Strategic Intelligence Summary for 06 September 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 06 September 2018

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: (3,314 words)

  • InFocus: The state of Sino-Russian strategic partnership
  • Is Africa falling into China’s debt trap?
  • U.S. to end military aid to Pakistan
  • China to expand footprint in Djibouti
  • Navy developing wetsuits for SEALs in Arctic
  • DHS working on power-generating clothing
  • Global NATO member Australia establishes a military cyber center
  • Defense leaders comment on need to implement National Defense Strategy
  • Russian military to test tanks in the Arctic
  • Vostok and the 2nd Fleet dominate news coverage
  • U.S. amends Indo-Pacific strategy
  • U.S., Japanese naval exercise riles Chinese
  • Mattis, Pompeo developing security strategy with India
  • Iran may be moving more weapons into Lebanon
  • Israel signals it could strike Iraq
  • South Korea’s Moon, Trump to meet again this month
  • And more…

In Focus: Have Russia and China entered a new phase of their strategic partnership, and are we now looking at a military alliance against the United States? Although Chinese and Russian military cooperation isn’t new, next week’s Vostok-2018 will be the most concrete development between the two militaries. A series of naval exercises occurred going as far back as 2005, and last year both countries participated in an exercise that included “island seizing missions”. [source]

Vostok-2018 will be the first joint, combined arms military exercise between China and Russia, which is a significant development because it simulates a large-scale conflict — like what we’d see between the United States and “global NATO” on one side, and China and Russia on the other. Vostok, which means “east”, will simulate an invasion from Western powers into Russia and reportedly involve 300,000 mainly Russian troops and a contingent of 3,200 personnel from China. (Mongolia will also participate.) To put that into perspective, that’s roughly one quarter of the entire active U.S. military involved in a single exercise. Vostok-2018 is purpose-built to improve coordination between Russia and China in a large-scale conflict.   Furthermore, the Chinese and Russians just finished their second nuclear missile defense table top exercise, clearly suggesting that they consider nuclear options to be viable in a future war. From the available information, the relationship appears to be as close to a defense pact, or possibly a military alliance, as they’ll get without a formal declaration. Given the Vostok-2018 scenario and one from last year, where Russian forces simulated repelling Western-led border incursions (Zapad-2017), Vladimir Putin is sending a message that China and Russia are united to defeat the U.S. in military conflict.

While some Chinese officials backpedaled on the “military alliance” characterization, others are doubling down on the message that Russia and China are seeking improved military cooperation. One Chinese military official described Sino-Russian relations as being at an “all-time high”. And while not naming the United States specifically, the vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission said earlier this year that, “China will continue to strengthen military-to-military relations with Russia to address new security challenges in the world.” Chinese media this week reported that Chinese military leaders specifically wanted to learn about Russian’s recent combat experience in Syria. Later this year, the Russians are expected to participate in a Chinese military exercise in the Yellow Sea.

This is not unexpected. Russia and China have practically been forced into an alliance against the United States because we’ve seen a deliberate effort by the previous and current administrations to build a “global NATO” — essentially an expansion of the NATO alliance to the Middle East (Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), South America (Colombia, Chile, Brazil) and East Asia (Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and others). This is not dissimilar to the Cold War when the East and West battled to expand their spheres of influence. As Russia and China increase their efforts to revise the current global order and build a new one in their image, what we’re ultimately looking at is a struggle for dominance for the rest of the 21st century and beyond. Here’s a partial list of my, as of yet, unanswered questions:

  • Can the United States and China share global superpower status?
  • How likely is the United States to pursue war to prevent Chinese ascendance?
  • Can the Chinese peacefully displace U.S. power and influence in Asia?
  • At what point will the Chinese pursue war to topple U.S. dominance in Asia? (2025? 2030?)
  • Will the solidification of “Global NATO” lead to a recognized period of cold war?
  • Is the expansion of Global NATO pushing us closer to world war?
  • Is the expansion of Global NATO due to an expectation of another world war?

The next decade is likely to be a watershed moment for the balance of world power. It’s not just traditional military might that will determine the outcome, but economic power and commercial strength, cyber capabilities, space power, and technological advancements, especially with machine learning and artificial intelligence. Both Russia and China have made artificial intelligence (AI) a national priority. China has already opened a military center for the development of AI, and Russia is expected to open a facility, as well. Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin infamously predicted that, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” That kind of power, not to mention the development of quantum computing, is going to be supremely disruptive to the United States and other nations that don’t have adequate technology or countermeasures. Surveying what’s possible in the next decade, we’re not just entering in another period of great power competition, we’re looking at a world on the edge of catastrophe. – S.C.

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?

Is Africa falling into China’s debt trap?

China, Africa’s largest trading partner, made approximately $125 billion in loans to African countries between 2000-2016. During a recent two-day, high-level meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and more than 50 African leaders, Xi offered the Africans an additional $60 billion in new financing deals.  This offer is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect China to the rest of the world by sea and land. In response to criticisms of China using “debt diplomacy” in its dealings with Africa, Xi referred to the money as “aid” rather than “loans,” although the talks discussed approximately $45 billion in loans, and the remainder in interest-free aid. Additionally, Xi promised to waive debts of the poorest African countries. Critics say such waivers represent bargaining chips for geopolitical opportunities for China in Africa. African countries see China as a rising world power and as an alternative to Europe with its recent financial problems and the United States and its increased market protectionism. [source] Analyst Comment: China has a history of developing natural resource projects, like mines and oil fields, in Africa, in part to gain access to their production. One criticism of U.S. foreign policy, as compared to China’s, is that China is more interested in developing commercial interests and creating jobs as a part of its diplomacy, while the U.S. is more interested in offering humanitarian aid. A large part of China’s strategy to overtake the U.S. as the global superpower is the expansion of international commerce, which China pursues through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI would open up trading lanes from China to South America, Africa, Europe, and Central and East Asia by investing in transportation infrastructure and fostering better economic opportunities at the endpoints. It’s a major effort that raises concern for the U.S., because China is also pursuing the same commercial development and aid deals in Latin America. That’s a large reason why Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo (and his predecessor Tillerson) have renewed focus in the Latin America region. Part of the U.S. message to these nations is ‘Be careful what you wish for. By accepting Chinese help, you also invite Chinese influence and demands.’

U.S. to end military aid to Pakistan

The Trump administration, in a fulfillment of its pledge a year ago to take a harder line against Pakistan than previous administrations, has cancelled a $300 million disbursement for the Pakistani military. President Trump characterized Pakistan as an unreliable ally due to its perceived failure to take decisive action against Afghan Taliban fighters. U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of providing safe havens for insurgents who are waging war against the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan, a charge Pakistan denies. Pakistan’s foreign minister has indicated that this matter will be discussed with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Islamabad on September 5. [source] Analyst Comment: The Pakistani military, as well as its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has often been duplicitous where it concerns the Taliban, support for terrorism, and pursuit of U.S. interests. While the Pakistani military has done a good job of pursuing insurgents and extremists in its federally administered tribal areas, Pakistan’s government and the ISI has entire swathes of bureaucrats actively working with terror groups and against U.S. interests in the region. At the same time that the Trump administration pressures Pakistan to take decisive action against Afghan Taliban fighters in its country, Russia is working to strengthen its ties with Islamabad. Furthermore, Russia sees Islamabad as another potential customer of its military equipment.  The rift between the U.S. and Pakistan makes this seemingly unlikely Russia-Pakistan alliance more likely. 

China to expand footprint in Djibouti

China opened its first overseas military base on August 1, 2017 in Djibouti, a tiny country with no natural resources and a population of under a million on the Horn of Africa. The former French colony — although lacking in population and resources — is strategically located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, a location that controls access to the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Although China cites the location as ideal for resupplying peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, as well as combating piracy off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, not everyone is convinced that there are not other motives at work here. Beijing denies claims that this new outpost is part of alleged Chinese expansionist ambitions. The U.S. has indicated there would be “significant” consequences if China were to take over Djibouti’s port operations. [source]

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

Navy developing wetsuits for SEALs in Arctic

Continuing with a new focus on military operations in the Arctic, the Navy and a team from MIT are working on improving wetsuits for Navy SEALs operating in the freezing waters of the Arctic Circle. While it’s not a major development, it does demonstrate that the Navy is preparing for military operations and possibly conflict in the region. [source]

DHS working on power-generating clothing

The Department of Homeland Security is spending $200,000 to develop clothing that can act as batteries to charge radios and sensors based on the movement of the wearer. While the “energy harvesting fabrics” project is being developed for first responders, it would also have military implications. [source]

Global NATO member Australia establishes a military cyber center

Australia, an official member of the unofficial “global NATO”, recently opened a cyber training range where 49 of its cyber warfare specialists will train. [source] Analyst Comment: Like the United States, Australia is plagued by Chinese espionage and cyber exploitation. In June, the country passed a new law that seeks to limit the influence of foreign entities, specifically China, and outlaws foreign influence in Aussie elections.

Defense leaders comment on need to implement National Defense Strategy

At this week’s Defense News Conference, U.S. military leaders commented on how conflict is changing and emphasized how the new National Defense Strategy will make America safer and more competitive. According to a Department of Defense press release, here are some key takeaways:

  • The Navy must be ready to compete in all arenas of global threats against near-peer competitors such as Russia and China, both of which have growing technology capabilities.
  • A tenet of DoD training is to ensure the services can train and fight with DoD partners and allies.
  • Squadrons are the power base of the Air Force. They are the guts, brains and clenched fist of American resolve, and comprise how the Air Force competes, deters and wins. “We must build a more lethal and ready Air Force that can operate seamlessly across all domains with joint and allied partners.”
  • A critical part of the [National Defense Strategy] effort to reform business practices in DoD is the priority to get capabilities in the hands of service members downrange quickly. [source]

Analyst Comment: The military is undergoing rapid change right now, in part to catch up to existing changes in the nature of warfare, but also to get ahead of expected future problems. That last bullet point — getting tools, weapons, and capabilities “in the hands of service members downrange quickly” — resembles what the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) has been trying to do with electronic warfare. There certainly seems to be an emphasis on identifying capability gaps for U.S. troops downrange and then finding and fielding rapidly deployable solutions, to include commercial off-the-shelf technology. That’s going to be an enduring requirement for each of the military branches involved in conflicts, and really reflects how technology is being applied to warfighting on the tactical level by near peer adversaries like Russia and China. The Chief of Naval Operations characterized future conflict as “a long-term competition” that more resembles “an infinite game rather than a finite game”. He said that the Navy’s focus should therefore be on “issues like sustainability” for naval operations in gray zone conflicts. It does appear that Navy leaders have the expectation of decadal conflict (not necessarily outright war) with foes like Russia and China. Defense Secretary Mattis repeatedly states that the U.S. is again in a period of great power competition, which is a hallmark of the latest National Defense Strategy.

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:

Russian military to test tanks in the Arctic

Arctic testing of the Russian T-14 Armata tank in will begin in 2020, according to the Russian Deputy Ground Forces Commander for Armaments. Pointing to engine problems on U.S. Abrams M1 tanks during Operation Desert Storm, the spokesman said the Armata’s systems would need to be tested in mountain, desert, and Arctic conditions. [source]

Vostok and the 2nd Fleet dominate news coverage

Recent media reporting on NATO and Russia has been dominated by two important events. First, the Russian military exercise Vostok-2018, which is being conducted in far eastern Russia and Siberia from September 11-15. Russia’s defense minister characterized the exercise as the largest such military exercise since 1981, at the height of the Cold War.

The second is the reconstitution of the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet in response to renewed Russian military and geopolitical ambitions. (Which we reported on back in May.)  The 2nd Fleet has even more direct connections to the Cold War era. This naval force, deactivated in 2011 due to sequestration, was first established after World War II and was responsible for the United States East Coast and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Vostok-2018 illustrates renewed Russian interest in large-scale war fighting capabilities, while the 2nd Fleet reconstitution reflects the U.S. military’s renewed focus on near-peer threats and great power competition, which include Russia and China. The U.S. military’s renewed focus on large scale, conventional warfare capabilities—as opposed to fighting insurgents—is likely to continue. Reflecting this change is the recent publication of a revised Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, by the U.S. Army, which was amended to emphasize combined arms operations, including drone warfare and cyber weapons.



Significant Developments:

U.S. amends Indo-Pacific strategy

Recent changes in the U.S. national defense strategy point to an apparent shift from a concentration on low-level counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, to full military competition between world powers. Recent U.S. Navy operations drive home this shift. The U.S. Navy’s Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group recently conducted a joint military exercise with Japanese maritime forces in the contested South China Sea. The exercise, involving the U.S.’s only forward deployed aircraft carrier, the Reagan, was a clear message to China that the U.S. will remain engaged in the South China Sea. With regard to Russia, the recent U.S. decision to reconstitute the 2nd Fleet sends another message to a U.S. competitor that the U.S. will not relinquish its naval superiority in that region. [source]

U.S., Japanese naval exercise riles Chinese

The U.S. and Japan say that island-building activities by China in the South China Sea pose a threat to free movement in the waterway. China claims that the islands have been Chinese territory “since ancient times” and free navigation there “has never been a problem.” In response to this ongoing dispute, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s helicopter carrier Kaga joined the U.S. Navy’s Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group for bilateral exercises starting last Friday. The training involved practice sailing in formation, maneuvering procedures, and replenishment-at-sea operations. The Kaga and two guided missile destroyers will make port calls in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines as part of a rare, month-long tour.

Mattis, Pompeo developing security strategy with India

This week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were in India, holding “2+2” talks with their Indian counterparts. At a time when Russia and China are expanding their military cooperation, Secretary Mattis announced a new security agreement with India. Mattis stated, “The landmark [security] agreement deepens our military-to-military cooperation and our ability to share the most advanced defense technology, making us both stronger.” India’s defense minister stated that the U.S. and India intend “to cooperate in every possible way to ensure peace and stability”. [source] Analyst Comment: In this week’s InFocus, I discussed expanding and cementing alliances with specific regard to “global NATO”. From my perspective, the world is taking shape and choosing sides. In many ways, it’s East versus West again. The alliance with India, which has been on the edge of war with Pakistan and involved in border skirmishes with China, is a significant development for Global NATO, and bolsters U.S. prospects for ‘staying power’ in Asia.


Middle East

Significant Developments:

Iran may be moving more weapons into Lebanon

According to western intelligence officials, Iran is suspected of using a civilian airline to smuggle weapons to Lebanon for Hezbollah and Iranian weapons factories in the country. The suspicions are based on abnormal flight patterns by at least two flights, traveling between Tehran, Syria, and Beirut International Airport. The flights took place on July 9 and August 2. [source]

Israel signals it could strike Iraq

According to a Reuters report, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources reported that Iran had in recent months transferred short-range ballistic missiles to Shi’ite allies in Iraq. Both Iran and Iraq denied the claim. In an Israeli Television News Company broadcast, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “We are certainly monitoring everything that is happening in Syria and, regarding Iranian threats, we are not limiting ourselves just to Syrian territory.” When pressed regarding possible action in Iraq, Lieberman said that Israel would contend with the Iranian threat regardless of location. There was no immediate response from the government of Iraq or from U.S. Central Command, which overseas U.S. military operations in Iraq.  U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that he was “deeply concerned” about the reported missile transfer by the Iranians. [source]


North Korea

Significant Developments:

South Korea’s Moon, Trump to meet again this month

Amid poor progress on the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Trump plan to discuss the North during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York later this month. Moon and Trump spoke by telephone on Tuesday, a day before South Korean special envoys were to visit Pyongyang to discuss a third summit between Moon and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, also to be held this month. Chung Eui-yong, chief of the national security office at Seoul’s presidential Blue House, said on Tuesday that he would deliver a letter from Moon to Kim when he visits the North. Although he did not elaborate on the contents of the letter, he did say that he wanted to discuss ways to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with officials in Pyongyang. South Korea also continues to push for a joint declaration of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to Chung. [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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