Strategic Intelligence Summary for 07 March 2019 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 07 March 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…

  • Putin warns of foreign spy agencies operating in Russia
  • Pompeo assures Philippines U.S. will respond military to any attack by China
  • Bin Laden’s son takes over al Qaeda, calls for new attacks on U.S.
  • North Korean military continuing its annual training despite U.S., South Korean cancellations
  • New conventionally-armed Russian missiles can target U.S. homeland for the first time 
  • U.S. cyber researchers gain access to North Korea hacking tool
  • Russia beginning development of new intelligence satellites
  • U.S. Navy buying more P-8 aircraft to target Chinese nuke subs
  • Flashpoint SITREPs (NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea, India-Pakistan, 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, India-Pakistan, Venezuela)


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

Putin warns of foreign spy agencies operating in Russia

In a speech to the Russian intelligence service FSB on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, “We see that foreign intelligence services are seeking to bolster their efforts on the Russian front… [J]ust like before, and now probably even harder, [foreign intelligence services] are trying to influence events in our country.” [source]

In the same speech, Putin warned of an increase in cyber attacks against the country, noting that presumably foreign cyber attacks have grown over ten-fold, from 1,500 in 2014 to 17,000 in 2018. “In fact, these are well-coordinated, large-scale operations that can cause serious damage to the national interests of our country,” Putin said.

Analyst Comment: Whether or not NATO and Russia go to hot war is up to Vladimir Putin, but Putin used this speech as an opportunity to outline the current cold war, which is happening mostly in the cyber and information realm. Putin frames these cyber attacks against Russia as the West going on offense, which foments Russian nationalism. That allows him to frame his responses, like pushing into and annexing parts of Ukraine, as defensive moves to build a buffer zone for Russia. His outreach and exploitation in European elections are framed in the same way: to expand Russia’s sphere of influence to defend against NATO expansion and influence.

My concern is two-fold. Number one, Putin likely believes that if he relents in his cyber and information campaigns, then NATO will continue to expand anyway and threaten Russian interests in his region. Whether or not he stops, Western intelligence agencies will also likely continue to undermine his regime. Putin likely believes that there is no mutually beneficial, peaceful co-existence as long as the West would favor regime change in Russia.

Pompeo assures Philippines U.S. will respond military to any attack by China
Asked about war in the region, the Philippine defense chief said that the U.S. was the more likely of the two countries to be involved in a war with China. “The United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war [with China]. In such a case and on the basis of the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippines will be automatically involved. It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.” (AC: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in the Philippines last week to discuss regional security issues. Pompeo expressed U.S. assurance that it would come to the Philippines’ defense should it be attacked by Chinese forces over territorial disputes. The most recent statements from Philippines officials are not a warning of imminent war, but U.S. activity in the region carries the risk of conflict as the Chinese grow more determined to prevent the U.S. from interfering in regional matters.)
Bin Laden’s son takes over al Qaeda, calls for new attacks on U.S.
One of Osama bin Laden’s sons is taking over the terrorist group al Qaeda, and has already called on followers to launch new attacks against the U.S. and the West. According to the State Department, the son, Hamza bin Laden, “is emerging as a leader” of the movement. He’s already released new video and audio messages online, where he threatened to retaliate for the May 2011 killing of his father by U.S. special operations. [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: The State Department said items retrieved from the elder bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan indicated he was grooming his son to take over for him. Al Qaeda has been resurrecting itself over the past couple of years. It could help recruitment having a bin Laden son lead the organization given his father’s success in attacking the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.)
North Korean military continuing its annual training despite U.S., South Korean cancellations
Following his recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump announced that the U.S. would once be canceling its annual large-scale Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises conducted with the South Korean military. Pyongyang, however, has not followed suit. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, U.S. Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, testified: “We are watching the ongoing Korean People’s Army winter training cycle, including a slate of full-spectrum exercises, which is progressing along at historic norms, meaning that we have observed no significant changes to size, scope, or timing of their ongoing exercises compared to the same time period over the last four years.” [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: Although the U.S. has cancelled its major exercises as a show of good faith, there’s a joint exercise between U.S. and South Korean forces going on right now. In past weeks, some Congressional leaders and military analysts have warned that a cessation of joint large-scale exercises would degrade U.S. and South Korean military readiness should war break out at some point. The Trump administration seems confident, however, that the risk of war can be mitigated through continued talks.)

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

New conventionally-armed Russian missiles can target U.S. homeland for the first time 
The head of NORTHCOM and NORAD, Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that for the first time, Russia has developed and deployed conventionally-armed missiles capable of striking deep inside the U.S. He specifically noted that while Russia has long been able to target American cities with nuclear weapons, missiles with warheads “below the nuclear threshold” are a new capability. What makes the new missiles dangerous, O’Shaughnessy explained, is that they can be fired from bomber platforms with “significantly greater standoff ranges and accuracy than their predecessors” — well outside NORAD radar range. [SOURCE]
U.S. cyber researchers gain access to North Korea hacking tool
Thanks to an assist from the U.S. government, researchers with cybersecurity firm McAfee have new information about a worldwide hacking campaign known as Operation Sharpshooter. Researchers have tied the operation to the North Korean hacking group Lazarus via a command-and-control server. The link was established after a government agency gave McAfee researchers the server to examine. Researchers believe that Operation Sharpshooter targeted government and industrial systems in the U.S. and Europe with malware called “Rising Sun.” McAfee researchers say the new findings will help better understand — i.e. identify and counter — North Korean hacking threats moving forward. [SOURCE]
Russia beginning development of new intelligence satellites
Russia is working to upgrade its intelligence-gathering capabilities from space by researching development of new spy satellites, according to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “Our task is to create modern satellites capable of providing still more accurate intelligence and map data. With this in mind we are conducting certain research and development. Progress in the work is on the agenda today,” he said recently at the defense ministry. Shoigu said the Russian military’s experiences in Syria regarding use of smart weapons made upgrading spy satellites imperative. It’s also likely that Russia has identified a need for better satellite-based sensors in the age of hypersonic missiles (like the U.S. and China). [SOURCE]
U.S. Navy buying more P-8 aircraft to target Chinese nuke subs
The Navy will buy an additional 19 P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting reconnaissance aircraft in the coming years as China’s navy builds and deploys more nuclear-armed ballistic missile subs. The order for additional planes comes as the U.S. Navy attempts to accelerate the construction of next-gen attack submarines and plan base new drones capable of loitering over target areas for several hours in Guam. China is believed to have deployed as many as 50 long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aboard newer submarines that are increasingly capable of approaching the U.S. and launching from greater distances. [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: The extended-range P-8s, along with the drones and additional attack submarines, are part of the U.S. Navy’s long-term strategy to contain China’s expanding and increasingly sophisticated naval capabilities.)


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, India-Pakistan, Venezuela)


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford met this week with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff. These meetings happen from time to time and are most often out of the limelight. The reason is to keep a line of communication open between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. Tensions between Moscow and Washington are considered to be as high now as they were during the Cold War, so these informal discussions are no doubt useful. Dunford and Gerasimov discussed deconfliction of operations in Syria, military relations, and European security issues.



Last year, I wrote that China’s claim to six-plus percent GDP growth was likely untrue and real GDP growth was probably only half of that. Brookings recently published a paper that shows China’s GDP numbers were inflated by two points between 2008 and 2016, and that more recent years are likely inflated, as well. [source] China has very real issues with debt that will likely increase going into this global slowdown. At the most recent National People’s Congress, Chinese Communist Party leaders decided to cut taxes and print money in response to ongoing financial and economic woes, but that hasn’t dented the steep rise in corporate bond defaults. China has trillions in off-the-books debt and the shadow banking system is posing a 2008-esque risk. Chinese Premier recently said, “We must be fully prepared for a tough struggle. The difficulties we face must not be underestimated, our confidence must not be weakened, and the energy we bring to our work must not be allowed to wane.” China could very well have a serious financial crisis within the next couple of years, which could affect global finance. Still, once China solves or hurtles its corporate debt problems, the Chinese Communist Party expects to hold enough economic power by 2035 to overthrow the U.S. as the world’s global economic superpower. Waning U.S. power and influence is likely to have a negative effect on the dollar and therefore U.S. living standards and the domestic economy.


Middle East:

Though Iraq defeated elements of the Islamic State that had set up inside the country more than a year ago, the group is reconstituting itself. While the capital of Baghdad is beginning to flourish again and Iraqi political and military leaders paint an optimistic picture, Iraqi intelligence figures say that ISIS is reconstituting itself as well. From remote bases in Iraq’s north, ISIS guerrillas stage attacks, loot villages, and plant roadside bombs, all while training a new “strike force.” Iraqi citizens in rural regions once fully controlled by ISIS are still being victimized by its members, who are said to “rule the night.” Reports indicate that as they reemerge, ISIS fighters have become more ruthless and brutal, executing Iraqis after stealing their money and possessions. Often, the attackers wear military uniforms. Political uncertainty in Washington makes it hard to predict whether U.S. forces will remain in Iraq as stabilizers or depart. Without American support, it seems as though ISIS will manage to reclaim a part of its former caliphate, especially if Iraqi politicians decide to cede outlying regions of the country to the group.


North Korea:

A former North Korean diplomat, Thae Yong-ho, who was deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom before defecting to South Korea in 2016, said that Trump was correct in refusing to end “billions” in sanctions over Kim’s reported promise of closing a single nuclear facility reported to be the plant at Yongbyon. He also said he doesn’t believe Kim will give up his nuclear capability for any reason. As a goodwill gesture nonetheless, the U.S. and South Korea jointly agreed to end the annual large-scale spring exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. There is some concern this will erode military U.S.-South Korean military readiness as well as remove a principle deterrent to North Korean aggression, and there is legitimacy to those concerns. New satellite intelligence reveals that Pyongyang is rebuilding its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, also known as Tongchang-ri. This is a site that the North agreed to dismantle — and had begun to do so, though work largely stopped by August — following the first summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore last year.  Kim is aware that Western intelligence satellites would notice the reconstruction, so this may be his way (and China’s way) of bargaining for concessions ahead of future talks. It could also mean that he has simply given up any hope of reaching a settlement with the U.S. If Kim resurrections missile testing and reverses course on previous concessions that will be telling.



The Pakistanis returned an Indian air force pilot who was shot down inside Pakistani-controlled Kashmir late last week, but cross-border attacks and shelling in the disputed Kashmir region continued for at least four days. As the major powers work diplomatic channels in an attempt to defuse the most serious conflict between the two historic enemies in 20 years, Indian and Pakistani leaders traded warnings. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made reference to the nuclear arsenals of both countries, which have been growing since 2017 and now number between 130-150 warheads each. “From here, it is imperative that we use our heads and act with wisdom,” Khan said. “I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford such a miscalculation?” Both countries appear to be dialing back their rhetoric and ratcheting down the tension, but there are plenty of ways this situation could once again escalate, if only because the two countries are historic enemies. We will continue monitoring this situation and provide subscribers with timely updates as the situation develops.

Also: Pakistan reported this week that it stopped an Indian submarine from entering Pakistani waters. Pakistani officials didn’t elaborate, but it’s a good reminder that the two sides continue a tense relationship, even as sporadic fighting continues in the Kashmir region.



Venezuela remains heavily in debt to both China and Russia. Despite the loans, the economic and political situation in the country has continued to deteriorate, leading Maduro to seek additional loans to keep his government afloat. Earlier this week he sent his vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, to Moscow in search of more money, but all she got were some warm words of encouragement and a pledge of “humanitarian relief.” She didn’t even meet with President Putin, she met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The China well has similarly run dry. Venezuela is on track to run out of money, which could post an existential threat to the Maduro regime.



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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