The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 8/27/20
Israeli and Emirati Peace Talks Complicated by Emerging F-35 Questions
Hamilton Cook, Research Associate
Last week, the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates announced a tripartite peace deal that would see the UAE become one of three Arab nations, and the first Gulf state, to normalize its relationship with Israel. This agreement would see the two nations, long believed to be cooperating in security matters in secret to counter Iranian influence in the region, sign bilateral agreements to standardize and increase travel, economic investments, and establish formal diplomatic relations between two countries, as well as pausing West Bank annexation. However, it is increasingly intimated by US and UAE officials that a significant portion of the tripartite deal may hinge upon a single arms deal: the UAE’s acquisition of the F-35.
The UAE has spent the last few years openly angling to be the first Gulf nation to acquire the F-35. However, that effort has been blocked by the US’s legal requirement to uphold Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region. Now, statements from the UAE Foreign Minister, senior White House officials, Israel’s Likud Minister, and in Israeli press, indicate that there is a link between the tripartite deal and a UAE F-35 deal. This was further reinforced by the UAE suddenly pulling out of trilateral meeting on Friday after Israeli Prime Minister open denied reports that he had signed off on a secret deal for UAE’s F-35s.
According to reports, this is the result of opposing forces within Israel’s security establishment. The Israeli Defence Ministry, who has the legal power to block such deals, opposes the potential degrading of Isareli’s unique capabilities in the region. Meanwhile, Mossad, and according to some reports, the Prime Minister’s office are in favor of expanding the cooperation between the two countries, which supposedly already includes the sale of higher-end Israeli defense equipment barred from other Gulf States (and officially the UAE).
How this plays out will have many potential impacts. In the near-term, such a deal would likely lead to another round of major US-Israel arms sales that would be used to solidify any concerns about slippage in QME, whether that were to include additional F-35s, high-end F-15s, V-22s, or other advanced military equipment. Meanwhile, it would also open up the question of whether other Gulf States would seek to “normalize” relations with Israel in order to obtain the much sought after jets. Finally, while it’s possible that a deal does go through, some observers question whether the UAE’s bluff will be called due to its need to maintain close support from the US in order to counterbalance influences from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.
AI Merges into Modern Dogfights
Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate
The US-based company Heron Systems has won the Alphadogfight competition last week amongst 7 other players. This competition was part of a larger program branded Air Combat Evolution (ACE), said to be worth $2 billion and led by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), and opposed by a human pilot against an Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered programme. As described by the US DARPA, this competition is aimed at demonstrating AI algorithms “capable of performing simulated within-visual-range air combat maneuvering (…) The series of trials were designed to energize and expand a base of AI developers for DARPA’s ACE program”.
In this instance, the AI-powered algorithm designed by Heron Systems won 5 times against the US DARPA F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot that was flying in a full flight simulator and equipped with a virtual reality headset. Programmed to lock on target and automatically fire as quickly as possible to maximize the opportunity for firing in a given interaction automatically hit the target, the competition highlighted how computers can calibrate better firing opportunities as they are not distracted by flight safety consideration (sometimes less than 500 feet from the other aircraft) and human physical consideration (G forces, disorientation, sight), hence being better able to take advantage of presented targets than a human pilot, who is forced to distribute their attention across multiple actions at the same time.
This does not mean that manned aircraft will become redundant in a near future. If the machine clearly won in a tethered and simulated environment, results could differ in real operations. This simulation obviated existing constraints about interpreting and processing full sensor data in a live environment, something that challenges existing systems. Machines still need to be trained to deal with a higher volume of parameters to learn and data to interpret, and automatic target hit default mode would be more likely to be subject to hit and miss targets. Similarly, delineating between a target and a non-target in grey scenarios would remain a responsibility of human controllers.
The biggest issue presently is confidence in the algorithm and its reliability. The firms that attended the competition witnessed in the early days of the tests that computers could also get data wrong, make mistakes in deductions and easily crash the aircraft. There is consequently still a long way to go before pilots, and more generally humans, can trust algorithms to overtake some of their tasks.
Interestingly, these tests and trials are focusing on one specific flying task, maneuver or aspect of air combat; the main idea being to relieve pilots from their current workload. As aircraft embedded mission systems are getting increasingly complex and provide more insights to the pilot that a human can only deal with, decision makers are looking to improve operational efficiency with limited effect on pilot health and capacity. Future integration of manned-unmanned teaming assets or drone swarm remotely controlled from a combat jet will require similar AI-powered systems to support the mission. Hence the crucial aspect of trustworthiness in systems aimed at reducing human workload.
For 5 years, the US DARPA is planning on researching on how algorithms can significantly improve air combat operations with similar tests and competitions: exploring and assessing where AI fits the best on-board fighter jets. On that note, one may notice that the F-16 has a long history with autonomy software, especially as the QF-16 project (run since 2010) has reached several successful milestones. While Skyborg is the highest profile unmanned development program, Alphadogfight and similar programs show that legacy aircraft still have a role to play in future warfare.
Here is an article about this from Defense-Aerospace.com.
Over the weekend, Russian media reported a much-anticipated agreement between Turkey and Russia for the acquisition of a second batch of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. According to Alexander Mikheyev, the head of Russia’s state arms seller Rosoboronexport, Turkish and Russian delegations are continuing to iron out specific details regarding financial arrangements and implementation. Mikheyev also relayed that a delivery timeline has yet to be determined, though both sides envisage a partial transfer of production technology from Russia to Turkey.
Ankara received its first batch of S-400s in July 2019 despite a concerted campaign by U.S. and NATO allies to dissuade the purchase. President Erdogan’s determination to pursue the S-400 led to Turkey’s removal from the American F-35 program and a serious rift in U.S.-Turkish relations. As such, Turkey’s acquisition of a second batch of S-400s would seriously endanger support activity for many existing platforms, such as Turkey’s F-16s and even run the risk of additional sanctions being imposed. Indeed, the U.S. Congress already has several members pushing for a more forceful response to Turkey’s S-400 acquisition.
On August 21, the Taiwanese press reported that the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) would be spending $51.4 million to upgrade its six E-2K Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft to the latest E-2D standard. While Taiwan certainly has good reason to upgrade its E-2K’s, this upgrade program cannot be verified. This report follows a recent string of reporting in both the Taiwanese and Western press regarding potential arms sales from the US to Taiwan. Much of this reporting is of dubious reliability and has not been corroborated from official Taiwanese or US sources. Such reports include a potential Taiwanese purchase of four MQ-9 Reapers worth $166 million, six SeaGuardian UAS worth $600 million, and an unspecified number M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launchers with ATACMS missiles. Avascent Analytics is aware of these reports, but reviews these on a case by case basis to assess their veracity and feasibility from a budget perspective before entering this data into the Global Platforms and Systems database. The Taiwanese defense budget’s procurement account is already spread thin supporting other large purchases such as 108 M1 Abrams tanks, an ongoing upgrade of over 140 F-16’s, over 280 CM-32 IFV’s, and hundreds of TOW anti-tank missiles. Many reports often take discussions of arms purchases as a confirmation of purchase, failing to consider whether the purchase has even received approval from the Taiwanese government. Furthermore, the US has been increasingly wary of its defense technology being leaked to adversaries in places such as Taiwan, where foreign espionage has been a lasting problem.
On August 25th, it was reported that the government of Malaysia has released tenders for two manned and three unmanned maritime patrol aircraft. The two tenders represent initial tranches of aircraft that are expected to be delivered from 2021-2025, with a final goal of acquiring four manned aircraft and 6 unmanned aircraft in total. For the manned aircraft, Malaysia is considering Leonardo’s ATR 72MP, Airbus’ C-295, and PTDI’s CN-235. For the unmanned aircraft, Malaysia is considering General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper, Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s Wing Loong, Leonardo’s Falco, and Turkish Aerospace Industries’ Anka. Currently, Malaysia uses three Beechcraft B200 aircraft and six ScanEagle UAS to perform maritime patrol missions, and it intends to convert two CN-235 aircraft to perform maritime patrol as well. However, ongoing tensions in the South China Sea have created an incentive to expand their maritime patrol fleet.