News Briefs – March 16, 2020

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Sweden sees risk of military escalation in Baltic region

Sweden’s external military intelligence service said March 13 the security policy situation in the Baltic Sea region “has deteriorated over time,” meaning there is “an increased risk of military incidents and confrontation that can, in the worst case, lead to a situation escalating.”
The Military Intelligence and Security Service, known by its Swedish acronym MUST, said “the dynamics between the United States, China, Russia and the European Union also affects the security policy situation in the Baltic Sea region.”
In its annual report for 2019, the agency said the region “continues to be characterized by increased military activity. This means a growing risk of military incidents and confrontation that may, at worst, escalate.”
MUST noted that “generally speaking Russia remains militarily inferior to the United States and NATO” but stressed that Russia “has the ability to be militarily superior regionally, and for a limited time.” The reason for that is that NATO and Europe are dependent on American strengthening in the event of a conflict and that this would have to be relocated from North America.
Last month, Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said the likelihood of a military attack from neighboring Russia remains low. Still, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said, any confrontation with Russia and the West could quickly turn into “a threat situation” for the three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. AP
 

Afghan government postpones prisoner release, endangers deal

The Afghan government March 14 postponed the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, an Afghan official said, a decision that could sabotage a peace deal signed last month between the Taliban and the United States.
Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Adviser’s office, said the releases were being delayed because more time was needed to review the list of prisoners. The move comes despite President Ashraf Ghani’s decree earlier this week promising the start of the releases March 14 as a good will gesture to get intra-Afghan negotiations started.
The U.S.-Taliban deal was touted at the time as the best chance at ending Afghanistan’s endless wars and bringing U.S. troops home after nearly 19 years.
There was no immediate response from the Taliban to the delayed prisoner release. AP
 

Europe, Russia postpone joint rover mission to Mars

The European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos said March 12 they are postponing a planned joint mission to Mars until 2022, in part due to travel restrictions resulting from the new coronavirus outbreak
The ExoMars mission was due to launch this year but concerns about possible technical problems had already prompted both agencies to discuss the delay.
“We want to make ourselves 100 percent sure of a successful mission,” European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner said in a statement. “We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars.”
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, said the delay was primarily due to technical problems, compounded by the coronavirus outbreak, “which left our experts practically no possibility to proceed with travels to partner industries.”
The mission’s goal is to put a rover on the red planet to help determine whether there has ever been life on Mars. Scientists hope the rover, packed with high-tech instruments and named after British chemist Rosalind Franklin, will be able to dig for biological signatures of life below the martian surface and also provide further insights into the planet’s history of water.
The postponement is another setback for the ExoMars program after the 2016 launch of an orbiter and a test lander. The Trace Gas Orbiter was successfully deployed, but the Schiaparelli lander malfunctioned and crashed on the surface of Mars, highlighting the difficulty of putting a probe on the planet.
Three other Mars missions are planned for this summer. The United States is launching a lander, China has a lander-orbiter combo, and the United Arab Emirates is sending an orbiter. AP
 

New refueling aircraft unable to refuel others in-flight

Officials say problems with a video system on the new Boeing refueling tankers are preventing them from performing their main mission of refueling other aircraft in flight.
On the KC-46A refueling tanker, the person operating the fuel boom — essentially a fuel hose — should be able to sit in the front of the plane and guide the fuel boom into place, using a video camera and computer screen. However, the video feed on the Remote Vision System is sometimes distorted by glare and shadows, making it challenging to control the boom, the Portsmouth Herald reported.
The aircraft is intended to replace older tankers that required operators to lie down at the back of the refueling tankers using a joystick to guide the boom into place.
While the problem is addressed, the tankers won’t able to refuel other aircraft in flight. But, according to comments made at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, they may be used for other missions, including airlifts and medical evacuations.
Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said he told Boeing officials that time is of the essence. Boeing said in a statement that the company is working with the Air Force to enhance the video system by 2023 or 2024. AP
 

Lawmakers repeal tax break for Boeing to resolve dispute

The Washington Legislature has approved a revised bill to repeal a tax break for Boeing, a measure that was requested by the aerospace giant to resolve a long-running international trade dispute.
The Seattle Times reports that Senate Bill 6690 was passed by lawmakers March 12, the final day of the legislative session. Boeing wanted the tax repealed to head off retaliatory trade tariffs. The tax incentive has allowed Boeing and aerospace businesses to pay a lower state tax rate compared to other manufacturing companies.
The lower rate the company wanted repealed had saved Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003. In 2013, that tax break was extended to 2040, helping convince the company to build the 777X in Everett, Wash.
Lawmakers had said that World Trade Organization tariffs could ripple out far beyond Boeing, ensnaring other Washington products like wine.
The measure would allow a return to a preferential tax rate if an agreement between the United States and European Union settles their disagreement in a way that allows for some tax incentives.
In a statement, Boeing spokesman Bryan Watt said the legislation will bring the company into compliance with the WTO’s rulings. AP
 
 
 

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