Strategic Intelligence Summary for 18 April 2019 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 18 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.


In this Strategic Intelligence Summary…

  • Central America-Mexico Brief
  • US Army to deploy air defense unit to Romania this summer
  • Iran labels all US forces in Middle East “terrorists”
  • Russian Navy develops “niche” capabilities
  • Japan set to buy $1.2bn in missiles from US
  • Army plans exercise targeting the South China Sea
  • Poland and US nearing deal to establish a military base
  • 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:

President Trump continues to take an unconventional approach to securing the U.S.-Mexico border. Late last week, Trump signaled that he may be forced to either call up more National Guard troops or deploy more active duty forces. (Analyst Comment: At one point last week, President Trump caused a stir by claiming he would transport thousands of asylum seekers to so-called “sanctuary cities,” which triggered various responses from his political opponents. If anything, though, the continued back-and-forth between border regions, Washington, and politicians of both major parties highlights the fact that no political solution is forthcoming. Trump seeks to use the issue of continued Democratic refusal to provide border wall funds or even discuss changing asylum laws for his 2020 reelection bid. Democrats will use the president’s continued insistence on a border wall and changes to asylum laws as a racist, bigoted, and ‘undemocratic’ response to downtrodden people simply wanting to come to the U.S. for a better life. Cities along the border cannot continue to accept thousands of migrants; they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with them. Neither does the federal government, as Homeland Security officials have admitted in recent weeks.)

US Army to deploy air defense unit to Romania this summer

On 11APR19 US European Command (EUCOM) announced that a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) would deploy to Romania. The system will be used to fill in for the Aegis Ashore system located there while it undergoes scheduled maintenance and updates. Aegis Ashore is stationed in Devesulu, Romania and is designed to defend against possible ballistic missile attacks. The other Aegis Ashore system deployed to Poland has been plagued by construction issues and won’t become operational until 2020. (Analyst Comment: This should prove to be a valuable training exercise. So far, THAAD systems have been deployed to the Pacific and more recently Israel. With the US Armed Forces shift to a peer and near-peer fight, this could be used as a dress rehearsal for deploying to Europe expeditiously. Aegis Ashore was deployed to counter ballistic missile threats from Iran, but Russia has complained long and bitterly about the systems being deployed so close.)

Iran labels all US forces in Middle East “terrorists”

Iranian lawmakers on Tuesday 16APR19 voted overwhelmingly to label all US forces in the Middle East as terrorists. The vote happened a day after the US designation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) took effect. Some hard-line lawmakers had argued for listing the entire US Army and security forces as terrorist organizations. (Analyst Comment: This vote is not a surprise. If Iran targeted US forces in Syria and Iraq, it would be met with debilitating force, but the real flashpoint could be in the Strait of Hormuz where US naval forces and IRGC naval units have clashed in the past.)


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

Russian Navy develops “niche” capabilities

Two Russian analysts challenge the idea that 21st century warfare will be dominated by aircraft carrier battle groups. They encourage greater use of cruise and anti-ship missiles on submarines (both diesel-electric and nuclear), small corvettes, and frigates. Russia’s campaign in Syria saw the first large scale employment of Varchavyanka-class submarines and small missile ships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles. Deploying the Russian Navy to the eastern Mediterranean accomplished three goals: it reduced the possibility of further Western intervention, it offered additional protection to Russian personnel and facilities, and its air-defense systems prevented the West from establishing a no-fly zone. (Analyst Comment: That’s a pretty good return for a small footprint. Last week we reported that Russia was considering decommissioning her only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetzov. Aircraft carriers are excellent for projecting power where they aren’t in danger of a peer or near-peer fight. In the age of submarine-launched cruise missiles and hypersonic glide munitions, their survivability is doubtful. And they’re expensive: the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN-78 cost $13bn, is years overdue and still has significant issues with its launch and arresting gear. A Columbia class submarine, on the other hand, costs around $5bn. Regardless of what Russia decides to do with aircraft carriers, we can certainly expect Russia to develop a wider presence with its attack submarines.)

Japan set to buy $1.2bn in missiles from US

The US State Department cleared a further sale of 56 SM-3 Block IB missiles for use in Japan’s Aegis ballistic missile defense systems. Japan has six Aegis destroyers currently in service and the country is building two more. (Analyst Comment: The SM-3 Block IB missile is designed to intercept short and intermediate range missiles, such as those fired from North Korea. It uses a hit-to-kill kinetic kill vehicle to intercept the missile during the midcourse of their flight path, which means you’re basically hitting a missile with a missile. But it’s also important to note that the system can be used against satellites operating in low earth orbit. Combined with the recent news that Japan now has a defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines, it’s clear that Japan sees it necessary to take a more proactive approach to its security.)

Army plans exercise targeting the South China Sea

In 2020, the Army’s Defender Pacific exercise will simulate warfare in the South China Sea, and will include regional security partners. The Army will practice seizing and holding islands, in addition to targeting enemy ships with its own rocket artillery. (Analyst Comment: The Army isn’t typically associated with island warfare — that’s a typical mission for Marines — but the Marine Corps is not large enough for the next conflict with China. The Philippines and Thailand will become a temporary home for up to a division-sized unit — around 12,000 soldiers — during the war games.)

Poland and US nearing deal to establish a military base

If a deal is reached, President Trump is considering a trip to Poland in the fall to commemorate a new US base there. Polish President Andrzsej Duda has committed to contribute $2bn for construction and previously joked that it could be named “Fort Trump.” The US is currently rotating 4000 troops in and out of Poland. (Analyst Comment: If established, Russia will obviously treat this as a provocation. But Putin’s decision to retaliate isn’t necessarily tied to the region; he could, for example, escalate in Ukraine using the US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a pretext to grab more land there. He could significantly ramp up his efforts on the African continent. And given the Russian intervention in Venezuela, it’s obvious that the Monroe Doctrine is pretty much dead in the water. One thing is for sure: Russia is not going to let this go unchallenged.)


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)


Last week we wrote about Russia’s militarization of the Arctic Circle. The focus was on Kotelny Island and the weapons deployed on it, such as the Bastion anti-ship missile system and the Pantsir short-to-medium range air defense system. RT is now reporting that two S-400 surface-to-air missile regiments have been deployed as well. Novaya Zemalya has also been armed with a Bastion anti-ship missile complex. The map accompanying the RT article shows the location of each regiment. (Analyst Comment: The S-400 is arguably the world’s best air defense system and deploying them to the Arctic is indicative of just how far Vladimir Putin is willing to go to defend what he sees as Russia’s control over the region and its attendant natural resources.)


What does China want? First, China wants the US out of its sphere of influence in Asia, and a regional hegemony that makes all the other countries in the area ultimately dependent on it. Second, it wants to displace, if not replace, the US wherever it can, including in Europe. Finally, by the time of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049, it aspires to be the dominant economic, political, and military power for an era where democracies remain, but authoritarian systems are ascendant. (Analyst Comment: China has already managed to economically peel Italy away from NATO and the EU with its Belt and Road Initiative, and it’s easy to see that others will not be able to resist the temptation of easy money.)

Middle East:

Egypt has formally announced that it will withdraw from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), in a blow to the Trump administration’s plan to contain Iran by building a Middle Eastern NATO in the region. The idea was to bind the majority Sunni Muslim Arabs of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Jordan into a unified block that would provide a counterweight to the burgeoning rise of Iran. The initiative was first announced in 2017, but the plan has never run smoothly. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government and the Saudi led boycott of Qatar have kept the coalition from ever really coalescing. (Analyst Comment: Iran immediately moved to applaud the decision, with a spokesman from Iran’s Foreign Ministry saying to the effect that the plan was based on Western notions and values and, predictably, couldn’t be replicated in the Middle East. And it appears that he may be correct. But the other big winner of this is Russia. Egypt buys a lot of weaponry from Russia, such as the Su-35 multi-role fighter. The other advantage is obvious; anytime Russia can further its ambitions at the expense of the US, it will. In this case it’s watching the US coalition fracture while Russia’s alliance with Syria and Iran strengthens.)

North Korea:

Stephen Biegun, the US Special Representative for North Korea is in Moscow this week to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Biegun will meet with the Russians today “to discuss efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” Russian RIA news agency reported last month that Kim has planned a visit to Russia in either the spring or summer of this year to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Analyst Comment: It’s tough to be optimistic about Biegun’s chances of making headway with the Russians. Russia is far less concerned with the denuclearization of the peninsula than it is about thwarting American influence where ever it can. It’s hard to see where it would be in the Russian’s best interest to help the US here. But Biegun may be authorized to negotiate with Russia. The US could, for instance, lift some of the sanctions on Russia in return for its help with denuclearizing North Korea. The US could back off of its plans to build a base in Poland. Or he may have more stick than carrot. What is hard to gauge here is just how desperate is the US to make this deal. In the meantime, North Korea could potentially be ramping up to start reprocessing radioactive material that could fuel a bomb. This unwelcome development comes, of course, hard on the heels of the failed summit between Kim Jong-un and President Trump in Hanoi. While it is encouraging that both sides said that they were open to a third summit, Kim has said that unless the US changes its tone, nothing much will change and he has demanded the removal of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from the talks, calling him “reckless” and “talking nonsense.” The remarks from the dictator came on the same day that North Korea tested a new “a new-type tactical guided weapon.”)


The U.S. has turned up the heat, diplomatically, on Venezuela, as evidenced last week by Vice President Mike Pence’s public admonishment of President Nicolas Maduro directed at his UN emissary. During a special session regarding the ongoing political, social, and humanitarian crisis in the country, Pence looked directly at Venezuela’s UN ambassador, Samuel Moncada, and said, “With all due respect, Mr. Ambassador, you shouldn’t be here. You should return to Venezuela and tell Nicolás Maduro that his time is up.” At the behest of the White House, Pence was campaigning to have Moncada’s credentials revoked in deference to Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. has recognized as the country’s legitimate leader. It was a rare moment of forthrightness in a public diplomatic setting.
Invoking Article 24 of the U.N. Charter, Pence noted that the provision makes incumbent on the UN Security Council the “responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Pence also detailed a litany of human rights and political abuses he attributed to the Maduro regime.
As an aside, U.S. SOUTHCOM commander Navy Adm. Craig Faller met with Colombian Army Maj. Gen. Luis Navarro Jiménez, commander of Colombian Military Forces, this week to discuss regional peace, stability, and the “ongoing, civilian-led delivery of humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations in Venezuela and host-countries in the region.”


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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