News Briefs – January 4, 2017

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Russia eyes naval drills with Philippines as two ships visit

Russia is eyeing naval exercises with the Philippines and deployed two navy ships for a goodwill visit to Manila on Tuesday as Moscow moves to expand defense ties with a Filipino president known for being hostile to the U.S.
Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov, deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, led the five-day visit of vessels including an anti-submarine ship and showcased what his country can offer to a Southeast Asian nation that’s long been a staunch American treaty ally.
“You can choose … to cooperate with United States of America or to cooperate with Russia,” Mikhailov told reporters through an interpreter at the Manila harbor after a welcoming ceremony. “But from our side we can help you in every way that you need.”
“We are sure that in the future we’ll have exercises with you. Maybe, just maneuvering or maybe use of combat systems and so on,” he said.
The anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs and sea tanker Boris Butoma have a wide range of combat features. Filipinos will be allowed to tour the huge ships and Russian marines will demonstrate their combat capability during the high-profile visit, according to the Philippine navy.
With an underfunded and underequipped military, the Philippines has struggled to deal with attacks by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf militants and allied gunmen, who have kidnapped crewmen of tugboats and ships from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea and outlying waters.
Russia can help through future combat drills, Mikhailov said. “We have an experience in fighting these (threats),” he said. “We will share to you our knowledge on these problems, how to solve piracy and terrorism.”
After Russian and Philippine officials met in Manila in August, the two countries began drafting a proposed defense cooperation accord that could be signed during a planned visit by President Rodrigo Duterte to Russia in April.
The visit by the Russian navy ships is the third to the Philippines and the first under Duterte, who took office in June. Duterte has lashed out at outgoing President Barack Obama and his administration for criticizing Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs which is feared to have left more than 6,000 suspected drug users and dealers.
Contrastingly, Duterte has reached out to China and Russia — whose leaders he has met recently — in a dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy that has put Washington in a dilemma.
The Philippines has depended heavily on the U.S., its treaty ally, for weapons, ships and aircraft for years, although it has turned to other countries for defense equipment. After visiting Moscow last month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine military was considering purchasing sniper rifles from Russia.
Duterte has repeatedly threatened to scale back U.S. troop presence and joint exercises with the Americans in the Philippines. AP
 

SpaceX finds source of rocket explosion, plans new launch

SpaceX plans to resume flights as early as next week after finding the cause of an explosion that destroyed a rocket and satellite on a Florida launch pad in September.
The Hawthorne, California-based company is aiming for a Jan. 8, flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 2. The launch still needs approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The company said its investigation of the Sept. 1 explosion found that a tank failed within the larger, second-stage liquid oxygen tank.
SpaceX plans to launch 10 satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. on a Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites will be used to provide mobile communications on land, sea and air.
Iridium says it in a tweet that it is pleased with the SpaceX’s announcement and target launch date.
SpaceX had said it expected to return to flight as soon as November. But that anticipated launch date slipped back to December, and then January.
“Clearly, they’re being extra cautious,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the Teal Group. “SpaceX usually pushes ahead a lot faster. So it seems like they’re not rushing ahead at this point, which is a good thing.”
The explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station destroyed a satellite that was to be managed by Israeli satellite operator Spacecom and was also to help Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg bring high-speed internet access to remote parts of Africa.
SpaceX said Jan. 2 that it pored through 3,000 channels of video and telemetry data that spanned just 93 milliseconds from the first sign of trouble to the explosion. AP
 

Serbia buys 9 Airbus choppers after Russian jet donation

Serbia signed a deal on Dec. 29 to buy nine light choppers from Airbus Helicopters amid tensions in the region triggered by Russia’s donation of jet fighters to the Balkan state.
Serbia’s Defense Ministry said the deal is for H145M twin-engine, multi-utility helicopters. The agreement includes spare parts and the training of pilots and maintenance crews for the aircraft, which will be used both by the military and police. Financial details were not disclosed.
Earlier this month, Russia announced it was donating six aging MiG-29 jet fighters to Serbia that need to be overhauled at a cost of over 180 million euros ($188 million).
Recent tensions between Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, and NATO-member Croatia have sparked a mini arms race between the two former Yugoslav nations, which were at war in the 1990s. Croatia said it is considering Western replacement for its old fighter fleet of MiG-21s.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said during his year-end press conference on Thursday that he is “not interested” by potential criticism from the West or Russia about the purchase of weapons from both sides.
“I am proud that we finally have an air force that will keep our sky free,” Vucic said. “Serbia is now a much safer country than yesterday.”
The Serbian arms deals came amid Russian efforts to prevent the Balkan states from aligning further with the West.
Many in Serbia are hostile toward NATO because of its bombing of the country in 1999 over a bloody government crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, something both Serbia and Russia reject. AP