Strategic Intelligence for 29 November 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence for 29 November 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: (3,500 words)

  • Syrian city hit with another chemical attack
  • Baluchi separatists attack Chinese consulate in Karachi
  • Russian ship fires on, captures Ukrainian vessel
  • US official: Russian and American armies have clashed “a dozen times” in Syria
  • USS Ronald Reagan to make port call in Hong Kong
  • Navy faces tough choices in future funding fights
  • US drone swarm strategy passes key test
  • Congress to make determination on F-35s for Turkey
  • Japan to order 100 more F35 Joint Strike Fighters from US
  • China to build third aircraft carrier
  • 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?

Syrian city hit with another chemical attack

On Saturday, 24NOV18, the Syrian city of Aleppo was attacked with a chemical agent. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that planes pounded rebel-held areas west and south of the city. The air raids were the first since a truce went into effect on 17SEP18. 107 cases of “breathing difficulty” was reported by the state news agency SANA on Sunday. Dr. Zaher Batal, head of the Aleppo Doctors Syndicate told Reuters that based on the symptoms, chlorine was the suspected agent. Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus, as well as his ally Russia, put the blame on the National Liberation Front (NLF), which is a Turkey-backed alliance of rebels that includes the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Assad and the Russians claimed that NLF artillery fired chemical munitions at the city and that was the justification for the air raids. The NLF strongly denies any such attack. [source] (Analyst Comment: In the last intelligence summary, we wrote about Russia deploying its latest Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) detecting vehicle to Syria. Now we may know why.)

Baluchi separatists attack Chinese consulate in Karachi

On 23NOV18, Baluchistan separatists attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Four Pakistani security officers were killed in the attack, which was carried out by three men who died at the hands of police. The Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility. A spokesman for the group stated, “We have been seeing the Chinese as an oppressor, along with Pakistani forces.” Baluchistan is a province in the western part of the county and its capital is Quetta. Quetta is also home to the Quetta Shura, the governing council of the Taliban. No Chinese nationals were harmed in the attack. [source] (Analyst Comment: There have been previous attacks on the Chinese in Pakistan, but not on a scale that would reduce Chinese investment or projects.)

Russian ship fires on, captures Ukrainian vessels

On Sunday, 25NOV18, a Russian ship fired on and captured three Ukrainian vessels. According to the Ukrainian navy, six sailors were injured when a Russian ship fired on Ukraine’s vessels near the Kerch Strait. The ships, two armored vessels and a tug, were forced to halt and seized by Russian “special forces.” The Kerch Strait separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and has been a flashpoint between the two countries. Earlier in the day Russia placed a large cargo ship beneath the 19 kilometer long Crimean Bridge. The bridge connects the Russian-annexed peninsula with the mainland. Placing the ship as they did effectively cut off all traffic into the Strait which is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The move came after Russian border guards tried to stop the three vessels from entering the Sea, accusing them of illegally entering Russian territorial waters. While trying to stop the ships a Russian navy ship rammed the Ukrainian tug. Freedom of navigation through the strait is important to Ukraine because it needs access to Mariupol, which is a key port located in the Sea of Azov. [source] Update: On Wednesday, 28NOV18, Russia said that it would send more of its advanced S-400 missile systems to Crimea. A Russian warship has reportedly been seen in the vicinity. [source]

US official: Russian and American armies have clashed “a dozen times” in Syria

US Special Representative for Syria Engagement says US and Russian forces have clashed “a dozen times” in Syria. James Jeffrey, talking to Russian journalists, said that the clashes have sometimes had exchanges of fire. The journalists asked about a February firefight in which US forces reportedly killed up to 200 pro-Syrian regime forces which included Russian mercenaries. The attack was on a base held by the US and Kurdish local allies near the town of Dier al-Zour. Jeffrey wouldn’t talk about that incident, but said it was not the only confrontation between Americans and Russians. “There have been various engagements, some involving exchange of fire, some not. Again, we are continuing our mission there and we are continuing to exercise our right of self-defense.” [source]


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

USS Ronald Reagan to make port call in Hong Kong

The USS Ronald Reagen (CVN 76) and its strike group are scheduled to make a port call in Hong Kong. In September, China denied a similar request by the USS Wasp, LHD-1 and her accompanying Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). The move appears to be a friendly gesture prior to US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina later this month. But this comes on the heels of a series of operations by China which include fortifying islands and reefs in the South China Sea, harassing the navies of other countries as they conduct operations in international waters around those installations, and the harassment of US warships conducting freedom of navigation exercises. [source] (Analyst Comment: After a fractious and contentious Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea last month, at which China and the US were clearly at odds with each other, this may be an ever-so-slight olive branch. But allowing a US aircraft carrier to dock at Hong Kong is not going to persuade President Trump to lift any tariffs.)

Navy faces tough choices in future funding fights

The US Navy may have to choose between its stated goal of 355 warships or replacing its aging ballistic missile submarines. Frank Rose, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former assistant secretary of state for arms control said that although the Navy needs both priorities, there’s simply not enough funding for both. He and another analyst come down squarely on the side of building Columbia class ballistic missile submarines, which are the replacement for the current Ohio class. Ballistic missile submarines ensure a second strike in the event of a nuclear attack. “It really is the backbone of our nuclear force now and for the next 70 to 80 years,” Rose said. [source] (Analyst Comment: The Navy says it needs the increase in ships in order to counter, or perhaps even fight, a peer or near peer rival, like Russia or China. One of the reasons listed for the accidents involving the USS McCain, DDG 56, and the USS Fitzgerald, DDG 62, was that the increased operational tempo in the 7th Fleet was due to the strain caused by a lack of available ships. But that number is being challenged by people like Rep. Adam Smith, (D-WA) who is expected to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee when the new congress convenes in January and has said that 355 ships is “simply a number thrown out there.” The Department of Defense itself stated in the Nuclear Posture Review that, “The United States will replace its strategic nuclear triad and sustain the warheads it carries — there is no higher priority for national defense.”(source, page 51) That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Navy to maneuver. Expect potentially significant changes to military funding and prioritization once the Democrats take over the House.)

US drone swarm strategy passes key test

The US military’s drone swarm strategy just passed a key test. One strategy for winning the next war is to throw a bunch of highly autonomous, deeply interconnected drones, jets, and ships at the enemy. But this attack across air, land, sea, and cyberspace is going to run into electronic warfare designed to disrupt the very networks that make it possible. This week Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that series of tests at Yuma Proving Ground had shown that live and virtual drones could work together with a high degree of autonomy and complete missions even when their communications and GPS were under attack. [source]

Congress to make determination on F-35s for Turkey

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivered a report to Capitol Hill regarding Turkey’s $12bn contribution to the F-35 program. Congress is weighing whether to kick Turkish firms out of the program after rocky relations with country. Turkey has shown interest in buying 100 of the fifth generation fighters and has taken delivery of two, but Congress froze further deliveries pending the report by the Secretary of Defense. Turkey builds the fuselage and is establishing engine depots for the airplane throughout Europe. Congress is upset with Turkey for detaining US citizens, conducting cross border attacks against the Kurds, and purchasing Russian made S-400 missile defense system. Mattis, in a letter to law makers, said that if the Turkish supply chain was disrupted it would delay the delivery of 50-75 airframes and take approximately 18-24 months to resource parts. [source] (Analyst Comment: It seems unlikely that, even with all this chest thumping, Congress will take any real action on Turkey over this. There are simply too many US jobs at stake. But it’s also a lesson in what to expect when you outsource parts of your most expensive weapon system to your “allies” in order to keep the price down and the buy-in high.)

Japan to order 100 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from US

Japan is buying 100 more F-35s to replace its aging fleet of F15s and F4s. Japan had initially intended to buy 42 of the new fighters, but opted for more considering China’s military build-up as well as increased pressure from the Trump administration to buy American. Japan will purchase both the F35A, the conventional take-off and landing variant, and the F35B, the vertical take-off and landing variant for use on its Izumo class helicopter carrier. [source] (Analyst Comment: Lockheed-Martin had pitched a sort of F22/F35 variant. The airframe would have been the F22, but it would have had the F35’s avionic and sensor suite. It would also have had two engines. But it was never clear on whether Lockheed was going to reopen the St. Louis production line for the F22, which was shut down to make way for the F35. Either way, the US Air Force will be breathing a sigh of relief since every F35 sold bring the price down per unit on this already expensive weapon system.)

China to build third aircraft carrier

The Xinhua News Agency reports that China has started work on its third aircraft carrier while the second is still undergoing sea trials. The article was released on the sixth anniversary of the first take-off and landing of a Chinese fighter on the country’s first aircraft carrier, the CNS Liaoning. The second carrier, which has yet to be named, is wrapping up sea trials. The first two carriers have the older ski-jump bow that requires airframes to fly from the ship unassisted and under their own power. Chinese state media had speculated that the new vessel could have an electromagnetic catapult aircraft launching system. [source] (Analyst Comment: As we’ve seen in other areas, this is a good indicator of just how furiously the Chinese military is modernizing. China wants a blue-water navy to challenge the US in the Pacific, and aircraft carriers are prime power projectors. The chief designer of the Liaoning is quoted from a speech in April saying, “The United States says it needs 10 carriers. We may not need that many, but there should be at least three. If conditions permit, there should be four or five.” With China’s whopping 8% increase in defense spending in 2018 — in contrast, US Secretary of Defense is practically begging for a real increase of 3% just to keep the maintenance and modernization running on course — look for those other five to put to sea sooner rather than later.)


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:

In response to Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian vessels, Ukraine’s parliament has approved an executive order imposing martial law. President Petro Poroshenko signed the executive order saying that there was intelligence suggesting that there was an extremely serious threat of a land-based operation against Ukraine by Russia. Martial law, Poroshenko said, would “in the event of an invasion allow us to respond quickly to mobilize all resources as quickly as possible.” Martial law wouldn’t be for the entire country, but only on those areas bordering Russia, Moldova, along the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov coasts. Poroshenko insisted on Monday that the martial law decree doesn’t include any measures restricting citizens’ right, freedoms, or introduces censorship. But it does allow authorities to restrict, among other things, security of correspondence, including telephone conversations, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, speech, expression, and the right to assembly. [source] (Analyst Comment: Poroshenko may have declared martial law in preparation for the sort of warfare Russia has waged on Ukraine in the past: multi-domain or hybrid war. Russia used every aspect of modern warfare when the Ukrainian revolution led to the overthrow of then pro-Russian President Yanukovych. From the cyber sphere, like shutting down Ukrainian government networks; to kinetic, the shooting war in the Donbass; to the use of deception, the Little Green Army men — soldiers that couldn’t be linked to Russian security forces fighting on its behalf; and the use of drones, Russia pulled out all the stops. President Trump has offered a muted response, with US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley condemning Russian actions in the Kerch Strait, but also making it clear that the US isn’t going to act. The US will instead play a supporting role to European efforts to ease tensions. [source] The G20 meeting will be held over the weekend in Argentina, and news breaking this morning says that President Trump has cancelled his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin as a result of last weekend’s clash in the Azov. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, 27NOV18, that the Ukrainian vessels were in the wrong, dismissed the whole thing as a minor border clash, and accused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of having orchestrated the whole incident to bolster his ratings. “It was organized by the president (Poroshenko) ahead of the elections. The president is in fifth place ratings-wise and therefore had to do something. It was used as a pretext to introduce martial law.” [source])



Significant Developments:

China welcomes the defeat of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in elections. Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered serious electoral losses in the elections held on 25NOV18. It lost two mayoral elections while the opposition, Koumintang (KMT), took or retained control of 15 counties and cities leaving the DPP with only six. The results come with little over a year before presidential elections. Pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen has had tense relations with mainland China since her election in 2016. Following the losses, she resigned as head of the DPP, and the KMT is seen to want friendlier relations with Beijing. China has long regarded the island as a province of the country and has repeatedly rejected any notions of Taiwanese independence. In a statement made by China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office it said that the elections “reflected the strong will of the Taiwan public in hoping to continue to share the benefits of peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait, and their strong wish in hoping to improve the island’s economy and people’s wellbeing.” [source] On Wednesday, 28NOV18, the USS Stockdale, DDG-106, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer and the USNS Pecos, T-AO-197, a Henry Kaiser class fleet oiler, transited the Taiwan Strait without incident. [source]


Middle East 

Significant Developments:

The Islamic State (IS) launched attacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 23NOV18, claiming to have killed 61 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and over 30 “arrested.” IS often mislabels the PKK as the People’s Defense Units (YPG). The YPG make up a large contingent of the US-backed SDF and the PKK is an organization that both the US and Turkey have designated as a terrorist organization. Amaq, the Islamic State’s media team, later released a nearly seven minute long video of Kurdish fighters being captured and then beheaded. [source] IS apparently used fog as concealment to attack three separate locations on a broad front: Al-Bahra (where SDF fighters and coalition advisors are based), Gharanji, and an area closeto the Al-Tanak oilfield which is also an SDF position. Up to 39 IS jihadists have reportedly been killed by the SDF counterattack which was supported by coalition air strikes. The SDF has been battling to eradicate the last of IS in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which is located on the Iraqi border. [source] (Analyst Comment: As Thomas Jocelyn highlights in his article for Long War Journal, no one really knows just how many jihadists IS can put in the field. Estimates ranging from 2000, according to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, to the UN’s estimate of “between 20,000 to 30,000 individuals” in Iraq and Syria. This wide disparity in numbers can mean only that our ability to collect intelligence on IS is still woefully inadequate.)

US to build new observation posts in northern Syria. The US military will begin putting observation posts in northern Syria to help Turkey secure its border. “What this is designed to do is make sure that he people we have fighting down in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) are not drawn off that fight and that we can crush what’s left of the geographic ISIS caliphate,” said Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The observation posts will provide Turkey with early warning if “we see something coming out of an area that we’re operating in” he went on to say. [source] (Analyst Comment: While Secretary Mattis says that the posts won’t require increased manning by the US, neither did he say who would actually be manning the posts or if they’d be manned remotely. At the end of October of this year Turkey shelled Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates in northern Syria which, at best, was a real distraction for the Kurds in the US-backed SDF or, at worst, compelled them to leave the battle against ISIS to tend after their families. The US wants the fight against the last remnants of the Islamic State to end quickly. This chain of observation posts sounds more of a buffer between Turkey and the Kurds than an early warning system. This week, President of Turkey Recep Erdogan lashed out at the plan. Without naming the US, he said, “Those who say they are countering ISIS in Syria are in fact allowing a small group of terrorists to exist in the country to justify their presence in the war-torn country.” A spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said that the Turks had been briefed as the planning for the observation posts proceed and that the posts are “committed to security in the northern Syria region…it takes into account Turkey’s security as well.” But Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar disputed that saying the observation posts will only “make the complicated situation in the region even more complicated” adding that Turkey will not hesitate to launch cross-border attacks against perceived threats. [source])

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) arrives at the G20 summit in Argentina. The crown prince arrived in Buenos Aires on the same day that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis testified before the US Senate on the Khashoggi murder. [source] Director CIA Gina Haspell wasn’t present, much to the anger of some senators. The White House denied preventing Haspell from attending, but also gave no reason for her not testifying. [source] Both secretaries faced grilling over the Khassoggi murder and Saudi Arabia’s part in the Yemen civil war which the UN has deemed the largest humanitarian crisis with 44 million people in danger of starvation [source]. Secretary Pompeo shortly before the hearings said that “degrading US-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the US and its allies.” But even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded that “some kind of response” is needed, saying, “What obviously happened, as basically certified by the CIA, is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world.” On Tuesday the Turkish Foreign Minister, Melvut Cavusoglu revealed some of the details of the recording of Khassoggi’s murder, saying that s Saudi forensics doctor involved in the murder instructed his team members to listen to music while he dismembered the body. “You can tell he is enjoying it,” said Cavusoglu. “He likes to cut up people. It is disgusting.” Khassoggi’s remains have not been found)


North Korea

Significant Developments:

Earlier this week, French security services arrested Benoit Quenneday, a senior administrator in the French senate’s department of architecture, heritage, and gardens. Quennaday is accused of passing sensitive information to North Korean government contacts. Quenneday has written extensively about North Korea, visited the country numerous times and is an activist in the left wing Radical Party. He often appears on the Russian broadcaster RT France and an described as an expert in international affairs. [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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