Strategic Intelligence Summary for 11 January 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 11 January 2018

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 11 January 2018

ADMIN NOTE: As a reminder, next week we’re launching National Intelligence, and current subscribers will have access to both National and Strategic Intelligence. To recap:

Strategic Intelligence will remain a weekly look at global instability, geostrategic issues, pre-war indicators and the risk of war. We’re specifically looking at how global events could affect us domestically, and keeping the pulse on the potential for war.

National Intelligence will be a weekly report on national security, domestic systems disruption, risk of failing critical infrastructure, and threats to social, political, and economic stability.

Each report will have new Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIRs), as well as an updated format. I’ve been able to hire a couple more people to join the team, and we’re all very much looking forward to producing high quality and predictive/actionable intelligence reporting.

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

PIR1: What are the new indicators of political or governmental instability that could lead to collapse or failure?

PIR2: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four flashpoints?

PIR3: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the economic or financial industry that could lead to instability?

PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the critical infrastructure that could lead to instability?

PIR1: What are the new indicators of political or governmental instability that could lead to collapse or failure?


The murkiness surrounding the probes and investigations into the Trump administration, as well as President Trump’s former associates, continues to be the greatest threat to political and governmental instability. Based on statements from trusted political pundits, there isn’t likely to be an indictment for Trump for alleged ‘collusion’. There’s likely no collusion there, and even some Democrats have admitted as such. But what remains concerning is the potential for non-collusion activities to be wrapped up in the investigation. The scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is endless. There’s no time limit and there’s no area necessarily off limits, as long as it pertains to President Trump, his campaign, or his close associates.

Additionally, Muller continues to add staff to his team, this week hiring a prosecutor specializing in cyber crime. He joins over a dozen other prosecutors with extensive experience in white-collar crimes like fraud and money laundering. As of now, several outlets are reporting that former national security adviser Mike Flynn and George Papadapoulos, a former campaign adviser, are cooperating with Mueller’s team.

Last month, Mueller contacted President Trump’s attorneys and made them aware that Mueller may request an in-person interview in the future. So far, the president has declined to comment whether or not he would agree to the interview. It’s more likely that President Trump’s attorneys answer Mueller’s questions with prepared, written responses.

Being that the Mueller team last month indicated that they may want a sit down interview with the president in the next few months, we don’t expect the special counsel to wrap up the investigation any time soon. May 2018 will be one year since Mueller was named special counsel by the Justice Department, yet eight months later, Mueller is still adding to his team. This could indicate a turn in the investigation towards cyber crimes, or Mueller could be filling a already known gap in the cyber realm. Either way, we should expect more drama in the months to come, especially if the investigation bleeds over into the mid-term elections, now just ten months away.

PIR2: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four flashpoints?

South China Sea SITREP: 

China moving to secure strategically located Azores in wake of U.S. departure

During an interview last year, House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) spoke about China’s activities in the Atlantic Ocean — yes, the Atlantic — in addition to discussing Beijing’s ongoing efforts to militarize the South China Sea (SCS) and essentially rewrite international seafaring rules so that regional and global powers will have to essentially meet Chinese demands for passage.

Nunes said that the U.S. began seeing significant movement and activity by China in the SCS about five years ago, but the Obama administration essentially ignored it. The California Republican said early on his committee and colleagues from the Senate and in the defense intelligence community attempted to warn Obama and his national security team that China sought to build what they termed “stationary aircraft carriers” throughout the SCS. By the time Trump was sworn in, Nunes said China had three “well-established” SCS outposts that gave them military superiority over the entire region.

In terms of Beijing’s overall strategy, Nunes referenced China’s “String of Pearls,” a geopolitical theory regarding the Asian giant’s intentions in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and beyond. It refers to a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along sea lines of communication. They currently extend from China’s mainland, through the SCS, a large port in Sri Lanka (99-year lease) , and Djbouti in Africa.

But the South China Sea is not the final extent of China’s sea-faring activities. China is also interested in the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal formed as an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic. Located equidistant from Portugal and the northwestern coastline of Africa, the location is being viewed in strategic terms by Beijing, as they lie nearly directly in the path between the U.S. and Europe.

Now, the Azores — along with São Tomé, off the African coast of Gabon, and New Guinea (which helps encapsulate Taiwan) — are next. Check and mate with the Azores, says Nunes.

Oddly, the Obama administration’s Department of Defense decided to abandon an air force base in the Azores — Lajes, which had been there and used by the United States since World War II — to London as part of a base consolidation effort that began in 2009-2010.

Nunes said that now, most U.S. military assets in the European theater are in the United Kingdom and Germany, “two of the most expensive countries” on the continent. And while the U.S. still operates out of Lajes, it’s been dramatically downsized.

The Chinese are seeking to gain control of the port there using “soft power,” as Nunes noted. But the Chinese modus operandi is that soft power begets hard power from Beijing once the Asian tiger gains dominant economic control. [source]

Outlook: China’s rise to the No. 2 global economy is directly tied to its rapid military advances and modernization — as well as its quest to expand Chinese influence and power around the world. It’s “String of Pearls” strategy really isn’t much different than the U.S. or Russian strategy of having a presence where its interests lie around the globe. But like the other great powers, China’s interests encapsulate the entire planet, though clearly there are areas where China seeks to exert more influence. Or control, as in the case of Taiwan and Japan.

By spreading its string and expanding its military footprint in strategically located parts of the world, Beijing hopes to not simply present a more credible threat to potential adversaries, but make it easier to achieve China’s objectives. As for the Azores, Nunes said that whoever controls them controls the “entire North Atlantic.”



Why is Russia paying so much attention to NATO’s undersea data cables?

In recent months the Russian navy submarine force has significantly increased its activities in the North Atlantic, particularly near undersea data cables as part of its newer, more aggressive posture.

The activity is so significant that it has led NATO to revive a Cold War-era command, senior military officials have said.

There is an apparent focus on the cables, however, not just an increased number of submarine patrols. The cables are critically important — they carry communications and Internet connections between continents that nations now depend on for everyday commerce and function.

“We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces. “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.”

In response, NATO has plans to reestablish commands and other infrastructure that atrophied following the [first] Cold War with Russia. Beginning with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine’s “civil war,” NATO began refocusing on the European continent after years of sending forces far abroad to fight what were essentially low-tech, low-intensity brushfire wars.

Russian submarine activity near the cables, however, seems to have take priority. In addition to increased efforts to locate and/or keep tabs on Russian subs operating near them, NATO is looking at ways to secure the privately-owned cables, over which trillions of dollars of trade take place daily.

“It’s a pattern of activity, and it’s a vulnerability,” said British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach. “Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living if they were disrupted?”

In addition to traditional Russian subs, many of which have been built or modernized in recent years, Moscow has deep-sea research vessels, including at least one old converted ballistic missile sub that can carry smaller submarines. “They can do oceanographic research, underwater intelligence gathering,” said Lennon. “And what we have observed is an increased activity of that in the vicinity of undersea cables. We know that these auxiliary submarines are designed to work on the ocean floor, and they’re transported by the mothership, and we believe they may be equipped to manipulate objects on the ocean floor.” [source]

Outlook:  This isn’t a new problem; reports dating back to 2015 note that Russia has been operating near data cables. It’s just that now the operations have increased.

Besides severing the cables in wartime, Russia could also attempt to tap into them in peacetime, in order to bolster spying efforts, cyberwarfare capabilities and for other offensive purposes. Thus far, NATO officials have not said publicly whether they think Russia has actually made contact with the cables — which often means yes, but they don’t want the Russians to know that we know.

But the threat is obvious, even if not entirely apocalyptic. “Arguably, the Russians wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they couldn’t threaten underwater cables. Certainly, NATO allies would not be doing theirs if they were unable to counter that,” said Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO.

And: “Credible deterrence is linked to credible reinforcement capabilities,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We’re a transatlantic alliance. You need to be able to cross the Atlantic.” But since Russia depends on these cables too — they transport 99 percent of international data — it’s more likely that Moscow is attempting to tap into them for nefarious purposes. The U.S. has been doing that for years.


Middle East SITREP

U.S Justice Department sets up Hezbollah investigation team

Following an explosive report late last year that the Obama administration purposely thwarted efforts to track illicit activities including money laundering and drug trafficking conducted by Iran proxy Hezbollah, the Justice Department is establishing a team of investigators to probe individuals and organization suspected of providing support for the militant group.

Essentially, the lengthy report made this central claim: The Obama administration chose to downplay any investigations into, or retaliatory actions against, Hezbollah over its suspected activities so as not to anger the group’s main benefactor as the White House pursued the much-maligned “nuclear deal” with the Iranians.

According to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DoJ will assemble a team of leading investigators and prosecutors for the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team so as to ensure that all Drug Enforcement Agency investigations under “Project Cassandra,” the effort Obama stymied, will now be completed.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” Sessions said. [source]

The formation of the special investigative team comes after Sessions, in December, ordered a review of Obama-era operations aimed at investigating and thwarting Hezbollah crimes. [source]

Outlook: This has implications far beyond superficial political motivations and machinations.

By now it should be obvious to everyone except blatant partisans that the Obama administration was willing to do anything to secure its nuclear deal with Tehran, including paying off the Iranians with hundreds of millions of dollars delivered — literally — as crates of cash stowed away on transport planes in the dead of night.

Which brings us to why the DoJ’s interest in reestablishing the integrity of Project Cassandra: Money.

If the late December report is accurate — and all indications thus far are that it was, at least for the most part — Hezbollah was essentially permitted to rake in $1 billion annually from drug and weapons trafficking, as well as money laundering and other criminal activities (much of the drug trafficking — in the form of cocaine shipments — went into the U.S. via a conduit stretching from the Middle East through Venezuela and Mexico). This is a substantial income that the group no doubt used to pay fighters, build up military infrastructure, buy more advanced weapons, and generally become a stronger, more potent threat to Middle East peace and stability (with Israel being the prime target — now you know why PM Netanyahu was no fan of Obama’s).

Allowing Hezbollah to raise this kind of cash on its own was also a major financial relief on Iran, which recently suffered through a series of deadly protests caused in no small part by economic hardships among its people.

Now that Sessions and the DoJ are back on the case, this should begin to pay dividends for American interests at home and in the Middle East, where economic sanctions are already hurting Tehran. Denying Hezbollah (and by default, Iran) resources is always a good thing. It might even help keep the peace a little longer.


North Korea SITREP

North Korean missile development progress last year was substantial

Geopolitical watchers can all agree that the North Korea military made substantial gains in missile technology in 2017. The preceding decade was marked by slow progress and many missile test failures, and while some failures occurred last year, clearly Pyongyang’s ICBM capability dramatically improved, especially in terms of striking distance. And all of this progress has occurred despite diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. In just one year, leader Kim Jong-un has unveiled six new missiles, experts noted.

Not only did the North, in a span of just a few months, demonstrate dramatic progress with its missile program, it also made substantial strides in its nuclear weapons development, with huge increases in yields. Though Pyongyang only tested one warhead last year as opposed to conducting two nuclear tests in 2016, there was a big difference between the biggest 2016 yield (10-20 kilotons) and 2017 (140-250 kilotons). If correct, that means the latter explosion was 17 times greater than the size of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. It would also mean that the North Korean government was being truthful when it announced shortly before the test it had mastered two-stage thermonuclear technology that the U.S. and the Soviet Union mastered in the 1950s.

Putting these two developments together, it still isn’t clear that Pyongyang can manufacture a thermonuclear device small enough to fit on the end of a new missile. But many experts believe that it soon will have the capability to do so, if not already. “I believe we have to assume it can,” said James M. Acton, a physicist and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As to the new missile development, experts believe they have been in development for years. But it was impressive to many to see such a large number of new designs tested last year. Another development: One new long-range design, the KN-15, uses solid, rather than liquid, fuel, meaning the fuel can be left in the missile so it can be launched much quicker and with far less ability for U.S. spy satellites to detect beforehand. It also enhances the survivability of Pyongyang’s arsenal. [source]

Outlook: Retired U.S. Navy Capt. David A. Adams thinks the time has passed for waiting, and that the U.S. and its regional allies should not hesitate much longer to preemptively strike North Korea. Most analysts up to now have concluded that diplomacy should rule the day and that the Trump administration should continue to pressure China to do more to restrain its unruly neighbor. Should that fail then we must rely on deterrence. But, as Adams notes, “whether North Korea can be deterred is a pivotal unanswered question.” He notes that many of the same analysts who favor deterrence also claim that leader Kim is “not rational.” And deterrence — that is, hoping Kim understands that any nuclear attack would assure his destruction — doesn’t work with irrational actors.

“Those who call for diplomatic solutions and a posture to deter North Korean aggression while at the same time calling out Pyongyang’s conduct as irrational cannot have it both ways,” he writes.

There is also this realization: China is not going to “restrain” North Korea, at least to the extend the Trump administration desires. Hence, Adams’ call for “limited strikes” that are “targeted carefully and focused on North Korea’s specific provocation.” He suggests taking out the North’s long-range ICBM on the pad before the next test after consultations with South Korea and Japan (and maybe China, though you couldn’t trust the Chinese not to tell the North Koreas what was about to happen). Adams notes that any strike, no matter how limited, would like provoke Kim to respond in some manner. If he’s “rational” and can be deterred, the response would be limited. If not, the response would trigger a much wider war and far more casualties, but says Adams, “it is better to find out sooner than later.”

“The only thing worse than a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula today is a war against an irrationally behaving, nuclear-armed North Korea capable of demolishing Honolulu, Tokyo, and Tumon tomorrow.” [source]

And for the record, Adams isn’t the only one who thinks a limited conventional strike now is the answer. So does Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In debunking fears of a North Korean retaliation, he writes: “For now, it seems clear that U.S. military authorities have foreclosed a pre-emptive military option. But the United States could still spare the world the vast dangers of a North Korea with nuclear-armed long-range missiles if it acts in the remaining months before they become operational. …North Korea is different [than other nuclear-armed powers] and U.S. policy should recognize that reality before it is too late.” [source]


Defense in brief:

Army announces major deployments for 2018

This spring and summer is shaping up to be a big year for Army deployments. The 10th Mountain Division Headquarters will deploy to Iraq to take over the command element for Operation Inherent Resolve. Around the same time frame, the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters will deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. By the summer, we expect the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team (1ABCT) of the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) to deploy to Korea, and the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division to deploy to Europe, as a part of the European Deterrence Initiative.

Pentagon looking for laser-powered bat drones

The Defense Department, in an effort to develop new drone technologies that are not reliant on traditional power and wingspans, are looking to build drones that are powered in different ways and can mimic certain animals in flight. Enter the bat drone. In recent days the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative, or DESI, announced a competition for basic science grants for firms to build “new paradigms for autonomous flight, with a focus on highly-maneuverable platforms and algorithms for flight control and decision-making.” A Broad Agency Announcement accompanying the DESI competition is more specific: The military is looking for bat-like drones that can be powered with laser beams. “The biological study of agile organisms such as bats and flying insects has yielded new insights into complex flight kinematics of systems with a large number of degrees of freedom, and the use of multi-functional flight surface materials,” says the announcement. The Air Force sees these kinds of platforms and power sources as more maneuverable, stealthy, and survivable under future combat conditions. [source]

This is the one Air Force platform that could take out North Korean leaders and nukes

As U.S. military planners continue to war-game potential scenarios involving North Korea, air power is certainly part of that planning. And one of the most potent air assets that could be used to target North Korean leaders and the country’s budding nuclear weapons arsenal is the B-2 Spirit. The B-1B Lancer, another stealthy platform, would more than likely be utilized for launches of long-range missiles aimed at exposed targets. But the North Korean leadership — particularly Kim Jong-un — travels secretively and is hard to track. Once located, however, the B-2 would be sent in to drop Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs on hardened and underground bunker command-and-control facilities, which would ideally halt any nuclear missile launches or other orders/instructions to North Korean field commanders. [source]

Next amphibious warship to get laser weapons

The Navy is rapidly moving its warship platforms into the 21st century and beyond with plans to incorporate high-power laser technology into its next-gen amphibious ship design. The service plans to test a new laser weapon aboard the San Antonio-class ship USS Portland as early as fall 2018. The integration of laser weaponry aboard the LPD-27 will be the first since demonstrations of prototypes of the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, aboard the USS Ponce, a transport dock ship, in 2014. While the service currently has no plans to install LaWS aboard LPD-28, LPD-29, or follow-on LX(R) ships, depending on the performance of the system it could be onboard indefinitely, which would de facto make it a ‘permanent’ weapon. “My guess is if this works and they like it, it’s going to be there for a while. The ship is going to go use the thing, and then we’ll start talking about how do we make this part of the ship’s total system,” said Capt. Brian Metcalf, the LPD-17 and LX(R) program manager. [source] (Analyst comment: Laser weapons like the kind we see in the sci-fi movies are still some ways off, but clearly the U.S. defense industry is making strides in providing more powerful, more portable systems that can be used against emerging and existing threats — for dollars-per-shot versus millions-per-shot. Boosting the power-to-portability ratio is the next big technological hurdle.)

New artillery technology coming to turn howitzers into giant ‘sniper rifles’

In short order, the Army will begin fielding its new Joint Effects Targeting System, a handheld, portable device providing target observation, location, and designation — with forward observation teams by mid-year. The JETS system is comprised of a handheld target location module, a precision azimuth and vertical angle module, and a laser marker module, all of which are mounted on a tripod. The system is designed to give forward observers upgraded targeting abilities than the current Army systems and is capable of day-night use in any weather conditions.”It’s brand-new cutting-edge technology that is a paradigm shift” in how field artillery could be employed on the battlefield, Lt. Col. Michael Frank, product manager for Soldier Precision Targeting Devices, said in October. JETS, he added, could turn a howitzer or the Paladin self-propelled artillery weapon “into a giant sniper rifle.” He added that first rounds will be dropped on target, and that rounds will start going downrange much faster because computation time will be far shorter. [source]

USMC seeks to boost long-range fires capability

Like other service branches, the Marine Corps is continuing to transition away from focusing more on low-intensity conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan and more on future high-intensity combat with peer- or near-peer competitors. As such, the service is developing capability to dramatically increase both the range and lethality of long-range fires systems. Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, said recently the Corps is looking to plug capability gaps. The service is said to be looking at everything from tube-launched, Optically-tracked, and wire-guided artillery to rocket artillery, though Beaudreault said it’s “rockets that probably hold our greatest interest right now.” Recent experimentation with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is one example of this trend. “We’re going to very much follow what the Army is doing…[but maintain] our interest and how we can help in the sea control fight,” the deputy commandant said. [source] (Analyst comment: All the services are transitioning to great-power warfare preparations.)

PIR3: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the economic or financial industry that could lead to instability? 

Quakes in West may be prelude to something larger

There is increasing earthquake activity in highly populated regions of California and Washington that, if strong enough, could cause several economic repercussions around the country and world, given that the region is home to most American food and technology production. First, a 4.4-magnitude quake struck the Berkeley, Calif., region on 4 January, shortly before 0300. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the city was at the quake’s epicenter, and had a preliminary depth of eight miles. Said one witness: “It was a nice jolt.  What surprised us was the duration; it seemed to go on a little too long.  You know, that feeling when it stops being kind of fun and now you’re worried?” [source] USGS Geologist David Schwartz said the real question in the hours after the quake was “is this a foreshock of something larger? That’s the concern.” USGS Deputy Director Keith Knudsen told reporters at an early morning news conference that there was a slight chance that the quake was a warning of a much larger shaker. He added: “The last big earthquake occurred in 1868 so we are about at the 150-year anniversary. We know from geologic excavations on this fault that big quakes happen every 150 years.” [source] Peggy Hellweg, from the University of California, said the region is not prepared to deal with the fallout from such an earthquake. In financial terms, such a quake would likely cause “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars in damage,” she said. [source] Meanwhile, ‘very unusual’ 3.8 quake struck the Mount St. Helens region. In December, seismologists at the University of Washington logged more than 80 quakes, four times as many as the average. [source]

PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the critical infrastructure that could lead to instability?

The government is officially preparing for a nuclear detonation

On Jan. 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be hosting a forum entitled “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation” — the first indication in decades that the U.S. government is growing concerned about a nuclear exchange. “While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps,” says a notice posted on the CDC website announcing the forum. “Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness.  For instance, most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation. While federal, state, and local agencies will lead the immediate response efforts, public health will play a key role in responding.” The forum comes as concern over North Korea’s nuclear program rises and the belief that Pyongyang can actually strike the United States with a nuclear weapon grows. [source] (Analyst comment: Of course this is prudent pre-event planning, but that this forum is even believed necessary is alarming in and of itself. There appears to be a consensus among U.S. intelligence officials that North Korea will become a bona fide nuclear power either this year or next. As we’ve said before, that gives the Trump administration a narrowing window to decide what it wants to do: Strike North Korea preemptively or tolerate living under Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. We continue to believe Trump won’t tolerate a nuclear North Korea.)

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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