Rescue subs
Russia continues to improve its submarine rescue capability, which was largely unavailable in August 2000 when the 5-year-old pride of the Northern Fleet, the 14,000-ton nuclear submarine Kursk sank with all 118 souls on board. The most recent addition to Russian submarine rescue capabilities is the Marlin-350 unmanned submersible, which is used for finding sunken ships or anything else of interest on the sea floor. Russia received the first of these in 2016, replacing the British-made Tiger submersibles. By the end of 2020, Russia will have 57 of them.

Fishing bans
China is demanding that Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen comply with a Chinese ban on fishing in the South China Sea until 16 August to allow the fish to breed and maintain their numbers. Since the 1990s China has only enforced the ban on Chinese fishing ships but this year is threatening to arrest Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen who do not comply. Overfishing was caused by China, which subsidized a large ocean-going trawler fleet that often fished illegally in foreign waters, and still does, as far away as South America and Africa.

New money
In early May, Iran’s parliament passed a law that completes the 2019 decision to rename and revalue Iranian currency. The new currency, the toman, will make the current exchange rate 4.2 toman to the dollar, and will be introduced over the next year, completely replacing the rial. The new currency will deal with the enormous inflation and the bad reputation the rial has acquired; in mid-2019 the exchange rate was 120,000 rials to the dollar.

Territory disputes
In late February, a Chinese corvette aimed its cannon at a Filipino corvette when the Filipinos ordered the Chinese to leave the area near Commodore Reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Commodore Reef is recognized by international treaty as Filipino, but the Chinese crew kept telling the Filipino crew that the area they were in was Chinese territory. The Chinese corvette kept moving and left the area, continuing to insist the area was Chinese, but obviously not willing to open fire and try to enforce the claim.

Syria takes the hit
Israeli airstrikes against Iranian facilities in Syria have increased, as well as those against local groups and Syrian government activities Iran backs. Given the extent of the damage over the past year, it is costing Iran a lot of money to replace the losses.

Can’t quell the people
Iran’s government thought that Covid-19 would eliminate anti-government protests; that has not happened. Now protesters are fewer, and they wear masks and use more protest signs than before, because it is harder to shout through a surgical mask. The security forces are more reluctant to charge in and break up the protests with “hands on” force.   

Thwarting plans
In late April, the U.S. uncovered and disrupted a Quds Force smuggling effort that involved buying a second-hand 150,000-ton oil tanker that could have been used to smuggle oil to China, India or Syria. U.S. sanctions officials charged several individuals and companies with complicity in buying the 22-year-old tanker for $12 million.

Chinese grab territory
The Philippine government protested China declaring two portions of the Filipino Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for themselves. China declared an artificial island built on Kagitingan Reef (part of the Kalayaan Island Group) is now the Nansha district while Woody Island (in the Paracels) is now the Xisha District. An international tribunal ruled against China and affirmed that Chinese claims in the South China Sea violated existing treaties that China had signed as well historical precedent that sided with the Philippines.

Safer at home
Since 1 March, over 80,000 Afghan refugees have left Iran for Afghanistan, most of them because of the spread of Covid-19 inside Iran.

What’s in a name?
China sent a coast guard ship to enforce their claims on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea where they built an environmental monitoring station. The Chinese say they have prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because they have long called China “Zhongguo,” which, literally translated, means “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century this mainly meant adjacent land areas. Now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well.

Gold shipments
The U.S. has evidence that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air transports were used in April to fly about nine tons of gold from Venezuela to Iran. The $500 million worth of gold, from Venezuela’s shrinking cash reserves, was payment for special chemicals Iran has been supplying to Venezuela so the tar-like Venezuelan crude oil can be refined into a salable product. In addition to the gold, Venezuela also provides Iran with a base for its South American smuggling and terrorism activities.

Funding turmoil
Iran’s efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria have not produced the desired results. Worse, Iraqi and Syrian involvement has caused more anti-government activity inside Iran. Despite a much-reduced budget for operations in Syria and Iraq, the Iranian Quds Force officers in charge convinced their bosses back in Iran that more cash was needed to prevent their efforts there from collapsing. Iraqis want the Iranians to leave and the Americans to stay, mainly to keep the Iranians out.

NK activity
Commercial satellite photos of North Korea’s Sinpo shipyard reveal what appears to be land-based ejection testing of the tubes that would carry ballistic missiles in an SSB has been under construction. A year ago satellite photos showed a large number of ship or submarine components accumulating at the Sinpo shipyard, and back in mid-2018, aerial and satellite photos indicated that the Sinpo shipyard was experiencing increased activity.

Iran’s eye in the sky
Iran claims it succeeded, on its fourth attempt since 2010, to launch a satellite into a stable orbit on 22 April. At press time, the Noor photo satellite was in a stable, 450-kilometer-high orbit, but appeared to be tumbling out of control. Unless Noor has thrusters to stabilize it, the satellite is useless. The Noor weighs about 4 kg (9 pounds) and is about half the size of a microwave oven.

Korea’s viral matters
In the two Koreas, military and diplomatic affairs have taken a back seat to medical matters so far this year. It’s all about Covid-19, which quickly spread to Korea because both Koreas have a lot of visitors from China. South Korea promptly mobilized a very efficient national public health effort to deal with the crises; however, in North Korea the government made all information relating to Covid-19 a state secret and denied that the virus was a problem. North Korea has no real public health capability, especially the ability to monitor the overall impact of Covid-19.

Stacking the deck
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un carried out a major reorganization of some of the senior bureaucracies, replacing veteran officials with people he believed would be more loyal to him. In a process that has been ongoing since 2011 when he replaced his deceased father as ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has dismissed — or executed — a lot of senior military or police commanders his father had appointed and believed loyal.

Iran in bad shape
Iranian’s outrage against their government for all the economic problems, growing corruption and mishandling of Covid-19 had not diminished. The economy is a mess and the government is so broke that it is doing things it always insisted it never would. For example, state-owned companies are being privatized via the local stock market, and although there is some enthusiasm for this, there is also apprehension because the government has enough control over the economy to decide what privatized companies do and with whom, making it difficult for them to succeed.

India on the rise
Chinese territorial claims on Indian border areas, and much of northeast India, have been on hold for several years while China deals with economic and domestic problems. The longer China is distracted the better for India, which is desperately trying to close the economic and military gap between their two countries. With a much larger GDP, China spends nearly four times as much on defense as India, but India’s emphasis on their economic growth since the 1990s has paid off — and, lately, has been spectacular — with GDP nearly doubling in the last decade from $1.7 trillion to the current $2.9 trillion.

NK rumors
Rumors have been swirling around the reasons for the lengthy disappearance in April of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. News sources either reported that he was dead, gravely ill or had undergone heart surgery. However, when he appeared in early May at the opening of a fertilizer factory, seemingly in good health, all those rumors were put to rest.

Martial law in Pakistan
Pakistan’s military overruled the elected government and imposed a nationwide quarantine to deal with Covid-19. In April, the government announced it would not shut down the economy and put millions of workers, many of them barely surviving, out of work. Pakistan’s military has, in effect, staged another coup and replaced the civilian government while also doing great damage to the already fragile economy.

Defense spending
India became the third largest defense spender in 2019 with its $71.1 annual defense budget and that was notable for several reasons. For the first time, India had a larger defense budget than Russia, which had long been in the top three for nearly a century. In 2019, China spent nearly $300 billion on defense, still far behind the American $732 billion. India’s most aggressive neighbor, Pakistan, spent $10.3 billion.  

A lesson in Syria
A Russian military newspaper published an article listing the lessons learned from Russia’s participation in Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011. Among the lessons offered were that wars against irregulars, especially religious zealots, cannot be won from the air and requires well-equipped ground forces using armor and other modern weapons.

No truce
In Yemen, Saudi and UAE forces agreed to the UN-backed two-week truce in early April but the Shia rebels demanded more concessions at the last minute and never observed the ceasefire. The Shia rebels are determined to get the air and sea blockade lifted, but the Saudis won’t allow that because that will make it easier for Iran to smuggle in ballistic missile components, UAVs and other weapons.

Yemen aid cut
The UN planned to shut down most of its Yemen aid programs by the end of April because most donors have refused to provide cash or supplies.

Tit for tat
On two occasions in April the U.S. Navy conducted a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) near China as an American destroyer passed through the Taiwan Strait. Since July 2018, the USN has carried out these FONOPs nearly every month. Until the 2018 such trips through the Taiwan Strait — American warships do this regularly — were not publicized, although the U.S. has been doing them since 2007. Publicizing these movements annoys China, which responded by having their own warships following American warships passing through the Taiwan Strait and increasing Chinese naval ship patrols around Taiwan.  

Growing economies
India is now the fifth largest economy, surpassing Britain and France. The rest of the top five are the U.S., China, Germany and Japan. Chinese GDP growth is slowing, although in the last decade it more than doubled from $6.1 trillion to $14 trillion. But for once the annual Indian GDP growth has been faster than in China, where GDP growth rates have been declining over the last five years.  

Nautical consequences
In April the U.S. Navy was given permission to fire on and destroy any Iranian speedboats that harassed American ships. Iran has long violated the generally accepted navigation rules that were developed to avoid collisions at sea, and they make videos of all this nautical misbehavior and present it on Iranian TV as Iranian gunboats intimidate larger American warships. These harassment attacks aren’t constant and tend to occur when Iran is having a hard time, as they are now in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and need some positive publicity as well as training for their suicide speedboat crews.

Japan’s super subs
In March 2020, the Japanese Navy put its first lithium-ion battery-equipped submarine into service, the 11th of the Soryu class. The 12th and last of the Soryu class will also have lithium ion batteries. These two subs are referred to as “Super Soryus” because of their new battery tech and the higher cost that goes with having this feature.

Blame the South
The official explanation for the appearance of Covid-19 in North Korea was the use of biological weapons by South Korea. Blaming South Korea for anything is not new, but admitting that there is an epidemic disease in North Korea was.  

Reopened borders
In early April, at least a dozen cargo trucks were seen crossing the Friendship Bridge at the Dandong border crossing. This is normally the busiest trade route between China and North Korea, and it was closed at the end of January because of Covid-19. China has allowed North Korean-run restaurants in China to reopen. China also lifted its ban on North Korea businessmen entering China to do business. North Koreans who have been pre-approved by China and have a health document verifying they are free of Covid-19 will be allowed in and out.  

PIM production
After three decades of effort, the U.S. Army finally began production of a new 155mm SP (self-propelled) howitzer. At a cost of $4.8 million each the first 48, of 133, new M-109A7 vehicles will replace 1960s-era M109A5 vehicles. The M109A7s are nicknamed “Paladin” and during a decade of development were also known as the M106A6 PIM (Paladin Integrated Management program). It was actually a lot more complicated than that but now the army has the mobile artillery it could have had 20 years ago.

Combined battalions
The U.S. Army is again reorganizing its combat units. The last major reorganization was after 2003 when the independent combined arms brigade became the basic combat unit, replacing the combined arms division that had become the standard before and during WWII. The latest effort seeks to create combined arms battalions. China recently announced that it was making such combined arms battalions the standard combat organization for ground forces. Russia has already moved in this direction and the United States is experimenting with the concept.

Tightening the belt
The families North Korean officers will have their free, government-provided food supplies cut by two-thirds for six months, blaming crop failures and sanctions. Most North Koreans know the real reason is the amount of resources spent on missile and nuclear weapons development. The officers and their families live much better than most North Koreans and are expected to be better able to cope, but it quickly became clear that these cuts generated a very visible decline in officer morale. Food supplies for the largely conscript troops were not cut.

Shoddy construction
Local leaders in North Korea thought it would be good for morale to build a new hospital in the capital — the only place in the country with an adequate supply of modern medical facilities. There is a growing need for another new and modern hospital and the government has promised to provide that by October; however, the short construction schedule is a bad sign. Construction managers are under tremendous pressure to complete high profile construction projects, which usually means drastically cutting corners.

China’s border grows?
Sohu, China’s largest web search and online news company, published an article that claimed Russia was falling apart and that China would have to reclaim its former territories north of Manchuria and Korea. Since the Cold War ended, a growing number of Russians have been concerned about this because of Chinese claims on much of eastern Russia. China never renounced these claims, even after Russia helped the Chinese communists win the post-WWII civil war that put the current Chinese government in power. At the time Chinese leaders mentioned those claims and did not abandon them.

Bad water
In Pyongyang, North Korea, there was a breakdown in the water quality near the National Defense University where at least 20 students got sick. Such incidents are rare in the capital, but common in the rest of the country where over half the population does not have regular access to a safe water supply.

Polish problems
Poland is having a problem maintaining its numerous and varied jet fighters as well as training enough pilots to fly them. The Polish Air Force currently has 28 MiG-29s and 48 F-16s plus 32 elderly Su-22 fighter-bombers. The Su-22s are first in line for retirement, followed by the MiGs.

Space cowboys struggle
Russia is trying to adapt to its reduced presence in space. Annually, Russia spends about $1.6 billion on its space program, and that is a financial strain. Most goes toward building and maintaining military satellites, which comprise the majority of their 160 satellites, and their 27 GLONASS satellites (Russian GPS). Another $100 million is for maintaining the military satellite launch center at Plesetsk with the remainder going to other ground-based space facilities.

Off-road warriors
As a result of an anti-corruption NGO working in Sudan after dictator Omar al Bashir was overthrown in early 2019, Toyota is getting some unwanted publicity. The NGO gained access to documents about where the Bashir-supported RSF irregular militias were getting their weapons and equipment, specifically, new trucks. This was unusual because some 90% of the vehicles Sudan imports annually are second-hand, yet there were documents showing that the government had purchased 900 new Toyota trucks, mainly for use by the RSF.  

Many news items courtesy of strategypage.com & James Dunnigan. All material ©2019, StrategyWorld, Inc.