Strategic Intelligence Summary for 14 March 2019

Strategic Intelligence

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

 

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary…

  • Report: Pence urged Germany and France to send warships through Kerch Strait to provoke Russia
  • Turkish, Russian warships complete exercises
  • CIA may have targeted North Korean embassy in Madrid
  • Israeli leader Netanyahu warns Iran and Hezbollah over their Golan Heights activities
  • Turkey to begin deploying Russian S-400 systems in October
  • U.S. legacy weapons systems soundly defeated by Russia, China, in simulated war games
  • Russian military takes delivery of hundreds of new nuclear missiles
  • China’s 35th Antarctic mission called ‘successful’
  • Flashpoint SITREPs (NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea, India-Pakistan, Venezuela)

 


Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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

 


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

Report: Pence urged Germany and France to send warships through Kerch Strait to provoke Russia
 
During the recently concluded Munich Security Conference, Vice President Mike Pence reportedly attempted to prod German Chancellor Angela Merkel to send a naval convoy through the Kerch Strait, a two-mile wide potential flashpoint off Crimea. That’s the region where Russian ships seized Ukranian vessels in November. Merkel declined, as did the French, but not out of fear of provoking Moscow. Rather, she demurred after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said a one-time show of force wouldn’t be enough to permanently reopen the vital waterway. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: As we noted recently, the choice for Russia to go to war with NATO rests with President Vladimir Putin, who already seems highly suspicious of the alliance’s moves to expand eastward. The media report claimed Merkel was agreeable to the provocation, but that seems counterintuitive given she is moving towards a gas pipeline agreement to build the Nord Stream 2 with Moscow. Either way, our concern is that Putin, who has already made it clear he is willing to take risks to prevent Ukraine from moving further towards NATO, would react more forcefully than Germany — or the U.S. and the rest of NATO — are prepared for.
 
Turkish, Russian warships complete exercises
 
A flotilla of Turkish and Russian warships have completed joint exercises in the Black Sea. The drills reportedly involved a Russian minesweeper, the Valentin Pikul, and perhaps a corvette, the Burgazada. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: NATO ally Turkey continues to move closer to Moscow and away from the alliance, aided in recent months by a divide between Ankara and Washington over U.S. assistance to and backing of Kurdish rebels in the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system has also put additional pressure on the alliance, leading Washington to threaten suspension of F-35 deliveries to Turkey. Still, there are significant differences in regional objectives and priorities regarding Turkey and Russia as they relate to Syria and Iran, so for now anyway, a full-blown alliance between the two countries isn’t in the offing. This relationship bears watching, however.
 
CIA may have targeted North Korean embassy in Madrid
 
Two men who broke into a North Korean diplomatic mission in Madrid, Spain in February have been linked to the CIA, according to Spanish authorities and intelligence officials. In all, 10 “assailants” breached the facility and interrogated staff there in what was described as a precise operation that could only have been carried out by a “military cell.” Spanish officials said that at least eight people in the North Korean embassy were tied up and some were beaten. Authorities were alerted when a women escaped out a window and her screams were heard by a neighbor. Spain’s intelligence service believes the objective of the assault was to gain information on Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s former ambassador to Spain. He was evicted from the country in September 2017 as Madrid’s way of protesting nuclear tests. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: Kim Hyok Chol  is believed to be one of Chairman Kim Jong-un’s most trusted diplomats. He’s also the official who played a key role in setting up the recent second summit between leader Kim and President Trump. Prior to the summit, Kim Hyok Chol led the North Korean delegation negotiating a nuclear disarmament agreement with U.S. officials in exchange for the lifting economic sanctions. If the CIA was involved, not only has this incident become a diplomatic problem between allies, but it may also indicate the U.S. intelligence community is willing to go to great lengths to satisfy unfilled intelligence gaps that currently frustrates the organization.
 
Israeli leader Netanyahu warns Iran and Hezbollah over their Golan Heights activities
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Iranian and Hezbollah leaders this week that his country is aware of their activities along the Golan Heights and that his country is prepared to take action against them. “I have a clear message for Iran and for Hezbollah,” Netanyahu said. “Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it. What we’ve uncovered today is just the tip of the iceberg. We know a lot more.” Netanyahu was referencing new information about the activities of a unit led by Hezbollah figure Ali Musa Daqduq which has been scouting Israeli positions on the Golan. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: Iranian and Hezbollah activities have increased in recent months along Israel’s borders as the Syrian civil war has wound down and forces deployed to assist President Assad’s government troops can now direct their attention towards Israel. Iran is attempting to capitalize on its long-held objective of building a land bridge — the “Shia crescent” — from the Iranian borders to the Mediterranean Sea to use as a platform to strike Israel.
 
(Culper: Daqduq was previously active in operations against American forces in Iraq. He previously worked with an Iraqi-based Shia extremist group called Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose members were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Coalition forces. Daqduq absolutely has American blood on his hands. He’s a steady figure in Iranian proxy force projection, and his continued activities in Syria further indicate that Iran is married to its strategic objective of solidifying offensive power in Syria. This statement was intended to warn Iran, but also to bring international recognition that Iran continues to use Hezbollah as a weapon against Israel. Continued public warnings like this will be used as justification when Israel engages in another conflict in the region.)
 

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

Turkey to begin deploying Russian S-400 systems in October
 
The head of Turkish defense said that his country’s armed forces will begin deploying sophisticated Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense systems by October. He added that the Turkish air force is currently assessing where best to deploy they systems, which he noted were bought because Turkey preferred them, not as part of any forced deal. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: Continuing from above, this relationship bears further watching and analysis. NATO and the United States have been pressuring Turkey to drop this deal but obviously neither have been successful. This deal is liable to do two things: Disqualify Turkey from receiving 100 F-35s over fears Russian S-400 crews training the Turkish military in the operation of the system will learn more about the plane’s strengths and weaknesses, and move Ankara further away from the alliance, endangering the future of the strategic U.S. airbase at Incirlik.
 
U.S. legacy weapons systems soundly defeated by Russia, China, in simulated war games
 
Though the United States spends about $700 billion a year and has much invested in legacy weapons systems like nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and F-35 fighters, those systems are vulnerable and have been increasingly easy to ‘destroy’ during a series of simulated war games in recent years. “In our games, when we fight Russia and China, blue gets its ass handed to it,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek said recently. Where once the U.S. held a distinct advantage in ‘smart weapons,’ great powers like Russia and China have been rapidly adding them to their arsenals in recent years. [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: Defense experts outside of DoD have been arguing for years that legacy systems like aircraft carriers are becoming prohibitively expensive targets for sophisticated smart weapons. Specifically, conventionally-armed hypersonic missiles are game changers; Pentagon planners are being forced to rethink decades-old weapons systems and strategies in the same way they had to rethink battlefield strategies after the introduction of the tank and machine gun in World War I and naval strategies following the advent of carrier warfare during World War II. There are also political factions to consider: Lawmakers, for instance, protect legacy systems because they provide jobs for voters in their district; and commanders and planners have been trained/indoctrinated to fight wars the ‘old way’. The warning signs are flashing, however: A new class of weapons is making older systems obsolete.
 
Russian military takes delivery of hundreds of new nuclear missiles
 
The Russian military has taken delivery of more than 200 new ICBMs since 2012. In particular, Russian strategic rocket forces have received 109 new ICBMs while the Russian navy has taken delivery of 108 new submarine-launched ballistic missiles, according to the Defense Ministry. Technically, these missiles are believed to be armed with highly maneuverable and multiple warheads that are designed to evade missile defenses upon reentry. [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: Moscow has elected to spend a great deal of resources on bolstering its nuclear deterrent capability. Modernizing its nuclear forces is expensive, but it is part of Moscow’s strategic goal of maintaining parity with the U.S. Also, there is a belief among Russia’s high command that the United States’ improving missile defense technology risked negating much of Russia’s nuclear deterrent and/or retaliatory capability.)
 
China’s 35th Antarctic mission called ‘successful’
 
The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, a.k.a. the Snow Dragon, is returning from its 35th mission to the Antarctic. While on site, crew members helped complete the second stage of Taishan Station, which is allegedly a research station. In addition, crew assisted in other tasks such as the installation of radar facilities and solar telescopes, research bases, and studying marine species. During the mission China’s first fixed-wing polar flight also took place after crew completed first Antarctic airbase. Also, China’s first domestically-built icebreaker is scheduled to enter service this year. [SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: The U.S., Canada, and Russia, as well as some European powers, are all competing for a slice of a trove of natural resources located in an Antarctic region that is becoming more accessible as ice melts. China has been muscling its way into the region as well since at least 2015. In addition to economic interests, by gaining an expanding foothold in Antarctica China will also gain a strategic military advantage — including improving the accuracy of its Beidou military GPS-like satellite system with new ground stations.)

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

NATO-Russia:    

U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, said he wants to improve Ukraine’s defenses against what he described as Russia’s “increasingly aggressive” posture in the Black Sea and the restive eastern portion of the country. The Trump administration has already provided the Ukrainian government with dual-use offensive/defensive anti-tank missiles. But the four-star general said in congressional testimony that Washington could provide additional “systems, sniper systems, ammunition,” and other things to strengthen Ukrainian forces. That is needed, he said, because Russia continues to train and arm anti-government rebels while sending its own troops to fight “alongside” them, in violation of a 2015 agreement. Ukraine remains one of the most likely flashpoints between NATO and Russia, though by arming Ukrainian forces, the bigger short-term risk is that the conflict there will escalate. By committing his forces to the fight after annexing Crimea, Putin has demonstrated his resolve in keeping Ukraine out of NATO’s alliance and sphere of influence. ‘Risk of escalation’ is always a factor to consider in situations like this one. The question is how far NATO is willing to go to provoke what could ultimately be a major escalation by Russia, if the alliance miscalculates and provides more assistance to Ukraine that Putin is willing to tolerate.

Indo-Pacific:    

Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed timely completion of national defense and military priorities with members of the People’s Liberation Army and armed police force during the second session of the 13th National People’s Congress this week. In emphasizing how important it is this year to continue building a prosperous society, Xi appeared to tie the importance of sustained economic growth with continued modernization of the Chinese military. The armed forces are presently implementing the 13th Five-Year Plan which includes a major military modernization effort. Xi clearly views this as a national priority. The Chinese president encouraged PLA leaders to bolster overall force readiness and capabilities while ensuring strict observance of socialist ideals and adherence to the Communist Party’s military priorities. In the context of what’s going on with the United States in terms of negotiations with North Korea, the trade war, the Taiwan issue, and simmering disagreements over the South China Sea, Xi took the opportunity to prod military leaders to keep military modernization on track. Xi sees military modernization as an essential element in China’s strategic long-term goals. In addition, keeping the military strictly aligned with the ruling party’s ideology is an imperative that never changes for any Chinese leader.

Middle East:    

The Pentagon recently deployed one of its most sophisticated missile defense systems to Israel for the first time. The Army plans to deploy one entire battery of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which consists of at least six launcher vehicles equipped with eight missiles apiece (48 total). The significance of moving one entire battery can’t be overstated for a couple of reasons. As of now, according to the Missile Defense Agency, the Army has only procured seven of these batteries, and it just sent one of them to Israel. But Israel’s missile defense systems are already some of the best in the world, so Israeli defense officials must believe they need some American presence on the ground. Adding a THAAD battery provides a means by which U.S. forces could directly engage Iran. So the deployment sends Tehran a message as well as bolsters Israel’s missile defenses. The thing to remember is that Iran knows it would have to contend with the U.S. if it ever attacked Israel, but if the regime gets desperate — say, due to rising internal unrest and fear that the regime could be toppled — it’s entirely possible the Ayatollah could lash out at Israel to stir nationalist sentiment.

North Korea:    

Despite reports that North Korea appears to be revamping its nuclear and missile programs, it’s possible that leader Kim Jong-un is merely trying to “hedge” his bet following the breakdown of negotiations with President Trump. Moon Chung-in, a security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, offered this assessment, while noting that if that were the case, Kim has made “a considerably bad choice.” Commercial satellite imagery shows new activity at the Sohae rocket launching site as well as the Sanumdong missile research center near Pyongyang. That indicates a missile test may be in the works, Moon Chung-in said, but it could only be in response to an attempt by Kim to bring Trump back to the negotiating table. That said, he blamed the failure of talks in Hanoi to produce a workable agreement on the U.S. and, specifically, National Security Adviser John Bolton. Moon said Bolton demanded a full-fledged denuclearization agreement before any sanctions relief, whereby Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team showed a willingness to accept incremental incentive steps toward denuclearization. Moon also noted that Kim may have been “hastily overconfident” as well. Moon also said, however, that he believes its too soon to pronounce talks dead. At this point, whether Kim resumes missile and nuclear testing will depend on whether he believes he’ll be able to extract any sanctions relief from Trump. There is still historic mistrust on both sides to overcome, and that’s a big hurdle. Also, we have to factor in what China ultimately wants as North Korea’s principle benefactor. Ideally, that would be a complete removal of all U.S. forces from the peninsula. In the past, China has played North Korea off the U.S., but Beijing doesn’t want a nuclear war so close to its border, either.

India-Pakistan:    

While security flights in the contested border region continue to raise hackles, both Indian and Pakistani officials are holding negotiations aimed at re-opening a corridor used by religious travelers. One Indian official was sure not to cast these negotiations as settling the dispute, however: “Let me make it very clear that [these talks are] not in any way a resumption of a bilateral dialogue.”

Venezuela:    

Following a tumultuous week that saw widespread blackouts, loss of Internet and cellphone service/access, and looting, power was restored to much of the country by Thursday, according to Venezuela’s information minister. President Nicolas Maduro blamed the power outages on foreign interference — specifically, cyber attacks from the United States, which is certainly plausible given the Trump administration’s policy objective of removing him from office. Others blamed aging infrastructure. Power outages continue to be intermittent, according to reports, and there is a military exercise “ordered this weekend to protect the electric grid.”

// END REPORT

Samuel Culper is a former military intelligence NCO and contract Intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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