Strategic Intelligence Summary for 11 April 2019 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 11 April 2019

Strategic Intelligence

Strategic Intelligence contains intelligence reporting on the state of global security and instability, geostrategic issues affecting the United States, pre-war indicators, and assessments on the current risk of war. This report is available each week for Intelligence subscribers.


ADMIN NOTE: I didn’t expect or intend to be out of pocket for this long (due to the North Carolina trip), however, I’m catching up on last week’s reporting. I’ll be back in the office this week (on Wednesday) so normal reporting will soon resume.


In this Strategic Intelligence Summary…

  • Central America-Mexico Brief
  • Vice President Pence warns NATO on China
  • Army to buy $480mn worth of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headsets
  • Russia may decommission the Kuznetsov
  • Japanese F-35A crashes into Pacific Ocean
  • Putin travels in a bubble of spoofed GPS signals
  • Flashpoint SITREPs (CentAm-Mexico, NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela)


Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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


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

CentAm-Mexico Brief:

A number of developments over the past week signal that President Trump is preparing to take a more aggressive stance in how he deals with the ongoing chaos along the U.S.-Mexico border.
First and foremost, the president actually said he was going to get tougher. In pulling the nomination of Ron Vitiello to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the president told reporters, “We’re going in a little different direction. Ron’s a good man but we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction.” CNN reported that the president acted on the recommendation of one of his top domestic policy advisers, Stephen Miller, who was said to have “directly lobbied” Trump to get Vitiello pulled. Miller reportedly said Vitiello wasn’t “fully in favor of closing the southern border,” which the president is considering.
Next, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen submitted her resignation/was asked to resign amid White House frustration with her performance. During her tenure, apprehensions along the border have increased but so, too, have attempted border crossings. And there is the ongoing migrant crisis as well, which she likened during a recent trip to the border in Texas to a “Category 5” storm. One report said that Nielsen was being frustrated in her efforts to address the crisis along the border by a lack of cooperation from other departments within DHS in dealing with the rising number of families crossing the border. Here again, Nielsen is reputed to have been at odds with White House adviser Miller and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Miller reportedly did not think, going forward, Nielsen was the best fit as DHS head, while Bolton is said to have “opposed her policy of using United Nations organizations to try to stem the flow of illegal migrants.” [SOURCE] To replace Nielsen, Trump appointed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who reportedly has excellent relationships with several Cabinet-level departments that would make his job easier to carry out — namely the State Department (diplomacy) and the Defense Department (which will likely be funding Trump’s border walls). He’s also said to have a good relationship with the National Security Council (in declaring a national emergency along the southwest border, Trump has de facto identified the situation there as a national security crisis as well).
(Analyst Comment: Dealing with illegal immigration and building the border wall were Trump’s signature campaign issues. but he has been largely hampered in his efforts to improve border security and internal immigration enforcement by Congress and federal courts — and Washington’s bureaucrats. These two moves — passing on Vitiello and replacing Nielsen — make it clear that the president feels he needs some ‘wins’ on the border issue ahead of the 2020 election and that current leadership wasn’t going to be able to deliver. This comes as the Customs and Border Protection had to reconstitute “catch-and-release” recently because they ran out of facilities to take care of the crush of migrants and their families. Some estimates claim that as many as 1 million migrants will be released into the U.S. interior this year alone; by far, most will not return for their asylum/immigration hearing when it comes in a few years.
Trump seems to also understand that what he wants to do on the border isn’t supported by ‘official’ Washington, Congress, big business, agricultural interests, or the affected countries including Mexico and Central America. Trump is literally fighting everyone in Washington — careerists throughout the federal bureaucracy including the intelligence community, Homeland Security, the State Dept., and even the Pentagon. If he wants to make some progress he needs people in the right places who have the same mettle as him and the same commitment to this issue. 
Most Americans, according to a new survey see immigration as a “serious” or “very serious problem” [SOURCE], but the governing class does not agree, as evidenced by Congress’ hostility to the president’s border security initiatives and his national emergency declaration. In the past, countries with such a huge irreconcilable social and political problem have fractured.)

Vice President Pence warns NATO about China

On 03APR19, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech to a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Washington, DC. During the conference, known as a “NATO Engages” conference, Pence said the rise of China will be one of the greatest challenges faced by the alliance in the coming decades. “Adjust we must,” he said. He went on to warn about China’s 5G technology and the “easy money” offered by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). (source) [Analyst Comment: This is too little, too late. China is already making significant in-roads into Europe and the US’s pugnacious foreign policy isn’t dissuading anyone from doing business with the country. Italy, for instance, is defying Washington and is the first NATO member and G7 country to join China’s BRI. France, on 25MAR19, signed trade deals totaling billions of euros in trade deals, including $30bn in airplane orders for Airbus. US officials have been very vocal about the threat posed by China’s exploitation of Huawei’s 5G technology, threatening to withhold intelligence sharing with any European nation that builds their system using the technology, but that does not seem to be deterring Germany from going ahead with using Huawei equipment in their 5G network.  And the threat is there: any Chinese company is compelled by the force of law to work with the Chinese government. The head of Britain’s GCHQ (their version of the NSA) said the motivation for Chinese companies to become involved in Western communications represents “a hugely complex technological challenge.” (source) And yet Germany seems to be digging their heels in, not only on 5G, but also on its defense budget. In the same speech, Pence singled out Germany for not spending enough on defense complaining, “Germany still refuses to make the necessary investment of 2% GDP to our common defense.” The German Foreign Minister shot back, saying that, “These debates are necessary in view of Germany’s history.” He went on to say on the sidelines of the NATO summit, “Instead of only talking about ability or willingness to honor commitments…we should also make one thing clear: NATO may be a security alliance but above all it’s an alliance of values and it has a political function.” (source)


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

Army to buy $480mn worth of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headsets

The sets will, according to Command Sergeant Major Michael Crosby, be used to better train soldiers and make them more effective on the battlefield. An augmented reality headset places digital objects, such as maps or video displays, on top of the real world around on a lens in front of your eyes. These digital displays can show you exactly where you are on a map, the azimuth you’re traveling on, the location of your team mates, and the reticle on your weapon. It also has thermal imaging. (source) (Analyst Comment: The sets will also have thermal imagery, which represents an important development for an infantryman — a game changer, if you will. Hiding from thermals is hard; very hard to do. The latest device fielded by the US Army is the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B) that will wirelessly link with a soldier’s individual weapon and the goggle does have thermal capability. (source) From experience, even the early thermals on the first Bradley fighting vehicles were so good that most track commanders ran their thermals all the time while in the field. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called on the armed forces to focus on lethality. This will make the infantryman of five years from now exponentially so.)

Russia may decommission the Kuznetsov

Russia might decommission its only aircraft carrier if a replacement for the floating dry dock needed to repair and upgrade the problem plagued carrier is not found. The PD-50 dry dock that Russia did have sank last year causing one of the dock’s cranes to fall onto the carrier’s deck, leaving a 4×5 meter hole in the flight deck. (source)

Japanese F-35A crashes into Pacific Ocean

On Tuesday 10APR19, a Japanese F-35A Lightning II fighter jet went missing mid-flight. Parts of the tail fin have been recovered, but the pilot has not. Radar lost contact with the airplane 30 minutes after taking off from the Misawa Air Base. The pilot had sent a signal to abort the mission, but all communication was lost shortly afterwards. Japan temporarily grounded its remaining 12 F-35A’s. (source) (Analyst Comment: The fact that the pilot is still missing indicates that there is no beacon signal from the life support package that most military pilots fly with. With no follow on communication after the abort signal this appears to be a catastrophic failure of the airframe resulting in the pilot not having the time to eject. Russia and China will rush submersibles to the scene (the wreckage will be in 5000 feet of water), as will the US and Japan. For the US, the purpose of the recovery effort will be twofold: to keep the technology out of the hands of Russia and China, but also to find out just what happened to this aircraft.)

Putin travels in a bubble of spoofed GPS signals

The Centre for Advanced Defense is a non-profit research organization that uses sophisticated data analysis to investigate global security and conflict issues. After more than 12 months of work analyzing Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) positioning data, it reports that Russia is pioneering the use of GPS spoofing techniques to “protect and promote its strategic interests.” The spoofing technology is being used to deflect commercial drones from entering sensitive airspace, and is regularly used when senior government figures travel. One of the best examples of its use was when navigational data went “haywire” when Putin visited the Kerch Strait Bridge in 2018. (source) (Analyst Comment: We reported last year on Russia’s alleged interference with GPS signals during the NATO’s 2018 Trident Juncture in the Arctic. As stated in the article, this equipment is becoming cheaper and easier to use. The ability to spoof GPS signals goes far beyond countering drones; aircraft, munitions, and ships all depend on GPS for navigation and targeting.)


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)


Russia has based 250 military personnel, air defense systems, and missile launchers on Kotelny Island, strategically located on the Arctic shipping lane. The base can operate autonomously for more than a year. Russian interest in the Arctic has spiked as polar ice in the area has retreated, opening new shipping lanes and economic potential. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited estimates that put the value of Arctic mineral riches at $30 trillion. The US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway are jostling for position and even China has shown interest in the region. (source) (Analyst Comment: The source article quotes a researcher who thinks the militarization is “likely meant as defensive” and thinks it will be interpreted by the West as offensive. He’s right. But the reason he’s right is because, as the article mentions, if the Russians have deployed anti-ship missiles on the island, it’s difficult to see that as a defensive in nature. The Bastion-P as shown in the article is a Russian mobile coastal defense system with a range of 1000km and is designed to carry conventional or nuclear warheads. And while it may just be a “coastal defense” system its main role is to engage ships. The Trump administration appears to be asleep at the switch here. The CBC article notes that two years into his presidency, President Trump’s 2020 budget jeopardizes long-term funding for a planned new heavy icebreaker for the US Coast Guard. The USCGC Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s sole heavy icebreaker, was commissioned in 1976. Spare parts for the 40 year old vessel are so hard to come by, some crew members are reportedly sourcing them from eBay.)


On Saturday, 30MAR19, Chinese national Yujing Zhang arrived at the President’s preferred get-away spot in Florida saying she was there to use the pool. She made it through two layers of security on her way to reception where her story finally collapsed. Then she claimed to be there for a nonexistent “United Nations Friendship Event,” changed her story through her interview with a Secret Service agent, and did not have a swimsuit. She did, however, have four cell phones, a laptop, an external hard drive, and a thumb drive containing malware. The breach highlights the tremendous difficulties of securing the facility, which the president has used to conduct high-level diplomacy. Unlike Camp David, used by previous presidents and relatively private, Mar-A-Lago is a commercial enterprise and can invite whomever they want. And the more security is in place at the exclusive club — there’s a $200,000 initiation fee and an annual fee of $14,000 — the less people will want to be there when the president is. Former NSA hacker Jake Williams calls the place a “security nightmare” and it’s safe to assume that the staff there has not been thoroughly vetted or cleared. Another question is whether or not there’s a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility at the resort. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the breach to highlight the threat posed by China, saying, “I think this tells the American people the threat that China poses, the efforts they’re making inside the United States, not only against government officials, but more broadly.” The FBI has begun investigating the possibility that the incident was an espionage effort. (source) [Analyst Comment: In the fall of 2013, an outraged German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously called US President Barack Obama to complain about the NSA hacking her phone. (source) But in March of 2014 GEN Michael Hayden, USAF (Ret.) (as head of the NSA at the time of the surveillance) explained in an interview with Spiegel that the leadership intentions of allies and foes alike are legitimate intelligence targets. (source) Implicit here is that if one believes that surveilling an ally to identify intent is legitimate, then one must anticipate that they will want to know your intentions and that they are going to try and surveil you. This absolutely has to be assumed and defended against. You make it harder for them to get that information, not easier. Having said that, Zhang doesn’t appear to be a very competent operator. Her command of English is questionable (she has been using a Mandarin interpreter in court) (source) and in a business where the idea is to not draw attention to yourself, she managed to do just that, albeit after traversing the first two layers of Secret Service security (and you can expect that security to tighten up quite a bit; another outcome the Chinese would not want).]

Middle East:

President Trump announced on Monday, 08APR19, that he was designating Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization marking the first time that Washington has formally labelled another country’s military a “terrorist group.” The designation, the president said, “makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the IRGC…if you are doing business with the IRGC you will be bankrolling terrorism.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sent a protest note over the decision to the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which looks after the US interests in Iran. He also urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to place US forces in the region on Tehran’s list of “terrorist” groups and called the move “a misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu.” Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said that the designation could endanger peace and stability in the Middle East and globally. The announcement also declared that “Iran labels the American regime as a supporter of terrorism.” (source) [Analyst Comment: There is a notable lack of “why” here. What is the purpose of labeling the IRGC as a terrorist organization? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference on Monday, 08APR19, that the designation was a continuance of the US’s campaign to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government. The IRGC is a more than just a shadow Iranian Army. It is also a huge commercial enterprise that has interests in every sector of the economy, its own navy, air force, and is in charge of Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. It also has the Quds Force, a sort of Special Forces unit responsible for extraterritorial operations (Quds has, for example, been very active in Syria defending Iran’s co-religionist Bashar Assad), led by the very able and redoubtable Major General Qasem Soleimani. If any part of the IRGC is conducting terrorism, it is Quds Force and it was labeled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US in 2007. (source) Is the end-state regime change? That’s only likely to come from within and the Iranian regime has managed, so far, to quell any move in that direction. Preparing the battle-field for military action? It remains to be seen if the American public is ready for a war in the Middle East that would, given the nature of Iran’s military, be massive in scale. And America is likely be on its own in that endeavor. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? According to Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu, the Iranians have managed to do that in spite of the obstacles put in its way by the international community. (source) Is it designed to force Iran back to the bargaining table? Given the immense depth and breadth of the IRGC in the government, if they did come back to negotiate, they would now be bargaining with designated terrorists, which is illegal. One predictable outcome is that Iran will ratchet up the pressure on Iraq to kick the US out of Al Assad air base which in turn would make the US base at Al Tanf untenable. With the US out of the region, Iran, Russia, and Syria get a free hand right on Israel’s doorstep. It is safe to assume that there are thousands of businesses around the world that do business with the IRGC given its involvement with the economy. What will the US do to those companies? How will the governments of those countries react? So far the US has not been able to peel away any of the countries who signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and European countries continue to do business in Iran. One place to definitely keep an eye on is the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC has a large naval presence there and could impede traffic through it rather readily, which will have substantial consequences for the oil trade — not to mention sharply increase the likelihood of imminent conflict.)

North Korea:

Kim Jong Un is turning to alternate energy to keep his faltering economy sputtering along. He has sent engineers to China to learn the process of “gasification of coal” — turning coal into gas — and is looking at tidal and wind power. Sanctions have squeezed many of North Korea’s industries that rely on imports of gasoline and diesel fuel, including agriculture, transportation, and the military. Factories have closed due to an inability to keep the lights on, many people are unemployed, and food remains scarce. The UN Security Council has banned key North Korean exports of coal and iron which are key revenue generators for the North Korean economy. North Korea, in turn, has been conducting illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal. (source) The country has, for all purposes, declared cyberwarfare through criminal means on the rest of the world and has stolen millions, if not billions, of dollars through hacking. (source) (Analyst Comment: These alternative energy strategies will take years to make an impact on the country’s commercial industry. South Korea is eagerly awaiting some sort of breakthrough so that it can help North Korea rebuild its crumbling infrastructure (last year we reported on South Korea’s opening of rail links with the North). On Thursday 11APR19, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with President Trump in the Oval Office to get the US and North Korea back to the negotiating table after the failed summit in Hanoi. (source) While it is encouraging to see that the US and South Korea have not completely given up on diplomacy in dealing with North Korea, there will be no progress as long as the demand to unilaterally disarm is on the table.)


Even as Russia and China move to help shore up Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, his country’s economic deterioration is continuing to take its toll on citizens. Weeks of power, water, and other shortages of public services led to additional protests in the capital of Caracas and elsewhere around the country in recent days. Tens of thousands were estimated to have crowded streets in the capital, with most showing support for opposition leader Juan Guaido. As bad as the situation has been in Venezuela for months, many citizens who are now directly blaming Maduro for the condition of the country say shortages of food, medicine, and basics have gotten even worse in recent weeks. Clearly, Guaido is stoking the opposition; he has called for new waves of “definitive” protests aimed squarely at driving Maduro from power. Another factor working to Guaido’s advantage: As Venezuelan unrest spreads, paramilitary and military forces loyal to Maduro have become more willing to engage protesters with force, creating widening anger and resentment.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is ratcheting up economic pressure, which seems to be having an effect. In particular, the White House said it will be sanctioning 34 ships used by national oil company PDVSA to transport oil to Cuba. The move will make it harder for Maduro’s already cash-strapped regime to function, which means that unrest is only likely to increase as spring turns into a hot summer. The one outlier here is Venezuela’s U.S.-based refinery firm, Citgo, which operations gas stations in the United States as well: It is now under Guaido’s control and is in much better shape financially than when Maduro was controlling the company.
As for military intervention by the United States, that option remains on the table and was duly noted by a senior administration official late last week. The official said, “Obviously, that’s a result that no one would like to see but clearly one that is seriously considered as events unfold.” [SOURCE]
Meanwhile, the administration is providing an additional $26 million in humanitarian assistance to the Peruvian government to support about 720,000 Venezuelans who have fled their country since last year. [SOURCE]
(Analyst Comment: Because the Trump administration remains committed to the military option, the potential for great-power conflict in Venezuela remains very high. Ranking administration officials including National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as President Trump himself, have also committed to the option publicly and on more than one occasion. That means that the administration’s credibility is now on the line, so the future of Venezuela is now linked directly to Trump. 
But there is more at stake here than just the future of one South American country: U.S. influence throughout the Western Hemisphere is at stake and this matters for a number of reasons. First of all, if the U.S. is to keep great power competition from Russia and China from rising to crisis levels, the Trump administration will have to demonstrate its ability to lead by holding true to commitments and, in this case, that means ensuring that Maduro leaves at some point, by some means. Also, solving the Venezuela issue will be a boon to South American (and Central American) democracies, where the U.S. has vital regional interests — such as finding a way to diplomatically solve the migrant crisis currently unfolding along the Southwest border.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably using Venezuela as an opportunity to hand the Trump administration a similar foreign policy defeat/debacle that Syria became for the Obama administration. Only this time, the debacle would occur in our own hemisphere and have far-reaching, long-term consequences for a number of policy issues ranging from fighting drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and terrorism. 
There are also implications for the global oil markets, which could have negative effects on the U.S. economy. Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves; Russia knows this, as does China, which is why both have invested heavily in the country’s oil sector. That makes this a major geopolitical issue. What happens if President Trump draws a “red line” in Venezuela as Obama did in Syria — then allows Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping to cross it without repercussion? Trump (and the U.S.) loses, Moscow and Beijing win, and American influence in our own hemisphere will collapse, making conflict more likely, not less.
For his part, Bolton made the administration’s point clear, however: “We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the Hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations. We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region.” It seems like the ‘red line’ is being drawn.)


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *