Author Archives: combatpaparazzi

Singapore holds first International Maritime Review

Above: RSS Independence, the RSN’s newly commissioned LMV, was one of the reviewing ships.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), which this year is celebrating its golden jubilee, held its first ever international maritime review in waters off the newly rechristened RSS Singapura – Changi Naval Base on 15 May.

Talking about the event, the RSN stated, ‘The International Maritime Review is an opportunity for the RSN to welcome our friends from around the world to join us in our 50th anniversary celebrations.

‘Working with like-minded navies from the region and beyond to tackle common transboundary maritime security threats, the RSN has strengthened mutual trust and understanding to interoperate effectively with other navies and maritime agencies. The RSN, together with our international partners, continues to ensure a safe and secure maritime environment for all.’

Huangshan is a Type 054A frigate of the People’s Liberation  Army Navy.

Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam reviewed the participating vessels from land and from aboard RSS Independence, the RSN’s recently commissioned and first-of-class Littoral Mission Vessel.

The fleet review featured 16 ships from the RSN, two vessels from the Police Coast Guard and four aircraft from the Republic of Singapore Air Force, as well as 28 vessels from 20 foreign navies.

Some vessels, such as the large Thai aircraft carrier and Japanese ‘helicopter destroyer’ remained berthed at the naval base, while the majority of the ships were moored at sea.

HTMS Chakri Naruebet, Thailand’s solitary aircraft carrier (sans aircraft except for a couple of helicopters), was the largest vessel in the International Maritime Review.

This was one of the swiftest fleet reviews that this author has participated in, which was probably fortunate given that a tropical thunderstorm enveloped the area right at the end. Media boarded a couple of Fast Craft Utility (FCU) for the event, and were whisked up and down the lines of moored warships in a well-orchestrated event.

During the IMDEX exhibition that was held from 16-18 May, attendees had the opportunity to go aboard and more closely examine a number of these ships whilst they were berthed within RSS Singapura – Changi Naval Base.

The full list of those ships participating in the review is given below.

Singapore participants

RSS Persistence and RSS Endurance (Endurance class), RSS Kaliang, RSS Punggoi and RSS Bedok (Bedok class), RSS Fearless and RSS Daring (Fearless class), RSS Formidable, RSS Supreme and RSS Stalwart (Formidable class), RSS Valiant and RSS Vigilance (Victory class), RSS Independence and Sovereignty (Independence class), RSS Swordsman (Archer class), RSS Conqueror (Challenger class), and Sandbar Shark and Whitetip Shark of the Police Coast Guard.

The RSN’s futuristic-looking Specialised Marine Craft (SMC) performed security tasks during the fleet review.

International participants

Australia – HMAS Ballarat

Bangladesh – BNS Shadhinota

Brunei – KDB Darussalam

Canada – HMCS Ottawa

China – Huangshan

France – FS Prairial

India – INS Sahyadri and INS Kamorta

Indonesia – KRI Sultan Hasanuddin and KRI Halasan

Japan – JS Izumo and JS Sazanami

Malaysia – KD Lekir

Myanmar – UMS Sin Phyu Shin

New Zealand – HMNZS Te Kaha and HMNZS Endeavour

Pakistan – PNS Zulfiquar

Philippines – BRP Gregorio del Pilar

Russia – RFS Varyag

South Korea – ROKS Dae Jo Yeong

Sri Lanka – SLNS Sagara and SLNS Nandimithra

Thailand – HTMS Chakri Naruebet, HTMS Naresuan and HTMS Sukhothai

US – USS Sterett and USS Coronado

Vietnam – VPNS Dinh Tien Hoang

 

China apologises for poster gaffe

It is hard for any of us to say sorry, but even more so for a communist regime. However, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) has done so, purportedly for the first time.

The MND admitted an embarrassing photoshop failure on an official poster celebrating the 68th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It was an error that drew ridicule from home and abroad, and it occurred shortly before the fanfare surrounding the launch of China’s very first indigenously built aircraft carrier on 26 April.

The celebratory poster depicted a carrier alongside an eclectic and mistaken mix of American and Russian military platforms. Indeed, lifting off from China’s in-service Liaoning carrier was a Russian MiG-35 fighter (apparently not having had to use its landing gear either), an aircraft type not used by China.

Even more bizarre, ploughing through the calm ocean alongside the Liaoning were two San Antonio-class amphibious assault ships operated by the US Navy.

Overhead on the flashy poster a trio of J-10 fighters streaked across a blue sky emblazoned with the message ‘Happy birthday, People’s Liberation Army Navy!’

While the PLAN does operate some J-10s, one would have expected to see carrier-based J-15s operating so far out to sea.

All in all, the PR poster was a massive fail.

A Hong Kong newspaper quoted one critical Chinese netizen who said on the Weibo social media site, ‘This picture shows everyone at the propaganda department is mentally deficient.’

Such was the fuss that the topic came up at an MND press conference on 27 April. Spokesman Yang Yujun commented, ‘We also noticed this problem as you mentioned. We were not meticulous enough in illustrating the image and we suffered from criticism from the internet users.’

He continued, ‘The carelessness was with the editor but the responsibility is on the shoulders of the leadership.’

Indeed, one wonders just how many high-ranking officials will be sent to ‘re-education through labour’ camps to pay for their carelessness. Oh, wait, China supposedly abolished all these camps in 2013 so they might yet be okay.

A reporter asked why the poster had not been removed from circulation, and Yang replied, ‘Criticism of the friends on the internet is more of care and support to us. So we prefer to leave the picture and comments there so they can always remind us that only when we continuously improve and perfect ourselves can we better serve our fans and the military fans.’

The Global Times reported that this was the first time that China’s MND had ever issued a public apology for a work-related error.

Wow! Talk about cracks appearing in the façade!

DJI enjoys global domination

20161216_114059 According to an Oppenheimer report released earlier this year, DJI enjoyed a 70% market share in the sale of consumer UAVs. With the company valued by investors at $8 billion, this is a phenomenal result given how crowded the ‘drone market’ has become.

If you’re wondering, DJI stands for Da-Jiang Innovation. The company was established just ten years ago by Frank Wang, a graduate of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Incidentally, Forbes places the DJI CEO 48th on its China list with a net worth of $3.6 billion.

DJI opened its flagship store in Hong Kong on 24 September. This was DJI’s third, following the setting up of stores in Shenzhen and Seoul. Latterly, DJI opened a fourth store in Shanghai.

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I trotted along to the Hong Kong venue to find out more about why DJI is so popular among consumers. Whilst there, I saw the latest products, including the 743g Mavic Pro that was launched in October; it is almost pocket-sized. This compact UAV measuring 198mm x 83mm x 83mm folds up for easy transportation but sacrifices no features found in other mainstream UAVs.

The Phantom is the bestselling product in DJI’s range, with the newest variant, the Phantom 4 Pro+, released in mid-November. Elsewhere, the Inspire 2 designed with filmmakers in mind was also launched last month. The Matrice 600 is another platform for professional filmmakers.

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Kevin On, DJI’s associate director of communication, listed five key sectors where it believes UAVs have the highest potential for adoption: agriculture, cinematography, inspection of energy infrastructure, construction and infrastructure, and emergency response.

dji-smallTime savings, as well as safety issues, are obvious for such applications. For example, it is more efficient to use a UAV to examine a wind turbine tower or an electrical pylon than it is to send a worker scaling up one. Meanwhile, plumbing pipes on the outside of an apartment block can be examined by a UAV more efficiently than a worker clambering up and down scaffolding.

DJI has 17 offices worldwide and a global workforce of 6,000. The majority are based in Shenzhen, China, and around a third of the firm’s employees are engineers, reflecting the emphasis that DJI places on innovation. It also produces its own gimbals and cameras, which allows better optimisation of its UAV designs.

While the UAV industry is still relatively young, On agreed that the market is becoming crowded. He noted that putting a UAV into the air is not the hard part, but having it do something useful and making it safe, reliable and easy to navigate is far more difficult.

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While the USA, Europe and China are DJI’s biggest markets overall, On said the biggest interest in the rest of Asia came from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. He noted that these are areas where the adoption of technology is high.

Another innovation in which DJI is investing heavily is robotics and artificial intelligence. Currently its UAVs employ simple machine learning but, as technology progresses, machine learning will become more complex and enable the UAV to make informed decisions. Obstacle avoidance is an obvious application of this kind of technology.

On provided three reasons for DJI’s success: making its products safer, more accessible and easier to use.

Based on its lion’s share of the global market past and present, that formula seems to be working. However, one must expect competition to intensify from both within and outside of China.

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Juicing the gen in Zhuhai

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The world – including North Korean technicians dressed in mufti, uniformed African delegations by the busload and Iranian officials flown in by executive jet – flocked to the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai from 1-6 November.

Nowadays the biennial Zhuhai Air Show is undisputedly Asia’s largest military exhibition and, unfortunately, that means the price of hotel accommodation doubles or triples and the event is overrun by people who have no business being there. Just what is the point of allowing housewives, the elderly and infirm, and thousands of souvenir hunters and selfie-takers to run roughshod over the show?

However, as one elbowed their way through the heaving masses, there were numerous exciting revelations to discover. The highlight was the J-20 stealth fighter’s cameo appearance on opening day. However, if you blinked, you would have missed this brief apparition as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) enigmatically played hard to get.

Other PLAAF aircraft debuted in Zhuhai, however, to sooth the disappointment of those who blinked. Among them were the J-10B fighter, H-6K bomber, KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, Y-20 transport aircraft and Z-10K attack helicopter.

All photos by the author.

Nearby were towering air surveillance radars, a number purportedly able to detect F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. Fact or fiction? Certainly China is happy with either as it handcrafts an aura of technological advancement. On display was the JY-27A 3D long-range surveillance/guidance radar, the PLA’s first active phased array system. The debuting SLC-7 radar integrates mechanical scanning with phased-array technology, and yet another anti-stealth fighter radar was the JY-50 2D passive system.

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What about the halls crammed with lethal weaponry, which give the outside world vague hints as to what the PLA might be fielding? Was the two-stage TYD-1 missile target a tantalising hint that China is robustly pursuing a ballistic missile defence programme?

There were explosive missiles revelations too. Very potent was the supersonic 290km-range CM-302 anti-ship cruise missile, an export version of the YJ-12 in PLA service. Chinese media called it ‘the world’s best anti-ship missile’ thanks to supersonic speed sustained throughout flight, before it accelerates to Mach 3 in its terminal phase.

There were startling revelations about China’s space programme too. Perennially touted as being for wholly peaceful purposes, it was shown for what it is in one fell swoop. On show were scale models of two transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) able to launch Long March rockets, both clad in a military camouflage schemes. Why does China need military TELs for Long March rockets? Obviously, their function is to rapidly launch satellite payloads to replace satellites lost in a space war. Such satellites could also deploy microsatellites possessing warheads to destroy US satellites.

And no description would be complete without mentioning the bewildering array of UAVs. Leading the charge were unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), which China is hawking worldwide and are being used for manifold purposes by somewhat dubious regimes.

The well-known Wing Loong 1 and 2 appeared, while models and brochures indicated the existence of a Wing Loong 1-D and Wing Loong 3, the latter powered by two propeller engines.

Two new jet-powered UCAVs also had maiden appearances in Zhuhai. One was the high-altitude, long-endurance Cloud Shadow with 14,000m cruising altitude and 620km/h maximum speed. Also, the competing CH-5 UCAV can carry a 1,000kg payload to a ceiling of 10km.

Although it was an air show, there was a massive amount of heavy armour on display too. Norinco unveiled its VT5 light main battle tank, this sharing heritage from the PLA’s own light tank that entered service in 2014.

To summarise, if you’re looking for new fighters, helicopters, UAVs, radars, missiles or armoured vehicles, China’s giant military-industrial complex is churning out equipment that will suit you. And even better, anyone can apply, despots from North Korea, Africa and Iran included.

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The Philippine pivot

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Much was made of President Barack Obama’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Now another pivot is under way. Only trouble is that it seems to be unhinged and nobody really knows which way it is going to go.

The pivot all centres on newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte.

This week he headed off to Beijing to meet with Chinese leaders from 18-21 October. Of course, China will be on its most flattering and smoothest behaviour.

9n5a3360Ironically, this is a sharp contrast to China’s acerbic remarks against the Philippines when the court of public opinion – and the Permanent Court of Arbitration – stood against it over the South China Sea row. How the pendulum has swung.

At the moment the Philippine president seems quite enamoured with the Chinese and what they can do for his country. Could Duterte, the one who promised he would ride a jet ski out to Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal to plant a Philippine flag, meekly roll over in front of Beijing?

It is clear that Duterte does not like the US. He has already accused the CIA of plotting to assassinate him. He has already told American military advisors (the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines) to get out of Mindanao. He announced that the recent PHIBLEX exercise between the US Marine Corps and Philippine military would be the last ever under his leadership.

9n5a3372Indeed, this author was present at both the ADAS 2016 defence show last month and PHIBLEX earlier this month (from which the associated photos come). There was palpable tension and uncertainty among diplomats and senior military officials on both sides. The US does not know which way Duterte is going to swing next, so it is striving hard to avoid any provocation.

Duterte’s senior officials are often left scrambling to explain that Duterte did not really mean what he said, or that he was misinformed by advisors. He has even advocated buying Chinese weapons, something odd considering the two countries’ recent history.

His contention that bilateral exercises with the US only benefit the latter are clearly erroneous. The Philippine military is underfunded and strained by two concurrent insurgencies as well as an external territorial threat from China. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) learns far more from exercises like PHIBLEX and Balikatan than the US does. The two countries conduct 28 training activities together annually.

Duterte has also foolishly belittled the efforts of the US military in assisting the Philippines after natural disasters strike.

9n5a3540Will the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) be abrogated? Or the Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951? Duterte said he would not, but he is often guilty of backtracking so one can never be sure. He is particularly angry at the US, the United Nations and anyone else who dares to question his policy of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers.

Duterte, a socialist, has to tread warily. If he concedes too much ground to the communists, whom the AFP has been fighting for decades, or caves in to China, the military will be unhappy. The Philippines has a history of military coups, and Duterte will not want to provoke another one. For this reason he has to placate the military to some degree, whether it be with new equipment or some other way.

img_4390Yet Duterte is enjoying immense popularity ratings in the polls. He garnered just 37.6% of votes in the presidential election, but a September poll revealed a 76% approval rating. His anti-crime campaign has already seen more than 3,000 so-called criminals killed. Finally the country has a strong leader who will fight crime and corruption and not let it be downtrodden by the major powers.

Could Duterte then be a genius? Is he playing off the US and China to get the best from both worlds? Possibly… but it seems unlikely. He has already shown a propensity to flip-flop and to contradict himself within brief periods of time.

Which direction will the Philippine pivot go? We watch with bated breath as this bull enters the China shop in Beijing…

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Taiwan repels Chinese invasion

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Han Kuang is a field training exercise that occurs annually in Taiwan, and it sees the majority of the country’s 210,000 military personnel mobilised.

This exercise has one purpose – to practise repelling an invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the militaries of many countries consider numerous threats and scenarios, Taiwan need consider only one – its nemesis across the Taiwan Strait.

There is no political correctness needed here. Taiwan knows who its adversary is, and all its capabilities are designed to repel China. After all, Beijing has not renounced the use of force to reunite the ‘renegade province’ of Taiwan with the mainland, and it has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island.

9N5A0898This year’s Han Kuang exercise, the 32nd in the series, was conducted from 22-26 August, during which some 1,072 tests were completed. This figure included 31 relating to countering cyber attacks, a favoured tactic of the PLA.

Taichung always features highly in Han Kuang exercises, as the port city halfway down the west coast of Taiwan has an extremely high strategic value. If the PLA were to capture it after crossing the rough seas of the Taiwan Strait, a rapid build-up of forces could soon see the island could be split in half.

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Chinese troops could move north to capture the political and military nerve centre of Taipei, or south to the port city of Kaohsiung.

After the accidental firing of a Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missile on 1 July, and a CM11 tank rollover that killed four crewmen a week before the exercise kicked off, Taiwan’s military tried hard to create a good impression with this large-scale joint exercise.

For example, the 564th Armoured Brigade hosted an air-land joint exercise in Pingtung in the far south. It featured 1,297 personnel in total, and nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition of 24 different types were expended.

A key highlight of this year’s exercise was the first-time integration of Boeing AH-64E Apache and Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters side by side. Taiwan acquired 30 of the former (one later crashed) and is in the process of receiving 60 of the latter.

Domestically built equipment featured strongly in Han Kuang too. A Chung Shyang II UAV fed data to participants, while the truck-mounted Point Defence Array Radar System (PODARS) also participated, as did numerous CM33 8×8 APCs.

President Tsai Ing-wen attended the live-fire event, her first time in the capacity as national leader. Donning a helmet and ballistic vest, she stated to assembled military leaders, ‘I hope we can all make use of innovative thinking to build an upgraded military.’

She directed commanders to map out a new military strategy by January 2017 for the armed forces. The military faces severe challenges, including a declining birth rate that means there are not enough volunteers to join the armed forces. This has forced postponement of the cancellation of national conscription.

9N5A1284Another challenge is a defence budget that cannot hope to compete with China. Thus, the capability gap between the PLA and the Republic of China Armed Forces is widening alarmingly.

‘The challenges Taiwan’s defence forces face stem from structural restrictions both outside and inside the military,’ Tsai said. ‘The military will improve if it faces its problems head on. Reform will be achieved if everyone works together, despite the challenges,’ she promised.

It will thus be interesting to see what changes occur in national defence strategy as they begin emerging next year.

In the meantime, Han Kuang seemed to have a successful outcome this year… Taiwan remains under the control of Taipei rather than Beijing!

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Chinese claims shot down in flames

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Is anyone sick of China’s global propaganda campaign to annul the work of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)?

I am, for one.

One expert after another has been rolled out decrying the 2013 case the Philippines brought against China regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea as unfair. Beijing threw around words like ‘farce’, and for months prior to the ruling it was calling the decision ‘illegal, null and void from the outset’.

Finally, on 12 July, the court in The Hague handed down its landmark decision. And what a verdict it was – a damning indictment of Chinese policy and behaviour.

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It was a total slap in the face and smack on the bum for China. Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, commented, ‘This is a remarkable victory for the Philippines.’

Many were stunned by the comprehensive nature of the verdict in Manila’s favour. The international tribunal found Beijing had violated 14 provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), six international collision-at-sea regulations and one general rule of international law.

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China all along stated it would not participate in PCA proceedings, nor accept or abide by any decision. It was well within its rights to do so. However, its petulant accusation that the PCA had no validity over the case was clearly wrong. Julian Ku, the Maurice A. Deane distinguished professor of constitutional law at the Hofstra University School of Law, noted, ‘Because the tribunal has exercised its powers under Article 288(4) to determine that it has jurisdiction over the dispute, then China is bound whether or not it has consented to this particular arbitration.’

Despite insisting it would not participate in proceedings, the 501-page PCA report revealed that China individually lobbied judges and used the Chinese ambassador in the Netherlands to make regular submissions to the PCA. China refused the opportunity to present its case, instead preferring backdoor avenues. Contradictory?

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So what did the court decide?

  1. The first bombshell was that China’s strategically vague nine-dash line is illegal and does not carry ‘historic rights’. It concluded, the ‘nine-dash line’ is contrary to UNCLOS and has no lawful effect. That must sting China and its oft-repeated mantra of historical rights.
  2. The PCA ruled that no geographic features in the South China Sea – of any nation – can be classified as islands. Thus, none is entitled to any exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf individually or collectively, although rocks do generate 12nm territorial waters.
  3. The judges decreed that China interfered in the EEZ of the Philippines in terms of fishing rights, petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and dangerous conduct by Chinese law enforcement vessels.
  4. The PCA severely criticised China for ‘irreparable’ harm inflicted on the marine environment due to large-scale reef reclamation activities.
  5. Finally, the court adjudged that China aggravated the dispute with its island reclamation and facility construction. Furthermore, building these reefs up does not convey any maritime legal rights after the fact.

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The Chinese reaction was predictably defiant. On its Weibo account, The People’s Daily carried the slogan: ‘Don’t accept, don’t participate, don’t recognise, don’t carry out.’ Some online nationalists even called for war before Chinese censors deleted posts in an effort to tone down the rhetoric!

The Chinese government released a statement asserting ‘China has territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea’ that are ‘consistent with relevant international law and practice’. Hmm…such a conclusion is in sharp contradiction to the PCA’s findings.

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This ruling, while binding, has no enforcement mechanism. With China rebutting the decision, it is inconceivable that Beijing will desist from its claims. However, given that China is a voluntary signatory to UNCLOS, to ignore the findings calls into question the country’s integrity.

The ruling does nothing to ease tensions. Indeed, the ball is very much in China’s court to see how it will respond. Probably most neighbours and the US will tread carefully not to inflame an otherwise tense situation. What the verdict has done, however, is provide a legal context for neighbours and the world to view Chinese claims and actions.

Importantly, China has lost face in the overwhelming criticisms it received in this case, and in Asia face matters an awful lot. Unfortunately, belittling the validity of the PCA can in no way save face for China in the court of world opinion either.

China already smarts deeply from its so-called century of national humiliation (1839-1949) – will this episode push it over the edge?

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