Strategic Intelligence Summary for 18 January 2018

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

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (3,811 words)

  • Russian Spring election tensions?
  • China’s four military advances in 2018
  • 4,500-mile ski exercise for Russian paratroopers
  • Russia’s next-gen sub will be better than U.S. subs
  • Russia delivering first S-400s to China
  • Indian army modernizing, rearming
  • NATO continues to view Russia as its chief adversary
  • Tensions are reaching a boiling point between U.S.-led coalition, Russia-led coalition over Syria
  • Going into North Korea a nearly impossible task
  • China-U.S. relations are not going to improve anytime soon

In Focus: Welcome to this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary. The world didn’t get any safer over the past week, and if I had to wager, it’s my belief that the Middle East continues to bear watching most, especially as the United States and its coalition jockeys for control and influence against the Russian-led coalition in Syria. Both countries appear to be ready for a lengthy deployment; Russia already has a permanent base there, the Black Sea Fleet port at Tartus. Turkey is the wildcard, believe it or not — not Iran, for the time being. Also, we appear to be heading for a deterioration in relations with China — that is the long-term trend — beginning first with the Trump administration’s prioritization of balancing trade and bringing down the huge U.S. trade deficit with Beijing. This is different than our ‘trade war’ with Japan in the 1980s; we held most of the cards then, but we don’t this time around. China owns much of our debt, for one, and for another, we don’t have the manufacturing base anymore to take up the slack from cheap Chinese manufacturing. Finally, a former South Korean general gives a very sobering assessment of what war with North Korea would really look like — and there’s nothing good about it.

Thank you for subscribing and enjoy this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary. — JD

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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

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

Russian election tensions?

Officials with Russia’s equivalent to the National Guard (Rosgvardiya) have said they will prevent the formation and execution of ‘unauthorized rallies’ during the upcoming presidential election on 18 March, in which current President Vladimir Putin is already favored. “We are always waiting and preparing for a contingency in any situation. If it happens so, we will be ready for it. We will act firmly, but under law,” head of the National Guard’s Main Directorate for Public Order Protection Alexey Zinin told reporters. “We are to take part in protection of more than 93,000 election polls and surrounding areas together with the Interior Ministry and private security companies,” he said, noting further that most attention will be paid to the anti-terrorism security of these facilities. [source]


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

China’s four primary military advances in 2018

China will make four major military advances this year, according to one assessment. After putting its first domestically-built aircraft carrier to sea and acquiring advanced J-20 fighter planes, experts expect these advances this year: (1) Super satellites, set for launch beginning in 2019 that are really advanced; (2) A third aircraft carrier; (3) A more advanced guided-missile destroyer; and (4) A more advanced J-20 fighter that gives the F-22 a run for its money. [source]

4,600-mile ski exercise for Russian paratroopers

Russian paratroopers will conduct an extremely long ski exercise of more than 7,500 kilometers — about 4,600 miles — beginning next month, according to the Russian defense ministry. The event will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Ryazan Higher Airborne Order of Suvorov. [source]

Russia’s next-gen sub will be better than U.S. submarines

Russia is working on building a new fifth-generation submarine known as the “Husky”. The vessel is expected to have significant advantages over U.S.-built fourth generation subs including the Seawolf and Virginia-class boats. Military officials in Russia have confirmed that work on the new Husky-class boat has begun, as the first sub is expected by 2025. The concept behind the new sub is a universal platform with three variations: One for cruise missiles, one for ballistic missiles, and a nuclear-powered sub for a multitude of operations. The planned build is 15 subs over five years. [source]

Russia delivering first S-400 systems to China

Russia has begun delivery of S-400 Triumf air defense missile systems to China under a 2014 deal. “The implementation of the contract has begun, the first shipment has been sent to China,” one source told Russian media. The shipment includes control and radar stations along with support equipment, spare parts and other elements. The contract did not stipulate that there would be technology transfers to China or licensed Chinese production of the S-400. Last year, a group of Chinese military personnel were trained on the system in Russia. China is the first foreign buyer of the S-400; Turkey recently became the second. There are plans to supply the systems to India and Saudi Arabia as well. [source]

Indian army modernizing and rearming

Five months after its tense border standoff with China, the Indian military announced it will purchase 160,000 rifles and carbines for troops stationed in disputed, high-altitude borders with the Asian giant. The $553 million sale was cleared by the defense acquisition counsel and includes the purchase of 72,400 assault rifles and 93,895 carbines. The weapons purchase will “enable the defense forces to meet their immediate requirement for the troops deployed on the borders,” the defense ministry said in a statement. India is the world’s largest defense importer; it has been investing tens of billions upgrading Soviet-era military equipment as China rises next door and Pakistan remains a problem. India and China fought a brief border war in 1962. It has fought three wars with Pakistan. [source]

A deal for India to purchase Israeli-made Spike anti-tanks missiles is back on after India canceled a short time ago ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the emerging Asian powerhouse, according to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who made the announcement. The deal, worth $500 million, is considered to be a major strategic achievement for both countries. Some Indian officials wanted New Delhi to develop its own missiles, but other voices were eager for the state-of-the-art Israeli models. [source]

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


NATO continues to view Russia as its chief adversary

Russia has continued to build up its posture in Europe with more combat patrols involving submarines and bombers. In addition, Russia is stepping up its monitoring of U.S. military activity off the shores of the United States. “The spy ship Viktor Leonov was spotted leaving Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago on Monday after five days on the island,” said one report, which quoted one official familiar with the presence of the ship saying: “We’re monitoring [the ship]. It’s an annual thing. We’ve seen it off Cape Canaveral, [Fla.], Kings Bay, [Ga.], Norfolk, [Va.], and New London, [Conn.].” So if it’s an “annual thing,” what’s the big deal? A second U.S. official said it appears similar to previous, recent Russian operations of the same nature. “What makes it noteworthy is the increase of Russian naval activity worldwide. It makes us pay close attention, not to the tactics, but to how this fits into overall Russian naval behavior.” [source]

That makes more sense, given that NATO continues to view Russia as its primary “peer competitor,” according to Czech Republic Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the NATO Military Committee. “We characterize Russia as a peer competitor. We obviously follow closely all the developments and modernization and taking all the measures that are necessary to be ready for any contingency,” Pavel said during the 178th Military Committee in Chiefs of Defense Session. [source]

In fact, the topic of Russia dominated that meeting. U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, head of European Command, made that clear during the meeting in which he said one of the bigger concerns is Russia’s advances in the cyber warfare domain. Russian aggression — which President Vladimir Putin claims is merely defensive in nature — is also behind the expansion of NATO bases and military assets to its eastern-most member states. [source]

Despite the Kremlin’s claims it has no interest in attacking any NATO countries, what is less ambiguous is the fact that Putin is continuing to upgrade the Russian military. At a separate forum, Scaparotti said if NATO and EU nations fail to invest in new capabilities, soon their militaries will be outclassed by Russian forces. “Because of the modernization they’ve made, while we are dominant, we will not be in five years…if we are not adapting,” he said during a news conference at NATO HQ. [source]

Outlook: It isn’t surprising that Putin would claim time and again that he isn’t interested in attacking NATO. It also isn’t surprising that as a great power he would want to improve Russian military capabilities, especially after decades of neglect following the Soviet Union’s collapse. But the reason few NATO commanders believe him is summed up by two words: Crimea and Ukraine.

No one really believes that if Putin calculates that a) annexing the Baltics, where there are sizable Russian-speaking citizens is in Moscow’s best interests, and b) he could take them by force without provoking a NATO response — he would most certainly do so. Also, recent actions by Putin — closing the border between the Georgian territory of Abkhazia and the rest of the country; Russian troops continue to occupy parts of Georgia since Moscow invaded in 2008; political undermining in Moldova; and engaging in subversive political activities in the Balkans — all indicate that indeed Putin does seek a Greater Russia. [source] If NATO does not remain vigilant, he’ll achieve his objectives.

(Alternate Analysis: As NATO expands eastward into Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin and other Russian officials likely expect the West to undermine and eventually topple the Putin regime. A strong military is the foremost deterrent, so it should come as to surprise that as Putin feels cornered, the ability to strike back militarily is a top priority. As Jon said above, there’s zero doubt that Putin wants a Greater Russia in his lifetime. NATO is basically in a no-win situation on its current trajectory: expanding Western influence pushes Russia into a war with NATO, or NATO stops expansion eastward, leaving a vacuum for Russian influence to exploit. This is undoubtedly Cold War 2.0. – MS)

Middle East: 

Approaching the boiling point between U.S.-led coalition, Russia-led coalition over Syria

The U.S.-led coalition is looking to establish a 30,000-man border security force comprised partially of an alliance of militias dominated by the Kurdish YPG, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, a NATO ally. The American plan is to deploy the force along the border with Turkey to the North, the Iraqi border in the southeast, and along the Euphrates River Valley. U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has put a great strain on United States’ ties with Turkey. [source]

How strained? Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has already warned he will ‘crush’ this force — which may be seen by some as a direct threat to another NATO country essentially, since the U.S. is actively supporting the SDF (and Russia is actively supporting Turkey’s side in all of this). Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also vowed to crush the new force while driving U.S. troops out of the country altogether. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdogan said of the United States in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.” [source]

Russia has also suffered a major military setback. In late December, militants managed to destroy four Su-24 fighter/bombers, two Su-35C strike fighters, and an An-72 transport plane in Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in the Syrian province of Latakia. Militants also destroyed an ammunition depot as well. Perhaps two servicemen were killed and many as 10 others were wounded in the mortar attack. [source]

Russian bases were also targeted by drone attacks, though they were not successful. Russian military and diplomatic officials claim that Russian forces located the militants and took them out. [source] But there has been some questioning of that account. In particular, other Russian media accounts note that video showing the alleged targeting of a militant compound appears to have been doctored. [source]

Nevertheless, Russian officials claimed that the drones were launched from at least 60-65 miles away and were guided by GPS — meaning that “only technologically advanced countries were capable of supplying such means to the militants,” a reference to U.S. involvement. Though some elements of the drones could be acquired separately, the defense official claimed, “the assembly and effective employment thereof require advanced engineering knowledge and extensive practical skills.” [source]

At the time of the drone attack, Russian officials said that a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon was spotted in the region of the Mediterranean Sea, an indication that Americans were likely directing the attack. In fact, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blatantly classified the January drone attack as a “provocation of our ‘American partners,’ aimed at destabilizing the peace process in Syria.” [source]

Outlook: Obviously, not all in Syria is as it appears on the surface. First, while U.S. officials claim that Washington and Ankara are in constant contact in an effort to show stability in the relationship, Turkey’s designation of the Kurdish YPG as a terrorist group will have major implications going forward. Threats to “crush” the new 30,000-strong border security force, which is comprised primarily of militias hostile to the Turkish government, should be taken seriously. The question is, will Turkey take direct action against the group or use a proxy force for plausible deniability? Another risk: U.S. special forces operators are actually training Kurdish forces near Raqqa, in northern Syria. [source]

Second, it’s clear that Russia has an ‘insurgency’ on its hands, much as the U.S. does in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s clear from the reports we saw this week that militant groups were targeting Russian forces specifically, and very likely for the same reason other militant groups target U.S. forces elsewhere: To drive them out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a major drawdown of Russian forces from Syria in mid-December, and reports claimed that scores of military vehicles and aircraft have returned to the country. Russian experts and others believe attacks against Russian military assets in Syria will only increase. [source] So Putin’s choice is stark but simple: Pull out of Syria completely, or put more forces back in. After Moscow extended its lease on its naval base at Tartus for another 49 years, it became clear that Putin is committed to maintaining a military presence in the country.

As the U.S., Turkey, Russia and, to another extent Iran, continue to deepen their involvement in war-torn Syria, the potential for new, wider regional conflict remains very high.

North Korea:

Going into North Korea ‘would be more like trying to get rid of Allah’

A high-ranking, 40-year veteran officer recently retired from the South Korean military used the occasion of a recent defense symposium to give his learned assessment of what the U.S. and South Korea would face should it become necessary to launch a military strike on North Korea.

“I try to explain to the Americans — if we have to go into North Korea, it is not going to be like going into Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s not going to be like toppling (ex-Iraqi President Saddam) Hussein. This would be more like trying to get rid of Allah,” said I.-B. Chun, referring to the Arabic word for God. “I said to my team: Can you imagine what that would look like? (North Korean leader) King Jong Un and his family is a cult in North Korea.”

The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea since it became a country in 1948. All three leaders — Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un have inspired an intense loyal base within the country, as well as a very nationalist sentiment and a self-reliant (“juche”) philosophy.

“I have had the opportunity to speak to North Korean soldiers who have defected to South Korea — and you cannot imagine how indoctrinated they are,” Chun said. “These are people who have defected, and yet there is still an innate belief in their system which is close to ridiculous.”

Chun also provided insights into North Korea’s military infrastructure:

— Most of the infrastructure is buried deep below the earth’s surface, a lesson learned from the massive U.S. bombing campaigns of the first Korean War which ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

— All North Koreans beginning at age 14 receive 100 hours of military training per year, including how to fire a weapon and a rocket-propelled grenade. They also learn how to throw a grenade and other field skills. “North Korea is militarized far beyond the (West’s) imagination,” said Chun.

— North Korea’s air force is extremely outdated and no match at all for modern U.S. and South Korean fighters. However, Chun says Pyongyang would use it’s 1,000 or so fighter planes as Kamakazes. “They will load them with a lot of fuel, some bombs, and tell the pilot, ‘That is your target and you need to destroy it,’” said Chun.

— Another big worry: The North is believed to have anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons.

— Overall, the North Korean military numbers 1.3 million active members with 7.7 million reserves. That includes 200,000 special forces troops.

— If attacked, North Koreans will initially remain loyal to the regime. “They have a system where five to 10 families are organized into a group, and if a single person from that group misbehaves, the entire five or 10 families go to the gulag or are executed. So everybody spies on everybody else. It is a great mechanism for keeping people under control,” says Chun. [source]

Outlook: These insights are valuable and are no doubt well-understood by the Pentagon and the South Korean military. But the thing is, neither the Washington or Seoul would be looking for a straight-up fight with the North — namely because if the manpower numbers are even close to being correct, the North outnumbers the U.S. and South Korean militaries combined. Rather, the U.S. will select targets from constantly updating target-selection rosters and in a surprise assault take out as many of those assets as possible as quickly as possible, via cruise missiles, stealth bombers and perhaps even special operators inserted behind the front line.

When combined with a CBS News “60 Minutes” report we highlighted and posted on The Watchfloor earlier this week about the extent of the North’s nuclear weapons program, it’s quite clear that attacking Pyongyang to destroy its nuclear weapons program once and for all would entail combat on a scale neither American nor South Korean forces have seen to date.

And yet, that seems to be the direction we’re headed. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters last week, “The administration is very seriously looking at what would be involved with military options when it comes to North Korea,” adding that training efforts “are very serious.” “The military has preparations underway, and hopefully they will not be needed.” [source]

South China Sea:

China-U.S. relations are not going to improve anytime soon

The outgoing head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., minced no words (again) when he declared China a ‘disruptive force’ in the South China Sea and Pacific Rim. “I believe the reality is that China is a disruptive transnational force in the Indo-Pacific, they are owner of the ‘trust deficit’ that we all have spent the last hour talking about,” he said during a meeting in India. Noting that the U.S., India, Japan and other Asian powers are all growing more concerned about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea (SCS), Harris said, “We must be willing to take the tough decisions to ensure the Indo-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean remain free, open and prosperous. This requires like-minded nations to develop capacities, leverage each other’s capabilities.” Thus far, India has balked at joint U.S.-India naval patrols out of fear of upsetting China. But trilateral exercises have begin with the U.S. and Japan that experts say could eventually involve Australia. [source]

Meanwhile, U.S.-China trade relations are not getting any better. President Trump has often railed against the massive trade deficit America runs with China, and has vowed to rectify that via a package of sanctions and tariffs, if necessary. China would retaliate, no doubt, and it appears as those we’re getting closer to that happening. “The deficits are large and continue to increase,” said Jeffrey Schott, an economist at the Peterson Institute. He sees “increasingly protective responses” by the Trump administration “as the U.S. ratchets up pressure on North Korea” over its nuclear program. The trade dispute could and likely would widen. “This is a threat not only in trade relations with China but in strategic relations.” There was, he went on, “strong concern about the overall relationship” covering “not only political but strategic issues.” [source]

Congress is also getting involved. U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and a bipartisan group of senators is urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide details into the Department of Justice’s efforts to require Chinese state-controlled media to register in the U.S. as foreign agents. “Similar to Russia’s state-controlled RT and Sputnik news services, the People’s Republic of China controls several media organizations that disseminate news and propaganda domestically and internationally. For example, Xinhua News Agency is the largest media organization in China, and is a ministry-level entity directly under the control of China’s State Council,” says a letter the lawmakers sent to Sessions. [source]

Outlook: Everything we’re seeing, despite continued engagement with China and the extravagant feting of Trump last fall, is that we’re headed for a deterioration of relations with China. It seems inevitable at this point, given China’s global aspirations and goal to supplant the U.S. and the world’s preeminent economic and military power.

President Xi Jinping believes the time has come for someone (namely him) to move China into its ‘rightful place’ as global leader. Trade deficits, continued Chinese expansionism in the SCS, forcing Chinese media to register as foreign agents, the U.S. Navy’s buildup in Asia-Pacific will all add tension to the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Nothing we are seeing will ease tensions.

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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