Strategic Intelligence Summary for 10 May 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 Strategic Intelligence subscribers.


In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (6,440 words)

  • North Korean hackers getting increasingly brazen 
  • The new ‘space race’ is mastering artificial intelligence 
  • Israeli prime minister and defense minister can now declare war 
  • Iran-backed Hezbollah candidates win big in Lebanese elections 
  • Saudis will seek nukes if Iran does 
  • U.S. planning to spend $1 trillion upgrading nuclear triad in coming decade — with a twist 
  • Hypersonic missile gap is looming between the U.S., Russia, and China 
  • Germany’s anemic defense budget angers critics and is putting the country at risk
  • And more…

In Focus: President Trump has been threatening to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal for nearly a year now and he finally did it this week. In making his announcement, the president rattled off a series of actions and violations by Iran that have not only have increased the threat to American forces in the region but also key U.S. allies, especially Israel. Some in the Iranian legislature issued their usual response — “Death to America” — and our European allies were not particularly enamored of Trump’s decision, nor were members of the previous administration, to include former President Obama, and former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. And one could argue that the timing is not necessarily the best, given increasing hostility between Israel and Iran and the very real potential for an expansion of the ongoing regional war that could draw some of the great powers.

Although the Trump administration repeatedly informed European powers of his intention to leave the deal since last October, there is still a possibility that deal isn’t completely dead. Trump signaled during his Monday announcement he’d consider reimplementation so long as certain changes were made that his diplomatic team is currently pursuing. It’s not at all clear the Iranians will agree to any changes, though — at least not publicly, as Iran’s theocratic regime cannot appear weak and impotent before an already restive Iranian populace. Then again, as the U.S. reimposes stiff sanctions that will no doubt further hinder the Iranian economy, the mullahs may have little choice but to accede. 

Meantime, we are set to enter a dangerous period where there will be a distinct “missile gap” between the U.S., Russia, and China. I’m speaking, of course, about hypersonic capabilities. We are behind in developing such a capability and our potential adversaries know this. That makes for some risky times for our Asian and NATO allies. More on that below. 

Finally, there is a real crisis in the German defense sector, and it’s risen to a level that is increasingly unacceptable to German defense officials, leading the top minister to lodge a formal protest with Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is a huge deal since Germany, as one of Europe’s richest nations, is vital to NATO and the defense of the continent. There are measures being taken to rectify the situation, but hopefully they won’t be too little, too late.

There’s much more. Welcome to this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary and thank you for subscribing. We welcome your feedback. — JD


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? (North Korea, China, Russia, Iran/Israel/Middle East)

PIR4: What is the current security situation along the U.S.-Mexico border and south of the border?


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

North Korean hackers getting increasingly brazen

Even as the U.S. and North Korea move closer towards a historic summit, state hackers in Pyongyang are becoming more aggressive and brazen in their cyber attacks against critical infrastructure in Asia, Europe, and the United States. They’ve deployed new tools and have escalated their operations against financial institutions and global organizations. Cybersecurity professionals have seen North Korean hackers improve their techniques and capabilities greatly over the past two years. And while their skills are considered inferior to hackers in Russia, China, and Israel, the North Korean evolutional capabilities coupled with Pyongyang’s motivation to step up attacks based on geopolitical events are making them a preeminent ‘power’ in the cyberwar space. “They have demonstrated that when they have the intention they will deploy the capability,” said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike. “I would say that it is a formidable cyber adversary for us.” [source] Analyst comment: We mention this activity now because it’s one of the lesser-known threats regarding North Korea, but a dangerous one nonetheless.

The new ‘space race’ is mastering artificial intelligence

The U.S. and China are currently locked in a ‘space race’-type of competition to see who can master artificial intelligence first. The AI programs in both countries are highly advanced and the U.S. may even have a slight edge for the time being, but the manner in which AI development is taking place differs. Most AI development in the U.S. stems from the private sector and academia, but also from the Pentagon via Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA). AI development in China is financed by the government, which sees it as a huge investment. In fact, Beijing has committed to spending $7 billion more through 2030, to include at least $2 billion for a research park. In all, Chinese government investment is expected to top $150 billion, but China sees AI as a $1 trillion investment return, at least. There are other Western countries investing in AI as well, including Canada, France, Germany, the UK, and the EU, via public and private ventures. Russia is investing as well, but far less. That said, many of Russia’s AI developmental projects are military in nature, including AI-assisted fighter planes and automated artillery. [source] Analyst comment: AI is the most important emerging technology which is why there is a race on to develop it first. AI will have unimaginable applications and will become one of those rare transformative technologies, especially in the defense sector.

Israeli prime minister and defense minister can now declare war

In what is no doubt recognition for the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East between Israel, Iran, and Iran’s militant proxies — and the speed at which modern warfare travels — the Israeli parliament has approved legislation that empowers the prime minister and defense minister to declare war without approval of the full Cabinet in “extreme circumstances.” As PM Benjamin Netanyahu was providing details via an unprecedented ‘global’ news conference last week about Iran’s secret nuclear program, his coalition quietly pushed the legislation through expanding his authority to order military operations. The law was also approved less than a day after a suspected Israeli airstrike against a Syrian military base killed as many as 26 pro-government fighters, most believed to be Iranians. [source] Analyst comment: Last night, the Israeli Defense Force struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria, after Iranian forces fired rockets into Israel. Additionally, the Israeli government moved to prepare the civilian population on the Golan Heights in addition to defensive systems, certainly in preparation, if not anticipation, for war.

Iran-backed Hezbollah candidates win big in Lebanese elections

Candidates fielded by Iran militant proxy Hezbollah have captured a majority of seats in Lebanese parliamentary elections, solidifying the organization’s (and Tehran’s) grip on the country. A fiercely anti-Israel organization, there is already much speculation that Lebanon’s now going to become a new source of friction in the region. The leader of Shi’ite Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called the result “a very big political, parliamentary and moral victory for the choice of resistance.” While the actual number of Hezbollah ministers of parliament were relatively unchanged, candidates supported by the group or allied with it gained in major cities, giving them just over half the seats in Parliament. The U.S. (and Israel) consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. It is heavily armed (compliments of Iran, mostly) and has grown in strength and numbers since joining the war in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. Two potentially tempering realities: Lebanon has been reliant on Western aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy and the country receives direct U.S. military support. [source]

Saudis will seek nukes if Iran does

The Saudi government has said it before and one of its officials, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, has just repeated the threat: If Iran pursues nuclear weapons, the Kingdom will as well, thereby adding two more countries to the nuclear club in the most volatile region of the world outside of the Korean peninsula (which these days appears tame by comparison). Al-Jubeir’s comments come on the heels of President Trump’s announcement the U.S. would pull out of the ‘nuclear deal’ with Tehran — which itself came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a unique “global” news conference, revealed that Iran was secretly continuing its nuclear development. “If Iran acquires nuclear capability we will do everything we can to do the same,” al-Jubeir said. The threat also comes amid rising tensions between Iran and the Kingdom over the former’s ongoing military support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, whom the Saudis have been battling. The Houthis have stepped up their missile campaign against Saudi Arabia — missiles that Iran has reportedly been supplying. “These missiles are Iranian manufactured and delivered to the Huthis. Such behavior is unacceptable. It violates UN Resolutions with regards to ballistic missiles. And the Iranians must be held accountable for this,” Jubeir said. “We will find the right way and at the right time to respond to this. We are trying to avoid at all costs direct military action with Iran, but Iran’s behavior such as this cannot continue. This amounts to a declaration of war.” [source] Analyst comment: The U.S. has also said it has evidence the missiles being fired — which are being fired by the Houthis and intercepted by Saudi air defenses — are Iranian-made. Trump said as much during his press conference this week announcing the U.S. pull-out of the nuclear deal.


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

U.S. planning to spend $1 trillion upgrading nuclear triad in coming decade — with a twist

Between developing and building a new generation of strategic bombers and submarines while upgrading its inventory of nuclear-armed ICBMs, the Pentagon is planning to spend up to $1 trillion over the coming decade to modernize its “nuclear triad.” But included in the modernization, say top Air Force officials, will be the ability to know instantly when a nuclear threat presents itself to the U.S., along with a rapid response capability to meet and possibly defeat the threat. For that, the Pentagon will need to develop more space-based capability, said Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “We need the capability of early warning satellites to know what is going on. We need an unblinking eye to find out what is going on. That unblinking eye is provided by space. We need the capability of military communications, secure military communications satellites, EMP [radiation] hardened communications.” That will include figuring out how to best defend and protect those space-based assets as well, including defenses against cyber attacks that would disrupt signals and communication. The Air Force already has programs underway to modernize communications and early-warning satellites, but how they will be integrated into NC3 — nuclear command, control, and communications — will be a gargantuan task. [source] SC: Not to unnecessarily add to the hype of nuclear war, but I need to point out that both Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons pose a serious threat to our space-based early warning systems. In a worst case scenario, our “unblinking eyes” are blinded before the launch of nuclear weapons.

Russian military to field new rifles

The Russian military will field a pair of new rifles, the AK-12 and AK-15, replacing older weapons in the arsenal including the world-renowned AK-47 and later model AK-74M. The Kremlin has been attempting to field a new rifle for some time, but Russia had more AK-74s than it had soldiers so it was a low priority. Also, the Russian defense budget has been up and down (it’s currently down) so buying new rifles was difficult as well. As for the AK-12 and AK-15, they look similar to the AK-74M inside and out. The primary difference is that the AK-12 is chambered for the same ammo as the AK-74M, 5.45 x 39mm, while the AK-15 is chambered for the 7.62 x 39mm, the same ammunition the AK-47 utilizes. It isn’t clear yet why Moscow is buying two different caliber rifles. That said, Russia has substantial stockpiles of Cold War-era 7.62 x 39 ammunition, and the AK-15s might be slated for rear echelon and troops less likely to see combat. [source]

Hypersonic missile gap is looming between the U.S., Russia, and China

Hypersonic missile systems represent the next-generation of evolution for strategic conventional and nuclear strike capability and deterrence, and the U.S. is already behind peer competitors Russia and China in this field. Both countries have tested hypersonic weapons and are either in the process of deploying them or will do so soon. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his post-election address to the Russian Federation Assembly earlier this year, boasted that Russia has deployed strategic weapons that cannot be defeated if launched. He added that the military is “actively developing hypersonic weapons.” China, meanwhile, has successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, and has built 2-3 times the hypersonic research and development infrastructure as exists in the U.S., making it clear this is a high-priority project for Beijing. Hypersonic weapons will give both Russia and China a near-impenetrable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability, meaning U.S. aircraft carriers and large surface combatants can be kept too far away from theaters of operation to be useful in defense of, say, Japan, Taiwan, or any other U.S. Asian ally. Ditto for Russia in terms of defending NATO. [source] Analyst comment: The Pentagon just awarded a $1 billion contract to Lockheed Martin for an air-launched, hypersonic conventional weapon it hopes to test by next year and deploy soon after. The Air Force’s stealthy aircraft are not wholly impotent, and the next-gen bomber, the B-21, is within sight. But the time is coming, and very soon, when Russia and China will possess an offensive-and-defensive capability the U.S. does not have and cannot defeat, which will increase the danger for some of our key allies. 

U.S. Army to field short-range air defense (SHORAD) Stryker version for drones and combat aircraft

Thanks to the effectiveness of U.S. air power, the Army hasn’t dealt with an enemy air attack since late in the Korean War. But as the prospect of war with Russia draws closer, and with armed drones now making regular appearances on modern battlefields, the Army is looking to fulfill a short-range air defense (SHORAD) requirement, and will turn to the service’s venerable Stryker armored vehicle for the role. Drones have recently been used to destroy a large Ukrainian army ammunition depot and Russian aircraft in Syria, so the U.S. Army recognizes there is a growing threat and need for a defensive system that includes being able to defend against traditional airpower such as Russia’s Su-25SM3 Frogfoot close-air support fighter/bomber. The Army envisions a Stryker version equipped with Hellfire anti-tank or Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as well as a .50 caliber machine gun and/or a 30 mic-mic cannon. Sidewinder missiles could also be added on some versions. If testing is successful next year, the Army plans to buy 144 of the modified SHORAD Strykers. [source]

Germany’s anemic defense budget angers critics and is putting the country at risk

The new defense budget in Germany is so inadequate that it is being heavily criticized by none other than the country’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who submitted a formal note of protest. Von der Leyen’s stance puts her in opposition to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and finance minister and vice chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party. The defense ministry stands to get €38.5 billion in 2018, which is roughly €1.5 billion more than last year, and €41.5 billion in 2019. By then Germany’s defense budget would be roughly 1.28 percent of its gross domestic product — under NATO’s requirement of 2 percent. [source]

Von der Leyen has plenty of reason to be concerned. Recent reports have noted dramatic equipment shortfalls and disgraceful readiness conditions. For example, one in 10 German military helicopter pilots have lost their licenses over a lack of flight time. That’s 19 out of 129 pilots in 2017. In 2016, 12 out of 135 lost their licenses for the same reason. “Bundeswehr pilots can’t get enough flight time amid helicopter shortages and are losing their flying licenses as a result. The report is the latest to shed light on the embarrassing state of Germany’s armed forces.” 

Meanwhile, just four of the country’s 128 Eurofighter jets is combat ready. The problem stems from a cooling liquid leak in the aircraft’s wing pod sensors, which are used to recognize hostile jets or incoming attacks. Without the defense system, the Eurofighter jets are not combat ready. “The report is the latest to cast doubt on Germany’s military capabilities and readiness. It raises questions of whether Germany is really meeting its NATO commitments,” said one published report [source]. The answer is no; Germany is required to have 82 fighters, at least, combat- and mission-ready at all times as part of the agreement.

Von der Leyen has ambitious plans to rebuild the military around fundamental national security requirements. According to a report she has drafted, the Bundeswehr is currently built to fulfill low-intensity, low-likelihood-of-combat missions (like peacekeeping). She wants to transform the military into a force that gives equal capability to national defense and meeting international obligations (thing NATO). [source] Analyst comment: The German military is a mess. It can’t field enough gear and equipment to supply troops; most of the air force is essentially grounded; and its helicopter pilots aren’t getting enough flight time to remain certified. There is no way Berlin can fulfill its NATO obligations, and don’t think for a second Vladimir Putin isn’t monitoring all of this. If Germany can’t afford or is unwilling to fulfill its defense obligations to NATO, let alone itself, that may tell you all you need to know about the overall military readiness of Europe.

Pentagon moves a step closer to perfecting the ‘drone swarm’ concept

The DoD is taking additional steps to develop a “drone swarm” concept after a new systems test recently. The capability centers around a “flying aircraft carrier” that can launch and recover fleets of armed, small, inexpensive drones. The Pentagon is working with private-sector technology partners in order to hone development and turn the concept into reality. Its advanced research division, DARPA, awarded in late April a 21-month, $38.6 million contract to Dynetics, based in Huntsville, Ala., to develop the software and technology. Kratos, a firm based in San Diego, specializes in cheap drones for target practice and has joined as a subcontractor. The firm will build a new class of drones with fold-up wings for easy storage in the belly of large transport aircraft. The objective is to be able to deploy mass swarms of armed drones on the battlefield to attack enemy positions, air defenses, artillery, and other militarily significant targets. “You can send volleys of swarms over and over again and really just overwhelm an adversary with that complexity,” said Tim Keeter, a deputy program manager and chief engineer at Dynetics. [source]


PIR3: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four? (North Korea, China, Russia, Iran/Israel/Middle East)

NATO-Russia:

In recognizing that great power war is once again a possibility between NATO and Russia, the U.S. Navy is resurrecting the Second Fleet, which once presided over forces in the northern Atlantic Ocean and was disbanded seven years ago after it was thought to no longer be needed. “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said late last week. The 2nd Fleet will have operational authority over assigned ships, aircraft and landing forces along the U.S. East Coast and northern Atlantic. It’s not yet know what assets will be assigned to the new fleet but it’s historical mission was to serve as a check against Russian naval might in the Atlantic. At peak, the fleet comprised 126 ships, 4,500 planes and 90,000 personnel. The command will be based in the Navy city of Norfolk, Va., and will have an initial staff of 15 personnel but will soon be expanded to 200 personnel. This move makes sense given the current trend towards conflict with Russia. First, President Trump’s National Defense Strategy issued earlier this year listed Russia as one of two revisionist powers the U.S. (and NATO) would counter (China is the other). Also, in a conflict scenario involving the European continent the U.S. would need to rush troops to the war zone and would have to transit the Atlantic, where Russian subs, at a bare minimum, would no doubt be waiting for the slow-moving equipment carrying convoys. The Second Fleet will unquestionably be planning for that very scenario.

And just in time. The Russian navy will receive its first upgraded Borei-A-class strategic nuclear submarine in 2019, Prince Vladimir, though the upgrade took longer than expected. Initially, it was to be delivered to the navy in 2017 but that was later changed to this year. Now, delays pushed the delivery date back to 2019. This is the fourth sub of its class, with eight planned, but the first “A Project” upgrade. Three of the subs are in service; each can carry 16 Bulava nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

In a move that will further complicate Russia’s efforts to dominate former Soviet states, Georgia is planning to develop closer security ties with the United States. The move comes after Russia invaded Georgia over political and territorial disputes in 2008, a short war in which Russia was the decisive victor. “On May 1, A. Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, visited the Georgian village of Odzisi (Dusheti District), located on the occupation line between Georgia and its occupied Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia),” one analysis noted. The area Mitchell visited was on an established border zone lined with barbed wire and other obstacles erected by Moscow after its forces took over de facto control of the region. Mitchell voiced U.S. support for Georgian sovereignty and was quoted as saying, “Ten years ago, there was a war here; and I am here today to remind the Russian government that the world has not forgotten about those events. We do not recognize this boundary line as an international border.” He added: “The United States is deeply committed to the security of Georgia as a partner.” Eventually, the U.S. hopes to see Georgia become part of NATO, something that would be deeply opposed by Moscow. But in the meantime, security and defense ties between the two are growing.

In the event of a new conflict with NATO, Russia’s forces may be hampered by their global satellite positioning constellation, GLONASS. Despite denials from Moscow, the system appears to be deeply flawed. Begun in the 1990s but not fully operational until years later due to technical problems and chronic underfunding, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin informed President Vladimir Putin on April 24, that GLONASS is finally able to finance itself without state support. And Russian military officials have credited many targeting successes in Syria to the system, which they claim is operating flawlessly. But last month it was reported that the system had temporarily ceased providing users with high-precision positioning information, which was corroborated by official Russian sources. Later, one of the system’s satellites stopped transmitting information altogether, forcing officials to quickly note that the remaining 22 satellites are operating just fine. But these problems are not new. In preceding years the constellation has had similar problems off and on, including a temporary service collapse caused by similar failures of technology, which means that the deficiencies in the overall system have not been fully dealt with. Moscow habitually chooses not to fully divulge information regarding the system until it becomes impossible to cover up any longer. In this environment of propaganda, it’s likely that many of the system’s capabilities have been exaggerated.

Middle East: 

The tinderbox condition that exists between Israel and Iran needs just a tiny spark before it explodes into the region’s next great conflict. The region has not seen nation-state war since the 1980s when Iran and Iraq battled each other over the course of eight years, but Israel and Iran are closer now to all-out war than any two countries in the region have been since last century. And as we’ve said, it’s most likely to break out in Syria — as if the Syrians haven’t had enough war for the past six years. Iran continues to entrench its forces inside Syria, while Israel maintains a growing presence in border regions while conducting regular airstrikes on Iranian positions on Syrian bases. In recent days Israeli diplomats have been in contact with Russian diplomats in a bid to ensure that should war break out with Iran and its proxies, the S-300 air defense systems and other weapons provided by Moscow to Damascus won’t be turned on Israeli warplanes — lest they be targeted and destroyed.“We will demolish every site where we see an Iranian attempt to position itself,’’ Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told the London-based Saudi newspaper Elaph, adding that the Iranian regime is “living its final days.’’ But as Israel continues to strike Iranian assets and Iranian forces, there are few analysts who think they will go unanswered.

On that front, Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon told the Security Council that Iran had set up a training base just over five miles from Damascus. What’s more, he says that Iran has managed to recruit at least 80,000 Shiite fighters in which it is training at that base. “What you can see here is Iran’s central induction and recruitment center in Syria. There are over 80,000 Shia militants in Syria under Iranian control. It is at this base, just over five miles from Damascus, where they are trained to commit acts of terror in Syria and across the region,” he said, holding up a map.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that “100,000 missiles are ready to fly’’ in Israel’s direction while further warning they could bring about its “annihilation and collapse.” Based on previous reporting, that claim is very likely true; Iran has been moving missiles to its proxies for years, and the sheer number of them would quickly overwhelm Israel’s multi-tiered missile defense systems. In Syria, Russia appears to be the stronger player/mediator, having saved President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and at the same time securing geopolitical objectives. Russian President Putin’s gambit in Syria was backed by Iranian ground forces, so while Moscow has cordial relations with Israel, Putin has a confluence of interests with Iran that may outweigh any obligation to assist Israel (which would be seen as assisting the U.S.). Iran has moved on from ‘helping Assad’ to solidifying its position in Syria and building “a strategic presence,” according to Paul Salam, senior VP at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It appears that neither the Russians nor the Assad regime are in control or can limit these things. The situation is highly unstable and highly unmanaged.” 

The bottom line for Israel remains unchanged: The Jewish state doesn’t want any confrontations with Russian forces but it cannot tolerate a growing Iranian presence, even one that is far from its border with Syria, since Iranian forces don’t need to be sitting on the border to inflict damage and casualties on Israel. The situation remains highly volatile. 

North Korea:

Is there really a pathway to a denuclearization deal? There are competing schools of thought regarding North Korea and, in particular, whether Kim Jong-un is really serious about denuclearization. I’m going to unpack these competing theories this week and President Trump and Kim move closer to their historic summit, which I’m hearing could take place in Singapore. 

One school of thought says that Kim is merely posturing — paying lip service — to the idea of denuclearization and normalization of relations. Kim has halted nuclear weapons and missile testing for the time being, but there is no evidence he is taking more concrete measures, say, by dismantling his nuclear testing facilities and missile manufacturing infrastructure. Also, he has said he wants a formal peace treaty with the U.S. and South Korea, as well as guarantees that his country will not be invaded. Plus, there has been no announced timetable for the effective dismantling of his nuclear program. But then all of these are negotiating points and are very likely going to take a great deal of time, and several rounds of negotiations, before coming to fruition. Plus, there will have to be inspections and on-ground verification procedures, which could prove to be substantial sticking points. At this point, nobody knows what the final result will be. 

But this progress, if it comes, is, of course, premised on the expectation that Kim is serious. That seems dubious considering all of the resources he’s poured into developing a viable nuclear capability. Also, Kim could demand other non-starters such as a dissolution of the U.S.-Republic of Korea security agreement, the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, and other measures that would bolster North Korean (and Chinese) security but potentially weaken South Korea. 

Then again, Kim may be serious. I read more than a few analyses this week noting that Kim’s actions are a means of achieving his next strategic objective: Economic development. Beyond ensuring regime survival, Kim understands that a stable, employed, economically secure populace is much less likely to become restive and move against the regime. As such, he may be planning to move away from China, especially as Beijing’s power grows along with its ambition to control the near-Asian regions (including Korea), and more towards the West where he would invite new economic investments divergent from Chinese interests. While China may be North Korea’s principal ally, that doesn’t mean that Chinese and North Korean citizens are as close. Right now the North is dependent on China for 90 percent of its trade; moving even closer to Beijing would hasten North Korea’s transformation into little more than a Chinese appendage and undermine Kim’s quest for political independence, which goes hand-in-hand with his desire to ensure the dynasty’s survival. Integrating with South Korea would reduce the influence of the Kim family so that’s not an option. And while Russia could make up some lost trade with China in providing oil and gas, Moscow could provide little else. So Kim’s best option in terms of ramping up economic development is to turn to the West, including South Korea and even Japan. Moving closer to the U.S. is also seen as a better security move for the North Koreans as China rises.

But that leaves an important question: What does China want out of all of this? After neglecting Beijing for years following his ascension as head of state, Kim has now visited with Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping on at least two occasions, the most recent of which took place this week. For certain, it’s in China’s best interests to avoid having a war break out on its border; in addition to potential nuclear fallout, China would likely have a stream of North Korean refugees to deal with, as well as U.S. and South Korean forces on its doorstep. So China’s objectives would be to keep North and South apart but to help improve economic ties between to two Koreas to ensure the North was strong and not weak, to end U.S. military presence in South Korea, to keep North Korea dependent, and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. A formal peace treaty between the Koreas would likely lead China to maintain that American troops are no longer needed on the peninsula, and many in the South may agree. If U.S. troops were to eventually leave, they would take their missile defense systems and nuclear umbrella with them.

Right now there is little but speculation as to what talks will and will not produce. This week Kim freed three Americans he had been holding in confinement, releasing them to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with whom he had a conversation over the Easter holiday when Pompeo was still CIA director. There are grounds for moving ahead with talks, for sure, but not really grounds for optimism just yet. Too much bad history and bad blood exist to simply believe all can be forgotten and forgiven in just a few days’ time. 

South China Sea:

We recently reported that China had deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the DF-26, capable of striking the U.S. military base at Guam from well inside Chinese territory. But recently the Chinese military has also deployed long-range air defense missiles (160 and 295 nautical miles) to its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea (SCS), which further endangers and complicates U.S. and allied military and commercial shipping. Experts including Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Program at Singapore, say the deployments are a further sign that Beijing is serious about solidifying its control over the entire body of water. He and other experts believe that soon China will begin rotating additional military assets including fighter jets and bombers to air bases within the disputed regions as part of its overall strategy of controlling one of the world’s most profitable shipping lanes. The missile deployments come on the heels of earlier reports that China had deployed, and was utilizing, electronic warfare equipment to jam U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft operating in the SCS. 

The addition of the missiles and aircraft likely signal an overall military buildup by Beijing in the SCS. Satellite images late last month, for example, revealed a Chinese military cargo plane parked on the tarmac of an air base on one of the disputed Spratly Islands 12 nautical miles from an island claimed by the Philippines. The Shaanxi Y-8 transport on a runway at Subi Reef is a confirmation that China has now landed military aircraft at all three of its airstrips, which are situated on separate artificial reefs/islands. A Philippine newspaper published photographs, reportedly taken in January, of a pair of Chinese transport planes, believed to be Xian Y-7s, on Mischief Reef in the island group. In April 2016, a Chinese naval patrol aircraft, most likely a Y-8, landed on Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate three people who were sick. Subi Reef is 12 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Thitu Island, home to about 100 civilians and a small military garrison. The appearance of a Chinese military aircraft so close to Filipino territory is unlikely to be seen favorably in Manila, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, a specialist in international relations based in the Philippine capital. “This is a direct betrayal of China’s supposed pledge to the Philippines not to militarise land features it [the Philippines] claims,” he said. While some have said the presence of military airlift aircraft in and of themselves isn’t significant, it’s obvious that all three Chinese outposts have the capacity to support major military buildups; the strips are big enough to accommodate China’s Y-20 heavy airlifters, H-6 strategic bomber, and fighter jets.

As China strengthens its position in the SCS, its air force conducted air exercises under ‘wartime conditions’ as tensions rise with neighbors including Taiwan. The drills involved China’s J-20 stealth fighter over the SCS in “actual war conditions” to “further upgrade the air force’s combat capabilities” according to Senior Col. Shen Jinke on the PLAAF’s microblog. China-based experts said the deployment of the J-20 out to sea means the plane would be used in any operations against Taiwan or the contested regions of the SCS. The plane’s main opposition in the region are U.S.-made F-35s, which are also flown by Japan and South Korea. Some in the U.S. Congress want the Trump administration to sell the F-35 or a hybrid F-22 model to Taiwan, to upgrade its aging F-16s and French Mirage 2000s.


PIR4: What activities are foreign intelligence services directing against the United States our allies?

More intel emerging that Syria’s ‘White Helmets’ rescue organization faked chemical attack

The Trump State Department has cut off funding to a Syrian “humanitarian” group known as the White Helmets. Formally called the Syrian Civil Defense, members of the organization were feted at Foggy Bottom less than two months ago, in March. But the group was the sole provider of alleged evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used poison gas on his people (again) which the Trump administration used as its impetus to strike the regime last month, despite claims of innocence. The West’s attacks were aimed at scientific and military facilities, and they included an attack by Israel 48 hours later against Syria’s T4 airbase. But residents of Douma, where the alleged chemical attack was said to have occurred, reported no such attack took place. That included hospital personnel who said the attack never happened. Also, reports at the time from British media sources and others on the ground noted that U.S.-backed Syrian rebels staged dead children in the streets of Douma to make it appear as though they were victims of an attack. One former British diplomat to Syria, Peter Ford, even suggested there was a “distinct possibility” that the West was “suckered” into an attack. [source] [source]

Israel has forged secret intel relationships with Arab neighbors

Well under the radar, and just as conditions in the Middle East continue to deteriorate, Israel has developed secret intelligence arrangements with its Arab neighbors. Partners include Egypt, Jordan and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of which are eager to gain access to the Jewish state’s unparalleled intelligence apparatus, which of course receives regular assists from the U.S. intelligence community. GCC members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the past could not be seen cooperating on any level with Israel, but as the situation rapidly changes in the Middle East with Iran emerging as a rival power and Syria aligning with Russia and Tehran, the security situation for all involved has deteriorated, hence the need for new alliances. Arab and Israeli intelligence chiefs are said to meet regularly, and always off the record in forums where plausible deniability is possible. The cooperating countries also utilize seemingly benign business or foreign relations to exchange information and coordinate activities.  During a visit to the White House in February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coyly referenced the arrangement. “For the first time in my lifetime and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy but, increasingly, as an ally,” he said, adding “I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace, and peace with the Palestinians.” [source]

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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