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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rare 4th-century mosaic of chariot race found in Cyprus

August 10, 2016

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A mosaic floor dating to the 4th century and depicting scenes from a chariot race in the hippodrome has been uncovered, the only one of its kind in Cyprus and one of only a handful in the world, a Cypriot archaeologist said Wednesday.

Cyprus Antiquities Department archaeologist Fryni Hadjichristofi told the Associated Press that out of the many hundreds of ancient mosaic floors discovered around the world, only around seven depict similar chariot races at the hippodrome. What distinguishes this mosaic is its ornate detail and the fact that it depicts complete scenes from race in which four chariots, each with a team of four horses, are competing. This may be representative of different factions in competition with each other in ancient Rome.

"The hippodrome was very important in ancient Roman times, it was the place where the emperor appeared to his people and projected his power," said Hadjichristofi. The mosaic is 11 meters long and four meters wide (36 by 13 feet) but hasn't been fully uncovered yet. It's possibly part of a villa that may have belonged to a wealthy individual or nobleman when Cyprus was under Roman rule. The mosaic, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of the capital Nicosia, also sheds new light on the ancient past of the island's interior, about which little is known.

Most of the important ancient finds on the island are located near the coasts, where cities and towns flourished in antiquity. The earliest village found in Cyprus dates as far back as the 10th millennium B.C.

A small piece of the mosaic was first discovered by an area farmer tilling his land back in 1938. Authorities marked the area, but full-fledged digs didn't proceed until almost 80 years later because of work at many other sites the Antiquities Department had prioritized, said Hadjichristofi.

Hadjichristofi said the area, abutting a river, has long been known for its fertile ground and bountiful orchards. Cyprus had been a wealthy island in antiquity, producing copper — from where according to a prominent theory the island got its name — timber from its then-ample forests as well as pottery, many examples of which have been found in neighboring countries, said Hadjichristofi.

"We know that Cyprus was once wealthy, the latest discoveries confirm this," she said. Last month, crews working on a sewage system in the coastal city of Larnaca discovered another rare Roman-era mosaic depicting Hercules' Labors.

Stretched US Air Force faces fighter shortage

Washington (AFP)
Aug 10, 2016

The US Air Force is facing a fighter pilot shortage as it scrambles to service an ever-growing array of air campaigns around the world, top officials said Wednesday.

The shortfall will likely rise to more than 700 pilots (from a force size of 3,500 fighter pilots) by the end of this fiscal year, and as high as 1,000 in two years time, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and the service's Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, told reporters.

Goldfein said the situation was a "crisis."

Airlines are increasingly luring military fliers into the private sector, and many are choosing to leave due to the stresses of extended deployments overseas.

The shortage comes as America is engaged in air wars on multiple fronts, including in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. The US military relies heavily on its air dominance to wage war and avoid putting US foot soldiers in harm's way.

The Air Force also faces a shortage of drone pilots, but James said recruitment and retention in that sector had improved.

Officials are announcing a $35,000 bonus for drone operators who sign up under a new contract, and the military is using increasing numbers of contract workers to conduct non-lethal drone patrols.

"It is not all done yet but there is a lot going on," she said.

"We are well on the way to having 100 percent manning at our retraining units and having all those instructors in the schoolhouse means we are going to be producing more (drone) pilots."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Stretched_US_Air_Force_faces_fighter_shortage_999.html.

F-35 fighter program might face cuts: top US officer

Washington (AFP)
Oct 13, 2011

The US military's top officer signaled Thursday that the Pentagon might have to cut one of three planned models of the new F-35 fighter jet, citing budget pressures.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that while he believed a new fighter was vital he questioned whether a constrained defense budget could fund all three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter, including an aircraft able to take off or land vertically.

"I am concerned about the three variants and whether as we go forward in this fiscal environment, whether we can afford all three," Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.

The general said he was ready to "learn more about" the issue and to hear the views of the commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James Amos, a strong advocate of the short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) version of the plane.

"But I'll tell you, that's something we have to keep an eye on" and three versions of the aircraft "create some fiscal challenges for us."

Under a debt-reduction deal, the Pentagon must cut $450 billion from the defense budget over the next ten years, and the costly F-35 program is seen as a prime target for reductions.

The Joint Strike Fighter, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program ever. The project has faced chronic delays and cost overruns, with the vertical-takeoff model -- the F-35B -- coming in for the most scrutiny.

Britain, one of the countries participating in the fighter program, has decided to cancel plans to purchase the STOVL model and will instead buy the F-35C designed to land on aircraft carriers.

The Pentagon plans three versions of the plane: the standard F-35A that would replace the Air Force's F-16 fighter, the F-35C designed to land on naval carriers to replace the F-18 jet and the F-35B vertical-takeoff model that would supplant the Harrier aircraft flown by US Marines.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates placed the F-35B on "probation" in January after a spate of technical problems, saying the program had two years "to get it right" or face termination.

Asked at the hearing about the status of the F-35B, the new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, said the probation would allow for further testing to "give us a chance to see how it performs."

"And if it performs well, then obviously it'll be able to make the grade," he said.

The cost of building F-35 jets has mushroomed and defense officials have struggled to keep the price tag under control. Over the past decade, the cost per plane has doubled in real terms, according to the Pentagon.

The program's cost has jumped to about $385 billion, and the price of each is at roughly $103 million in constant dollars or $113 million in fiscal year 2011 dollars.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/F-35_fighter_program_might_face_cuts_top_US_officer_999.html.

Witnesses say South Sudan soldiers raped dozens near UN camp

July 27, 2016

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudanese government soldiers raped dozens of ethnic Nuer women and girls last week just outside a United Nations camp where they had sought protection from renewed fighting, and at least two died from their injuries, witnesses and civilian leaders said.

The rapes in the capital of Juba highlighted two persistent problems in the chaotic country engulfed by civil war: targeted ethnic violence and the reluctance by U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians.

At least one assault occurred as peacekeepers watched, witnesses told The Associated Press during a visit to the camp. On July 17, two armed soldiers in uniform dragged away a woman who was less than a few hundred meters (yards) from the U.N. camp's western gate while armed peacekeepers on foot, in an armored vehicle and in a watchtower looked on. One witness estimated that 30 peacekeepers from Nepalese and Chinese battalions saw the incident.

"They were seeing it. Everyone was seeing it," he said. "The woman was seriously screaming, quarreling and crying also, but there was no help. She was crying for help." He and other witnesses interviewed insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by soldiers if identified.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. mission, Shantal Persaud, did not dispute that rapes took place close to the camp. She did not immediately address why peacekeepers didn't act to prevent the rapes, saying she was looking into the issue.

The reported assaults occurred about a week after rival government forces clashed in Juba, forcing opposition leader Riek Machar from the city and killing hundreds of people. As a cease-fire took hold, women and girls began venturing outside the U.N. camp for food.

The camp houses over 30,000 civilians who are nearly all ethnic Nuer, the same ethnicity as Machar. They fear attacks by government forces who are mostly ethnic Dinka, the same as Machar's rival, President Salva Kiir.

As the women and girls walked out of the U.N. camp, they entered an area called Checkpoint, in the shadow of a mountain on Juba's western outskirts. That stretch of road along one side of the camp saw some of the heaviest fighting and is lined with wrecked shops and burned tanks. It is now inhabited by armed men in and out of uniform.

In interviews with the AP, women described soldiers in Checkpoint allowing them to leave to buy food but attacking them as they returned. "When we reached Checkpoint, the soldiers come out and called the women and said, 'Stop, please, and sit down,' so we stopped and sat down, and they took one woman inside a shop," a woman said. "Four men went inside the shop and they raped the woman while we three stayed outside."

In another incident, one woman said a group of soldiers pulled two women and two underage girls from their group and gang-raped them in a shop, with more than 10 men to each victim. One girl later died, she said.

"I saw the men taking their trousers off and the ladies crying inside," said a middle-aged woman. As she spoke, she began to cry. "They said, 'This one belongs to me, this one belongs to me,'" she added.

Multiple Nuer women said soldiers threatened them because of their ethnicity or accused them of being allied with Machar. The women identified the soldiers as ethnic Dinka because of the language they spoke.

"One soldier came and he turned the gun to us. He said, 'If I kill you now, you Nuer woman, do you think there is anything that can happen to me?'" one woman said. She said the soldier slapped her before another soldier intervened, allowing her to escape.

The number of rapes that took place outside the U.N. camp was unclear. The AP interviewed more than a dozen witnesses of rapes or people who spoke with victims, both one-on-one and in small groups. The Protection Cluster, a group of aid workers that monitors violence against civilians in South Sudan, noted a "significant spike in reported cases was observed on 18 July when large numbers of women began leaving (the camp) to travel to markets in town in search of food."

The Protection Cluster said at least two victims are known to have died as a result of their injuries. Civilian leaders in the U.N. camp have given estimates ranging from 27 to over 70 rapes from the time that women started venturing out for food. The United Nations says it received reports of dozens of cases. A South Sudanese rights group, the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, said it is investigating 36 reported rapes.

Hospitals inside the camp received four rape cases last week, including an underage girl who said she had been gang-raped by five men and a woman who said she had been gang-raped by five men and beaten, according to medical staff who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The number of victims reporting to clinics is believed to be lower than the actual total because of the stigma in Nuer culture attached to rape. The rape of civilians has been a near-constant in South Sudan's civil war which began in 2013, with both sides accused of using sexual assault, based on ethnicity, as a weapon of war.

Army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang did not deny that rapes occurred after the latest fighting but said the military has yet to receive any formal complaints from victims. Witnesses and aid workers accuse the armed U.N. peacekeepers, who are mandated to protect civilians with lethal force if necessary, of failing to act.

The U.N. spokeswoman, Persaud, said the recent rapes were not limited to Checkpoint. "For a fact, uniformed soldiers were involved, heavily involved, in horrific acts of violence against civilians," Persaud said.

This is not the first time that U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of failing to act. Last year, over 1,300 women and girls were raped by government forces and allied militias during a scorched-earth campaign in Unity state, according to the Protection Cluster. Doctors Without Borders accused the U.N. mission of "complete and utter failure" to protect civilians there. The medical aid organization also blamed the peacekeeping mission over a government attack on the U.N. camp in the town of Malakal in February that killed about two dozen civilians. A U.N. investigation found confusion in command and control by U.N. forces.

In the latest clashes in Juba, residents of the U.N. camp accused peacekeepers of running away when the camp was shelled. Two Chinese peacekeepers were killed. Aid workers said they asked the U.N. to increase patrols July 17-18 along the camp where women were most vulnerable, but that patrols in the area did not begin until July 21.

The U.N. said in a statement it had increased patrols outside the camp in response to reported rapes. One local woman, Christmas David, who said she was beaten by government soldiers but not raped, said the limited patrols were not enough.

"When the U.N. is moving, (the government soldiers) just stop the women and tell them to sit down," she said. "When the peacekeepers leave the road, then they do the things."

South Africa's ruling party suffers biggest election setback

August 06, 2016

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's ruling party has suffered its biggest election setback since taking power at the end of apartheid a generation ago, with results from two of the country's largest cities still uncertain Saturday with less than 1 percent of votes left to be counted.

Final results of municipal elections were being announced at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT). Races remained too close to call in the country's largest city, Johannesburg, and Tshwane, the metropolitan area of the capital.

Since South Africa's first all-race election in 1994, the African National Congress party has had widespread support on the strength of its successful fight against white-minority rule. But in this vote, it has been challenged by corruption scandals and a stagnant economy that has frustrated the country's urban middle class.

The ANC already has lost its first major black-majority municipality in this election, Nelson Mandela Bay, named for the ANC's star and the country's first black president. The opposition Democratic Alliance, which has roots in the anti-apartheid movement and was white-led until last year, won Nelson Mandela Bay after fielding a white candidate for mayor. The party's leader, Mmusi Maimane, also has predicted victory in Tshwane.

The Democratic Alliance already runs the city of Cape Town, the country's second largest and the only major South African city where blacks are not in the majority. It has been pushing hard to win supporters in other regions.

The Democratic Alliance angered the ANC last month by declaring that it was the only party that could realize Mandela's dream of a "prosperous, united and non-racial South Africa." Neither party appeared to have a majority in Johannesburg or Tshwane that would allow it to govern alone, raising the possibility of coalition governments. A more radical opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, contested the local elections for the first time and received 8 percent of the vote nationwide after promising measures it says will help the poor.

The ANC so far has received 53 percent of votes across the country, its lowest percentage ever, with the Democratic Alliance getting 27 percent. The results for the ANC could put pressure on President Jacob Zuma to leave office before his mandate ends in 2019, political analysts said.

In a statement Friday, the ANC said "we will reflect and introspect where our support has dropped." It retained support in many rural areas in a country where blacks make up 80 percent of the population.

The South African economy has stagnated since the global financial crisis in 2008, and the World Bank says the country has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Scandals swirling around Zuma have also hurt the ANC. Opposition groups have seized on the revelation that the state paid more than $20 million for upgrades to Zuma's private home. The Constitutional Court recently said Zuma violated the constitution and instructed him to reimburse the state $507,000.

Many South Africans are also concerned over allegations that Zuma is heavily influenced by the Guptas, a wealthy business family of immigrants from India. The president has denied any wrongdoing.

Philippines' Duterte declares communist ceasefire

Manila (AFP)
July 25, 2016

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Monday announced a unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels waging one of Asia's longest insurgencies, saying it is his "dream" to end the rebellion.

In his first "State of the Nation Address" to Congress, Duterte called for the rebels to reciprocate as he laid the groundwork for peace talks due to begin in Norway next month.

"To immediately stop violence on the ground (and) restore peace in the communities ... I am now announcing a unilateral ceasefire," Duterte told lawmakers.

"We will strive to have a permanent and lasting peace before my term ends. That is my goal, that is my dream."

The communist insurgency has killed about 30,000 people since the 1960s.

The communists' armed wing, the New People's Army, is believed to have fewer than 4,000 gunmen today, down from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s, according to the military.

But it retains support among the deeply poor in rural areas, and its forces regularly kill police or troops while extorting money from local businesses.

Duterte, who assumed the presidency on June 30 after a landslide election win, said Monday it was time to stop the violence. "We are going nowhere and it is getting bloodier by the day," he said.

Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino revived negotiations soon after taking office in 2010 but shelved them in 2013, accusing the rebels of being insincere about a political settlement.

The talks collapsed after his government rejected the rebels' demand to release scores of their jailed comrades, whom they described as "political prisoners".

Duterte, who counts exiled rebel leader Jose Maria Sison as a friend, had said in recent weeks he was prepared to release 11 communist members to take part in the talks.

His aides have already held preliminary discussions with Sison and other senior communist leaders, during which they agreed to resume the peace process in Norway on August 20.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines, one of the communist leadership groups, welcomed Duterte's ceasefire declaration and announced its readiness to reciprocate.

In a statement, it signaled it first wanted the amnesty for its detained rebels but that it expected this to happen by August 20.

Duterte describes himself as a socialist and was a student of Sison, a political science professor, at a Manila university in the 1960s.

They retained close ties as Duterte governed the southern city of Davao, where the communist insurgency once raged, for most of the past two decades.

Sison was forced into exile after peace talks failed in 1987 and now lives in the Netherlands.

Duterte said after being elected that Sison was welcome to return home.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Philippines_Duterte_declares_communist_ceasefire_999.html.

Thais vote on new constitution that could dilute democracy

August 07, 2016

BANGKOK (AP) — Thais voted Sunday in a referendum on a new constitution that critics say is tailor-made for the military government to stay in control for several years and entrench a new, quasi-democratic system that gives vast powers to appointed officials.

The junta, which came to power in a May 2014 coup and ordered the constitution rewritten, says the new version will usher in a new era of clean politics and stable democracy in a country chronically short of both in recent years, sometimes sliding into violent internal political conflict.

Still, the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army general, used its sweeping powers to ban political rallies, independent campaigns against the draft constitution and virtually no debates on it. Opponents say this was done to ensure that people would have little knowledge about the constitution's provisions, even though 1 million copies are claimed to have been distributed to the public in a nation of 64 million people.

More than 100 people who tried to campaign against the referendum on social media have been thrown in jail, and open criticism has been made punishable by up to 10 years in prison. "If people cannot speak their minds freely or take part in political activities without fear, how can they meaningfully engage in this referendum," said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International's deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

At a polling booth in Bangkok where Prayuth voted, officials displayed an empty ballot box to reporters and sealed it before letting the first voter — a young woman — enter the booth. She first registered at a desk and signed a paper before casting her ballot.

"Come out (to vote) because today is important for the future of the country. This is your duty and this is part of democracy, of an internationally-recognized process," Prayuth told reporters after voting.

People are being asked to check "yes" or "no" for the constitution and related provisions on the ballot paper. Final results are expected late Sunday. The main criticism of the draft constitution includes at least five years of a transitional period and a 250-member appointed Senate that includes the commanders of the army and other security services. A deadlock in the 500-member elected lower house could trigger a selection of a prime minister who is not an elected member of parliament.

Also, emergency decrees enacted by the junta without any parliamentary consent remain valid. So-called independent bodies, stacked with conservative appointees, would hold "disproportionately broad and unchecked powers" over elected politicians, said the international human rights consortium FIDH and the Union for Civil Liberty in Thailand.

"If you say 'yes' to the constitution, it means you agree with the content of the constitution ... what makes matters worse is you also give legitimacy to the coup, to the coup makers," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University in Japan.

Pavin, a Thai and a vocal critic of the junta, told The Associated Press that a victory in the referendum would give the junta the reason to tell the world "don't you dare criticize us anymore because we have the legitimacy."

Even if Thais vote "no," the military will remain in control for the foreseeable future. Prayuth has promised to hold elections next year, without elaborating on how that would happen if voters reject the draft constitution.

Thailand has endured 13 successful military coups and 11 attempted takeovers since it replaced absolute with a constitutional monarchy in 1932. If passed, this would be Thailand's 20th constitution. Leaders of the latest coup say sometimes violent political conflict made the country ungovernable and that military rule was necessary to bring stability. It set up hand-picked committees to draft a charter that would enshrine its declared goal of reforming politics by eliminating corruption.

But others believe the draft constitution has a different aim: to weaken allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the central figure who has roiled Thai politics since 2006. Thaksin's political machine has easily won every national election since 2001, relying on the support of working-class and rural voters who benefited from his populist policies. Leading the other side is Thailand's traditional ruling class and royalists unnerved by Thaksin's political support, especially as it contemplates its future. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose righteous rule has anchored the kingdom since 1946, is 88 and ailing.

The army ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup, after his "yellow shirt" critics took to the streets and accused him of abuse of power, corruption and disrespecting the king. He has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. The 2014 coup ousted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister in 2011, but buffeted by protests sparked by legislation that would have pardoned Thaksin.

Those who brought Thaksin down now seek to weaken major political parties, which would ensure that real power stays in the hands of what is dubbed the permanent bureaucracy: the military, the courts and other unelected guardians of the conservative bloc.

Analysts say the new constitution would make it easy to disband parties, keep politicians in line, impeach politicians, and enforce a coalition government of weaker, smaller parties. Chaturon Chaisang, who served in the Cabinets of both Thaksin and Yingluck, told the AP that his biggest objection is that "the draft charter will not allow Thai people to determine the future of this country."

Associated Press journalists Grant Peck, Jerry Harmer, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Penny Wang in Bangkok and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Sri Lanka to replace its ageing fighter jets

Colombo (AFP)
Aug 10, 2016

Sri Lanka Wednesday announced plans to replace its ageing jet fighters to better defend its maritime borders including rich fishing grounds, seven years after the island's separatist war ended.

Cabinet approved President Maithripala Sirisena's proposal to call for expressions of interest from global manufacturers to sell Sri Lanka the jets, government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said.

"The idea is to buy eight multi-role fighter aircraft with associated weapons on a government-to-government basis," Senaratne, who is also a cabinet minister, told reporters.

Sri Lanka's fleet of Chinese-made F-7, Soviet-era MiG-27 and Israeli Kfir aircraft are about 30 years old and have become obsolete, according to experts.

Sri Lanka used both the MiG-27 and Kfir jets to bomb rebel targets in the north at the height of the Tamil separatist war which ended in May 2009.

The country lost large numbers of aircraft during the decades-long fighting.

The main role of the new fleet would be to defend the island's exclusive economic zone which stretches some 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) offshore, senior sources in the government said.

Both neighboring India and its rival Pakistan are keen to sell combat aircraft to the island, they said.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Sri_Lanka_to_replace_its_ageing_fighter_jets_999.html.

Brazil's political mess keeps foreign leaders away from Rio

August 05, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A reception welcoming foreign dignitaries to the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics promises to be a lonely affair, with many heads of state staying away from Rio de Janeiro for fear of offending Brazilian political sensibilities.

Ahead of South America's first Olympics, officials had predicted as many as 100 heads of state would attend. But a list provided Friday by the Foreign Ministry showed fewer than 25 in attendance, among them the presidents of Argentina, France and Portugal. The United States is being represented by Secretary of State John Kerry.

They apparently are staying away because of the prospect of stepping into a country with two presidents. Interim President Michel Temer took over following the suspension in May of President Dilma Rousseff on impeachment charges.

For many leaders, it's too delicate of a diplomatic dance, said Maristella Basso, a professor of international law at the University of Sao Paulo. "Leaders don't know which president to greet, the one who was removed or her interim replacement," Basso told The Associated Press. "So many decided not to come at all, to either avoid an uncomfortable encounter or to protest what they view as a coup."

Temer, who has avoided travel outside the country and kept a low profile since taking over for Rousseff, is holding a reception for foreign leaders Friday at the former Foreign Ministry palace, which was in use when Rio was Brazil's capital before 1960.

After a cocktail party, the group will relocate under tight security to the Maracana stadium for the opening ceremony. Among the notable absences are leaders from some of Brazil's closest allies: Russia, India, China and South Africa — the so-called BRICS group of emerging market powerhouses that drew close to Brazil during during an aggressive, 15-year diplomatic push under Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Each instead sent their sports ministers.

Reflecting South America's ideological divide, only two regional leaders are here: fellow conservatives from Argentina and Paraguay. Leftist governments in Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela stayed home. "The foreign leaders that are here are from countries that have a cold and distant relationship with Brazil," Basso said. "The timing couldn't have been worse."

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka pulls out of Rio Olympics

August 02, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Two-time major champion Stan Wawrinka pulled out of the Olympics on Tuesday because of injury, leaving the Rio Games without half of the men ranked in the ATP's top 10. A statement issued by Wawrinka's management company said he "felt increasing pain" during the Rogers Cup in Toronto last week and was told by his doctor after an MRI exam to "reduce his physical activity for an undetermined period."

The statement does not say where Wawrinka is injured. He lost in the semifinals in Toronto. Wawrinka, who is No. 4 this week, joins his Swiss teammate Roger Federer, who is No. 3, along with No. 7 Milos Raonic of Canada, No. 8 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and No. 10 Dominic Thiem of Austria in withdrawing from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics for a variety of reasons.

No. 5 Rafael Nadal has been sidelined with an injured left wrist since the French Open and has been testing his fitness in Brazil. The draw for tennis in Rio is Thursday. Play begins Saturday. Wawrinka won the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.

He teamed with Federer to win a doubles gold medal for Switzerland at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Another Swiss tennis player, Belinda Bencic, also pulled out of Rio.

Cassini discovers flooded canyon on Titan

by Brooks Hays
Pasadena, Calif. (UPI)
Aug 10, 2016

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found deep, steep-sided canyons on Saturn's moon Titan that are flooded with liquid hydrocarbons. The finding represents the first direct evidence of the presence of liquid-filled channels on Titan, as well as the first observation of canyons hundreds of meters deep.

A new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters describes how scientists analyzed Cassini data from a close pass the spacecraft made over Titan in May 2013. During the flyby, Cassini's radar instrument focused on channels that branch out from the large, northern sea Ligeia Mare.

The Cassini observations reveal that the channels - in particular, a network of them named Vid Flumina - are narrow canyons, generally less than half a mile (a bit less than a kilometer) wide, with slopes steeper than 40 degrees. The canyons also are quite deep - those measured are 790 to 1,870 feet (240 to 570 meters) from top to bottom.

The branching channels appear dark in radar images, much like Titan's methane-rich seas. This suggested to scientists that the channels might also be filled with liquid, but a direct detection had not been made until now. Previously it wasn't clear if the dark material was liquid or merely saturated sediment - which at Titan's frigid temperatures would be made of ice, not rock.

Cassini's radar is often used as an imager, providing a window to peer through the dense haze that surrounds Titan to reveal the surface below. But during this pass, the radar was used as an altimeter, sending pings of radio waves to the moon's surface to measure the height of features there. The researchers combined the altimetry data with previous radar images of the region to make their discovery.

Key to understanding the nature of the channels was the way Cassini's radar signal reflected off the bottoms of the features. The radar instrument observed a glint, indicating an extremely smooth surface like that observed from Titan's hydrocarbon seas. The timing of the radar echoes, as they bounced off the canyons' edges and floors, provided a direct measure of their depths.

The presence of such deep cuts in the landscape indicates that whatever process created them was active for a long time or eroded down much faster than other areas on Titan's surface. The researchers' proposed scenarios include uplift of the terrain and changes in sea level, or perhaps both.

"It's likely that a combination of these forces contributed to the formation of the deep canyons, but at present it's not clear to what degree each was involved. What is clear is that any description of Titan's geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there," said Valerio Poggiali of the University of Rome, a Cassini radar team associate and lead author of the study.

Earthly examples of both of these types of canyon-carving processes are found along the Colorado River in Arizona. An example of uplift powering erosion is the Grand Canyon, where the terrain's rising altitude caused the river to cut deeply downward into the landscape over the course of several million years. For canyon formation driven by variations in water level, look to Lake Powell. When the water level in the reservoir drops, it increases the river's rate of erosion.

"Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it's remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds," said Alex Hayes, a Cassini radar team associate at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and a co-author of the study.

While the altimeter data also showed that the liquid in some of the canyons around Ligeia Mare is at sea level - the same altitude as the liquid in the sea itself - in others it sits tens to hundreds of feet (tens of meters) higher in elevation. The researchers interpret the latter to be tributaries that drain into the main channels below.

Future work will extend the methods used in this study to all other channels Cassini's radar altimeter has observed on Titan. The researchers expect their continued work to produce a more comprehensive understanding of forces that have shaped the Saturnian moon's landscape.

Source: Saturn Daily.
Link: http://www.saturndaily.com/reports/Cassini_discovers_flooded_canyon_on_Titan_999.html.

The First Commercial Interplanetary Mining Mission

Moffett Field, CA (SPX)
Aug 10, 2016

Deep Space Industries has announced its plans to fly the world's first commercial interplanetary mining mission. Prospector-1 will fly to and rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, and investigate the object to determine its value as a source of space resources. This mission is an important step in the company's plans to harvest and supply in-space resources to support the growing space economy.

"Deep Space Industries has worked diligently to get to this point, and now we can say with confidence that we have the right technology, the right team, and the right plan to execute this historic mission," said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board and co-founder of Deep Space Industries.

"Building on our Prospector-X mission, Prospector-1 will be the next step on our way to harvesting asteroid resources."

Recently, Deep Space Industries and its partner, the government of Luxembourg, announced plans to build and fly Prospector-X, an experimental mission to low-Earth orbit that will test key technologies needed for low-cost exploration spacecraft.

This precursor mission is scheduled to launch in 2017. Then, before the end of this decade, Prospector-1 will travel beyond Earth's orbit to begin the first space mining exploration mission.

"Our Prospector missions will usher in a new era of low cost space exploration" said Grant Bonin, chief engineer at DSI.

"We are developing Prospector-1 both for our own asteroid mining ambitions, but also to bring an extremely low-cost, yet high-performance exploration spacecraft to the market. At a tiny fraction of what traditional custom-built space probes cost, the Prospector platform has the versatility and ruggedness of design to become the new standard for low cost space exploration."

Prospector-1 is a small spacecraft (50 kg when fueled) that strikes the ideal balance between cost and performance.

In addition to radiation-tolerant payloads and avionics, all DSI spacecraft use the Comet water propulsion system, which expels superheated water vapor to generate thrust. Water will be the first asteroid mining product, so the ability to use water as propellant will provide future DSI spacecraft with the ability to refuel in space.

"During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids," said Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries. "We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space, from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there."

The destination asteroid will be chosen from a group of top candidates selected by the world renowned team of asteroid experts at Deep Space Industries.

When it arrives at the target, the Prospector-1 spacecraft will map the surface and subsurface of the asteroid, taking visual and infrared imagery and mapping overall water content, down to approximately meter-level depth.

When this initial science campaign is complete, Prospector-1 will use its water thrusters to attempt touchdown on the asteroid, measuring the target's geophysical and geotechnical characteristics.

"The ability to locate, travel to, and analyze potentially rich supplies of space resources is critical to our plans," continued Faber. "This means not just looking at the target, but actually making contact."

Along with customer missions already in progress, such as the cluster of small satellites being built by DSI for HawkEye 360, the Prospector missions will demonstrate the company's simple, low-cost, but high-performance approach to space exploration. The Prospector platform is now available to government and commercial explorers interested in developing sophisticated, yet low-cost missions of their own.

"Prospector-1 is not only the first commercial interplanetary mission, it is also an important milestone in our quest to open the frontier," said Tumlinson.

"By learning to 'live off the land' in space, Deep Space Industries is ushering in a new era of unlimited economic expansion."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/The_First_Commercial_Interplanetary_Mining_Mission_999.html.

The rise of commercial spaceports

Bethesda MD (SPX)
Jul 27, 2016

Just last year, the FAA gave Houston the "go-ahead" to build America's 10th commercial spaceport. Yes, the US already had nine spaceports designated for commercial operations. One must ask, "Why do we need 10 spaceports for so little commercial space activities?"

This represents a great deal of investment and ongoing expense for an industry still in its infancy. The reason for all this excitement among several states and entrepreneurs is space tourism, the so-called "killer" space application that has yet to become reality. Yes, the media continues to expend a great deal of energy and newsprint on the topic.

So much so, that any person might think we are launching tourist spaceships every hour on the hour, to several orbiting hotels and resort complexes. In reality, that industry is still taking "baby" steps toward the future objective of populous orbiting resorts and theme parks.

Progress is slow. We are still taking baby steps toward sending passengers on suborbital flights. It is true that multiple companies are in the development and testing phases. But, the presumptive front-runner, Richard Branson is well behind his own schedule. In fact, he had predicted a steady flow of launches that carry wealthy tourists to the edge of space by 2009.

That schedule has been stretched more than six years already. The 2014 crash of SpaceshipTwo has increased the delay and caused some customers to ask for refunds on deposits. One additional casualty of this situation is Spaceport America, a $200 million facility investment that is gathering dust, and not much more.

Virgin Galactic was its anchor tenant. It is hardly a surprise that Spaceport America has had to readjust its business model and is looking for new clients. The New Mexico site has become an elaborate events destination, hosting everything from school trips and corporate events to product launches.

Thanks to the early hype, spaceport projects have attracted international attention, and countries around the globe have announced plans for building such facilities. Sweden and the UK are both indicated interest in building spaceports that may dominate the European space tourism business. In addition, Space Ventures has announced interest in building spaceports in Singapore and the UAE.

There appears to be little doubt that space tourism will become a reality. It is simply a matter of time. The market for commercial space transportation and human space travel will likely grow exponentially, and the demand for spaceport services will grow as well. Launchspace has anticipated such new space support activities and has created a new course for spaceport operators and users. It is "Spaceport Operations for Commercial Clients," and it is available for presentation at your facilities and on demand.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/The_rise_of_commercial_spaceports_999.html.

Russia could break diplomatic ties with Ukraine, PM says

August 12, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday Russia could break diplomatic ties with Ukraine over reported security incidents in Crimea, something it didn't even do after annexing Crimea or throwing its support behind separatist rebels in the east.

State news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying that he wouldn't like the ties to be severed but "if there is no other way to change the situation, the president could take this step." Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 following a hastily called referendum, and a conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces flared up in eastern Ukraine weeks later. Despite that and the conflict in the east, which has killed more than 9,500 people, Kiev and Moscow didn't break diplomatic ties.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin earlier this week also spoke of that possibility but said Kiev wouldn't want that because it would mean abandoning 4 million Ukrainians who live and work in Russia.

Medvedev's announcement comes after Ukraine put its troops on combat alert Thursday along the country's de-facto borders with Crimea, amid an escalating war of words with Russia over Crimea. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Friday appealed to Russia and Ukraine to avoid a further escalation in tensions after Moscow accused Kiev of sending "saboteurs" to conduct attacks in annexed Crimea.

He said in comments published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Germany is in contact with both countries, and he plans to speak with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov during a previously planned visit to Russia on Monday.

Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Putin fires chief of staff, sign of fatigue with old guard

August 12, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Friday abruptly replaced his longtime chief of staff with a low-profile younger aide, the latest in a series of moves by the Russian leader to rid himself of members of his old guard.

Analysts see the dismissal of the 63-year old Sergei Ivanov as a reflection of Putin's increasing weariness with his close lieutenants who had known him even before his ascent to the presidency. The Russian leader now seems inclined to promote new, younger members of the Kremlin administration who fully owe their careers to him.

The elevation of 44-year-old Anton Vayno, one of Ivanov's former deputies, doesn't necessarily portend any shift of Kremlin policy, which has invariably been shaped by Putin himself throughout his 16-year rule.

Ivanov met Putin in the 1970s, when they were both young KGB officers. Unlike Putin, whose KGB career reached its peak with a stint in East Germany in the late 1980s, Ivanov served several stints in Western countries — coveted postings which were considered much more prestigious.

After Putin won his first presidential term in 2000, Ivanov became his defense minister. When Putin had to move into the prime minister's seat in 2008 due to term limits, Ivanov had been considered his likely successor, but Putin chose Dmitry Medvedev as his placeholder for the following four years.

Some Kremlin insiders believed that Ivanov then ruined his presidential chances with a premature celebration of what he apparently had seen as the already secured nomination, something which had put Putin on his guard.

When Medvedev obediently stepped down after one term to allow Putin reclaim the presidency in 2012, Ivanov was named the Kremlin chief of staff, a job with broad authority. Ivanov, however, has been somewhat eclipsed by his deputy Vyacheslav Volodin, who has been the chief architect of the Kremlin's domestic policies.

In tightly choreographed footage broadcast Friday by Russian state television, Putin thanked Ivanov for his work and said he was ready to meet Ivanov's request for another job — the presidential adviser for the environment and transportation.

"I'm happy with how you handle tasks," Putin said. "I remember well our agreement that you had asked me not to keep you as chief of the presidential administration for more than four years and that is why I understand your desire to choose another line of work."

Putin kept Ivanov's seat on the presidential Security Council, a small consolation prize for his sharp downgrade. Ivanov then praised Vayno as fully fit to replace him. Vayno, a grandson of Estonia's communist leader during the Soviet times, served as a diplomat before becoming a Kremlin aide. He has been involved with daily bureaucratic routine and kept a low profile, a stark contrast with Ivanov, a fluent English speaker who enjoyed the international limelight.

Social media users on Friday posted photos of Vayno at previous Kremlin events, including one where he was carrying an umbrella for Putin. Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant who once advised the Kremlin, said Putin prefers younger people who were never his peers and who see him as the country's supreme authority.

"Psychologically, it's more comfortable for Putin these days to deal with the people, who always thought of him as the great leader and cannot recall the times when Putin was not great leader yet," Belkovsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Ivanov is the latest casualty in Putin's campaign to rid himself of long-serving members of his entourage. In the past year, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, anti-narcotics czar Viktor Ivanov and Kremlin security chief Yevgeny Murov have all lost their jobs. All are men in their 60s, and all long-time acquaintances of the president.

Another longtime associate, Andrei Belyaninov, who knew Putin since the times they both were KGB officers in East Germany, lost his job of the customs chief last month after investigators searched his home and founds hundreds of thousand dollars stashed in shoe boxes.

Among the new appointees to senior government jobs are former officers of the Kremlin security guard and stolid clerks who hadn't been known to the public. "The president's circle has become narrower, and he picks up people whom he personally knows and deals with on a permanent basis," Igor Bunin, the head of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based independent think-tank, said on TV Rain. "They are steadfastly faithful to him."

The 63-year-old Putin also may want to avoid projecting the image of an aging leader, said Moscow-based analyst Alexei Makarkin. He said Putin was sure to remember the times when the Soviet Union was ruled by increasingly feeble Leonid Brezhnev and his asthenic Politburo associates in their 70s and 80s.

"He wants to revive his team with the people he can fully trust and who are always near him, and that's why the sources for new hires are his security detail and the presidential office," Makarkin said.

Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russian opposition supporters protest new repressive law

August 09, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — About 1,000 Russian opposition supporters rallied in Moscow Tuesday to protest a controversial new legislation that offers new sweeping powers to security agencies. The set of counter-terrorism amendments initiated by the hawkish lawmaker Irina Yarovaya has sparked outrage among rights activists. Among other things, it introduces prison sentences for failure to report a grave crime and obliges telecommunications companies to store call logs and data for months.

President Vladimir Putin signed the amendments into law last month. Protesters, who gathered Tuesday in Moscow's Sokolniki park, denounced the new legislation as part of the Kremlin's efforts to stifle protest ahead of next month's parliamentary elections. The rally, which had been sanctioned by authorities, proceeded peacefully as police watched from the sidelines.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who played a key role in organizing massive protests in Moscow against Putin's rule in 2011-2012, said in a rousing speech that it's time for the opposition to return to the streets and that "everything depends on us."

Opposition activist Ilya Yashin described the new legislation as a "reflection of horror and fear of the government." "They try to control everything, absolutely everything," he said. "If we don't resist it, then we will find ourselves in the world of Big Brother where everyone is being watched from everywhere. All our conversations are being listened to, all our messages are being read — it's a very unpleasant perspective."

Referring to the new legislation as "the Big Brother law," Human Rights Watch representative Tanya Lokshina described it as "clearly yet another tool for the government to use against its' opponents."

"There has been a tremendous crackdown on free expression in Russia since Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin back in 2012, and the 'Yarovaya Law' will be a particularly destructive tool," she said.

Russia Designing Blimps Aimed at Reducing Threat of US Cruise Missiles

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jul 26, 2016

The town of Peresvet outside Moscow is home to the testing area of an exotic type of non-lethal weapon - the aerostat. A decision on whether to include blimps into the state's 2018-2025 armament program will be made following testing, to be completed by this autumn. Military analyst Vladimir Tuchkov comments on the prospects for the battle blimps.

In his analysis, published by the independent online newspaper Svobodnaya Pressa, Tuchkov explained that the project in question is the multi-purpose mobile aerostatic complex 'Peresvet', created by the Dolgoprudnenskoe Scientific Production Plant, part of the Vega Radio Engineering Corporation.

The blimp has a length of 32 meters, and a diameter of 13 meters, with a total envelope volume of 3,000 cubic meters. Peresvet is capable of lifting a 300 kg payload to an altitude of up to 3.5 km (the length of its support cable). At the same time, the blimp can be supplied with up to 4.5 kW-worth of electrical power onboard to power its instruments.

Commenting on the aerial vehicle's capabilities, Tuchkov pointed out that information on the types of devices used on board the aerostat has not been released. "But we do know that the Peresvet is capable of solving tasks including: a) providing long-range radio communications b) monitoring large areas c) reconnaissance, including visual, infrared, radio and radiological monitoring d) serving as a long-range radar, and e) electronic warfare."

"Digressing from this particular model, high-altitude aerostats, according to Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern (KRET) deputy head Vladimir Mikheev, can be effectively used for missile defense. Doing so requires equipping the airship with a phased array antenna, which allows launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and their warheads' flight paths, to be recorded."

At present, Tuchkov noted, "this idea remains only a concept, but one entirely possible to implement. Before embarking on the creation of such ambitious programs, it will be necessary to convince the senior command of the Aerospace Defense Forces of the need to revive the country's aerostat and airship building sectors."

"Not so long ago," the analyst recalled, "during the Great Patriotic War, and in the postwar period, dirigibles were widely used in the country's system of air defense, both to monitor the skies and to repel airstrikes via air-based boundaries. Of course, these functions are no longer of any interest to anyone; the intelligence-gathering role of stratospheric balloons has proved much more enduring."

In the 1950s, the United States began sending large numbers of spy balloons (from 200-300 in the most active years) equipped with powerful cameras to Soviet territory from bases bordering the USSR. After flying over Soviet territory and taking its pictures, the aerostat would drop a container into the water, equipped with a radio beacon and a distinctive orange dye, for recovery.

"These compact balloons became a huge problem for Soviet air defense forces," Tuchkov noted. "Anti-aircraft guns could not hit the target, which flew at altitudes of up to 30 km. Interceptor aircraft also had a flight ceiling which was much lower. Hitting the balloons with air-to-air missiles was also extremely difficult," with "the huge difference in the speed of the slow flying spy probe making it difficult for pilots to accurately lock onto the target."

"Due to the extreme difficulty in destroying these probes, every pilot who managed to destroy one of these spy balloon was awarded the Order of the Red Star," a medal awarded for great contributions in the defense of the USSR.

"These air raids, which were highly effective, continued until the late 1960s, stopping after the Americans developed the U2 high-altitude spy plane, and after the USSR developed effective anti-missile weapons."

Incidentally, Tuchkov noted, the Dolgoprudnenskoe Scientific Production Plant was created in 1956 in response to the US 'aerostat strategy'. Over its history, the design bureau developed balloons and airships from as small as 4 cubic meters to as much as 3 million cubic meters, with the capacity to lift between 1.5 kg to 6.5 metric tons, and a working height between 1.5 km and 45 km, with flight duration up to 20 days.

"In the 1990s, the Plant continued its research. However, a lack of funding prevented its projects from being realized. Among the unrealized projects is a marine radar surveillance blimp, designed to explore sea-based economic zones. The project is very promising in terms of both its cost-effectiveness and ease of implementation. The airship is capable of OTH radiolocation of waters and the surrounding airspace."

The Podsolnukh ('Sunflower') OTH radar, which is significantly more expensive, has similar capabilities.

Ultimately, Tuchkov explained, there are serious advantages to the use of airships. "Airships are cheaper to use than airplanes and helicopters, not least because they are unpiloted, and use less fuel. There are even advantages compared to drones. Firstly, an airship has a greater lifting capacity, and therefore can take more equipment up with it. Secondly, the threat of accidents due to technical problems is virtually eliminated. Of course, this does not apply to aerostats equipped with hydrogen, but their use was abandoned a long time ago."

"Airships have another significant advantage: they are difficult to detect on radar due, since they contain virtually no metal parts. The Dolgoprudnenskoe Scientific Production Plant has advanced their projects' qualities in this area even further, through the use of shell materials virtually invisible to radar waves."

And the Dolgoprudnenskoe Plant is not the only player engaged in the development of aerostats for military applications. The Vladimir Region-based Augur-RosAeroSystems also has a number of interesting proposals.

One particularly impressive project is Augur's Puma blimp, which has the capability to lift a 2.2 ton payload to an altitude of 4.4 km, a flight time of up to 30 days, and a power capacity of up to 40 kW. The aerial vehicle can be equipped with a variety of equipment, including radio-electronic warfare equipment.

"Augur has also made considerable efforts in the creation of manned airships. In 2018, the company plans to test the Atlanta, set to have a 60 ton lift capacity, and a 2,000 km flight range. The company expects this project to find interest in the Ministry of Defense. Naturally, commercial exploitation is also possible."

Still, Tuchkov noted, the creation of airships for use by the military is a risky venture. In the late 2010s, the US firm Worldwide Aeros began the creation of a heavy transport airship dubbed the Aeroscraft. The Pentagon soon showed its interest, becoming the co-financer of the project, which promised to cheaply transfer heavy equipment and personnel (up to a battalion-worth) across long distances.

A prototype with a 40 ton lifting capacity made its first flight in 2013. The project came to naught when the Tustin, California hanger at which it was based collapsed in late 2013, destroying the prototype. The company began a lawsuit against the Pentagon, which soon rejected the project.

"This is not the most ambitious US military project in the field of dirigibles to have 'deflated in the air'. In the mid-2000s, DARPA, the agency specializing in the creation of breakthrough military technologies, announced an airship project with a 1,000 ton lifting capacity, and a range of 22,000 km. That project was abandoned due to the fact that the super-airship's enormous cost of development far outweighed the expected results."

Nonetheless, Tuchkov noted, "the Pentagon remains interested in the creation of an intelligence-collecting suborbital aerostats operating in the upper boundary of the stratosphere (i.e. at an altitude of about 80 km). Its interest is understandable. Such an apparatus has capabilities not much different from a satellite in low orbit, and would repay with interest, since a rocket is not required to launch the balloon."

"The only question," according to the analyst, "is whether American engineers will be able to create a stratospheric balloon in a near airless space. At present, the absolute record belongs to the Japanese, who reached a record altitude of 53 km in May 2002."

"Tethered aerostats with more modest characteristics have long been used by the US Army as observation posts, equipped with tele and infrared cameras. In the early 2010s, the Pentagon decided to strengthen its fleet of unmanned airships, incorporating them into their air and missile defense systems. Now, this initiative, under the $3 billion JLENS program, is beginning to be realized. Testing is being conducted at a US Air Force base in Maryland on customizing the vehicles for the detection of low-flying cruise missiles. They are expected to be accepted into service in 2017 or 2018."

In this sense, the analyst suggested, Russian aerostat engineers are moving in the right direction.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Russia_Designing_Blimps_Aimed_at_Reducing_Threat_of_US_Cruise_Missiles_999.html.

Will Russia and China Build an SCO-Based Joint Missile Defense System

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jul 26, 2016

Russia and China may create a unified missile defense system for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. That's the conclusion of experts speaking at a forum dedicated to the US deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. What would the Russian-Chinese system look like? Sputnik investigates.

On Monday, experts in Moscow and Beijing spoke via video conference on the implications for regional security of the US deployment of missile defense systems in South Korea. And while the forum focused mostly on political and military implications of the THAAD deployment, experts also intrigued observers by indicating that it was possible for Russia and China to join together to create a single missile defense shield over the entirety of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the political, economic and military organization involving much of eastern Eurasia.

Regarding the THAAD deployment, Moscow has repeatedly indicated that it was categorically opposed to the move. THAAD, capable of monitoring ballistic and aerial targets at distances of up to 1,500 km, is expected to give the US military the capability to 'see' into the territory of the Russian Federation, and even further into that of China.

Speaking at the video conference on Monday, Vladimir Petrovsky, a senior researcher at the Moscow-based Center for the Studies and Forecasting of Russia-China Relations at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, explained that the potential for a joint missile defense shield exists. Moreover, such a shield would be entirely appropriate given recent US moves, from its deployment of missile shield components in Eastern Europe to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.

"Russia and China could become the driving force in the area of missile defense. Special attention should be paid to the land-based interception systems which we have at our disposal," the analyst said.

Recently, the analyst recalled, Japan, South Korea and the United States conducted drills practicing the interception of ballistic missiles using the maritime-based US Aegis system. The appropriate response from Moscow and Beijing, according to Petrovsky, would be for the two countries' air defense forces to conduct similar joint exercises at the Ashuluk range in Russia's Astrakhan region.

Asked to comment on Petrovsky's words, experts speaking to the independent online news and analysis hub Svobodnaya Pressa indicated that a joint missile defense system was entirely within the realm of possibility.

Vladimir Evseev, the deputy director at the CIS Institute, indicated that he believes the creation of a united anti-missile defense system is definitely possible.

"Just to specify, we are talking about an anti-missile defense system, not air defense in general. In May, Russia and China staged their first joint missile defense exercises using computer simulations in Moscow. This was the first step in a plan to create a joint missile defense system. The next could be to gather real-world experience on the interception of ballistic targets, for example, at the Ashuluk range."

The expert noted that at present, China has two battalions of S-300PMU surface-to-air missile systems, two regiments of S-300PMU-1s and four regiments of S-300PMU-2s. Moreover, they have their own domestically developed SAM system - the HQ-9, created on the basis of its Russian analogues. This includes a maritime variant of the complex - the HHQ-9. "In addition, China has an analogue to the American Aegis system - built on the basis of France's Thomson-CSF TAVITA."

These systems are capable of intercepting ballistic targets at altitudes of up to 30 km and speeds of 1.5-2 km per second. Russia soon plans to supply Beijing with the S-400 Triumf; that system's basic missiles are also capable of intercepting targets at altitudes of about 30 km, but at higher precision.

Russian defense systems, in addition to the S-300 and S-400, also include the Moscow Air Defense System's A-135 missile, capable of intercepting enemy missiles at altitudes of up to 60 km.

"With regard to missile attack early warning systems (EWS), that of Russia is of course more advanced, and includes ground-based early warning radar (including the Daryal, Volga, Don-2N and Voronezh radar systems), plus the group of satellites in high elliptical and geostationary orbit."

Effectively, Evseev noted that "based on available funds, we could carry out exercises and make an attempt to intercept a ballistic target over Russian territory using joint calculations and, later on, eventually strive for the creation of collective missile defense."

"Such a move would serve as an effective response to US plans to deploy elements of missile defense in space. It is space-based ABM specifically which threatens to provide guaranteed interception - during the active phase of the missile's flight. And at this stage it is not necessary to make choices about the real targets within a cloud of decoys, as is the case when interception is carried out during the passive phase," nearer to the ground.

Ultimately, the analyst warned, if the US continues to develop its space-based missile defense components, "the only effective means against such a system would be the use of anti-satellite weapons. We know that China has tested with such systems, and we have similar designs, even if they are not widely advertised. In my view, we can only respond to Washington through the combination of military and diplomatic efforts. Diplomacy alone will not stop the construction of the US missile defense system."

For his part, Vasily Kashin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, noted that Russian-Chinese cooperation in the field of missile defense is possibile, although a full-scale joint shield is unlikely.

At the same time, Kashin indicated, "creating a collective missile defense system in the framework of the SCO is not possible by definition, given the specifics of the organization and the policies of its members. For example, a country like Uzbekistan may have its own dissenting opinion on the issue, not to mention the positions of India and Pakistan," set to join the SCO in 2017.

"As for collective missile defense between Russia and China, it is an unlikely scenario, but possible, given that cooperation in this field already exists. China is now in the process of creating an early warning system, and is developing a strategy for missile defense, including theater missile defense."

In this sense, Kashin suggested, "Beijing is naturally interested in our experience and, possibly, in an automated system of data exchange. As we know, missiles, if they begin their flight from the continental United States, will fly to Russia and China over the North Pole.

In principle, the exchange of data in the event of such a global strike may be of interest to our countries. Something of the kind has already been implemented by the US: The Americans receive real-time data from the early warning radar they sold to Taiwan, [and] the same thing seems likely with South Korea."

Still, according to the analyst, a genuine joint Russian-Chinese system of missile defense will most likely remain on the drawing board.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Will_Russia_and_China_Build_an_SCO_Based_Joint_Missile_Defense_System_999.html.

Gunmen in Armenia take paramedics hostage

July 27, 2016

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Police in Armenia say gunmen who have been barricaded in a police station for 10 days have taken an ambulance crew hostage after they came in to help the wounded following an exchange of fire with officers.

The group seized the police post in the capital, Yerevan, on July 17, demanding freedom for a jailed opposition figure, and took those inside hostage. The last of those hostages were released on Saturday.

After an exchange of fire before dawn Wednesday two of the gunmen surrendered and one police officer and two gunmen were wounded and taken to hospitals. Over 20 gunmen are believed to remain in the police station.

Police spokesman Ashot Agaronyan said the gunmen took the paramedics hostage after they were called in to treat the wounded.

Greenland shark now oldest living animal with backbone

August 11, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the cold waters of the Arctic, a denizen of the deep lurked for centuries. Now scientists calculate that this female Greenland shark was the Earth's oldest living animal with a backbone.

They estimated that the gray shark, part of the species named after Greenland, was born in the icy waters roughly 400 years ago, and died only recently. That conclusion puts the entire species at the top of the longevity list.

Using a novel dating technique, an international team of biologists and physicists estimated the age of 28 dead female Greenland sharks based on tissue in their eyes. Eight of the sharks were probably 200 years or older and two likely date back more than three centuries, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Until now, that record holder was a bowhead whale that hit 211 years old, according to study lead author Julius Nielsen and AnAge, an animal longevity database . The oldest of the Greenland sharks examined was nearly 16.5 feet long (5 meters) and estimated to be 392 years old when it was caught around four years ago. But that calculation comes with a huge margin of error — plus or minus 120 years — due to the newness of the dating technique, said Nielsen, a marine biologist at the University of Copenhagen.

That means the shark was probably born sometime between 1500 and 1740 with the most likely birth year 1620. "It's an estimate. It's not a determination," Nielsen said. "It is the best we can do." Even at the lowest end of the margin error, the shark would have been 272 years old when it died, and still would be the longest-living animal with a backbone, Nielsen said. Other experts agreed.

Joao Pedro Magalhaes, a University of Liverpool aging researcher, said because the study is based on an indirect measurement he wouldn't necessarily concentrate on exact numbers, especially when they exceed 400 years, where the upper end of the margin of error goes.

"But the study is convincing enough for us to say that these animals live way longer than human beings and possibly longer than any other vertebrate," said Magalhaes, who runs the longevity database and wasn't part of Nielsen's team.

Some animals without backbones live longer. An ocean quahog, a clam, lived 507 years and two different types of sponges are said to survive for 15,000 and 1,500 years. While not surprised that Greenland sharks live a long time, "I'm really shocked by the magnitude of that longevity," wrote Christopher Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University Long Beach. He wasn't part of the study, but praised it as creative and compelling.

Greenland sharks love cold water — preferring temperatures near freezing — and are all over the Arctic. The cold water and the slow metabolism that comes with it might have something to do with their long lives, Nielsen said. Lowe, in an email, said "the rule of thumb is deep and cold = old when it comes to fishes."

"I don't know why they get as old, but I hope someone will find out," Nielsen said. For the age estimates, he uses a complex and indirect system that combines chemical tracking, mathematical modeling and growth measurements. He focuses on the shark eye lens. Those form while the shark is still developing inside the mother's uterus and measures of carbon in them won't change after birth, so it gives a good, rough sense of when the shark was born.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shark expert Allen Andrews said the dating method "is novel and is likely robust" but he said there are still a number of uncertainties.

Ukrainian zoo prides itself on new white lion cubs

August 11, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A private zoo in Ukraine has a new attraction: five white lion cubs. Volodymyr Shevchuk, director of the "XII Months" zoo near the Ukrainian capital, said the cubs have been separated from their parents, Ivanna and Ludvig.

Shevchuk says the cubs have quickly become favorites with the visitors. White lions, which are extremely rare, are a genetic mutation of the African Lion. They are mostly found in zoos because the color mutation makes it difficult for them to survive in the wild.