Strategic Intelligence Summary for 04 April 2019

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…

  • US and Philippines considering rocket system to deter China in South China Sea
  • US missile defense succeeds in shoot down
  • USS Wasp deploys to South China Sea with F-35B’s
  • US Navy building “Ghost Fleet”
  • China selling its first aircraft carrier to Pakistan
  • Arab League rejects US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights
  • Flashpoint SITREPs (CentAm-Mexico, NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela)

 

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, Venezuela)


 

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

US and Philippines considering rocket system to deter China in South China Sea

Washington and Manila have been discussing deploying High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to the South China Sea. HIMARS is a mobile rocket system consisting of a launcher with six rockets mounted on a truck. It is capable of very precise fires. Proposed sites are Palawan Province in the Philippines and Thitu, which is the largest island in the disputed Spratly chain. The rockets would be in range of the reefs that China has been militarizing in the Spratly island chain. Manila is hesitant, however, due to the cost of the system. (source) (Analyst Comment: This would be a serious signal to Beijing that its continuing build up in the island chain will not go unchallenged. The international community has, so far, merely accused Beijing of weaponizing the islands, but this move would give China all the reason it would need to do so in fact.)


 

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

US missile defense succeeds in shoot down

In the first test of its kind, the Pentagon last week carried out a “salvo” intercept of an unarmed missile soaring over the Pacific Ocean. The test used two interceptor missiles launched from underground silos in southern California. The first interceptor hit and destroyed the re-entry vehicle, which had been launched from 4000 miles away and the second hit a secondary object. “The system worked exactly as it was designed to do,” said USAF Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. The test result “demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.” (source) (Analyst Comment: The test was conducted in secrecy. Given USAF’s lack of transparency over other issues, such as the Light Attack aircraft’s abrupt cancellation, the never ending problems with the F-35, and the push to divest itself of the A-10, it’s a good reason to maintain some skepticism here. But the successful test does signal to North Korea and Iran that its ICBMs can be targeted.)

USS Wasp deploys to South China Sea with F-35Bs

The USS Wasp (CV-7) arrived at Subic Bay in the Philippines for Exercise Balikatan 2019 on 30MAR19. The exercise has been happening every year since 1991, but this one is unusual because it’s the first time that USMC F-35B’s will join. It also appears to be one of the first times that a Marine task force of this type has embarked aboard an amphibious assault ship with an air combat element of F-35’s. (source) (Analyst Comment: The USMC is trying to get their aircraft into the fight and is vigorously experimenting on tactics to exploit the fighter’s numerous technological advantages. The problem is that the F-35B still suffers from a slew of issues resulting in just a 12.9% readiness rate in June of 2018. Worse still, apparently Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) is very hard on the airframes; the service life for the F-35B may well be 2100 hours instead of the templated 8000 hours. But the exercise does highlight a new slant on carrier warfare: smaller, more nimble and, more importantly, harder to hit flat-tops may be the future of the fleet.)

US Navy building “Ghost Fleet”

Earlier this year, the US Navy’s 132 foot medium unmanned vessel named “Sea Hunter” sailed from California to Hawaii and back again, mostly without anyone on board. USN has asked for $400 million in fiscal year 2020 to build two unmanned surface vessels and plans to spend $2.7bn over the next five years building ten more ships. Rear Admiral Randy Crites, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said last month that the vessels will serve as both sensor and shooter, and that keeping them between 200-300 tons will make them cheaper to produce and operate. The Navy’s budget also requests funding for dozens of underwater drone vehicles and unmanned aircraft. (source) (Analyst Comment: The Navy wants to retire aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, CVN-75, early instead of spending the money on refitting and refueling her nuclear power plant. The money saved would be spent on these new autonomous weapons. Some in the Navy are coming to the conclusion that huge, expensive platforms are vulnerable to ship-killing missiles and ever evolving hypersonic weapons, and are simply not survivable. A Ford class aircraft carrier, coming in at over $13bn is not a good investment any more. And yet the US is buying two more of them. The way forward for the large flat-tops are drones: drones as refuelers, drones as sensors, and drones as shooters. Unmanned or remotely piloted vessels, vehicles, and airplanes could potentially save billions of defense dollars and would, more importantly, adhere to the unwritten U.S. military dictum of “send a bullet, not a man.” Even USAF seems to finally be coming around to reality. And high time.)

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

CentAm-Mexico:

As citizens from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador continue to stream through Mexico towards the U.S. border — overwhelming American border and customs agents and resources — President Trump expressed his frustration by announcing he was cutting American financial aid to those countries.
Agents say they are apprehending nearly 600 people a day in the El Paso region, which is an increase from about 100 per day last fall. On some days over the past several months there were no apprehensions. The swell of migrants led USBP to construct an encampment which includes a large tent under the Paso Del Norte International Bridge. The camp has bathroom facilities, food, water, and blankets, but there is a lot misery there, nonetheless. The amount of time people stay varies from several hours to several days, depending on their ability to navigate an increasingly difficult immigration and asylum process. Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the region’s facilities have reached the “breaking point.”
To handle the influx, McAleenan said about 750 agents are being reassigned to the El Paso sector, even as DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced the department was seeking volunteers to assist at various locations along the border to handle migrant surges elsewhere. “The situation at our Southern Border is dire,” she wrote in a letter to DHS employees. The president is also considering the idea of a “Surge Capacity Force” made up of volunteers to augment personnel currently deployed along the border.
Meanwhile, tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whom Trump has blamed for not doing enough to staunch the flow of mostly Central American migrants through his country. In part, the president is correct. AMLO, as Mexico’s leader is called, has changed immigration policies from those of his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto; deportations have fallen drastically under his watch — 44 percent — while he has “sent a message to potential migrants that they are now more welcome than ever in Mexico.” [SOURCE]
Analyst Comment: The president’s frustration with Mexico is understandable. But because of the systemic corruption, the power of the cartels, and AMLO’s Leftist views on immigration, Mexico is not doing nearly enough to help us out and they’re not going to. That’s just the reality. Cutting off aid from Central American countries also isn’t likely to curb out-migration, either.
Domestically, Trump is battling Democrats who don’t want to see him ‘win’ the border crisis issue ahead of the 2020 elections. They know that “immigration” and the “border wall” were both signature issues in his victory, so they will block any progress he tries to make on the issue, even if it means allowing tens of thousands of migrants to overwhelm our border security infrastructure. Not only does this create chaos for the Trump administration, it also becomes a campaign issue for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who use the president’s crackdown as a rallying cry for their own voting base. 
As for the president’s pledge to ‘shut down the border,’ it’s been done in the past, but it carries risk for Trump. First, there’s the political aspect; he will once again be painted as a racist and bigot by the Left, and again, this will become a Democrat campaign issue as well. But also, shutting down the border means shutting down or severely hampering commerce, especially in the border regions — Texas and Arizona, in particular, both of which went to Trump in 2016. One of the president’s reelection platforms is a pledge to keep the economy growing; shutting down border traffic will reduce economic output. 
Finally, there is the logistical problem of sealing the border. How will the president accomplish that? Where will he get the personnel? It will take a lot more boots on the ground, and the easiest solution here — which isn’t really so easy — is to deploy many more troops and a lot more border personnel. But shutting down the border will also squeeze off a major income source for the cartels; who would want to pay thousands of dollars to a cartel only to be prevented from getting into the United States by a wall of armed personnel?
Trump isn’t going to get much in the way of real help from Mexico or Congress on this issue. The Mexican government relies on money sent home from citizens working illegally in the U.S. as a major source of annual income; the cartels make a fortune smuggling illegals in; Democrats are using immigrants as a political issue; and Republican donors like the cheap labor. 

NATO-Russia:  

Just as U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has seen a ten percent cut in its manning, Russia is moving into African countries using arms sales, energy sales, and private military contractors to influence outcomes beneficial to its interests. “Moscow and its private military contractors are arming some of the region’s weakest governments and backing the continent’s autocratic rulers,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN and currently National Security Advisor to President Trump said that Russia “continues to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations-votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security and run counter to the best interests of the African people.” (source) (Analyst Comment: AFRICOM has roughly 7,200 personnel assigned and last year it was announced that it would lose ten percent of its personnel — mostly special operations forces — in order to pivot to peer and near-peer confrontations, meaning Russia and China. As we’ve reported in the past, where the U.S. pulls back, Russia looks to move in. Putin is absolutely dedicated to increasing Russia’s sphere of influence at the expense of the U.S. where ever he can. Russia is selling its S-400 missile defense system t NATO ally Turkey, has sold $2bn worth of SU-35’s to Egypt, and 13% of all Russian arms sales are going to the African continent. Russia is firmly entrenched in Syria, and on the winning side no less. Last week, we reported that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would be traveling to Moscow following the unproductive summit with President Trump in Hanoi. And then there are the inroads China has made has made on the continent, notably its base in Djibouti. And AFRICOM still remains based in Stuttgart, Germany.)

Indo-Pacific:

China plans to sell its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to Pakistan by 2020 in order to allow it to compete with India’s navy. The sale is indicative of the growing relationship between China and Pakistan, and will occur after sea trials of China’s new aircraft carrier are completed. China plans to have six carrier battle groups by 2035, with at least four of them nuclear powered. China has invested heavily in Pakistan, turning Pakistan’s port of Gwadar into a regional powerhouse at part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. This in effect gives China a deep-water port centrally located to the oil-rich Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.

Middle East:

With embattled Israeli Prime Minister at his side, President Trump officially recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel last month. The international community, as well as the UN, have decried the decision as defying international law. The Arab League, in a final statement issued following its annual meeting on Sunday 31MAR19 stressed their “full support for Syria’s right” over the Golan plateau and renewed a call for a Palestinian state. This move, along with other pro-Israel moves, such as moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have all but doomed any chance for the U.S. to broker “Deal of The Century” between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

North Korea:

A U.S. “Cobra Ball” reconnaissance airplane was spotted at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa over the weekend, fueling speculation that it’s on site preparing for a North Korean missile launch. The US Air Force has three of the Cobra Ball airplanes in operation. The last time a Cobra Ball was spotted at Kadena was on 29NOV17, which was the last time North Korea tested one of its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. The planes are equipped with radar, infrared and visible spectrum cameras that can track ballistic missiles. On Friday, 29MAR19, South Korean National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon testified to the National Assembly that the North had nearly completed the restoration of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. (source) As we’ve reported previously, Kim Jong-Un will be visiting Moscow sometime between spring and summer of this year. A missile test coinciding with that visit would be a very serious signal that KJU is not going to simply kow-tow to President Trump’s demands. It would also drive the wedge deeper between the U.S. and South Korea as well as put China under significant pressure to rein the Hermit Kingdom in.

Venezuela:

President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, warned Russia again last week its continued involvement in Venezuela, noting that the proximity of Moscow’s forces in South America was too close for comfort. “We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the Hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations,” he said last week. He added, “We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region.”
Bolton’s warning seemed to indicate that even the ongoing presence of Russian military personnel in the country wouldn’t deter U.S. military action, should Trump decide on that course of action. In fact, the president also reiterated an earlier statement that “all options” remain on the table in dealing with the regime of President Nicolas Maduro, which the administration sees as illegitimate.
Meanwhile, another source claimed that China has sent a military delegation to Venezuela as well. The report included a tweet that contained photographs of what appears to be a Chinese 747 airliner. The report says that a contingent of 120 Chinese troops arrived at Margarita Island “to deliver humanitarian and military supplies” to the government. The arrival of Chinese forces led Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tweet on 28 March: “Maduro calls for hands off #Venezuela while he invites security forces from Cuba and Russia, so he and his cronies can keep plundering Venezuela. It is time for Venezuelan institutions to stand for their sovereignty. Russia and Cuba, #HandsOffVenezuela.” [SOURCE]
President Nicolas Maduro, emboldened by support from Moscow and Beijing and obviously unconcerned about threats from the United States, has begun to move against Juan Guaidó, whom Washington recognizes as Venezuela’s real leader. The Constituent Assembly has voted to strip Guaidó of immunity, which supporters fear is a prelude to his arrest. The move came after Venezuela Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno, who is allied with Maduro, called for Guaidó to be prosecuted for violating the country’s travel ban. He left the country in late February and traveled to Europe and throughout South America attempting to rally support for his bid to oust Maduro. Guaidó’s wife, Fabiana Rosales, was in Florida meeting with state leaders and Venezuelan exiles.
Analyst Comment: Political maneuvering aside, Venezuela remains a potential great power flashpoint between the U.S., Russia and now China — the world’s three largest militaries and nuclear powers. At the same time, Venezuela is teetering on systemic collapse; it is consumed with political rivalry that could lead to civil war and have negative implications far beyond its borders.
On the domestic front, the economic/social picture remains bleak: A New York Times reporter assigned to cover Venezuela has recently documented the decrepit state of the country and its people, most of whom are just trying to hang on. Nicholas Casey noted that the six-day power outage last month pushed people to the brink. “This is an oil-producing country. This was one of the most wealthy countries in Latin America. And now this is a place where there are shortages of food, shortages of medicine. People’s daily lives are spent trying to figure out how they’re going to get basic things like eggs or coffee,” he said, adding that Maduro’s government revoked his visa last year as it became more authoritarian.
On the foreign policy front with implications for the United States: War with Russia or China over Venezuela does not appear imminent, but it is becoming far more likely given the willingness of Beijing and Moscow put more forces in the country to protect investments (which also keeps Washington off-balance). The Kremlin has spent billions on revitalizing Venezuela’s energy sector and as such as a huge stake in how the situation turns out. Plus, Venezuela provides Putin with a South American base of operations he would like to keep. China has also invested heavily in the Venezuelan oil sector (Caracas owes Beijing $20 billion), but China is hedging its bet: Its diplomats have also met with representatives for Guaidó (in February and, ironically, in Washington). 
Notable quote: Smita Purushottam, a former Indian ambassador to Venezuela who recently retired from the Foreign Ministry, said, “My view is that the people of Venezuela are fighting for survival. They have suffered for too long and perhaps the only way forward is to start anew, under international supervision, to minimize their suffering and rekindle hope.”

// END REPORT

Samuel Culper 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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