15 September 2017 – Executive Intelligence Summary – Forward Observer Shop

15 September 2017 – Executive Intelligence Summary


In this EXSUM… (4011 words)

  • Russia, China, North Korea, and Middle East Situation Reports (SITREPs)
  • Defense in Brief
  • Far Left Roll-Up
  • And more…

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

PIR1: What are the new indicators of systems disruption or instability that could lead to civil unrest or violence?

PIR2: What are the new indicators of an outbreak of global conflict?

PIR3: What are the new indicators of organized political violence and domestic conflict?


PIR1: What are the current indicators of systems disruption that could lead to instability, civil unrest, or violence?

U.S. refineries damaged in wake of Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey slammed into southeastern Texas and brought with it 50-plus inches of rain and massive flooding. In its wake, much of the nation’s oil refinery capacity was heavily damaged and forced to shut down, likely for weeks. Initially, that caused a spike in gasoline and energy prices, but prices appear to have stabilized, at least for now. Also affected: Chemical production in Texas, which supplies about 75 percent of the ethylene used to manufacture of plastics, which are found in virtually every consumer product. [source]

Analyst comment: Anytime there is long-term, widespread damage to an area you have to be concerned about how the economic impact — job losses, price spikes, etc. — will affect the civil society. Regional disasters to high-output states like Texas, though, can spread economic hardship far beyond state lines but so far anyway, we’re not seeing huge ramifications. That could change if the state’s petrochemical production stretches for a much longer period and shortages begin to occur that cause major price spikes, loss of employment, and unrest. 

PIR2: What are the current indicators of an outbreak of global conflict?


It’s been a busy week in Eurasia as both NATO and Russia have military exercises ongoing. More notable of the two is Russia’s Zapad 2017 (“West 2017”, from 14-20 Sept), the largest in several years which Western nations claim will involve as many as 100,000 soldiers and civilians in Russia and Belarus. Russia says only 12,700 will be involved. The UK Defence Minister characterized Zapad’s size and scope as a provocation: “Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity. We’re seeing a more aggressive Russia. We have to deal with that,” without describing how NATO would deal with it. Other NATO defense ministers described Zapad as an intimidation tactic.

The Zapad 2017 exercise will feature foreign forces fomenting unrest and setting up an illegal government in a fictional nation in western Belarus.  Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin created the Russian National Guard, a force estimated at 180,000 soldiers, to deal with scenarios like these.  It’s expected that the Russian National Guard will play a large role in the exercise.

U.S. Army Europe (USAEUR) commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges recently spoke about Zapad and the potential, as some NATO countries fear, for the exercise to turn into an invasion, as exercises in 2008 and 2014 did in George and Crimea, respectively.  “[Putin] is able to move a lot of stuff real fast which is what got my attention and made me start thinking, how do we achieve at least the same speed that he has?” Hodges asked.  One of the oddest challenges the U.S. Army faces is dealing with customs processes when it moves equipment through a European country.  “I think most people would be astounded to find out what we have to do to submit a list of all the vehicles, the drivers, what’s in every truck – which they don’t do with gigantic commercial trucks moving back and forth across borders,” Hodges explained. Sometimes those permissions take weeks, although those processes would likely be unenforced or greatly sped up once the likelihood of conflict is imminent.  (On a side note, Lt. Gen. Hodges says that the spearhead of the NATO force can deploy within a couple days.)

Meanwhile, non-NATO Sweden joins the US and other NATO militaries during Aurora 17, the NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea area.  After Zapad 2013 featured a Russian nuclear attack on Sweden, some 20,000 Swedish troops are joining Aurora 17 and training “to deter potential attackers, and force [Russia] to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country.”  So far, Sweden has supported NATO in the cold war against Russia but has yet to join NATO; although their membership will be heavily debated in the September 2018 election.

Outlook: We don’t expect Zapad 2017 to turn into an invasion, although likely targets would include Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland. Still, the large exercise gives reason for both NATO and non-NATO countries to prepare for a conflict. Ironically, NATO expansion is what prompted Russia’s own military buildup. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been harsh on the idea of Sweden or Finland joining NATO. Earlier this year, saying that if Sweden were to join that he would “eliminate” the NATO threat. We don’t expect war to break out in the next week and the situation appears to be stable, although tense.  – MS



Asian neighbors reacting to China’s aggressiveness

The Asia-Pacific region continues to draw a lot of our attention and last week was no different. It appears as though China’s neighbors — most notably Japan, Indonesia, and Vietnam — are growing more nervous about Beijing’s expansionism throughout the South China Sea. Pressured by the United States, in part, but also by the reality on the ground (or in the sea), these nations are beginning to bolster their own military readiness and push back, even slightly, against Chinese aggression.

Japan will likely begin spending more for its defense in the coming years, as incursions by Chinese and Russian warships and warplanes become more common. Russian and Chinese aircraft, for instance, have begun probing Japanese air space at levels not seen in a decade, causing the Japan Air Self Defense Force to scramble fighters more frequently. And while China and Russia are not formal allies, increasingly the two countries’ interests are converging in the region — to serve as counterweights to U.S. influence and hegemony in the region.

To its credit, the Japanese are moving to expand their security umbrella beyond their formal alliance with the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India this week is significant in that Tokyo is looking to India as being key to helping Tokyo hold Chinese hegemony in Asia in check. The visit also came as China and India deescalated a tense border dispute that brought each country’s forces in close proximity and, some assessed, nearly to conflict. Security-wise, India has much more in common with Japan than with other major powers in the region that are capable of fending off Chinese military threats.

Speaking of U.S. hegemony, the Defense Department — in a first for the Trump administration — plans to establish a regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) schedule in the South China Sea. During the Obama administration, FONOPs were carried out infrequently and with irregularity, making it appear as though Washington was being subservient to Beijing’s political pressure while at the same time undermining the legality of such operations in international waters. The U.S. maintains that such legal signaling isn’t aimed just at China, but at all nations in the region. Still, the intention is clear: Beijing doesn’t ‘own’ the entire South China Sea and will not dictate its terms of use.

Outlook: We don’t expect conflict in this region between the great powers in the near term, but as always, the wild card is North Korea. Though tied economically to China, it’s not clear that Beijing would come to Pyongyang’s aid if war came to the Korean peninsula, most especially if it was started by the North Koreans. Still, we don’t expect the Chinese to discontinue their push to become more dominant in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, especially as the country’s economic and military strength grow.  Over the long term, that makes the likelihood of conflict increase.

Korean Peninsula SITREP

China has neither the keys to controlling North Korean behavior nor the will

President Trump has repeatedly claimed that China holds the keys to controlling North Korea’s increasingly belligerent behavior, specifically Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Former chief strategist to the president Steve Bannon, in an interview with “60 Minutes” over the weekend, reiterated that the path to controlling Pyongyang runs through Beijing. But increasingly, it’s looking as though outsized reliance on China to reign in its feisty neighbor may be a fool’s errand. And anyway, China probably has no interest in pushing North Korea to the breaking point.

Some now believe that North Korea may be just a few years away from fielding nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of striking all of South Korea, Japan, and China — as well as most if not all of Russia and most of the U.S. At that point Kim will have closed the nuclear circle and have achieved what his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, set in motion. Any attempts to dislodge him from power, said to be one of his biggest fears, would come at a horrific, impossible-to-bear cost.

At present, analysts estimate that 85-90 percent of North Korean exports go to China. Similarly, North Korea imports about 80-85 percent of goods for its daily needs from China. So on the surface, it looks like China has all the economic leverage it needs to control North Korea. But over the course of the last half-dozen years, since current leader Kim Jong-un came to power, relations with Beijing have chilled considerably from their hey day when the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the two countries’ as “close as lips and teeth.” For one, Kim has never visited Bejing. Also, other high-level meetings between North Korean and Chinese officials have been sporadic and sparse. Finally, in spite of Chinese warnings, North Korea continues to provoke — South Korea, the U.S., and Japan — with ballistic missile tests and nuclear weapons development.

Add deteriorating relations to the belief among analysts that China simply has no desire to reign in North Korea and it becomes clear why Beijing may no longer hold the right cards anymore to control North Korean behavior.

So what are Trump’s options? Japan’s Shinzo Abe? South Korea’s Moon Jae-in? They are roughly the same as before North Korea proved to the world that it has advanced its nuclear technology development to the point it can build more powerful bombs — ramp up military preparedness by deploying more strategic assets and wait Kim out or launch a preemptive strike that will create precisely the situations China is attempting to avoid with its reluctance to ramp up economic pressure on Pyongyang: Destruction of the Kim dynasty, a unified peninsula under a U.S. ally, and a huge humanitarian crisis to clean up.

Outlook: We don’t assess that North Korea would preemptively strike South Korea unless or until Kim feels sufficiently threatened and that he is at risk of being deposed. At the same time, Beijing should understand that Washington has no imperial designs on China. There are those who argue that ramping up rhetoric and increasing the U.S. military presence in Asia is in and of itself destabilizing, and is being viewed by Kim in Pyongyang (and President Xi Jinping in Beijing) as a provocation. That argument has merit. But the U.S., with its security commitments, cannot simply withdraw, either, and surely both men understand that were the U.S. to do so, that would leave them with opportunities for conquest they likely never thought they’d have. So the U.S. presence is just something both nations will have to get used to. Just as the U.S. may have to get used to the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Elsewhere in Korea: 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the North Korean nuclear threat is a global problem, not just a regional one, and requires the attention and response of the international community. When asked if any North Korean attack on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam would trigger NATO’s collective defense clause, he responded, “I will not speculate about whether Article Five will be applied in such a situation.” [source]

Analyst comment: If you were expecting Stoltenberg to answer resoundingly, “Yes, it would trigger an Article Five response,” you’re not alone. It could be that he was merely avoiding public discussion of any pre-planned NATO military response strategy in case of just such an attack, it could be the U.S. has already said it wouldn’t require NATO assistance, or…it could be NATO has no intention of honoring its commitment to Washington. Either way, a resounding “yes” would have gotten North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s attention and served as a much bigger deterrent to foolishness (not that the threat of a major U.S. counterstrike isn’t enough) had he said Washington’s got a LOT of backup if need be.

Mideast SITREP

The war against ISIS is reaching its climax as a U.S.-backed coalition of forces prepares an offensive against one of the group’s last major strongholds, located in the oil-rich Deir al-Zour province. There is much at stake here besides the obvious oil prize — though that, too, is certainly important.

Militant forces backed by the United States and opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are preparing to make a final push to drive the Islamic State out of its last stronghold. There are several indicators that make this push significantly important. According to published reports, ISIS forces are currently besieged on all sides in the border province of Deir al-Zour. They are battling back against offensives launched by competing forces and nearly every major group that has fought in the six-year civil war is thought to be involved.

Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a Kurdish-dominated militia supported by a U.S.-led coalition of airstrikes, said earlier this week they planned to clear the ISIS militants from ground east of the Euphrates River in what is being called “Operation Jazeera Storm. The offensive is expected to be launched in the Khabur River valley.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces are also on the move eastward and are closing in on the same region, retaking lost ground in the process. But other factions, including Iran proxy Hezbollah, also have an interest in this region because it is rich with oil and because the area is important strategically. Iran seeks much influence in a post-war Syria, largely as a means of harassing or even attacking Israel — which would likely bring U.S. military power to bear in the same corner of the world where Russian military power has been brought to bear.

Outlook: Iran-backed Hezbollah units fighting in Syria have already threatened to attack U.S. forces after ISIS is defeated. Russia and Syria both back Iran, though it’s not clear at all that Russia would provide direct military support to an Iranian-backed proxy groups that attacked U.S. troops. The Trump administration’s stated interests in the region extend only to ISIS, but there are no plans to pull U.S. forces out of neighboring Iraq after ISIS is declared defeated, leaving them subject to attacks from Hezbollah-aligned groups. Said one recent headline from Iran’s Far News Agency: “Iraqi Popular Forces Warn to Target US Forces after Defeating ISIL Terrorists.” U.S. military officials have said the Pentagon is aware of the Hezbollah groups and has plans to “counter” them if they begin attacking American troops.

Elsewhere in the Middle East: 

President Trump has urged Gulf Arab states to settle their disputes and become united — against Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states settling their issues with Qatar will be necessary to confront an increasingly aggressive Tehran, especially as it reinforces its proxies and position in Syria, now that that conflict involving (primarily) ISIS winds down. “The president also emphasized that all countries must follow through on commitments from the Riyadh Summit to defeat terrorism, cut off funding for terrorist groups, and combat extremist ideology,” the White House noted. [source]

Analyst comment: The next Middle East war will almost certainly involve Iran in some way, and the Trump administration is expecting that.

Defense in brief

Newest terrorism threat from ISIS: Dirty bomb drones

The terrorist threat to the West from radical Islamic groups like ISIS is alway evolving, and that evolution normally involves changing technology. Drones, for instance, are becoming a major concern to counterterrorism experts who see a future where terrorists may even use one to carry a radiological “dirty” bomb or chemical weapon. “I understand that an openly available drone, such as a quadcopter, which is able to hold a camera, can drop some dirty explosive device,” Friedrich Grommes, Germany’s top international terrorism official, said at a recent national security forum. “Even if only a few people are affected, it serves completely the idea of terrorism,” Grommes added. The drone payload would be “something which is poisonous. It could be a chemical or whatever is commercially available.” [source]

Analyst comment: In August, Australian authorities announced they disrupted a plot by the Islamic State to construct an “improvised chemical dispersion device” that could be deployed in heavily populated areas. And while such technologies have yet to make its way to the West say other experts, most analysts believe it’s only a matter of time. Chemical drone strikes, especially, offer the element of surprise and anonymity.

U.S. Navy retrofitting Tomahawks to use against enemy warships

In a bid to ramp up its ability to target enemy warships at greater distances, the U.S. Navy will retrofit a number of existing Tomahawk cruise missiles for an anti-ship role. The service has just awarded a contract to Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and other defense contractors to fit the Tomahawks with upgraded sensors that will give the surface-to-surface missiles sea-strike capability. Called “Maritime Strike Tomahawks,” the missiles will give the Navy a relatively low-cost and upgraded anti-ship capability it currently lacks with its older, slower, and non-stealthy, very short-range Harpoon anti-ship missiles (70 miles). [source]

Analyst Comment: Russia and China, especially, have been developing, building, and fielding sophisticated, longer-range anti-ship missiles in recent years, and frankly, the U.S. has lagged behind in this area. Their missiles are also very high-speed and designed to defeat sophisticated defenses on modern American and NATO warships. At present, few U.S. warships even have the capability to carry Harpoons in the first place. The Navy needs an over-the-horizon strike weapon, and the MST is at least a viable stopgap. Coming: The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, with a range of over 200 nautical miles. Air-launched versions are starting production but the sea-launched version won’t be ready for a few more years — same as the MST’s.

Russian T-80 tanks have two fatal flaws

When the Russians began developing their T-80 main battle tank they believed the were working on a monster that would stand up to, and defeat, anything NATO threw its way. But when it was battle-tested during the first Chechen War, Moscow was stunned to discover its mighty tank was extremely vulnerable to lightly-armed guerrillas. The last MBT to come out of the Soviet Union, it was the first Soviet tank with a gas turbine engine giving it a top speed of about 50 miles per hour and an efficient power-to-weight ratio. Still, it’s two biggest flaws: It is a gas hog and it is far too expensive to produce in great numbers. [source]

Analyst Comment: The 1994 war in Chechnya was a disaster for Russia in many ways, not the least of which was due to poor tactics…and a more resilient foe than initially thought. Scores of T-80B’s and T-80BV’s, able to withstand frontal attacks, were nevertheless destroyed in catastrophic explosions, with turrets blowing off, after suffering subsequent hits with Chechen rebel-fired RPG-7V and RPG-18 rockets. In addition, the T-80’s Korzhina autoloader had a fatal design flaw, leading to massive explosions and turret loss. A second major flaw: Minimal gun elevation and depression. The point is, the Soviet-turned-Russian troops never really field-tested the tank before sending it into combat, leading to disaster, and the tanks have not been used in battle (Second Chechen War, 1999; Georgia, 2008; Ukraine, 2014-present) since.

U.S. Navy deploying cybersecurity team to investigate USS John S. McCain collision

Following reports that the U.S. warships of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet involved in a spate of recent collisions may have had their navigation systems spoofed or hacked, Navy brass have ordered a cyber security investigation into the collision involving the USS John S. McCain. The director of naval intelligence, Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, said the Cyber Command 10th Fleet, accompanied by a team of technical experts from Naval Sea Systems Command and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, were sent to Singapore, where the ship is currently docked, “to confirm that cyber had no role” in the Aug. 21 collision that killed 10 sailors. “We have no indications or reason to believe that there was a malicious cyber attack that had an effect on either [USS] Fitzgerald or McCain, but we’ve assembled a team … to go out on the ground and look for and assess any anomalous activity that may exist onboard John S. McCain,” Tighe said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Because it’s unprecedented, the investigation could take months to complete. Tighe said a similar cyber security team had not been provided for the USS Fitzgerald, which struck another commercial vessel killing seven sailors. [source]

Analyst comment: Several naval experts and former serving officers have blamed these collisions on several things — lack of training, poor leadership at the top, the busy sea lanes the 7th Fleet operates in, etc. — anything but hacking. And while these incidents likely are the result of too much tasking and too little certification/training/leadership, the Navy obviously is taking the cyber security threat seriously in at least one of the accidents. If the Navy finds its ships have been hacked, don’t expect any big announcement; that discovery will be classified for decades to come, if proven true.


PIR3: What are the new indicators of organized political violence and domestic conflict?

Antifa redefines Black Lives Matter

In an op-ed in the San Francisco Bay View this week, Cecil Brown, an Urban Studies professor at Standford University, expresses that white Antifa members who adopt the “Black Lives Matter” slogan do more so for themselves than for black Americans. During a recent protest in Berkeley, the author observed white members of Antifa wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts and using drums in their African drum circle. The main complaint seems to be that white Antifa members are appropriating black resistance culture, and showing their “white pride” in their boasting of the BLM slogan. “In addition to coopting the music, the drumming, the slogans, they also appropriate the concept of Black violence against the oppression. In this case, the Black fighter is replaced by a white person who represents the Black fighter,” he writes.  This is part of a larger complaint among black BLM activists who don’t want white leadership or to be represented by whites in the movement.  Ending his piece in the View, Brown writes that the anti-fascist movement in East Germany ultimately failed “because they ended up developing the same strategies and techniques of the fascists themselves.”  He implies that the current Antifa tactics will lead to a failure of the movement. [source]


AMC working on social justice lineup of shows

AMC is developing a show based on the book “They Can’t Kill Us All”: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.  The show will apparently explore the reasons why the Movement for Black Lives was founded, to include “current events and race relations through the stories and voices of fictional characters.”  Another show entitled Undocumented America will feature stories about illegal aliens across America. [source]


Alt-Right leader warns of future “chaos”

Eli Mosley, recently named the new leader of Identity Evropa, warned on Twitter that there would be more “chaos” in the future.  “There will be more chaos ahead and everyone involved should be ready… There is no possible way we can shitpost our way to victory and we must move from an online movement to the real world…”  Shitposting is a highly technical term that refers to posting caustic memes — sometimes referred to as “edgy” or “spicy” — on the internet.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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