Thursday, January 5, 2012

X-37B spying on China?

America's classified X-37B spaceplane is probably spying on China, according to a report in Spaceflight magazine.

The unpiloted vehicle was launched into orbit by the US Air Force in March last year and has yet to return to Earth.

The Pentagon has steadfastly refused to discuss its mission but amateur space trackers have noted how its path around the globe is nearly identical to China's spacelab, Tiangong-1.

There is wide speculation that the X-37B is eavesdropping on the laboratory.

"Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China's nascent space station," said Spaceflight editor Dr David Baker.

The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), looks like a mini space shuttle and can glide back down through the atmosphere to land on a runway, just like Nasa's re-usable manned spaceplane used to do before its retirement last July.

Built by Boeing, the Air Force's robotic craft is about 9m long and has a payload bay volume similar to that of a small van. But what goes in the payload bay, the USAF will not discuss.

The current mission was launched on an Atlas rocket and put into a low orbit, a little over 300km up, with an inclination of 42.79 degrees with respect to the equator - an unusual profile for a US military mission which would normally go into an orbit that circles the poles.

The X-37B's flight has since been followed from the ground by a dedicated group of optical tracking specialists in the US and Europe, intrigued by what the vehicle may be doing.

These individuals have watched how closely its orbit matches that of Tiangong.

The spacelab, which China expects to man with astronauts in 2012, was launched in September with an inclination of 42.78 degrees, and to a very similar altitude as the OTV.

"The parallels with X-37B are clear," Dr Baker says in Spaceflight, the long established magazine of the British Interplanetary Society.

"With a period differential of about 19 seconds, the two vehicles will migrate toward or against each other, converging or diverging, roughly every 170 orbits."

No-one can say for sure what sort of mission the spaceplane is pursuing; all the USAF has said is that the OTV is being used as a testbed for new technologies.

An artist's impression of the recent Shenzhou capsule docking with Tiangong-1
But the suggestion any new sensors in the X-37B might take an interest in Tiangong's telemetry is certainly an interesting one.

Washington retains a deep distrust of Beijing's space ambitions - even its apparently straightforward human spaceflight missions.

Part of the problem is that China draws little distinction between its civilian and military programmes, unlike in other parts of the world, such as Europe, where the bloc's space agency, Esa, is committed by charter to "exclusively peaceful" programmes. European military space projects are the preserve of national governments.

In the US, also, that distinction is pretty clear with Nasa being charged with the majority of civilian projects.

In China, on the other hand, the lines are more blurred and the military reaches across all its space programmes.

"If this is what the X-37B is doing, I think it really is no bad thing," Dr Baker told BBC News. "As with the Cold War, the proliferation of space surveillance systems enabled us to get arms agreements that would not have been possible without each side knowing fully what the other side was doing."

Tiangong-1 was launched in September
Not everyone is convinced by the latest analysis.

Read the rest of the story HERE at the BBC

Iran could close Straits of Hormuz - but at what cost?


By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON | Thu Jan 5, 2012 10:35am EST

But they could also find themselves sparking a punishing -- if perhaps short-lived -- regional conflict from which they could emerge the primary losers.

In recent weeks, a growing number of senior Iranian military and civilian officials have warned that Tehran could use force to close the 54 km (25 mile) entrance to the Gulf if Western states impose sanctions that paralyze their oil exports.

In 10 days of highly publicized military exercises, state television showed truck-mounted missiles blasting towards international waters, fast gunboats practicing attacks and helicopters deploying divers and naval commandos.

Few believe Tehran could keep the straits closed for long -- perhaps no more than a handful of days -- but that alone would still temporarily block shipment of a fifth of all traded global oil, sending prices rocketing and severely denting hopes of global economic recovery.

But such action would swiftly trigger retaliation from the United States and others that could leave the Islamic republic militarily and economically crippled.

"They can cause a great deal of mischief... but it depends how much pain they are willing to accept," says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

He said he believed Tehran would only take such action as a last resort: "They are much more likely to threaten than to act."

The true purpose of its recent saber-rattling, many analysts suspect, may be more a mixture of deterring foreign powers from new sanctions and distracting voters from rising domestic woes ahead of legislative elections in March.

With the United States signing new sanctions into law on New Year's Eve -- although they will not enter force until the middle of the year -- and the European Union considering similar steps, few expect the pressure on Tehran to let up.

"This is probably less a genuine military threat than a bid to put economic pressure back on the West and split Western powers over sanctions that threaten Iran's oil economy," says Henry Wilkinson, head of intelligence and analysis at London security consultants Janusian.

"Iran now does not have much to lose by making such a threat and a lot to gain."

But many fear the more Iran is pushed into a corner, the greater the risk of miscalculation.

Its ruling establishment is also widely seen as deeply divided, with some elements -- particularly the well-equipped and hardline Revolutionary Guard -- much keener on confrontation than others.


"I cannot see strategic sense in closing the straits, but then I do not understand the Iranian version of the 'rational actor'," said one senior Western naval officer on condition of anonymity.

"(But) one can be pretty certain that they will misjudge the Western reaction... They clearly find us as hard to read as we find them."

The capability to wreak at least temporary chaos, however, is unquestionably there.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet always keeps one or two aircraft carrier battle groups either in the Gulf or within striking distance in the Indian Ocean.

Keenly aware of conventional U.S. military dominance in the region, Iran has adopted what strategists describe as an "asymmetric" approach.

Missiles mounted on civilian trucks can be concealed around the coastline, tiny civilian dhows and fishing vessels can be used to lay mines, and midget submarines can be hidden in the shallows to launch more sophisticated "smart mines" and homing torpedoes.

Iran is also believed to have built up fleets of perhaps hundreds of small fast attack craft including tiny suicide speedboats, learning from the example of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels who used such methods in a war with the government.

At worst, its forces could strike simultaneously at multiple ships passing out of the Gulf, leaving a string of burning tankers and perhaps also Western warships.

But a more likely initial scenario, many experts believe, is that it would simply declare a blockade, perhaps fire warning shots at ships and announce it had laid a minefield.

"All the Iranians have to do is say they mined the straight and all tanker traffic would cease immediately," says Jon Rosamund, head of the maritime desk at specialist publishers and consultancy IHS Jane's.


U.S. and other military forces would find themselves swiftly pushed by shippers and consumers to force a route through with minesweepers and other warships -- effectively daring Tehran to fire or be revealed to have made an empty threat.

During the so-called "tanker war" of the mid-1980s, Gulf waters were periodically mined as Iran and Iraq attacked each other's oil shipments.

U.S., British and other foreign forces responded by escorting other nations' tankers -- as well as conducting limited strikes on Iranian maritime targets.

This time, retaliation could go much further. In closing the straits, Tehran would have committed an act of war and that might prove simply too tempting an opportunity for its foes to pass up.

"We might well take the opportunity to take out their entire defense system," said veteran former U.S. intelligence official Anthony Cordesman, now Burke Chair of Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

"You'd almost certainly also see serious strikes on their nuclear facilities. Once the Iranians have initiated hostilities, there is no set level at which you have to stop escalation."

Whilst in theory it would be possible to push heavily protected convoys through the straits even in the face of Iranian attack, few believe shippers or insurers would have the appetite for the level of casualties that could involve.

Instead, they would probably hold back until Tehran's military had been sufficiently degraded. That, Western military officers confidently say, would only be a matter of time.

"Anti-ship cruise missiles are mobile, yet can... be found and destroyed," said one U.S. naval officer with considerable experience in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Submarines are short-duration threats -- they eventually have to come to port for resupply and when they do they will be sitting ducks."


Given the forces arrayed against them, many analysts believe Tehran will ultimately keep the straits open -- not least to allow their own oil exports to flow -- whilst finding other ways to needle its foes.

If they did wish to disrupt shipping, they could briefly close off areas of the Gulf through declaring "military exercise areas," "accidentally" release oil into the main channel or perhaps launch one-off and more deniable hit-and-run attacks.

The rhetoric, however, looks almost certain to continue.

"This isn't the first time we have heard these types of threats," said Alan Fraser, Middle East analyst for London-based risk consultancy AKE. "Closing of the Straits of Hormuz is the perfect issue to talk about because the stakes are potentially so high that nobody wants it to happen."

Henry Smith, Middle East analyst at consultancy Control Risks, says he believes the only circumstances under which the Iranians would consider such action would be if the United States or Israel had already launched an overt military strike on nuclear facilities.

"Then, I think it would happen pretty much automatically," he said. "The Iranians have been saying for a long time that is an option, and they would have little choice but to stick to that. But otherwise, I think it's very unlikely."

For many long-term watchers of the region, the real risk remains that in playing largely to domestic audiences, policymakers in Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran inadvertently spark something much worse than they ever intended.

"Both sides are talking tough," said Farhang Jahanpour, associate fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. "Unfortunately it can very easily get out of hand and cause a conflagration. I blame hardliners on both sides. They are playing a very dangerous game of chicken." (Additional reporting by William Maclean)

(Reporting By Peter Apps; Edited by Richard Meares)

Obama - firing soldiers to save money

The US is to axe thousands of troops as part of a far-reaching defence review aimed at coping with huge budget cuts over the next decade, officials say.

The changes - to be unveiled on Thursday - are likely to end a decades-old policy of maintaining the strength to fight two wars at once.

President Barack Obama will announce the plans with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon on Thursday.

The Pentagon faces more than $450bn (£288bn) in cuts in the next 10 years.

Another $500bn in cuts could be looming at the beginning of 2013, after a congressional committee failed to act on finding budget savings last year.

Despite this Mr Obama, wary of the upcoming presidential election, is expected to emphasise that the US military budget is continuing to grow, albeit at a slower pace.

US officials have sought to portray the president as taking a deliberate approach to defence spending, insisting any troop reductions will be informed by a review of strategy by commanders.

There's the growing pressure on the defence budget in an age of austerity.

The commitment of US combat forces in Iraq is over and the developing draw-down of US numbers in Afghanistan makes this a good moment for a re-appraisal.

There is also a broader desire to re-orientate the focus of US defence policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia.

Today will not be the moment for detailed announcements about troops cuts and weapons programmes delayed or cancelled. But cuts there will be in due course, with more US troops likely to be brought home from Europe.

The US Army and the Marine Corps will be reduced in number and the US Marines will return to their traditional role as a rapid intervention force.

The focus for the future looks to be on what the Pentagon calls "the Air-Sea Battle" - the creation of forces capable of containing a rising military player in the Asia-Pacific region. Nobody says so explicitly, but it's China they clearly have in mind.

White House spokesman Jay Carney described the planned cuts as "surgical". The president is also reported to have been closely involved in the decision-making process.

No specific cuts or troop reduction figures will be announced on Thursday, reports say, but the White House said the review "will guide our budget priorities and decisions going forward".

Reuters news agency says officials are considering a 10-15% reduction in the US Army and Marine Corps over 10 years - equivalent to tens of thousands of troops.

Future in Asia
The US is expected to make several large long-term strategic changes as a result of budget pressures, including reducing the overall number of ground troops and strengthening air and naval power in Asia.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus says more US troops are likely to be brought home from Europe.

Our correspondent says the focus for the future looks to be on what the Pentagon calls "the Air-Sea Battle" - the creation of forces capable of containing a rising military player in the Asia-Pacific region. He says it is clearly China that the US officials are thinking of.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made clear last autumn that Asia would be central to US security strategy, including countering China's influence in the region, describing the Pacific as a "key priority".

Backing away from a potential two-war footing has been debated in the Pentagon for years.

In June 2001, then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress the two-war strategy was "not working".

And when the US was in fact fighting two wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - the military suffered a shortage of manpower.

The expected change in strategy would prepare the US to fight one war while waging a holding operation elsewhere to "spoil" a second threat.

Officials say they are using recent examples to guide their decisions.

"As Libya showed, you don't necessarily have to have boots on the ground all the time," an unnamed official told Reuters. "We are refining our strategy to something that is more realistic."

Yet many of the Nato allies in Libya are facing similarly tight defence budgets, and Mr Obama is likely to face criticism from defence hawks in Congress, including Republicans and those seeking to challenge him for the presidency in November.


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