence)

Kunashir is the second-largest island in the South Kurils (580 square miles). The island hosts a major airport (civilian) and a massive infantry base. Kunashir used to host a large naval Soviet presence in the Cold War, and was the assembly point for the Japanese Imperial surface group that attacked Pearl Harbor, according to a declassified CIA assessment. 

  • Yuzhno-Kurilsk Mendeleyevo Airport [43°57’42.17 “N 145°41’13.23 “E]

Mendeleyevo Airport in July 2021 via Google Earth (imagery: Maxar Technologies and CNES/Airbus)

With a 2,2 km airstrip and modest facilities, Mendelyevo has remained relatively unchanged in the past decade. The airport has seen limited modernization of auxiliary facilities but not expansion. Mendelyvo does not have a declared military role; however, if needed, it could support a limited number of fighter aircraft and helicopters for a short amount of time. Aeroflot subsidiary Aurora Airlines is the only commercial airline that flies to Mendelyevo. Aurora’s only route to Yuzhno-Kurilsk Mendeleyevo Airport is from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and is mainly serviced by the company’s De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 aircraft.

  • Seaport Yuzhno-Kurilsk 44°01’19.6 “N 145°51’15.7” E

Yuzhno-Kurilsk Seaport in April 2020 via Google Earth (image: Maxar Technologies and TerraMetrics)

Although mainly for civilian-commercial use, the Yuzhno-Kurilsk seaport has military significance. The wharf and docking facilities have likely once formed a “major Soviet naval base” as referenced in a declassified CIA report from 1955. While the coordinates provided in the CIA report are “broken,” pointing to an offshore location (happens to the best of us), Yuzhno-Kurilsk seaport is the island’s only naval facility and it is “near” the local airfield. A direct road links the two sites.

The seaport also hosts a fish processing plant and an offsite fuel storage facility, which are vital to the island’s economy and inhabitants. 

  • 46th Machine Gun-Artillery Regiment 44°03’19.3″N 145°47’06.2″E 

46th Machine Gun Artillery Regiment camp (T-Intelligence)

This Soviet-era installation bloomed starting in 2010 and nearly doubled after May 2017. New housing facilities, warehouses, and a host of small and medium-sized structures appeared during this timeframe. The constructors have also prepared approximately 120 square meters of parking areas, indicating an increase in troop and supply transportation vehicles.

A large, white hangar also emerged southeast of the parking lot for hosting advanced weapons capabilities (AWC), as the geolocation of the Bal systems in storage photo suggests. The image in question was obtained by a Japanese newspaper, Sankei, from a source on the ground. 

Leveraging the local high ground, two air defense sites exist north of the base. The first site, within the base’s limits, was built between 2015 and mid-2018. The layout is identical with the air defense site prepared at Burevestnik air base on Iturup, where the S-300VM4 resides. Google Earth’s latest imagery, dated April 2020, shows a probable surface to surface missile (SSM) system – either Bal or Bastion – positioned in the revetments, suggesting that the site is not exclusively for air defense. The second presumed air defense site (“high ground SAM site”) predates the recent modernization and has not hosted SAM activity in the past years, based on our review of available satellite imagery. 

A warehouse is also visible to the southeast, with vehicle marks suggesting pre-established routes to the nearby woodland – a possible shoot-and-scoot path. The warehouse and auxiliary areas were built between May 2017 and June 2018. As ImageSat International was the first to assess, the warehouse facility is identical with the one constructed at the 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division. This suggests a similar use, namely hosting advanced weapons capabilities (AWC). 


SHIBOTAN/SHIKOTAN

Overview Shikotan island (T-Intelligence)

Two noteworthy naval facilities exist on the archipelago’s third-largest island. While under civilian authority, Shibotan’s ports regularly – or permanently host – Russian Coast Guard vessels. No airfield exists on Shibotan. However, at least one helipad is visible at Malokurilskaya Bay [43°51’59 “N 146°49’39” E], and the island offers a host of adequate landing zones for helicopters. Infantry troops and likely an artillery unit are also based on the island. Declassified CIA reports from the 1950s claim that Shibotan hosted a Soviet frontier naval division, suggesting that this island played a crucial role in Moscow’s posture vis-a-vis Japan. 

  • Malokurilskaya Bay [43°52’29.5″N 146°49’23.5″E]

Geolocation of Russian Coast Guard vessels docked in Kunashir (T-Intelligence)

Geolocation of images posted on Russian forums underscores the Russian Coast Guard’s presence at Malokurilskaya Bay. The images suggest that the local Coast Guard unit (likely unit 2264 based on unverified crowdsourced information) is using the bay’s northern wharf as “home port” [43°52’25 “N 146°49’19” E].  

  • Trench line (derelict) [43°51’23″N 146°49’25″E]

Covering the hilly southern approach to Malokurilskaya Bay is a WW2-era trench fortification system accompanied by a slate of abandoned T-34, IS-2, and IS-3 tanks. If needed, the trench line could be revived as a stop-gap defensive measure, if overhauled, and reinforced with modern armored units. 

  • Krabovaya Bay [43°49’35″N 146°44’55″E]

This smaller port exclusively serves fishing activities, but its new, large wharfs make it adequate for small patrol craft to a certain extent. Large tonnage vessels are unable to reach due to shallow waters. Krabovaya Bay boomed after a private company built a new fish processing and storage plant and expanded the port docking facilities in 2019. 


HABOMAI ISLETS

Overview of the Habomai islets (T-Intelligence)

The closest to Japan’s Hokkaido province and the smallest landforms in the southern Kuril chain (39 square miles – combined), the Habomai are of little significance to Russia’s military posture. The islets’ rich waters are sought after by Japanese fishers, and Tokyo still hopes that it can recover the Habomai or establish a joint fishing zone in Habomai’s waters. The return of the Habomai (and Shikotan) to Japan was promised in the 1956 Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration, but the two parties failed to ratify the peace agreement. 

Except for two border outposts* and several defunct barracks and derelict fortifications, there are no noteworthy Russian installations or forces on the Habomai islets. Small boats and fast patrol craft of the Coast Guard regularly patrol the Habomai’s waters and arrest Japanese fishers. 

*Border post – Zelenoe Yuzhnokurilskiy [43 ° 30’9 “N 146 ° 5’23” E] 

*Border post – Muravyovka [43 ° 25’5 “N 145 ° 54’2” E]


OUTLOOK

8. Russia will further its force build-up by expanding the military infrastructure on Iturup and Kunashir, Russian Prime Minister Mishushtin announced in August 2021. Moscow said that it will build “51 more pieces of military infrastructure” in the Kurils, without detailing what kind of infrastructure this will be. We assess that most investments will likely upscale the logistics facilities and amenities of local units. Modern radars, point air defenses, and new naval facilities would greatly improve Russia’s local posture and are therefore strong candidates for the Kremlin’s upcoming investment plan. 

9. The growing A2/AD bubble in the South Kurils solidifies Russia’s grip on the disputed territories. It also dramatically reduces the likelihood of the islands, or parts of them, returning to Japan. Plans for further investment suggest that the South Kurils will no longer be a dormant military outpost but could “go active” and increase the pace of Russian operations in the West Pacific.


by HARM

Afterword: this strategic analysis (SA) does not encompass all *possibly* military-related sites and objects on the South Kurils as it prioritzed high value locations and advanced hardware. The SA’s purpose is to provide a succinct overview of the archipelago’s most noteworthy locations and highlight objects of interest. 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Hot Skies Over the Taiwan Strait: The New Normal of Chinese Incursions

On 15 June 2021, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defence (MND) reported that 28 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) –…

On 15 June 2021, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defence (MND) reported that 28 aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) – the largest incursion ever recorded! The air raid came just days after the G7 summit, where leaders strongly condemned China’s policies vis-a-vis the Uyghur population, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This latest incident was not a war rehearsal but a clear signal of a more assertive Beijing. As China continues to rise, it casts a darker shadow over the Taiwan Strait. 


LARGEST INCURSION YET

The June 15th aerial incursion marked the beginning of a new cycle of escalation and featured a record number of aircraft.

 

The PLAAF intruder formation consisted of fourteen J-16 and six J-11 fighter jets, four H-6 bombers, two KJ-500 early warning aircraft, and two Y-8 series aircraft (including one anti-submarine warfare variant). Most aircraft flew near the Pratas Islands in the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ. 

Flight paths of PLAAF aircraft, June 15, 2021 via Taiwan MoND

Ten aircraft, including the bombers, flew around the southern portion of the ADIZ near the coast of Taiwan. Taiwan issued radio warnings, scrambled aircraft, and deployed air defense missile systems in response, according to the MND.

NEW NORMAL FOR TAIWAN

While the PLAA has regularly conducted flights over the Taiwan Strait, their scope is gradually increasing. 

Ninety (90) percent of PLAA sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ in the past two years (when MND started to publish data on them) involved less than four aircraft. Double-digit aircraft intrusions remain extremely rare. Only 3.5% of PLAA sorties involved 15+ aircraft. However, the latest incident signals that this might become the norm. 

The routine but expansive nature of the PLAA’s incursions into the Taiwanese ADIZ is worrisome. 

PLAA INCURSIONS APPEAR TO BE CHINA’S REACTION TO INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM 

When large-scale PLAA intrusions occur, they often coincide with external factors such as international criticism of China, a political overture to Taipei, or U.S. operations in the region. 

Days before the June 15th incursion, G7 leaders made strong statements concerning China and Taiwan, calling for a peaceful resolution between Beijing and Taipei. Taiwan welcomed the declarations from the G7 members, asserting their intention to further engage with the international community. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen has affirmed her commitment to separating Taipei from China’s grasp, further aggravating Beijing. These statements likely pushed Beijing to greenlight the June 15th operation. 

Other PLAA raids served to deter U.S. operations in the region, often coinciding with U.S. Navy’s sails through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. A majority of PLAA sorties that cross the median line between Taiwan and China involve at least one KQ-200 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, indicating that many of the PLAA’s aerial formations monitor foreign warship and submarine activity in the area. 

KQ-200 aircraft at Chinese air-naval station in South China Sea via ©ImageSatIntl

INVASION UNLIKELY, POSTURING – YES

Given China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, some observers view a war in Taiwan as inevitable. However, the high frequency and intensity of Chinese forays into the Taiwanese ADIZ is not necessarily a precursor to outright invasion. Rather, the new quality of incursions marks an intensification of Beijing’s squeeze over the island and geopolitical posturing vis-a-vis Washington. 

Beijing is unlikely to seize Taiwan by force but will continue its political and economic pressure campaign. Washington, too, will continue its grey-area policy of accepting a “one China” officially but continuing to engage with Taiwan. Neither side wishes to risk outright war over Taiwan.

TAIWAN MUST BE READY FOR ANYTHING

As Beijing and Washington continue to compare military stature across the strait, Taiwan remains the hottest flashpoint of the Sino-American rivalry, something Taipei is acutely aware of as it develops military capabilities. 

Regardless of the low likelihood of war, Taiwan must take Chinese threats seriously. Taiwan recently declared initial combat capability of newly upgraded F-16V fighter jets, ready to intercept potential threats, combined with a freshly signed contract totaling $1.75 Billion for Lockheed Martin M142 HIMARS, and Boeing Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems.


by Matt Sutherland 

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Leaked ‘Five Eyes’ Intel Report: China Lied About the Coronavirus

China lied to the world about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, disappeared whistleblowers, and spread disinformation to deflect blame for the virus, a “Five Eyes” report found. The “Five…

China lied to the world about the human-to-human transmission of the virus, disappeared whistleblowers, and spread disinformation to deflect blame for the virus, a “Five Eyes” report found. The “Five Eyes” is an anglophone intelligence sharing organization between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The report is the latest intelligence to cast light on Beijing’s cover-up and mismanagement of the pandemic. 

CENSORSHIP AND DISINFORMATION

China began censoring virus-related news on search engines and social media in late-December 2019, the report finds. This is consistent with a recent Citizen Lab study suggesting that the Chinese government deleted sentences containing the terms “New SARS,” “SARS variation,” “Wuhan Seafood market,” “shortness of breath,” and “Wuhan Unknown Pneumonia” among other 45 keywords that spiked on the Chinese internet in November. 



The report finds that China successfully pressured the European Union to water down its report on Beijing’s coronavirus disinformation. This claim is also consistent with recent reports that the EU amended its report on coronavirus disinformation to be less critical of Beijing after Chinese diplomats threatened to react. Three sources told Politico that the EU removed sentences referring to China’s orchestrated disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the pandemic. The European External Action Service had however denied the accusations.

The dossier is also critical of the World Health Organization (WHO), stating that it uncritically echoed the Chinese line about the lack of human-to-human transmission although “officials in Taiwan raised concerns as early as December 31, as did experts in Hong Kong on January 4.” This echoes the recent international criticism of the WHO for ignoring Taiwan and effusively praising China. The perceived Chinese influence within the WHO is also one of the reasons claimed by President Trump for his decision to cut funding for the organization. 

CORONAVIRUS ORIGIN: WUHAN

The origin of the virus is still under review but the widespread belief remains that the novel coronavirus originated in the form of an animal-human transmission from one of Wuhan’s wet markets. 

The United States increasingly believes that the virus is the result of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A senior U.S. intelligence source speaking to the press said around 70-75% of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies believe it came from a laboratory, but without a “smoking gun” they cannot reach consensus. 



AUSTRALIA AND CHINA IN WAR OF WORDS

It is no surprise that the report leaked in Australia, a country that had been recently threatened by China with a trade war. Beijing threatened to ban Australian products and boycott tourism after the Government in Cabera called for an international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus. 


Cover photo; the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s Hubei province, April 17, 2020.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

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Kim Jong-Un: Chilling in Wonsan or Secretly Dead?

More and more reports about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un’s deteriorating health are surfacing. U.S intelligence and recently South Korean and Japanese press have suggested that Kim Jong-Un (KJU) is…

More and more reports about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un’s deteriorating health are surfacing. U.S intelligence and recently South Korean and Japanese press have suggested that Kim Jong-Un (KJU) is in critical condition after a failed emergency heart surgery in mid-April. China, North Korea’s main ally, has reportedly sent a medical team led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department to check on KJU’s health. 

Standing at 5-foot-7 and weighing roughly 300 pounds, KJU is considered “severely obese.” He was last seen on April 11, when he presided over a party meeting and has reportedly visited a military airbase north of Pyongyang the next day. 

Bearing in mind that KJU disappeared from public life before, the rumors of his death should be taken with a grain of salt. In 2014 he was not seen for nearly six weeks, reportedly due to cyst removal surgery, before reappearing with a cane. 

What makes things different this time is that KJU missed the country’s most important holiday on April 15, the birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sen. 



ALIVE AND WELL IN WONSAN?

The South Korean Presidential Palace has been quick to dismiss the reports, claiming that KJU is “alive and well” and that he has been residing at his seacoast villa in Wonsan since April 13. 

Satellite imagery pulled by 38thNorth confirms that KJU’s train is indeed at the Leadership Railway Station in Wonsan, but it only arrived between April 15 and 21. 

The South Korean statements and the geospatial intelligence are consistent with other reports that the North Korean dictator has been out of the country’s capital Pyongyang for the past weeks. However, they do not clarify KJU’s health status or his whereabouts.   

 

NO CLEAR SUCCESSION PLAN

In the event of KJU’s death, the North Koreans would likely delay the official announcement until an heir to the throne is chosen. 

The lack of a clear successor is the main critical uncertainty that would result from KJU’s death.  This question is particularly worrisome, as the succession will determine who is in control of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the arsenal of ballistic missiles, and other WMD programs. That person would also inherit one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes and a starving population caught in the middle of a pandemic. 

Photo of Kim Yo-Jong’s via Reuters

It is unknown whether KJU named a successor in the event of his demise, but the options considered in intelligence circles are the following:

  • His sister, Kim Yo-Jong. 
  • A general or a military junta with or without the support of the Korean Workers Party. 
  • A regency between Kim Yo-Jong and senior military heads backed by the Korean Workers Party. 

Any succession would be temporary until one of KJU’s two children will be old enough to take power. The continuation of the Kim dynasty (or Paektu bloodline) is critical for the survival of the regime in Pyongyang. 

MILITARY READINESS AT HISTORICAL HIGH

The United States, South Korean, and Japan fear that the death of KJU could cause the collapse of the regime and result in a vacuum of power with multiple factions fighting for power. North of the 38th parallel, the North Korean military, and the Korean Workers Party fear that any vacuum, even if temporary, would embolden their enemies to pray on the leaderless and mourning nation. 



The signs of anxiety on Pyongyang’s part are clear. The North Korean military readiness remains at a historical high, with the air force and artillery units showing an unusual increase in operations.

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China’s Second Aircraft Carrier Enters Service

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has officially commissioned its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, the “Shandong” (CV-17). The ceremony took place in Sanya (southern Hainan island), where open-source satellite imagery…

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has officially commissioned its first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, the “Shandong” (CV-17). The ceremony took place in Sanya (southern Hainan island), where open-source satellite imagery showed the Shandong docked since late-November. The ceremony was attended by Chinese President Xi Jiping and senior military officials. With its commissioning, the Shandong will significantly expand the PLAN’s sea interdiction capabilities in the South China Sea and throughout Asia-Pacific. 

The Shandong, which was previously designated as Type 001A and Type 002, becomes the second aircraft carrier operated by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN). Since 2012, the PLAN operates the “Liaoning” (Type 001), a half-built Soviet aircraft-carrying cruiser completed by Chinese engineers in the late-1990s. Largely seen as a copy of the Soviet-designed Liaoning, China’s newest carrier is slightly bigger than its predecessor, which extends the Shandong’s air wing by four fighter jets/ eight helicopters. Both carriers us ski-jump ramps (CATOBAR) and are powered by conventional steam turbines with diesel generators. 



With the Shandong commissioned, China joins the U.S. and the U.K. as the third country to own a dual-carrier battle group. However, this is just the beginning for the PLAN. China plans to build four to five more aircraft carriers in the next decade. China’s third aircraft carrier (Type 003), which is expected to be nuclear-powered and have electromagnetic catapults, akin to the newest generation of American flattops, is already under construction in Shanghai.

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North Korea Continues ICBM Refinement, Recent Test Suggests

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or “North Korea”) conducted a major test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Pad (SSLP), on December 7, 2019. Pyongyang has not revealed the…

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or “North Korea”) conducted a major test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Pad (SSLP), on December 7, 2019. Pyongyang has not revealed the nature of the test and only referred to it as “having an important impact on changing the strategic position of the DPRK.” The mysterious test took place ahead of the December 31st deadline set by DPRK President Kim Jong-Un, for a new denuclearization proposal from Washington.



MISSILE ENGINE TEST

Satellite imagery released by Planet Labs show nefarious activity at the SSLP, including vehicles and a big container. Before-and-after analysis shows the terrain near the launching pad severely scorched, on December 8, 2019. It is virtually certain the the exhaust of a big engine “burned” the ground. 


The engine tested likely belonged to either a space launch vehicle (SLV) or an intermediate/ intercontinental ballistic missile (IR/ICBM). North Korean President Kim Jong Un promised to stop ICBM tests if his American counterpart will reduce and ultimately cancel the annual US-South Korean exercises. The last ICBM test occurred in November 29, 2017, when the two-stage, liquid-fuel Hwasong-15/ KN-22 was successfully launched. Since then, the DPRK has only test-fired short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and multiple-rocket launchers – none of them being able to reach the continental U.S.

Hwasong-15/ KN-22 test-fired on November 29, 2017



The resumption of missile engine tests in Sohae would also break a “gentlemen’s agreement” reached between Trump and Kim Jong-Un during the Singapore summit. The DPRK dismantled the critical test site in mid-2018 as promised, however the SSLP was re-activated in March 2019. 

PYONGYANG IS ON STAND-BY

This latest test in Sohae suggests that the DPRK is furthering its ICBM strike technology covertly or within the limits of the denuclearization talks. Alternatively, Pyongyang could also be preparing to break loose of the agreement and conduct its first ICBM live-test in over two years. By restarting missile tests in Sohae, Pyongyang hopes to pressure President Trump into giving up further concessions, as the denuclearization talks are seemingly “dying”. If negotiations fail, the DPRK will be able to immediately resume its ICBM program by improving the operational functions of the Hwasong-15/ KN-22 (e.g. accuracy, terminal maneuvering, re-entry vehicle) or by exploring other ICBM-types.

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China’s Newest Aircraft Carrier Docks in Hainan Following Taiwan Strait Pass

The People’s Liberation Army-Navy’ (PLAN) “Type-002” aircraft carrier (formerly known as “Type-001A”) has docked at Yu-lin Naval Base (southernmost tip of Hainan island) after it passed through the disputed Taiwan Strait,…

The People’s Liberation Army-Navy’ (PLAN) “Type-002” aircraft carrier (formerly known as “Type-001A”) has docked at Yu-lin Naval Base (southernmost tip of Hainan island) after it passed through the disputed Taiwan Strait, satellite imagery released by Maxar Technologies show. Seven J-15 carrier multirole fighters (NATO reporting name “Flanker X-2”), three Changhe Z-18 anti-submarine helicopters and one Harbin Z-9 “Haitun” utility helicopter are seen taxied on the deck. The deployment from its “birthplace” in Dalian Shipyard to the South China Sea marks a major milestone in the Type 002’s sea trails. The Type 002 was trailed by U.S. Navy and Japanese surface groups throughout its entire transit of the Taiwan strait. 

TYPE 001 & 002: INDIGENOUS PRODUCTION/ RESTRICTIVE DESIGN

The Type 002 is China’s first domestically-produced aircraft carrier despite being heavily inspired by the “Liaoning” (Type 001), the only flattop currently in service with the PLAN. The “Liaoning” started as a Soviet aircraft-carrier cruiser but was scrapped halfway through development. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the half-built vessel (named “Varyag”) fell under Ukraine’s administration which put it up for sale. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) bought the “Varyag” in 1998 and completed it in the Dalian shipyard. Ever since “Liaoning” was commissioned in 2012, the PRC was drafting plans to build more and better aircraft carriers.  

Both the Type-002 and the Liaoning feature a upward-curved ramp to launch fixed-wing aircraft off the bow (i.e. ski-jump). The lack of a catapult launch system limits the the PLAN’s J-15 fighters to a 4,000 pound payload (e.g. fuel, ordnance). In comparison, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F SuperHornet can take-off with 12,000 pounds from the USS Truman thanks to the carrier’s steam catapults. This translates into extended range and larger weapons loadout for the aircraft. The Type-001/Type-002’s ski-jumps also limits the amount and type of aircraft it can launch and recover. 

TYPE-003 

Aware of the Type-001/Type-002’s obsolete design, the PLAN will reportedly introduce electromagnetic launch and recovery systems (EMALS) into the Type-003, a technology pioneered by the U.S. Navy’s new class of supercarriers (Ford-class). China’s third (and second indigenously produced) aircraft carrier is currently under construction at Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai, satellite imagery shows. The Type-003 is expected to commence with sea trails in 2020 and will be able to accomodate a larger and more diverse carrier air wing. 

Given the high-intensity rate of Chinese naval production, the PLAN is on course to close the capability gap on the U.S. Navy. Command of the South China Sea is paramount to China’s transition from a regional force to a world power. Beijing expects to field four or five combat-ready aircraft carriers by 2030. 


FOR THE RECORD: The Chinese Shipbuilding Industry has started re-designating the Type-001A as Type-002 in mid-2019. According to this logic, the aircraft carrier currently in works near Shanghai becomes the Type-003.

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Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage…

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage in manpower at Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC). Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa said that the problem was solved, after the AIDC hired 200 additional employees for the F-16 purpose-built facility in Taichung. Around 142 F-16 A/Bs of the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will be upgraded to the latest F-16 Block 70/72 or “Viper” (V) configuration. Announced in 2016, the $5.3 billion “Phoenix Rising” overhaul program is expected to be completed by 2022.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION APPROVES F-16V SALE TO ROC

In addition, the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will also receive 66 brand-new F-16 V fighter jets as part of a historical arms sale, which was authorized by the Trump administration in August 2019. Afraid to damage relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which views the ROC as a rogue province, the Bush and Obama administrations had previously refused the sale of modern F-16 jets to Taiwan. 

The Block 70/72 or Viper variant combines capability upgrades that render the F-16 relevant in today’s competitive age, while maintaining the jet’s cost-efficiency. The features include Norhrop Grumman’s AN/APG-53 scalable agile beam radar, an active electronically scanned radar, a Raytheon-built mission computer, the “Link16” datalink, an advanced cockpit display, an enhanced electronic warfare suite, and the integration of newer weapons systems. Following the upgrades and acquisition, the RoCAF’s F-16s will be able to fire the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile (AAM). The ROC expects to jets to be delivered between 2023 and 2026.

F-16 outfitted with a DB-110 ISR pod (rendering via Collins Aerospace)

According to local media, Taiwanese legislator Lu Yu-ling told parliament that the RoCAF is looking to acquire the UTC Aerospace Systems MS-110 multispectral airborne reconnaissance pod, which is a derivative of the company’s DB-110 dual-band long-range oblique photography pod. The MS-110 will provide the RoCAF with the capability to collect advanced imagery intelligence (IMINT) from a standoff range of 80 nautical miles, thus offering early-warning on potential enemy build-ups across the Taiwanese strait. 

Daytime visible image scan at 11 nautical miles from a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft (Unclassified Crown Copyright). At a heigh of 6 nautical miles, the MS-110 pod can photograph and scan an area of 200 nautical miles across the horizon.

 

INTEGRATING THE “VIPER” INTO TAIWAN’S “OVERALL DEFENSE CONCEPT” 

While “Phoenix Rising” and the large F-16V procurment will enhance Taiwan’s deterrence posture, it will not change the balance of power in the region. Despite significant foreign purchases and idigenous developments, Taiwan’s military capabilities do not measure up to the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force’s (PLAAF) inventory of over 1,500 aircraft and China’s growing navy. To address this issue, Taiwan has adopted a new military doctrine based on asymmetric warfare. 

The “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC) calls for the wholesale mining of the Taiwan strait and the ROC shores as well as for targeting advancing enemy forces with a barrage of anti-ship/coastal defense missiles and swarms of small and fast-moving boats. By imposing great costs on an amphibious assault through affordable means, Taiwan would be preserving its conventional capabilities for joint operations, once the United States Navy comes to its rescue. If they survive the PLA’s and PLAAF’s anticipated missile barrage on Taiwanese airfields, the RoCAF’s F-16s would play air defense and anti-surface roles in a projected conflict. 

The ODC is part of the “resolute defense, multi-layered deterrence” strategy introduced by the Tsai administration. Beijing pursues an increasingly hardline policy against Taiwan, since the Tsai administration is unwilling to abide to the “One China” policy. The PRC is actively seeking to restrict Taiwan’s participation in the international community and engages in political warfare, aimed at undermining democracy in Taipei.

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Is Boeing’s AI-Powered Drone the Loyal Wingman of Tomorrow? The Aussies Think So.

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless…

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless disclosed some juicy bits of information. The “Loyal Wingman” drone, officially designated as “Airpower Teaming System” (AST), will spearhead electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering sorties in contested or denied environments, which are deemed too dangerous for manned assets. 

With a performance range of 3,700 km (2,200 miles), the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) airframe will receive a low-observability coating that will significantly boost its survivability in sensor-rich and hostile airspaces. Besides stealth, the “Loyal Wingman” will provide another fifth generation avionic element, namely enhanced networking capability. Towards this objective, the drone is designed to network sensor data, air control, and targeting information with allied airframes such as Australia’s E-7 (airborne early warning and control aircraft), EA-18G Growler (electronic attack aircraft), F/A/-18E/F SuperHornet (fighter jet), and P-8 Poseidon (naval aviation maritime security patrol aircraft). In the future, the UAV will be able to network with other drones and the RAAF’s expanding fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. These features will allow the “Loyal Wingman” to become a force multiplier, while keeping Australia’s fighter pilots and small airfleet out of harm’s way. 

The technology behind the “Loyal Wingman’s” visionary features is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The RAAF’s “Project Jericho” employs AI technology in four key areas: combat cloud, advanced sensing, human-machine augmentation, and autonomous processing. On the battlefield of tomorrow, the RAAF expects that information will be too overwhelming for humans to process in a timely manner. Special purpose AI capabilities, including deep learning algorithms with cutting-edge processing speed, can mitigate this problem and optimize the individual-machine performance. In other words, the “Loyal Wingman” could drastically reduce the time in which a nearby pilot, ground station analyst, or political decision-maker receives key intelligence (and not only unprocessed information). This would provide unprecedented decision-making advantages and improved situational awareness.

AI augmentation could, however, go even further. Experts believe that the “Loyal Wingman” could use its deep learning processors and computing power to study the flight patterns, radar cross sections and combat maneuvers of adversarial aircraft and devise options to outmaneuver them. The UAV could also provide telemetry for intercepting enemy ordnance, using mathematical scheduling and estimation models, and link with other drones for swarming attacks. AI could therefore truly push the technology aboard the “Loyal Wingman” to the edge of fifth generation aerial combat. 

The “Loyal Wingman” is expected to embark on its maiden flight in 2020. The United States Air Force is pursuing a similar UAV project called “Skyborg,” which is expected to make its debut in 2023.


by HARM 

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USS Chancellorsville Avoids Collision with Russian ‘Admiral Vinogradov’

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter…

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter was recovering its Seahawk helicopter on a steady course, when the Russian destroyer closed in at 50 to 100 feet. The USS Chancellorsville was forced to execute all engines back full and maneuver to avoid collision. The two vessels came so close that U.S. sailors were able to photograph their Russian counterparts sunbathing on the front deck. Moscow blamed the U.S. for the incident and claimed that it took place in the East China Sea.

Target (TGT) designates the incident location – 23°49’19.00 N 126°39’37.00E – aprox. 36 km north of the P-8 aircraft (ACFT).

However, imagery released by a U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime security and anti-submarine aircraft shows that the Russian destroyer was pushing towards the Chancellorsville, while the U.S. vessel was dropping speed. Furthermore, GPS coordinates from the P-8’s infrared search and track camera show both the aircraft (ACFT) and the two vessels (TRT) maneuvering in the Philippine Sea, as confirmed by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Photo taken by the P-8 Poseidon aircraft via U.S. Navy

The combined presence of the USS Chancellorsville and P-8 Poseidon as well as the deployment of a Seahawk during the incident indicate that the assets were on anti-submarine duty in support of the Pacific Fleet’s Carrier Strike Group Five. Given this situation, it is highly likely that the Russians approached the USS Chancellorsville to conduct a close inspection of weapons system loadout. The American destroyer is equipped with the latest Aegis air defense suite (i.e. Baseline Nine, SM-6 etc.), engagement and sensor fusion technology (i.e. Cooperative Engagement Capability/NEC, Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air/ NIFC-CA) that enables beyond visual range engagement at classified ranges. The USS Chancellorsville also carries the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TALM) and the latest block-version of the Harpoon anti-ship missile.

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