Strategic Intelligence for 13 December 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence for 13 December 2018

Strategic Intelligence

Strategic Intelligence contains intelligence reporting on the state of global security and instability, geostrategic issues affecting the United States, pre-war indicators, and assessments on the current risk of war. This report is available each week for Intelligence subscribers.

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (3,526 words)

  • Chinese military official calls for ramming US ships sent to challenge its “control” of the South China Sea
  • FBI: China spying threatens the “future of the world”
  • US conducts first “Open Skies” flight over Ukraine in 2018
  • Yemen government, Houthi rebels begin peace talks
  • China furious over arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou
  • Israel reports an increase in Palestinian attacks in the West Bank
  • US warns Turkey over military action in northeast Syria
  • F35 to start field testing in combat conditions
  • Trump taps Army Chief of Staff GEN Mark Milley as next CJCS
  • The US Navy sailed a destroyer through the Sea of Japan
  • Russia launched cyber-attacks against Ukraine before seizing its ships
  • Navy, MDA shoot down an intermediate range ballistic missile in space
  • NATO-Russia, Middle East, Indo-Pacific, Korean Peninsula SITREPs
  • And more…

 Priority Intelligence Requirements:

PIR1: What are the new indicators of disruptive events that could cause global or regional instability?

PIR2: What are the latest military and security developments exhibited by the U.S. and their peer and near-peer adversaries?

PIR3: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four flashpoints? (NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea)


PIR1: What are the new indicators of disruptive events that could cause global or regional instability?

Chinese military official calls for ramming US ships sent to challenge its “control” of the South China Sea

Over the weekend, Chinese government and military officials discussed the current state of US and China relations and issues in the contested South China Sea during an event sponsored by a Chinese newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Chinese Air Force colonel Dai Xu called on the government to take a firmer stand with the US, saying, “If the US warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it. In our territorial waters, we won’t allow US warships to create disturbance.” He went on to suggest the idea of absorbing the island nation of Taiwan. “Let’s just be prepared and wait. Once a strategic opportunity emerges, we should be ready to take Taiwan.” [source] (Analyst Comment: One needs to remember that Dai Xu is a mere colonel in the Chinese Air Force. One suspects there are lots of them. But it’s also hard to believe that he would be allowed to make the remarks, and at such an event, without having some tacit approval from his superiors. This not-so-subtle threat could be a trial balloon flown by the military to see how much acceptance there is for ramping up the possibility of confrontation in the South China Sea.)

FBI: China spying threatens the “future of the world”

Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, “Make no mistake: The Chinese government is proposing itself as an alternative model for the world, one without a democratic system of government, and it is seeking to undermine the open rules-based order we helped establish following World War II.” He warned that the Communist regime uses an array of unconventional intelligence to pilfer American secrets from the government and the private sector. He said that lawmakers need to brace for a “hypercompetitive world” in which China uses economic theft to cement their status as a major international power. His warning echoes the assessment offered by a senior CIA official in July. Michael Collins, the CIA’s deputy assistant director for the East Asia Mission Center said at the Aspen Security Forum, “What they’re waging against us is fundamentally a cold war.” [source] (Analyst Comment: Looking long term, as the Chinese are wont to do, the real conflict will come after 2025 when the Chinese “Made in China by 2025” program matures. When China no longer has to depend on stolen Western technology and has used that technology to, say for example, develop its own semi-conductor industry and become independent of the West for those components, is when the real competition will begin.)

US conducts first “Open Skies” flight over Ukraine in 2018

On Thursday, 06DEC18, the US conducted an “extraordinary” flight over Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty. The Pentagon is calling it an explicit message to Russia that America is committed to the defense of Ukraine. The treaty allows the 34 signatory nations to fly over each other’s territory to verify military movements and arms control measures. The flight was in direct response to Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian navy in the Kerch Strait. In addition to US personnel, Canadian, French, German, Romanian, and British observers were on the plane as well. The timing of the event is of significance. It comes hours after reports that the US Navy is preparing a freedom of navigation (FONOP) in the Black Sea and it comes a day after the US formally accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The US announced that Russia has 60 days to come into compliance with the treaty. [source] (Analyst Comment: President Trump has come into increasingly harsh criticism for his reluctance to confront Vladimir Putin. An example is the excoriating attacks he suffered after the press conference he held with the Russian president in Helsinki this past summer. But if that’s the case, he hasn’t stopped his State Department and his Department of Defense from taking the gloves off. A Freedom of Navigation Operation in the Black Sea is going to be very unwelcome by the Russians, and the seriousness of pulling out of the INF treaty is not to be underestimated. These are real, concrete measures that the Trump administration is using to get Russia’s attention and force it to change its behavior. And China is watching as well.)

Yemen government, Houthi rebels begin peace talks

On Thursday, 06DEC18, representatives from the government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels began UN brokered peace talks in Stockholm, Sweden. The summit marks the second time that two sides have met in the nearly four year old war. The fighting has killed an estimated 55,000 people and as many as 22 million civilians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The first agreement made was a prisoner swap that could see the release of 2,000 pro-government forces and 1,500 Houthis. The Houthis, for their part, have promised to turn the port of Hudaydah over to the UN so that humanitarian supplies can finally be brought into the country. They also promised to cease drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the Unite Arab Emirates (UAE). Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported the government of Yemen in its fight against the Houthis. [source] (Analyst Comment: Earlier we’ve written about the increasing pressure the Trump administration is facing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the Khashoggi murder. A couple of weeks ago, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both called for a halt to the war within thirty days. A speedy agreement to a cessation of hostilities and accelerated delivery of aid would be good optics for Saudi Arabia and could lead to a lessening of some of the clamor going on in both chambers of the US Congress over the Kingdom’s recent behavior.)

China furious over arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou

The US has accused the executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Ms. Wanzhou was changing planes in a Vancouver airport when she was arrested by Canadian authorities at the request of US officials. Over the weekend the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned both US and Canadian ambassadors to address the detention which it calls “lawless, reasonless, and ruthless.” Chinese Vice Foreign Minster Le Yucheng warned that Canada would face “serious consequences” if Ms. Wanzhou was not released immediately. [source] (Analyst Comment: The pressure is increasing on China to comply with US demands about its theft of intellectual property and business practices. Huawei, in particular, has been in the crosshairs as a huge telecom company with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party. CIA Director Gina Haspel, for example, said at her nomination hearing in May 2018 that she wouldn’t own a Huawei phone and neither would she hook a computer up to one of its servers. On Sunday, 09DEC18, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that he would introduce legislation banning Chinese telecom firms from doing business on the United States. This could have a bigger impact on Chinese-US relations that car tariffs as Huawei is one of the world’s leading suppliers of next-generation 5G networking technology and is critical to China’s long-term tech and industrial ambitions. Update: Meng was released on $10mn bail on Tuesday, 11DEC18. On Monday, in what can only be seen as a retaliatory move, Chinese authorities detained a Canadian diplomat and aid worker, Michael Korvig in Beijing. On Wednesday, 13DEC18, another Canadian citizen, Michael Spavor, was arrested at the Chinese border city of Dandong on charges of “harming [Chinese] national security.” The city lies on the Chinese/DRPK border. Spavor has ties to North Korea arranging business, culture, and tourism trips to North Korea. He is best known for organizing NBA player Dennis Rodman’s visit to Pyongyang.)

Israel reports an increase in Palestinian attacks in the West Bank

The Jerusalem Post’s security correspondent wrote on 11DEC18, “With Israel’s attention focused on the Gaza Strip over the past seven months a volcano of violence is at risk of erupting into the West Bank.” He went on to say that, “the overall temperature in the West Bank is rising.” Several months ago Israeli military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot “warned that there was a high probability of escalation in the West Bank.” Senior officer are concerned over an increasingly successful trend of carrying out attacks and shifting activity from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. [source] (Analyst Comment: The article quotes Israeli officials saying that the desire to carry out attacks on Israeli settlers “is on the rise.” With Brazil and Australia considering moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move the Palestinians would find extremely provocative — it’s hard not to think that the West Bank will not heat up considerably.)

US warns Turkey over military action in northeast Syria

Turkey recently announced that it would launch an operation against US backed Kurdish militia in the region. “We will start an operation to free the east of the Euphrates from the separatist terrorist organization in the next few days,” said President Tayyip Erdogan, referring to territory held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US works closely with the YPG under the umbrella group of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which has played a key role in the war against the Islamic State (IS). “The target is never American soldiers, but terrorist organization members active in the region,” Erdogan went on to explain. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that any unilateral Turkish military action in northern Syria would be “unacceptable.” [source] (Analyst Comment: Given that the US has recently stood up observation posts (OP’s) in the area, it seems that Ankara would have to be very careful if it should decide to take military action in the area. Erdogan said that Turkey would launch an “operation.” That covers a lot of different techniques: ground, indirect, drones, or a combination of several domains. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the US wants to put OP’s in the area, but no one has actually come out and said explicitly exactly who would be manning those OP’s. Kurds? Americans? Remotely monitored? Turkey may be making these threats to get the US to rethink those OP’s.)


PIR2: What are the latest military and security developments exhibited by the U.S. and their peer and near-peer adversaries?

F35 to start field testing in combat conditions

The US Department of Defense said on Thursday, 06DEC18, that all three variants of the F35 will start field testing in combat conditions to evaluate its operational effectiveness and the suitability of their weapons systems. The testing is templated to be done by the summer of 2019 and the data will be used to decide whether to go into formal, full rate production at the end of that year. [source] (Analyst Comment: While the article says the F35 variants will be tested in “combat conditions,” it goes on to say that that all the tests will be conducted at US military ranges and installations. So it’s going to be tested in simulated combat conditions. The article also quotes Vice Admiral Mat Winter as saying, “The start of formal operational testing is a milestone more than 18 years in the making.” By 2019, the aircraft will be older than some of the men and women of the US Air Force that will maintain them and still not be done with “operational testing.” Israeli F35’s have apparently seen combat, but they’re not saying anything about those missions, including the rumors of one of them being hit by a Syrian S-200, a legacy weapon from the 1960’s, or a perhaps a bird strike. [source] Meanwhile the Navy’s F35s had a 15 percent Fully Mission Capable rate in 2018. A Government Accounting Office official noted that it took up to six months or more to get parts repaired and back out to the fleet. [source] On 03DEC18 the US Navy posted a request for proposal for a F35 Sustainment Supply Chain Risk Management. The winning contractor will produce and maintain an F-35 supply chain map and risk assessment to the third tier for a total of 250 suppliers. The contractor will then provide a risk analysis of 80 of the contractors including at a minimum: ownership history, financial information, partnerships, legal issues, countries of origin, and manufacturing locations. [source] This likely means that these are things the US Navy doesn’t know about its suppliers right now — after 20 years of trying to get this airplane to work.)

Trump taps Army Chief of Staff GEN Mark Milley as next CJCS

The President made the announcement on Saturday, 08DEC18 before leaving for the Army-Navy game that Army Chief of Staff GEN Mark Milley will become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (GO ARMY!) Secretary of Defense James Mattis had wanted USAF Chief of Staff GEN David Goldfein for the position. The timing of the announcement is rather unusual since the current chairman, USMC GEN Joseph Dunford won’t be leaving the slot until October of 2019. [source] (Analyst Comment: GEN Milley is widely known as charismatic and at times rather gruff. Neither attribute, when displayed by other officers, has found favor with the President so as his top military advisor it remains to be seen how they will get on, especially in the long-term. But Milley is an innovator and forward thinker, holding degrees from both Princeton and Harvard. Almost every article one reads concerning this assignment leads off with the notice that he is “battle hardened,” and he certainly is that having commanded infantry and Special Forces units over the course of his career. But one shouldn’t overlook that he’s been responsible for founding the Army’s Futures Command, to be based here in Austin, TX, integrating women into combat units, and is the visionary behind the Army’s Big Six modernization priorities.)

The US Navy sailed a destroyer through the Sea of Japan

The USS McCampbell DDG-85, a guided missile destroyer, conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) through near contested waters in the Sea of Japan on Wednesday, 05DEC18. The destroyer “sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” said a spokesperson for the US Pacific Fleet. [source] (Analyst Comment: This is on the heels of the Open Skies flyover of the Ukraine and the request to Turkey to allow US warships to conduct FONOP’s in the Black Sea.)

Russia launched cyber-attacks against Ukraine before seizing its ships

Russian government affiliated actors launched coordinated cyber-attacks against Ukrainian government and military targets prior to the seizing of three Ukrainian Navy ships on 25NOV18. The attacks appeared to be aimed at stealing information that would have been relevant to planning the operation. If true, this would challenge Russia’s claim that Ukraine initiated the provocation. Russia has long initiated cyber-attacks prior to kinetic operations going back to Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2015. [source]

Navy, MDA shoot down an intermediate range ballistic missile in space

The test is the second successful intercept for the SM-3 missile in development. The intercept followed an October success, which shook off two hard-luck consecutive failures. The missile was fired from Hawaii at a target missile that was fired by a US Air Force C-17. The SM-3 missile is a co-development between the US and Japan, and is expected to be equipped on both the US Aegis Ashore stations in Romania and Poland the Aegis Ashore stations in Japan. [source] (Analyst Comment: Aegis Ashore is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense system originally developed by the US Navy for use on ships. There is already a significant amount of tension between Russia and the US over installing these in Romania and Poland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the US of shifting the strategic balance with the missiles. But since US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently threw down the gauntlet by giving Russia 60 days to come into compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it won’t be long before this new missile is deployed to each location.)


PIR3: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four? (NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea)


Significant Developments:

Russia sends two nuclear capable bombers to Venezuela. Russia’s Defense Ministry said a pair of Tu-160 (NATO designation “Blackjack”) bombers landed at Maiquetia airport outside of Caracas on Monday, 10DEC18, following a 10,000 kilometer flight. The bombers can be armed with conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The ministry did not say if the bombers were carrying any weapons. [source] (Analyst Comment: The article mentions that this is not the first time Russia has deployed bombers to Venezuela, having done so in 2008 and 2013. But the timing of this show of support for the tottering Maduro regime is impeccable; last week we reported that the US had asked Turkey for permission to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the Black Sea. This is just a reminder that if you want to muck about in Russia’s backyard, they reserve the right to muck about in yours.)



Significant Developments:

Japan to move forward with F-35 buy and aircraft carrier transformation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party are expected to release defense guidelines next week that make it possible for the party to move forward on seeking funding for the purchase in the next Japanese Diet (AC: legislative session). The “helicopter destroyer” Izumo DDD-183 would be converted into an aircraft carrier that can support vertical take-off and lift (VTOL) aircraft. Japan wants to buy 40 F35B’s (the VTOL version of the Joint Strike Fighter) and 107 of F35A’s to replace its aging fleet of F4’s and F-15’s. Keitaro Ohno, the party’s parliamentary vice minister for defense said, the “Self Defense Forces in the past were just about existence, existence can have a strong deterrent. Now we have to meet the real situation. We have to respond to China in the Pacific.” [source] (Analyst Comment: The Izumo was originally designed to carry SH-60 Sikorsky Seahawk helicopters. Putting F35B’s on her will mark the first time Japan has had an aircraft carrier since World War II and significantly change the way the nation projects power in the future. It is a profound shift in Japan’s military posture.)


Middle East 

Significant Developments:

US Senate faces off with President Trump over Khassoggi murder. The US Senate is preparing an unprecedented floor vote this week to invoke Congress’s war powers to end US military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The move has broad, bi-partisan support. The resolution could curtail US arms sales to Riyadh, and add new sanctions or rebuke Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his alleged role in Khassoggi’s death. The President has resisted rebuking Saudi Arabia over the murder. He, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have all said publicly that there’s no “smoking gun” connecting the Crown Prince to the murder. Many senators were, however, convinced of the Crown Prince’s complicity after a closed door session with Director CIA Gina Haspel. [source]

Iran confirms ballistic missile test in defiance of US. The confirmation came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted earlier this month that Iran had test fired a missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that could reach the Middle East and Europe. He deemed the test a violation of the international agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program. Islamic Revoution Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace division head Amirali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying, “We will continue our missile tests and this recent action was an important test.” The Iranians claim the missiles are purely defensive. [source]


North Korea

Significant Developments:

Canadian warship witnesses possible violations of North Korean sanctions. The HMCS Calgary, FFH 335 is a Halifax class frigate that was patrolling in the East China Sea. During the patrol crewmembers witnessed “ship-to-ship transfers at sea, and by the marking-based on the intelligence that we had-some of those were associated with…potential violators of those sanctions,” said Commander Blair Saltel on Tuesday, 11DEC18. The Canadian ship was under orders not to intercept any suspicious vessels, but did take pictures of the transfers. The Calgary is the first Canadian vessel deployed to the area in an agreement with the US to try and stem the smuggling that is subverting sanctions against North Korea. She was accompanied on the six month deployment by the MV Asterix, a commercial vessel being used in a support role to the frigate. [source] (Analyst Comment: It’s been difficult to make the raft of sanctions that the Trump administration placed on North Korea actually work as they’re supposed to work. As long as there’s money to be made, someone is going to take the risk and North Korea is adept at finding those people. In November of this year the US Treasury placed a Russian-born South African man on its sanctions list for allegedly helping North Korea avowing the embargo on its energy purchases. [source])



– S.C.


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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