Strategic Intelligence Summary – 06 October 2017 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary – 06 October 2017


In this Strategic INTSUM… (4456 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 (China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran/Middle East)?

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?

Critical Infrastructure & Systems Disruption

A new survey of international utility executives found that most — 63 percent — believe their country faces at least a moderate risk of electricity disruption due to cyber attack in the next five years. This is just the latest indication that the global utility industry remains concerned that power grids are far too vulnerable to enemy cyber attack, and with good reason. The survey report further noted that “a sustained failure of the electricity grid has the potential for devastating consequences” to “transportation, to health and human services, to food security” and “virtually every infrastructure dependent on the grid.” Says Sean Newman, director at Corero, “Cyber attacks against national infrastructure have the potential to inflict significant, real-life disruption and prevent access to critical services that are vital to the functioning of our economy and society.” Think Puerto Rico, writ large. And while officials are busy assuring people that they are working on the problem, one industry insider tells the Strategic Intellilgence Summary that the private sector isn’t, at least in the United States. [source]

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on 27 September to discuss current national security threats to the American homeland. All participants — panel members and experts alike — agreed that threats to the U.S. were rising, not falling. In particular, threats from white supremacists, Left-wing anarchists, and other domestic terrorists are growing and metastasizing. In all, there have been 62 incidents of domestic terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks involving 106 fatalities, compared to 23 acts of violence by Islamic extremists, though the death toll is nearly equal.


Domestic Conflict

Leading with the Twitter hashag “#FuckColumbusDay”, the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and assorted Alt-Left groups are planning to vandalize statues of Columbus, and presumably other items named after Columbus, on or around 09 October. A pronouncement on Insurrection News reads:

White nationalist statues are crumbling all over the US as our collective revolutionary power is growing. As the monuments of white supremacist society fall we must continue to make it clear that their reign of terror is coming to an end.

For the occasion of Columbus Day, October 9th, one of the most vile ‘holidays’ of the year, the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement is calling for collectives all over the country to take action against this day and in support of indigenous people in the US and abroad who have been victims of colonialism and genocide.

We are calling for groups to “decorate” their neighborhoods as they see fit: put up murals, wheatpaste posters, drop a banner, etc.


(Analyst Comment: “Wheatpasting” involves using flour and water as an adhesive to put up posters or flyers. Because this event has garnered traction and a fair amount of press coverage, I would expect increased police presence around Columbus statues and street signs. Expect activists to target Columbus statues well before and after Columbus Day. This also includes a high likelihood of vandalizing other significant landmarks associated with “white supremacy”.)


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


Well, it’s official: China is the United States’ biggest, long-term security threat, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.

As he staked out new U.S. military strategies and policies to lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dunford also made this stunning claim: That he had informed Chinese officials last summer of U.S. plans to utilize military force against North Korea.

During the hearing Dunford was asked to rank various military threats currently facing the U.S. or that Washington would face in the coming years. He described the North Korean threat as “immediate,” but noted that Russia and China could become threats as their nuclear arsenals grew larger and more sophisticated.

“We don’t actually have the luxury of identifying a single threat today, unfortunately, nor, necessarily, to look at it in a linear fashion,” he said. But, over the long term, Dunford said that Beijing would present the stiffer, more dangerous challenge and would overshadow the nuclear and cyber power of Moscow.

“If I look out to 2025, and I look at the demographics and the economic situation, I think China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025, and that’s consistent with much of our analysis,” he said.

Dunford’s assessment was the same as that of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who told lawmakers in July that he sees China as becoming the greatest regional security threat. “I think China has the capacity to present the greatest rivalry to America…over the medium- and long-term,” he said.

The four-star Marine general noted further that in 2000, “we had a significant competitive advantage in our ability to project power when and where needed to advance our national interest. I can’t say that today. We are challenged in our ability to project power, both to Europe and in the Pacific, as a result of those threats.”

Specifically, China’s buildup of military assets — particularly its navy, which is building modern submarines and warships including aircraft carriers at a fast pace — coupled with its cyber warfare capabilities and other non-kinetic advancements has weakened U.S. power projection. Dunford noted that while the Chinese military is weaker than the U.S. military, China has spent years studying U.S. weapons and tactics and developing technologies and systems to specifically counter American strengths in a future conflict.

As for North Korea, the Pentagon has reportedly updated its plans and presented President Trump with options, should diplomacy and economic pressure fail to curb Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program, which the U.S. assumes is genuine and advancing.

“We’re at the phase now where implementation of the sanctions is going to determine whether or not we have a peaceful solution to denuclearization on the peninsula,” he told the Senate panel.

Outlook: As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dunford is the highest-ranking military official responsible for executing the United States’ national security strategy, which includes all elements — economic, political, diplomatic, and military. The Chinese have made it clear, through their aggressive claims in the South China Sea to developing their own military and national security strategies, that they want to become the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, militarily and economically. The United States, meanwhile, has historic and long-standing security alliances and obligations it must defend, as well as its own interests in a part of the planet where more than half the people on earth live and which is becoming wealthier by the year. In acknowledging growing Chinese power, U.S. military planners seem resigned to the conclusion that Beijing may someday attempt to use it. The situation is current stable and war is unlikely in the near term, however, history shows there’s a high likelihood of war when a revisionist power like China challenges a status quo power for regional or global supremacy.


North Korea SITREP:

Former NATO commander and renowned foreign policy expert Adm. James Stavridis says he estimates there is a “10 percent chance” of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea.

Stavridis, currently the dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, spent nearly four decades in the military. He was vetted as a possible running mate for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, while President Trump considered him for secretary of state. “I think we are closer to a significant exchange of ordnance than we have been since the end of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula,” he told a panel at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House last week. He went on to say that while he sees at least a 10 percent chance of a nuclear conflict, he estimated there is a 20-to-30 percent chance of a conventional, but very bloody, conflict. “It’s hard for me to see less than 500,000 to 1 million people” killed and wounded, “and I think that’s a conservative estimate,” he added. The North has an estimated 11,000 artillery pieces trained on the South Korean capital of Seoul.

He’s not the only military expert concerned about a conflict. Michèle Flournoy, formerly the No. 3 official at the Pentagon in the Obama administration, said Trump’s tweets and rhetoric are concerning. “My worry is that all of this heated rhetoric has really charged the environment so that it’s much more likely now that one side or the other will misread what was intended as a show of commitment or a show of force,” she said. “It could be the basis of a miscalculation that actually starts a war that wasn’t intended at that moment.”

Both officials see the possession of nuclear weapons by the North Korean regime as leader Kim Jong-un’s way of ensuring his regime’s survival and longevity. As for the 10-percent estimate, Stavridis added: “That’s well over double what it was three months ago.” Neither official is confident that Kim would willingly give up his nuclear weapons program, especially now that it seems to be on the brink of a breakout.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang is continuing to fund its nuclear program through the sale of weapons — and to some very diverse clients including supposed allies of the U.S. and Israel. In August, the U.S. passed a secret message to Egypt warning about a mysterious ship sailing toward the Suez Canal. The vessel, a bulk freighter named Jie Shun, was sailing under the Cambodian flag but originated from North Korea and was crewed by North Korean sailors who were carrying an unknown cargo shrouded under heavy tarps. After being tipped off, Egyptian customs officials swarmed the vessel after it entered Egyptian waters and discovered a cache of more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades hidden underneath bins of iron ore. A resulting UN investigation concluded that the grenades were bound for none other than the Egyptian government itself. Turns out that Egyptian businessmen ordered the grenades for the Egyptian military and were attempting to keep the $24 million purchase under wraps; the U.S. intelligence tip passed along to the Egyptian government essentially put Cairo on the spot, forcing it to act. But the incident highlighted “a little-understood global arms trade that has become an increasingly vital financial lifeline for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the wake of unprecedented economic sanctions.” It wasn’t clear if North Korea was ever paid for the weapons but what is clear is that Pyongyang continues to traffic in whatever it can to bring in much-needed revenue so it can continue its weapons development.

At the same time, the Trump administration has carried the Obama-era tradition of using cyber warfare against North Korea. Shortly after he took office, President Trump issued a secret executive order instructing U.S. Cyber Command to conduct operations aimed at preventing North Korean hackers from being able to even access the Internet. In addition, the president instructed American diplomats to regularly bring up and discuss with foreign dignitaries their country’s economic ties to North Korea.

Meanwhile, a CIA official and expert on North Korea believes that Kim may attempt some sort of provocation on 9 October, which is Columbus Day in the U.S. but also the anniversary of the founding of the ruling party that governs the country. “Stand by your phones,” warns Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, during a speaking engagement at a conference organized by the agency and held at The George Washington University. He didn’t say what Kim might do, but most frequently such provocations are missile or nuclear tests. He also noted that historically fear of Chinese reaction — primarily Beijing abandoning its support for Pyongyang — and the risk of a U.S. military strike are no longer concerns. “There’s clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong-un has done,” said Lee.

Outlook: The potential for military conflict appears to be low, with one caveat. CNN reported last night that President Trump made some cryptic remarks while at a White House dinner with military leaders yesterday. “You guys know what this represents, could be called the calm before the storm.” When pressed for the meaning, the president responded, “You’ll see.”


Although we mostly associate a potential NATO-Russia conflict with Europe, the Arctic is quickly becoming a second front. The Russian strategy bets on receding ice sheets revealing or providing easier access to oil, so the Kremlin’s been building new military bases and creating Arctic warfare units. These military assets in the Arctic will allow the Kremlin to pressure the U.S. from the north, should a war break out.

After Russian leaders made the decision to militarize the Arctic, the U.S. and NATO have followed suit. (The Defense Department published an Arctic Strategy in 2013, and then updated in late 2016.) Earlier this year, U.S. Northern Command began a new military study of the Arctic. Due to be completed this fall, the “strategic military estimate” is expected to aid commanders in campaign or operational planning. And last month we reported that senior Air Force leaders were traveling to the Arctic to study changing environmental conditions (although at the time we predicted that it had more to do with the Russians than with the environment). Now the Air Force is saying that the trip was dubbed the Air Force Arctic Security Expedition, and included 19 general officers traveling to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland for the express purposes of determining how best to counter the Russian military buildup.

This week, those same Air Force leaders are drafting a concept of operations for the region. Although there is no date set for the completion of the study, Air Force generals are hopeful it will be complete by Spring 2018. Current Air Force plans include deploying over 100 additional F-22A Raptors and F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to Alaska in the next five years. One Air Force general recently said, “Alaska is a critical enabler. The Air Force is already in support of the DOD strategy in putting some of our greatest technology up there. So I think we’re on track with where we’re going. So, we’ll do the rest of it and see whether there are shortfalls and where we can fill in any gaps.”

Continuing on to describe a potential conflict, the general said, “In a resource constrained environment, what are the resources that would be required to do [Arctic operations] the old way? Are there new ways of doing business? As you look at it, what are our vulnerabilities? What are our challenges? What are our opportunities? … Operating up there is expensive, very expensive.”

Meanwhile Russia has two new military exercises, this time testing its nuclear missiles forces and armor units. Following last month’s Zapad 2017 which featured at least one ICBM test launch, now over 60 Topol, Topol-M, and Yars ICBM launchers are involved in one exercise, and 250 T-72 tanks are involved in another, separate exercise. Consider it Russia’s sure sign that it’s prepared for the worst. (It should be noted that the tank exercise, which took place near the border of Kazakhstan, is the largest tank exercise in 30 years.)

Outlook:  My outlook remains about the same this week. U.S. and NATO military leaders are undoubtedly concerned about a war, but the situation remains stable. Military exercises serve two purposes. First, they’re scrimmages for troops to gain expertise in warfighting at or near real-time. And secondly, they’re messages to the other side that units are ready for war; a message that acts as a sort of deterrent in itself. There’s an old Russian saying that goes, “Probe with bayonet. If steel, stop. If mush, push.” NATO is trying its best to show steel to the Russian military, but as we’ve seen and discussed in this report, NATO still struggles. – MS


Iran/Middle East SITREP:

As the six-year civil war in Syria begins to wrap up with Damascus sitting in the cat bird seat, Israel continues to view post-war Syria, which is likely to be heavily influenced by Iranian benefactors, with greater wariness. So much so, in fact, that Israeli defense officials are pressing the Trump administration to become more involved as Syria’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies gain a larger foothold in the country.

“I see a long international queue lining up to woo [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, including Western nations, including moderate Sunnis,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “Suddenly everyone wants to get close to Assad. This is unprecedented. Because Assad is winning, everyone is standing in line.”

Israeli officials had long predicted that the Assad regime would lose the civil war and Assad himself toppled, but that does not appear to be how things will turn out. The situation began turning around for the Assad government in 2015 when Russia stepped in to provide much needed military assistance, putting Russian forces in the field alongside the Jewish state’s most powerful foes. Meanwhile, the U.S. has primarily focused its effort on fighting rebel jihadists like the Islamic State, which has been disappointing to Israel as the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to convince both Washington and Moscow that Iran is attempting to gain a stronger hold in Syria as a means of gaining a new strategic advantage against the Jewish state. “We hope the United States will be more active in the Syrian arena and the Middle East in general,” Lieberman said. “We are faced with Russians, Iranians, and also the Turks and Hezbollah, and this is no simple matter to deal with, on a daily basis.”

Another potential new conflict is emerging in the Middle East as well regarding the Kurds. Last week against the advice of U.S. officials, Iraqi Kurds held a vote for independence, which passed overwhelmingly. Obviously, the vote was viewed negatively in Baghdad, but the outcome reverberated throughout the region in the Turkish and Iranian capitals as well. Both of those countries also have Kurdish factions who are itching for independence, and a successful effort in Iraq is liable to touch off efforts by Turkish and Iranian Kurds to expand a new rump state of Kurdistan, should one be permitted to be formed.

That doesn’t appear likely at this point. While rhetoric and actions have been ratcheted down at the moment, there were early efforts by all three countries — Iraq, Iran, and Turkey — to isolate Kurdish territory, which just happens to include a valuable oil pipeline to Turkey which is a major source of revenue to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Initially, it looked as though a military confrontation was a foregone conclusion. Iraq ordered Kurdish airspace closed to international civilian traffic, while Iraqi troops, in coordination with their neighbor’s forces, prepared to establish positions just inside Turkish and Iranian territory to take control of KRG border crossings. Iraqi lawmakers are pressing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send the army to confront the Kurdish Peshmerga in the city of Kirkuk and other areas in dispute. And Baghdad is calling on foreign governments to close their diplomatic missions in Kurdistan. Finally, the Iraqi Parliament is calling for the prosecution of Kurdish leaders who are responsible for holding the referendum, including KRG President Masoud Bargain. The Turks are angry as well, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to shut down his country’s border with Kurdistan, including the oil pipeline, with this warning: That Turkish troops “could arrive suddenly one night.” As as way of emphasizing this, Turkish and Iranian troops launched joint exercises on the KRG’s border, to include Iranian tanks and artillery. Also, Iran is planning joint military exercises with Iraqi forces.

The one possible mitigating factor: U.S. power. The United States is Kurdistan’s most important and powerful ally, but American officials are reportedly upset that their warning against holding an independence referendum was ignored.

Outlook: These two developments hold the most danger for a new war beginning in the Middle East. Iran isn’t likely to give up its new strategic advantages, nor is Assad likely to insist they do. That will put increasing pressure on Israel to first try to solve the issue diplomatically, most likely by convincing the U.S. to make a bigger military commitment to the region as a means of staving off an Iranian move. Short of that, the Israeli Defense Force will continue its air campaign against Iranian proxy assets as a way of preventing them from concentrating firepower and solidifying logistics chains.

As for the Kurds, they have in recent years been unwilling to give up on their quest for independence. They calculated that, as ISIS forces were being rolled up and the U.S. was in the neighborhood, now was the time to push for statehood. It wasn’t.


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


The Department of Defense wants $5 million for a classified program involving the countering of mobile nuclear weapons. The additional spending is tied to existing missile defense R&D. In particular, the program seeks to harness artificial intelligence capabilities to hunt and destroy nuclear-tipped, mobile nuclear missiles. The request comes on the heels of a steady schedule of ICBM and nuclear weapons testing by North Korea. A huge challenge for any military is to be able to locate and destroy mobile missile launchers before their payloads can be sent speeding to their targets. The Pentagon wants to, among other things, “cultivate machine-learning techniques that can be applied to commercial geospatial intelligence” to be able to detect movement of mobile launchers.

The Pentagon would like to shift millions of dollars in military intelligence program funding to increase support for a number of Navy programs pertaining to the European Reassurance Initiative. Specifically, the Pentagon wants to re-task $87.5 million for various intelligence-related programs including maritime domain awareness, underwater Explosives Ordnance Disposal programs, and additional flight hours for Poseidon P-8 anti-submarine warfare missions. In addition, the funding would shift about $4.2 million to the Army’s operations and maintenance accounts funding cybersecurity improvements for its Secret Internet Protocol Router and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System networks. The shift in funds requires congressional approval.

A new radar under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will allow aircraft to ‘see’ through clouds and smoke, which is a breakthrough in radar technology decades in the making. Current technology like infrared can’t see through clouds, so military aircraft are unable to locate and track targets through them. SAR — synthetic aperture radar — solves that problem but has a slow frame rate, making it much better for still shots of non-moving targets. In recent tests of the new technology, researchers could take “uninterrupted live video of targets on the ground even when flying through or above clouds,” said DARPA program manager Bruce Wallace.


The U.S. Navy has created its first-ever underwater drone squadron. The unit, called the Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron One, or UUVRON-1, was split off from a secretive submarine unit. The move indicates that unmanned drone warfare is getting more attention in the sea service, as the Navy moves towards having dedicated and operational unmanned undersea capabilities by the end of this decade. Building more unmanned capability is occurring across the U.S. military in general. As for the Navy, it envisions using undersea drones to drop sensors, mines, SOF weapons, supplies, neutralization devices, and other components.

Air Force

The U.S. Air Force is preparing to test an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) amid efforts to upgrade the land-based ballistic missile force that forms one leg of the nuclear triad. The test aims to provide Air Force brass with insight into how prepared missile crews are for daily life being on alert, as well as emergencies. The 20th Air Force, which is responsible for the U.S. military’s ICBM fleet, is increasing its training schedule as the air service begins the early stages of acquiring the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent as a replacement to legacy Minuteman III nuclear-armed missiles. The upgrade in systems and increase in training comes as Russia and China upgrade and test their nuclear missile systems, and as North Korea continues its nuclear weapons and ICBM development. The training will provide data on how consistent and efficient missile personnel and instructors are in responding to a number of scenarios, with the goal of developing best practices that can be utilized throughout the ICBM force.

Marine Corps

A detachment of U.S. Marines brought a 3-D printer to the field with them during a recent deployment to U.S. Central Command. The reason? To build and repair 4-blade quadcopters they then used for reconnaissance. The small drone craft have a 20-25 minute hover time and, with their camera-transmitters, can send back surveillance information in real-time as they peer beyond hills, buildings, and other geography and structures in search of enemy forces. The copters can carry cameras or other intelligence payloads and cost about $2,000 apiece to print.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are planning a new strategy to turn the tables on emerging A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities of potential future enemies. Essentially, both services intend to integrate their capabilities in an effort to address challenges posed by archipelagic and coastal geography, as well as the spread of advanced sensors and long-range, mobile missile systems that have longer range and can threaten Navy ships at greater distances. Called LOCE for Littoral Operations in Contested Environments, the concept envisions fighting for and gaining control of littoral areas by employing both sea- and land-based Marine Corps capabilities to support naval operations. The full concept, under development since 2015, remains classified, but it basically envisions Marines going ashore first to gain control over littoral areas that can be used as missile-launching sites in order to then help the Navy establish sea control. Further, once an enemy’s sensors and missiles can be taken out, Marines would then employ their own air and ground assets — attack aircraft, anti-ship missiles, artillery, etc. — to prevent the enemy from retaking lost ground. Marines’ land-and-sea assets can also be deployed on the decks of assault ships, transforming them into mobile, sea-based firebases. Concept designers don’t mention China specifically, but it is being developed in reference to the Western Pacific against countries with “significant sea denial capabilities.” In particular, it references neutralization of threats posed by anti-ship ballistic missiles, which is a system only China is developing.

This report was prepared by Jon Dougherty. Samuel Culper provided this week’s Domestic Conflict and NATO-Russia input, which will continue for the foreseeable future.

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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