Strategic Intelligence Summary for 06 December 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 06 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: (3,799 words)

  • Mattis: Putin tried to “muck around” in US midterm elections
  • Rouhani: If US stops Iran oil exports, Tehran will block the Gulf
  • Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear first strike doctrine
  • US Lawmakers tangle over nuclear arsenal, growing Russian capabilities
  • The US Air Force has a new war plan
  • US aircraft carriers risk obsolescence by new weaponry and the wrong airframes
  • Australia to receive its first two operational F35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters
  • 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?

Mattis: Putin tried to “muck around” in US midterm elections

At the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley this weekend, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “muck around” in the US midterms elections, of duplicity in arms control, and of acting irresponsibly in the naval confrontation with Ukraine. “We are dealing with someone that we simply cannot trust,” he said. “There is no doubt the relationship has worsened.” Asked how the US can deter further Russian confrontation, Mattis placed the blame squarely on the Russian president. “This is a very complex situation because Mr. Putin is clearly a slow learner. He is not recognizing that what he is doing is actually creating animosity against his people…he is actually causing NATO to rearm.” [source] (Analyst Comment: This fiery rhetoric aimed directly at the Russian president is in sharp contrast to President Trump’s muted response during the G20 summit where at first he said he wouldn’t meet with Putin because of the naval action in the Kerch Strait, and then briefly met with him informally.)

Rouhani: If US stops Iran oil exports, Tehran will block the Gulf

“America should know that we are selling our oil and will continue to sell our oil and they are not able to stop our oil exports,” said the Iranian President. “If one day they want to prevent the export of Iran’s oil, then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf.” [source] (Analyst Comment: On 05DEC18, the US Navy announced that it would deploy the USS John C. Stennis, CVN-74, and its carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, the first in eight months. The deployment is obviously in response to the remarks made by President Rouhani, but it will also support operations against ISIS and Afghanistan. [source])


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

Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear first strike doctrine

Russia has written into its doctrine a pretext to initiate a nuclear first strike that it terms, “escalate to de-escalate.” The idea is that Russia’s leaders are willing to “escalate” a confrontation by using super-low yield tactical nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” a conventional attack on its territory. It essentially means the exact opposite of what the West would read it to mean. Russia has made using nuclear threats central to its foreign policy, sometimes over rather trivial events and sometimes over events that it sees as existential threats. When 300 US Marines deployed to Norway, Russia made nuclear threats against Norway. In reality, what would 300 US Marines be able to do to Russia? Then again, when the US placed missile defenses in Romania and Poland; Putin again said that the sites risked being targeted by Russia with nuclear weapons. In November of 2018, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated that Russian policy permitted nuclear weapons use against any form of weapons of mass destruction attack and in response to “an act of aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons on such a scale that the very existence of our state is threatened.” [source] (Analyst Comment: Russia’s first strike policy has evolved from using tactical nukes to repel an assault against it territory to some rather trivial instances. During the Vostok-2010 Far East military exercise, in theory against China, the official paper of the Far East Military District reported that nuclear weapons were used “to suppress a large center of the separatists’ resistance and to achieve minimal losses of the attacking troops a low-yield ‘nuclear’ attack was mounted against the enemy.” This is hardly an attack on Russian territory or an existential threat. The Russians are wagering, and dangerously so, that a limited nuclear strike won’t prompt a response in kind.)

US Lawmakers tangle over nuclear arsenal, growing Russian capabilities

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in 2021. In response, half of all the GOP senators are urging President Trump to heed Russia’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities and commit to funding the US nuclear weapons modernization program. In a letter sent to President Trump on Thursday, 29NOV18, the lawmakers argued that Russia has developed nuclear torpedoes and tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons are not covered by the treaty and should be included in the treaty if it is revised. They also argued that since Russia is breaching other treaties, such as the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, it’s critical to fund nuclear modernization, including a controversial low-yield warhead. The warhead, a version of the US Navy’s Trident II D5 ballistic missile, is designed to deter Russia from using its own arsenal of low yield weapons. The reason Russia is being accused of non-compliance in the INF treaty is because of its development of the 9M729 cruise missile which reportedly has a range of 700 kilometers (434 miles). The treaty calls for eliminating all missiles and their launchers with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Russia has refused to say exactly what the range of the new missile is or allow inspections of it. “To convince Moscow that there are no possible benefits to limited nuclear escalation, the United States needs to diversify in nuclear delivery system options on the lower levels of the escalatory ladder, including adding submarine-launched missiles and sea-launched cruise missiles with low-yield nuclear warheads,” Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post with Michael Morrel, formerly of the CIA. On the other side of the aisle, noting the trillion dollars the US would have to spend to modernize the nuclear arsenal, Senator Elizabeth Warren on the same day accused President Trump of undermining arms control agreement and that “Trump’s nuclear arms race does not make us or the world any safer.” [source] (Analyst Comment: China is not a party to the treaty and could be gaining a military advantage in East Asia by deploying large numbers of non-treaty compliant missiles which the US can’t match. As regards the START treaty, pulling out or not renewing the treaty would free Russia to develop new nuclear weapons without the West being able to verify what it’s doing. On Tuesday, 04DEC18, the United States and NATO in a rare show of unity delivered an ultimatum to Russia: come clean about the 9M729 missile within 60 days or the US will be forced to start a six-month process to withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the remarks after a NATO conference in Brussels. [source])

The US Air Force has a new war plan

GEN Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, wants smaller groups of US warplanes to rapidly move between bases in order to frustrate an adversary while that adversary could potentially be jamming communications. The plan combines the ideas of distributed forces and independent command, somewhat similar to the Navy’s distributed lethality plan. The new approach can be traced to 2013 when USAF’s 3rd Fighter Wing devised a new way to deploy its 40 F22 Raptors. Instead of deploying an entire 20 plane squadron, or even the 40 plane wing, wing officers wrote new procedures for sending quartets of F22’s with a single C17 cargo plane carrying spares, fuel, and munitions. The end state was to be able to deploy the package to anywhere in the Pacific where there was a suitable airfield within 24 hours of receiving the order. The 3rd Fighter Wing dubbed the procedure “Rapid Raptor” and briefed the idea to the then-chief of staff GEN Mark Welsh. The idea caught on. In April of 2016 the Florida based 95th Fighter Squadron sent a pair of F22’s on a quick tour of Eastern Europe. In March of 2017, a C17 and two F22’s went to Australia. While on the ground, the F22’s actually refueled from the C17’s wing tanks. [source] (Analyst Comment: The second part of the equation, independent command or, as the Army doctrine terms it, Mission Command, is more problematic. It requires commanders to leave the “how” of executing a task to their subordinates and it requires subordinates to display a high degree of initiative. Neither behavior has ever been fully encouraged in the services and is often actually squashed when exhibited. But USAF is right, and this new set of operational procedures echoes what Army Chief of Staff GEN Mark Milley has said; “On tomorrow’s battlefield, if you stay in the same place for two hours, you will die.”)

US aircraft carriers risk obsolescence by new weaponry and the wrong airframes

The US has eleven aircraft carriers and is planning to build a new one every three years until a fleet of twelve can be sustained by 2030. The latest, the USS Gerald Ford, CVN 78, has been plagued by a host of technical problems, a cost of over $13bn, and, while scheduled for delivery in 2015, it wasn’t actually delivered until 2017. The first problem — weaponry — refers to new hyper-sonic glide vehicles: a maneuverable missile capable of traveling at Mach 5 or higher that is extremely difficult to shoot down, even with the vast amount of defenses that are deployed within a carrier strike group. The second problem is range. The US Navy decided to replace such airframes as the A6 and F14 with F18’s and F35’s. The problem is that while the A6 and F14 had a range of up to 1200 nautical miles, the F18 and F35 can’t fly more than 600 nautical miles without in-air refueling. “We’ve gone from a flight deck that could do about 1000-nautical-mile strike distance during the Cold War unrefueled, to a flight deck that can do right around 500 nautical miles. And when you have an enemy who has built an anti-access area-denial (commonly known as A2AD) that essentially can push your carrier back beyond a thousand miles, if your flight deck can only reach out 500 miles, it’s not in the game anymore.” [source] (Analyst Comment: This is a battle over “stand-off.” If you can stay out of the range of your enemy’s weapons while still being able to engage them with yours, you stand a much greater chance of winning that particular gun fight. 600 miles is well within the range of hypersonic “ship-killer” missiles that Russia and China are developing. And the US Navy is obviously aware of the problem. Earlier we’ve written about the Navy’s new-found enthusiasm for the MQ-25 Stingray drone that they want to fill an aerial refueling role and they want it next year.)

Australia to receive its first two operational F35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters

On 10DEC18 to Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Williamtown is scheduled to receive two F35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The two aircraft were delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in December of 2014, and have been there for pilot and maintainer training. The two aircraft are the first of 100 to be bought that will replace the RAAF’s ageing F/A18’s and EA18 Growlers. Full operating capability for the F35A is slated for 2023. [source]


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:

US Senate passes measure strongly condemning Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian navy. On Thursday, 29NOV18, the US Senate passed a Senate Resolution that “strongly condemns the provocative actions of the Government of the Russian Federation in the Kerch Strait against the Ukrainian navy”.The resolution, which had bi-partisan support, called upon Russia to immediately release the six Ukrainian sailors and return the two vessels to Ukraine. It also called upon the Trump administration to “implement an all of government approach to forcefully express opposition (to the attack) at every opportunity.” [source] Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s naval vessels is illegal regardless of whose versions of events is true. Even taking Russia’s version at face value, its actions still constitute a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that both Russia and Ukraine have ratified. [source] (Analyst Comment: It’s difficult to see what, if any, actions can be taken to compel Russian President Putin to release either the ships or the sailors. Sending NATO warships to the Black Sea, while well within international waters, would be seen by the Russians as a provocation. Placing sanctions on those members of his government whose business dealings are less than ethical seems to have no effect. The one with the most to lose here is President Trump. The Senate has called him out on Putin and how he responds will be closely observed by all sides. Update: On 05DEC18, media outlets reported that the Pentagon has asked the US State Department to begin the process of requesting permission from Turkey to sail vessels into the Black Sea, which borders both Ukraine and Russia. It is the sole maritime access to the Sea of Azov. The freedom of navigation operation could potentially escalate the situation. [source])

Russia warns Cyprus against allowing US military to deploy there. On Wednesday, 05DEC18, Russia warned authorities in the Cypriot capitol of Nicosia about allowing the US military to deploy on the island, saying such a move would draw a Russian reaction and result in “dangerous and destabilizing consequences.” A spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Russia had become aware of what they call “anti-Russian plans” involving Cyprus and the US military. The Russian spokesman went on to say that a US delegation had inspected potential sites for bases and that Washington was engaged in intensive talks with Nicosia. There has been no response from the US. [source] (Analyst Comment: A forward operating base on Cyprus would have several advantages for the US. The island, being situated in the eastern Mediterranean, would allow US troops to remain in the region without being on the mainland, and thus targets. Once the Islamic State’s caliphate is destroyed in Syria, US troops could conceivably leave Syria, but that would leave a vacuum that Iran and Russia would certainly try to fill. Having a base on Cyprus would allow the US to project US power in the theater where ever a C130J can land.)



Significant Developments:

India to expand fleet by 56 warships, six submarines. The Indian Navy currently has a fleet of 140 warships, and is expected to add to that fleet by 56 vessels in the next ten years. The expansion will include building India’s third aircraft carrier. More than 30 ships are currently under construction. Indian Navy Chief Admiral Lanba said that India has the advantage of “balance of power” over Chinese naval forces in the Indian Ocean, but that China has the advantage in the South China Sea. [source]


Middle East 

Significant Developments:

More fallout from Khassoggi murder: top GOP appropriations committee member would stop arms sales. At the Reagan National Defense Forum, the newly announced top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee has thrown her weight behind the option to end the long standing arms relationship with Saudi Arabia. Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) said that while Congress was still gathering information, “If we have the full picture on [Khassoggi], I would say no, we should not sell.” Others at the conference where not so sure. Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration admitted that while looking the other way on the Khassoggi murder is “a betrayal of our values,” it also bad for business. The relationship can’t be broken entirely because, she said, it’s too important to the region. “I personally would draw a distinction between offensive weapons being used in Yemen and defensive systems the Saudis need to protect their cities from Iranian missiles coming across their borders.” [source] (Analyst Comment: As we’ve noted before, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has already looked into buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system. But given the amount of US weaponry, and their attendant maintenance and training contracts, the Saudi’s would be forced to spend decades weaning themselves off American arms sales. King Salman has already stated that a change in leadership is not an option and that the Crown Prince will remain the nominal head of government. Update: On 05DEC18, select senators from the US Senate received a closed door briefing from Director CIA Gina Haspel concerning the murder of journalist Kamal Khassoggi. Most left the hearing even more convinced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was involved. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by the people under the command of MbS.” [source] There is broad, bi-partisan support in both chambers of the US Congress for action against Saudi Arabia because of the murder. Saudi Arabia could take action on two things that the Trump administration has been pushing for: stopping the war in Yemen and lifting the blockade of Qatar. This would give the Trump administration ammunition to defend the Saudi kingdom on the Hill.)

 Qatar to quit OPEC. On Monday, 03DEC18, the country of Qatar said it was quitting the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) starting in January 2019. Qatar, one of OPEC’s smallest oil producers is, however, one of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporters. Qatar says it is quitting the organization to focus more on its LNG business. [source] (Analyst Comment: Qatar has been in a long running dispute with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia and the GCC have accused Qatar of shielding terrorists, exporting terrorism, and being close to Iran. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a number of proxy wars. In June of 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt started an air, sea, and land blockade on Qatar. It hasn’t worked that well in part because Qatar is home to Al Udeid Air Base, which is a central hub the US military uses for transport for the entire region. Doha, Qatar’s capital, says that leaving OPEC, of which it has been a member for 57 years, isn’t a political move, but it’s hard to read it any other way. Update: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has invited Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to attend the upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council summit set to take place in Rayadh on 09DEC18. The invitation comes a day after Qatar announced that it would leave OPEC in January, 2019. The Qatar News Agency said in a tweet that the emir had received the invitation, but did not say whether the Sheikh would travel to Saudi Arabia. [source])

Iranian plane transfers weapons to Hezbollah, returns via Doha. An Iranian cargo plane allegedly transported advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Beirut. According to a Times of Israel report, the Boeing 747 was spotted flying directly from Tehran to Beirut on Thursday, 29NOV18. The report claims that Iran has been supplying Hezbollah with advanced munitions by shipping them through civilian airlines to including the airline used on Thursday, Fars Air Qeshm. After departing Beirut, the airplane flew to Doha, Qatar, before returning to Tehran. According to western intelligence sources, the Iranian cargo plane carried weapons components, including GPS devices, used in manufacturing precision-guided weapons in Iranian factories inside Lebanon. [source]

Israeli army launches operations against ‘Hezbollah tunnels’. Israeli operations are to “expose and neutralize” tunnels between Lebanon and Israel that Israel claims are being dug by Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite paramilitary group operating out of Lebanon and gets the bulk of its logistics and support from Iran. A spokesman for the Israeli army said that operations would stay on the Israeli side of the border and that operations will not extend into Lebanon. According to a reporter for Al Jazeera, this is a rare occurrence since there hasn’t been any activity on the border since the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006. She also noted the timing. Three days ago Israeli police recommended that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of corruption. (Analyst Comment: The Prime Minister has remained popular, but mounting this operation, and then flying to Brussels to brief US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about it, could be seen as deflection of bribery charges. On 02DEC18, Israeli police alleged that the prime minister awarded “regulatory favors” to a telecommunications firm, Bezeq, in return for favorable coverage of him and his wife. The authorities say they’ve found evidence of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies and wrongdoing.)


North Korea

Significant Developments:

Moon: Trump wants to grant Kim Jon Un’s wishes. The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, was quoted by his office as saying that US President Donald Trump said that he has a “very friendly view” of the North Korean dictator and wants to grant Kim’s wishes if North Korea denuclearizes. Moon also said that the US president asked him to convey those messages to Kim Jong Un. The remarks were made during the G20 summit held last weekend in Buenos Aires. President Trump has also said that he wants to hold another summit with Kim Jon Un in either January or February of 2019. [source] (Analyst Comment: Granting Kim Jong-un’s wishes will be a more difficult task considering that researches recently found more evidence that North Korea continues to expand a long-range missile base.)

Kim Jong-Un’s first visit to South Korea linked to denuclearization. When Kim Jong-un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang in September, the two men agreed that Mr. Kim would become the first North Korean leader to visit Seoul and would do so before 2018 was out. The South Korean intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), told the parliamentary intelligence committee that “As Kim’s trip is linked to US-North Korea talks, it will be decided in line with progress [over Pyongyang’s dialogue with Washington].” Pyongyang is frustrated at the slow pace of talks with the US and it wants economic sanctions to be eased, but the US has repeatedly insisted that any improvement in inter-Korean ties must be accompanied by progress on talks between the US and North Korea. In other words, North Korea wants sanctions lifted and the US is not going to lift them until it sees movement on denuclearization. [source] (Analyst Comment: North Korea continues to drive the wedge deeper and deeper between the US and South Korea. Seoul has moved in an increasingly unilateral manner in working towards some the prospect of reunification, and much warmer relations with the Hermit Kingdom. Guardhouses on the border have been destroyed, rail lines restored, and joint recovery of remains have taken place at a rapid pace. South Korea is obviously leaning into this and hard. But the Trump administration doesn’t look like it’s going to budge on sanctions until North Korea provides verifiable evidence that it’s serious about de-nuclearizing the Peninsula.)



– 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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