27 October 2017 Strategic Intelligence Summary – Forward Observer Shop

27 October 2017 Strategic Intelligence Summary


In this Strategic INTSUM… (4309 words)

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

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

PIR1: What are new indicators of systems disruption or instability that could lead to civil unrest or violence?
PIR2: What is the current risk of war with the four flashpoints?
PIR3: Defense in Brief – What are the new pre-war developments in the U.S. military and defense industrial base?

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

Systems Disruption

Hackers may be able to turn smart home devices manufactured by LG into spying devices capable of massive privacy violations. Cybersecurity researchers have discovered a vulnerability in LG SmartThinQ smart home devices which are part of the Internet of Things allowing them to hijack appliances like refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, air conditioners, dryers, washing machines and televisions. In addition, hackers may even be able to take over LG’s Hom-Bot, a camera-equipped robotic vacuum cleaner and access its camera to spy on residents of the home. What’s more, the hack does not require the hacker and device to be on the same network. Cybersecurity researchers say hackers can log onto devices without the owners’ knowledge from a remote location.

A computer at the heart of a lawsuit involved in an election security case has mysteriously been wiped clean. The server is based in Georgia, a state won by President Trump, and it stored the results of the state’s voting tallies. Cybersecurity experts involved in the suit and case say there is good reason to believe it may have been penetrated: The system is 15 years old and may be harboring all kinds of exploitable software and hardware vulnerabilities. While some fear Russian hackers may have penetrated the system there is also this: Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, Georgia election officials claimed that they traced an attempted hack back to the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security. Officials in Georgia said hackers also attempted to breach the state’s voter registration database. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp alleges that a computer with a DHS internet address attempted to breach its systems. Kemp wrote: “On November 15, 2016, an IP address associated with the Department of Homeland Security made an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the Georgia Secretary of State’s firewall. I am writing you to ask whether DHS was aware of this attempt and, if so, why DHS was attempting to breach our firewall.” He added that “at no time” did his office approve DHS to conduct “penetration testing or security scans” of Georgia’s electronic balloting systems.

Hackers are continuing their efforts to gain access to critical U.S. infrastructure, including the networks of nuclear power stations in what cybersecurity experts say are a combination of cyber-espionage and sabotage. A recent report written by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned of ongoing hacking campaigns that have seen the infiltration of networks belonging to U.S. power companies and others in attempts to steal details of their control systems, including data pertaining to control systems within energy-generation facilities. In addition, hackers have been routinely targeting systems belonging to several government agencies and firms that work in energy, nuclear, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors, the report notes. While it’s been long known that hackers from abroad — nation-state actors, mostly — have attempted to penetrate vital U.S. infrastructure, there report nevertheless provided one of the most detailed examinations yet on how state-backed hackers’ efforts to penetrate vital systems via a sophisticated multi-stage project are ongoing. Specifically, the report details how hackers work their way through the supply chain for these major companies, starting by attacking small companies with low security and small networks, which are then used as a stepping stone into the networks of “major, high value asset owners within the energy sector.” DHS said these infiltration efforts are ongoing, and the attackers are “actively pursuing their ultimate objectives over a long-term campaign.” The department also said that in some cases the hackers have successfully managed to compromise their victims’ networks.

PIR2: What is the current risk of war with the four flashpoints (North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran/Middle East)?

North Korea SITREP

In a development that does not bode well for North Korea, regardless of how the Pentagon spins it, there are as of now three U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups in the 7th Fleet’s area of operations. That is an incredible amount of firepower, considering each of the three nuclear-powered carriers has four strike fighter wings, an electronic warfare wing, helicopters, early warning aircraft and various missile-carrying warships and submarines. If President Trump were to give the order to strike North Korea (which won’t happen without South Korean consent, unless the North fires on American assets or allies first), now would be the time. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) is the Navy’s forward-deployed carrier for the 7th Fleet. But now it will be joined by the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) coming from the east, as the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) enters from the west.

While the third carrier was added to the 7th Fleet’s AOR just ahead of President Trump’s first scheduled visit to China, the message undoubtedly is more aimed at Pyongyang. According to U.S. Navy Admiral John Kirby, the presence of three carriers in the same AOR also sends a message to Beijing as well, and the Navy could be “taking advantage of a scheduling overlap to demonstrate its capabilities to potential adversaries.”

What does it mean? Maybe nothing more than signal-sending. What is clear is that this is nearly unprecedented. There is a lot of ocean to cover and only so many carriers available at any given time to cover all of it effectively. So gathering this many carriers in one place is a huge deal.

But it’s not just carrier battle groups the Pentagon is sending to Asia. The Air Force is sending a dozen F-35As, the first for the service, to a U.S. airbase in Japan to join a growing stealth strike force in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula. And while there are limits to what a dozen jets can accomplish, the Air Force planes will join Marine Corps F-35Bs that have been on station in Japan since January. The additional carriers and stealth fighters also come as the Air Force has been adding to its stock of air-dropped munitions at Guam.

Meanwhile, North Korea missile development is continuing apace. U.S. intelligence picked up a solid-fuel engine test for a ballistic missile last week, which occurred at Pyongyang’s solid-fuel engine test site in Hamhung, along the country’s east coast. It is believed that the engine is for a sub-launched ballistic missile belonging to North Korea’s Pukgusong (Polaris) family of existing missiles. This is believed to be the first static solid-fuel test of since March 2016, when supreme leader Kim Jong-un witnessed the test of what state media described as a “high-powered solid-fuel rocket engine and stage separation.” In February 2017, North Korea flight-tested another solid-fuel missile: the medium-range KN15/Pukguksong-2, which was effectively a canisterized, ground-launched version of the Pukguksong-1 operating out of an integrated transporter-erector-launcher. The latest test of the solid-fuel motor came after North Korea conducted multiple ejection tests over the summer for an SLBM — sub-launched ballistic missile — at the country’s primary submarine shipyard at Sinpo. Solid propellants are much more stable than liquid propellants, less corrosive, and can be stored in missiles much longer. Also, the North is building a new ballistic missile sub, the Sinpo-C-Class, a diesel-electric vessel.

Outlook: So far we’ve not seen any signs of an imminent attack against North Korea, and we’ve not read reports of large troop movements on either side of the DMZ.

But as Trump visits China, he is sure to bring up the North Korean issue, both as it pertains to China doing a better job carrying out UN-mandated sanctions and the North’s rising capabilities to threaten China, Japan, South Korea and, soon, the United States with nuclear-tipped ICBMs

We will monitor the situation to see if carriers remain in the 7th Fleet’s AOR or if one or more of them depart after Trump leaves China. More indicators would include Japanese and Chinese fleet movements.


South China Sea SITREP

Last week you recall we discussed primarily China’s 19th People’s Congress, in which President Xi Jinping was given a second five-year term while laying out his nationalistic vision for China moving ahead. One thing that struck us, in particular, was Xi’s emphasis on transforming the Chinese military into a world-class force by 2050 for certain, but sooner if he can manage it. We also noted that China is well on its way to building that force, and that’s particularly true of the Chinese navy, once a largely antiquated brown-water coastal force incapable of projecting power much beyond China’s landmass.

As China builds an aircraft carrier force and accompanying battle groups; quiet, modern nuclear-powered submarines; stand-off ballistic missiles and stealth aircraft, there is a purpose behind the effort. A so-called “decade of concern,” as the U.S. Naval Institute describes it, has begun, and that pertains largely to the leadership of China. Xi’s speech contained a timeline; for instance, he also said, “China needs to build strong armed forces more than any other time in history as the Chinese nation is closer to the goal of great rejuvenation than ever.”

For decades, Western academics, military chiefs, and government leaders have been of the opinion that China would ‘someday, maybe’ become a world power, but that Beijing normally takes the “long view” of things and thus, there isn’t much to worry about in the hear and now. Kicking the China can down the road has been the order of the day.

The first casualty of China’s new muscularity will be Taiwan, as ‘the great rejuvenation’ alludes to territorial reclamation. China has always viewed Taiwan as nothing more than a renegade province, and in the short term, the Chinese military and especially the Chinese navy is being adapted with this singular objective in mind. There are other unrestored territories Beijing is eying — some belonging to Japan, some in the South China Sea — but Taiwan will be the first to fall. In fact, the Chinese have admitted as much.

In 2013, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported that Chinese leaders recommitted themselves to the “2020 Plan,” which included preparations allowing Beijing to “build and deploy a completely operational capability to use force against Taiwan by that year.” By that implication, Chinese leaders also believe they’ll be able to hold off any American effort to defend Taiwan.

Outlook: It’s likely that Xi will have the opportunity to see his vision come to fruition, or at least the beginning of it. The 19th Party Congress has unveiled new leadership, but no clear successor to the current president, which — according to China watchers — likely means he will get to serve a third term.

The Communist Party is pleased not only with Xi’s leadership, but his vision of a stronger, more muscular, and more globalist China. While Xi and President Trump are set to meet in Beijing next month, there will be pleasantries and some discussion about pressing issues. But none of that will deter China from pursuing Xi’s (and the ruling Communist Party’s) vision of becoming the world’s principal superpower, a goal that puts Beijing in direct conflict with Washington’s view of Asia and the world, Taiwan first.



Earlier this year, we reported on the deployment of the Army’s 10th Combat Aviation Brigade to the European Theater. The 10th CAB is part of the European Reassurance Initiative (and has been described as one of the first units to be called if war breaks out), but it’s experienced some difficulties in the mission of deterring Russia from any action against NATO countries. Those included significant logistical hurdles, as well as a lack of a cavalry squadron and some unmanned aerial assets — in other words, the CAB lacked units it would need in a war with Russia. But to give you an idea of just how needed this unit is for the NATO mission, consider that the 10th CAB has five helicopters in Lativa, which is the exact number of helicopters the entire Latvian military has.

But there are some other challenges for the 10th CAB as well. Here’s what their commander had to say earlier this month.

“[Partrnered NATO forces] know their terrain, they know their procedures, and frankly, because we’re a rotational unit… they know NATO better than we do. . . About the time we get pretty proficient in [NATO practices], we rotate out. Another unit has to come in and learn them. So the continuity for us is those allies, those allied nations.”

The 10th CAB will redeploy back to Ft. Drum on Nov. 7, and be replaced with Ft. Hood’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, which will experience the same learning curve as the 10th CAB.

In other news, NATO is considering a change in its command structure, which is expected to be approved early next year. Earlier this week Petr Pavel, chairman of NATO’s military committee, spoke about future changes, and said that during the Cold War, NATO’s command structure included around 23,000 personnel, but now has less than 7,000 personnel. NATO is not considering building its command staff up to Cold War levels, but has determined there are deficiencies in its command structure, which include its ability to deal with cyber threats and electronic warfare. Additionally, NATO is planning the construction of two new military bases. While Pavel didn’t release details of exactly how the command structure would change, the military chairman said that the matter would be discussed at the meeting of NATO defense ministers next month in Belgium.

Meanwhile, to the east, the Russian military continues exercises to deal with a build-up of NATO troops. Earlier this week, 1,000 paratroopers took part in Russia’s largest airborne exercise in the history of its military. Those exercises have grown to include at least 2,500 soldiers and are expected to end this weekend. And the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the successful tests of four nuclear-capable ICBMs, each of which hit their targets according to the press release.

And Russian submarine development is ramping up again after a hiatus since the end of the Cold War, and the Pentagon and NATO are paying close attention. In recent weeks a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, the USS George H. W. Bush, began tracking a new Russian Krasnodar sub, a diesel-electric “black hole,” as American officials have called it, as it left its port in Libya. The sub would eventually fire cruise missiles into Syria, but during the “chase” there were times when the Krasnodar became invisible to the U.S. battle group, according to U.S. officials. For years, U.S. anti-submarine skills were ‘honed’ using exercises and computer simulations, but now that Russia — and China, and India — are fielding more advanced, and far quieter, submarines, U.S. Navy sub-hunting crews are getting to do it for real again. “We still remain dominant in the undersea world,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe. “But we too must focus on modernizing the equipment we have and improving our skills.”

Outlook: The situation is and will likely remain stable for the foreseeable future. Russian lawmakers have made hay over NATO’s troop build up in Europe, and they’ve been very public in their determination to counter NATO at all costs, but war is not imminent. Earlier this year, a Defense Intelligence Agency report expressed its concern over the strength of the Russian military, and we’re undoubtedly in another Cold War-esque period of military build up.


Middle East SITREP

The civil war in Syria and the fight against ISIS may both be winding down, but that doesn’t mean the Middle East is about to become less dangerous — far from it. In fact, the seeds of the next conflict (or two…or three) are already taking shape as various factions vie for power, influence and strategic advantages in the region.

For the past few years Iraq has welcomed any and all assistance it could get in battling ISIS, which stormed into the country in June 2014 and captured a large swath of Iraqi territory. Some of that assistance came from the United States — which many believe created a power vacuum just waiting for someone to fill it after the Obama administration pulled American troops out of the country in 2011 — and some came from Iran in the form of Iran-backed Shiite militias. The emerging new normal, acknowledged this week by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is some form of permanent Iranian presence in Iraq. “Those militias need to go home,” he said, speaking in Riyadh alongside the Saudi Arabian foreign minister. “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to come home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control of areas that had been overtaken by ISIS and Daesh that have now been liberated. Allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.” But that’s not likely, and U.S. diplomats and the Trump administration know that.

The fact that Iran plans to remain a force and influence in Iraq was evident last week when those same Iranian militias were eager to help Iraqi forces retake Kirkuk from the Kurds as well as other lands along the boundaries of Kurdistan in the north, partly because Tehran has a “Kurdish problem” of its own. However, Iran wants to maintain a foothold in Iraq for a multitude of reasons, all having to do with efforts to spread Tehran’s influence throughout a wider swath of the Middle East. Iran could be forced out of Iraq by Baghdad, but it’s not yet clear that the Iraqi government wants to do that or is ready to do so. What’s more, there are a number of people in Iraq’s government and the military who would like to see Shiite dominance, and Iran is more than willing to help make that happen.

In neighboring Syria, as the war against ISIS winds down, various factions have already begun angling for their own little fiefdom, so to speak, and that includes former allies who are now looking out for themselves. Also in play: Moves by government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad in seeking to expand his hold over more of the region, which gives him additional negotiating power and more say over Syria’s political future. The rapid disintegration and/or withdrawal of ISIS forces from areas it controlled left swaths of territory open for the taking, and Syrian government forces have been surprisingly quick to occupy and recover it. And there was always the U.S. (and Israeli) goal of denying a land corridor through to Syria from Iran, which now looks in jeopardy. “Rapid advances by Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces in eastern Syria are thwarting the U.S. military’s hopes of pressing deeper into Islamic State territory after winning the battle for Raqqa,” said one report. “After Raqqa, the intention was to proceed downriver through Mayadeen to Bukamal, where SDF fighters would link up with Iraqi government forces trying to regain control over the Islamic State-controlled town of Qaim, just across the border inside Iraq. A major goal was to block Iran from securing a land corridor, through Iraq, between Tehran and Damascus.”

Let’s circle back to the Kurds, who were, by the way, instrumental in the Raqqa victory. Currently, they seek to assert control over the northern Syrian city, which helps the secure holdings along Turkey’s southern border, which Ankara does not want. But for now, at least, they have agreed to back off independence and allow the diplomatic and legal processes to play out. “The fighting between the two sides will not produce a victory for any, it will take the country to total destruction,” the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said in a statement.

Outlook: While much of the shooting has stopped, that is not to say that there aren’t any battles going on anywhere throughout the region. But the fight has widened in many ways: No longer are factions and various forces out to merely beat back ISIS. There is a broader fight for control over the entire Middle East underway, angling which, eventually, will cross lines and lead to more shooting.

And as always, let’s never forget that Israel is lurking in the background to see just how far Iranian influence does finally spread. There are red lines that Jerusalem has drawn in that respect.


PIR3: Defense in Brief – What are the new pre-war developments in the U.S. military and defense industrial base?

Elements of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps kicked off the annual “Dawn Blitz 2017” exercise near San Diego, a real-world, non-tabletop exercise that involves actual amphibious landings and fire missions. This year the exercise incorporated the F-35B Lightning fighter aircraft along with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to conduct a sea-based strike. The inclusion of these elements “will allow commanders to validate a capability with platforms not traditionally used at this level,” said a Navy release. The exercises involved an amphibious assault ship (USS Essex); two amphibious dock ships (USS Anchorage and USS Rushmore); and the guided-missile destroyer (USS Wayne E. Meyer). The ships integrated with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Battalion (MEB) and Coastal Riverine Group 1 “to demonstrate how U.S. forces are capable, interoperable and deployable on short notice while being fully combat-ready. Also included in this year’s exercise: An infantry company from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. Note we did mention the exercises include amphibious assault landings.

The U.S. Army is accelerating its new counter-drone .50 cal targeting technology, as well as a number of additional counter-drone weaponry as they become more widely used by the militaries of both great and intermediate powers. In the short term, the Army seeks to counter enemy small-drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, where off-the-shelf drone technology, as in Syria, has been adapted to be able to drop small but lethal explosive payloads. Included: New electronic warfare weapons, next-gen sensors and interceptors, and cutting-edge targeting technology improvements for the Ma Duce so it can better track and destroy enemy drones with more precision and effectiveness, and at range. “Targeting is getting better for the .50-Cal…everything from being able to detect, identify and engage precise targets such as enemy drones,” said Col. John Lanier Ward, Director Army Rapid Equipping Force. The technology is part of “C-RAM” — Counter-Rocket Artillery and Mortar — technology employed to protect troops at Forward Operating Bases and Combat Outposts. Ground-based laser weapons are also part of this mix.

The U.S. is set to deploy its first F-35As in combat operations overseas, with a dozen of the radar-evading jets hiding to Kadena Air Base in Japan for a six-month deployment. It’s the plane’s first deployment to the Asia-Pacific region and could be intended, in part, to send signals to both China and North Korea. Pacific Air Force Command announced the deployment Oct. 23. Approximately 300 airmen will accompany the warplanes in early November as part of U.S. Pacific Command’s security package. “The long-planned deployment is designed to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region,” according to a Pentagon press release. Marine Corps F-35Bs have been stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, since January of this year.

The U.S. Navy claims now to have a leg-up in the area of advanced submarines after launching what it says is the most technologically capable undersea vessel in the world. The USS South Dakota is preparing to join the fleet just as threats to America’s undersea dominance are beginning to emerge, primarily from Russia and China. The Virginia-class boat is nuclear-powered and is said to have provided Navy planners with a blueprint for future submarine superiority. The Navy’s sub fleet stands at roughly 70 vessels in three types: Ballistic missile, attack and cruise-missile submarines. As for Virginia-class boats, the Navy currently fields 17 of them. They are built to operate in the world’s littoral and deep waters. They can launch torpedoes at other subs and ships, gather intel, and deploy Navy SEAL teams for specialized missions. Their “acoustic superiority” is said to be unrivaled in the world. The USS South Dakota will be used as a “demonstrator to prove out advanced technologies,” according to Navy spokesperson Lt. Seth Clarke. The 360-foot sub is expected to enter the sea service by August 2018.

The 355-ship navy that President Donald Trump wants is feasible but it will take decades — three, in fact — in order to become a reality. Why? A couple of reasons. The first is Congress. Lawmakers passed, and then-President Obama signed, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (sequestration), which hit Pentagon funding particularly hard. And so far even with a majority, Republicans have been unable to repeal it, so the shipbuilding funds simply aren’t there. Secondly, U.S. shipbuilding capacity is limited and, currently, booked with other shipbuilding priorities. “To quote the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want,” said Thomas Dee, who has served for eight months as Navy Undersecretary in the absence of a Trump nominee. “So we may want a 355-ship navy. We may want it very, very soon, and perhaps we’ll be able to get there, but we’re going to have to work with our partners over on the Hill.” Some positives: Besides the president, Congress and now the Navy also want a 355-ship fleet. Also, there is some talk about bringing ships out of the reserve fleet, beginning with old Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, built in the late 1970s and early 1980s and which began to be retired from service in 1997. “I think we could look at and say, ‘Are these assets that our allies could use that would be helpful force multipliers for us, because we’re going to operate jointly in many of these environments,’” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee said this month.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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