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: (4,928 words)
- U.S. not prepared to fight China, peer competitors
- Trump: U.S. support for Montenegro could spark World War 3
- ‘Dynamic force employment’ now part of Navy’s new strategy
- U.S. Marines practice high-angle Mk19 fire to take out Russian troops, armor
- Investment in Baltics making Air Force more lethal
- Russia, China, U.S. building centers for AI
- NATO-Russia SITREP
- Middle East SITREP
- North Korea SITREP
- China SITREP
- And more…
ADMIN NOTE: Jon Dougherty has moved on from Forward Observer. We wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. All reporting and analysis is the product of Samuel Culper. Additionally, I’ve removed PIR4 and any significant reporting will now appear in PIR1.
In Focus: Monday’s meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was of questionable benefit for the Trump administration. Former administration officials criticized him, some Republicans in Congress criticized him, and even some generally pro-Trump commentators at Fox News criticized him. Was this criticism justified? Here’s what I see going on…
Last Friday (13 July), the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats appeared at the Hudson Institute to talk about U.S. cyber threats, Russia, and cybersecurity for the 2018 mid-term elections. (I have a great deal of respect for Dan Coats, formerly a senator from Indiana and chair of the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee where he routinely warned about the dire fiscal straights of the U.S. government.) During his speech, Coats explained that the U.S. intelligence community is not seeing the same kinds activities now as in the lead up to the 2016 election, with regard to Russian “meddling,” but he did say that the “warning lights are blinking red again.” Specifically, he pointed the finger at Russian cyber actors who are the “most aggressive foreign actor, no question.” He blamed Russia for their attempted meddling in the 2016 election cycle. [source]
During Monday’s Trump-Putin summit presser (16 July), President Trump explained that he believed Putin when he said that Russia did not interfere in U.S. elections, despite the U.S. intelligence community assessments. “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others [regarding the 2016 election]. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia.” President Trump characterized Putin’s denial as “extremely strong and powerful.”
Coats released a statement in response, again confirming his assessment that Russia was behind a campaign to foment unrest, widen sociopolitical gaps, and cause general consternation among American voters. [source] I believe DNI Coats on Russia’s attempted meddling, mainly because the U.S. does very similar things in Russia (and Ukraine). Nothing Russia did during the 2016 election cycle was out of the ordinary for nation-states spying on each other or attempting to influence populations to achieve desirable political objectives. The United States has a long history here.
The following day (Tuesday, 17 July), President Trump held a press conference and clarified his previous statements on Russia’s cyber exploitation during the 2016 election season, saying that he does believe that Russia was responsible. He pointed out that the U.S. and Russia have 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and said that “getting along is a very good thing.” President Trump also affirmed his “full faith” in U.S. intelligence agencies, just before the lights went off momentarily. [source] (There was wide speculation that the lights went out due to hacking, however, it appeared much more likely that a staffer or reporter leaning against the wall accidentally hit the light switch.) President Trump likely arrived back at the White House and got an earful of complaints, maybe even threats to resign, forcing the president to clarify his remarks, blame Russia for the election meddling, and affirm his upmost support for the U.S. intelligence community.
Following the Trump-Putin summit was a chorus of accusations that the only explanation as to why Trump was so soft on Putin was that the Russians have compromising information, or kompromat as the Russians call it. Frankly — it’s not a popular take for Trump fans — we have to consider this possibility. It’s inconceivable that Russian intelligence was not at least attempting to find compromising information on candidate Trump (any candidate, for that matter), and they were unlikely to have stopped those efforts once he was elected. Because we can’t rule it out and because it fits the modus operandi of Russian intelligence, we have to consider the potential. What information and to what extent it’s being used is a matter of conjecture and I won’t elaborate because it’s impossible to know. Let’s also keep this in mind: it’s highly likely that the Russians have the private server emails from Hillary Clinton, which include classified information and potentially damaging information to the Clinton Foundation and the activities surrounding Clinton while she was Secretary of State. (As an aside, Tom Fitton and Judicial Watch sued the State Department for some of those missing Clinton emails. Do you remember the claim that there was zero classified information involved? As a result of their lawsuit, Judicial Watch in April 2018 received 281 pages of Clinton emails, which contained redacted information. When Judicial Watch asked why the information was redacted, the State Department responded that the documents contained classified information, hence the redactions. [source])
But if that’s not the case, then here’s another explanation the anti-Trump crowd is overlooking: Trump just wants peace with the Russians. In a tweet on Monday, Trump said:
As I said today and many times before, “I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.” However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along! [source]
Most seem to forget that it was two years ago that retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn wrote Field of Fight, where he outlined that Russia and the U.S. were natural allies to defeat international Islamic terrorism. During the transition and his brief stint as national security advisor, that was undoubtedly his goal with regard to alleged back channel communication with Russian officials. Trump likely still believes that Flynn’s strategy — peace with Russia to build cooperation to defeat Islamic terror — is a worthy goal, which absolutely could explain Trump’s soft position on Putin. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as the saying goes; and I think that’s an adequate explanation on Trump’s words, despite the Trump administration’s hard line stance against Russia, especially with regard to beefing up NATO and implementing sanctions against Russia.
Another explanation I’ve seen floated is that President Trump won’t separate Russian meddling from collusion. Several editorials pointed out that the president feels that if he admits the Russians meddled in the election, it would serve to confirm that there was collusion. President Trump has been adamant that there was no collusion, and so far we have plenty of reasons to believe him.
When Republicans and Democrats in Congress say that they’ve neither seen nor heard of any evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump administration, I tend to believe them. When Mueller is plucking off low hanging fruit by charging former Trump staffers with “making false statements to the FBI” and some years-old white collar crimes (Manafort), and we’ve seen nothing in the way of hard evidence (or anything that’s been leaked) regarding collusion, I tend to believe that there was no collusion. And right now it’s up to Mueller to produce evidence to the contrary.
Despite several reports months ago that Mueller was wrapping up his investigation, we got a new round of indictments against Russian intelligence officials on Friday. There was some question as to whether those indictments were meant to derail the Trump-Putin summit, as Congressional Democrats lobbied the president to cancel, or if the indictments were meant to give President Trump some leverage. On Tuesday evening, Bloomberg reported that Trump approved the latest Mueller indictments ahead of the summit. [source]
I have little confidence in saying just how close we might be to the end of the Mueller investigation but, as we’ve known for some time, it could weigh on the mid-term elections. For instance, if Mueller clears Trump before November 2018, the GOP could get a boost at the polls. If Mueller charges the president with anything (obstruction of justice, financial crimes) before November, then the Democrats will likely see higher voter turnout. In a near worst-case scenario, Mueller could say that although they found no hard evidence, there was reason to believe collusion took place, but a lack of hard evidence would prevent referral for prosecution. (Kind of like Comey said that Hillary Clinton broke the law, yet did not refer her for prosecution. That cloud of un-provable collusion would hang on the administration and would likely affect the 2020 election.) Worst case scenario: Trump is charged on real or fake evidence and it sinks his 2020 chances. Regardless of the outcome, I expect the results are going to be heavily politicized. That’s a more pressing concern going forward.
Welcome to this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary. Your feedback is appreciated. – S.C.
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?
General: U.S. not prepared to fight China, peer competitors
According to a two-star Marine Corps general, the U.S. is ill-prepared to fight the next war. “If you acknowledge that we are, in fact, in a great power competition and you take a look at our competitors, our competitors are well-organized and we are not,” said Major General Jon Jansen. MG Jansen is leading a committee to figure out how the U.S. should organize its military and respond to major threats like China. “We just need to decide this as a nation, which is, ‘Are we going to organize or are we not?’ Our most senior leaders need to make that decision. Are we going to come together and figure out how to compete? Because what we’re doing now is incoherent.” [source] Analyst Comment: This is a great time to bring up the Army’s new Futures Command, which announced they’re setting up shop in our hometown of Austin, Texas. Army Futures Command is tasked with ensuring the Army is prepared with the latest technology, along with modern weapons and thinking, for future conflict. The U.S. military at large is in the process of implementing new units and upgrading old systems to compete in the electromagnetic space, with regard to electronic warfare (EW) and cyber operations. Last week, we reported that one military study pointed out that the Russian military is advancing at a faster pace than the U.S. military, and military leaders expect Russia to be more competitive in several key competencies in the coming decade. Some perspective: yes, the Chinese and Russian militaries have advanced considerably in the past decade and there’s no doubt that they’ll provide the U.S. military with near-peer or peer competition in a future conflict. The military has significant training and readiness issues, not to mention that any war they fight will be literally half a world away. But let’s not forget that the Russians and Chinese, despite putting their best foot forward, are untested. The Chinese military has demonstrated through military exercises over the past several years that they retain significant challenges to command, control, and communications in maneuver warfare. The Russians have a bit more practice between their conflicts in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, but they weren’t fighting high-end conflicts against peer competitors. We have to take MG Jansen on his word, but we also have to consider that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, isn’t ready for war with the U.S., either. That probably makes the risk of war less likely for now.
Trump: U.S. support for Montenegro could spark World War 3
Appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News), President Trump said that U.S. support for NATO ally Montenegro could spark World War 3. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and congratulations you are in World War III.” Montenegro is the latest member nation to join NATO. When they joined last year, many wondered what Montenegro, with a population about the size of Las Vegas, had to offer the NATO military alliance. Carlson asked if his son should be called on to defend Montenegro in a war. “I understand what you are saying. I’ve asked the same question,” Trump responded. [source] Analyst Comment: I’ve opined on Montenegro since 2016 when I first heard they were awaiting on NATO approval to join. The Balkan nation was the target of Russian information and cyber operations during their election season in 2016. Some brief history: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact disbanded, but NATO remained. Since the USSR was no longer a threat, it would make sense that NATO would disband, or at least stop adding members. But NATO has expanded to add 13 nations (Macedonia, which has been approved to join, will make 14) since the collapse of the USSR, meaning that the Cold War never really ended. The West has continued to expand and consolidate power against Russia, which caused Putin to react defensively and then offensively, fearing a possible coup or NATO encirclement; which forms the basis for why Putin’s Russia is acting out so “aggressively” against the West. Russia’s gray zone offensives are meant to expand its sphere of influence by military means (Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria), while its information and cyber operations against the West is an attempt to keep them at bay because Putin absolutely sees the U.S. and NATO as desiring to topple his regime. Meanwhile, Putin and his supporters in Russia, where he’s immensely popular, see the re-emergence of the Russian Empire as the best solution to combat the U.S. and NATO. The only way to reassert the power of the Russian Empire is by building a strong, competent military, which Putin is doing, and the West sees that growth and push back as justification for punishment. Putin wants to disrupt and eventually destroy NATO because he views the collapse of the USSR at the hands of NATO as a national embarrassment. So we’re locked in a Cold War with Russia that could go hot, and the question — the question that President Trump is probably asking — is just how far will Putin be pushed before he invades the Baltics? The Russian military could likely take the capitals of Latvia and Estonia within a couple days, long before significant NATO reinforcements were able to repel an invasion. And now Putin has a feather in his cap and a bargaining chip on the table to ensure the survival of the Russian government. That’s one way I see the future unfolding, and we get closer to that future with every new expansion to NATO. At some point, Vladimir Putin is likely to say that a line has been definitely and irrevocably crossed, and he’ll act out of national security.
PIR2: What are the latest military and security developments exhibited by the U.S. and their peer and near-peer adversaries?
‘Dynamic force employment’ now part of Navy’s new strategy
Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently signed off on the Navy’s new “dynamic force employment,” which cuts the length of naval deployments to make them less predictable. Part of the 2018 National Defense Strategy calls for the military to be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable”. The previous seven-month deployments of carrier strike groups made them more predictable, due to longer deployment times. By cutting the length of deployments, the U.S. Navy hopes to become more agile. “[P]reparation for great power competition drives not simply a rotational schedule that allows me to tell you, three years from now, which aircraft carrier will be where in the world. When we send them out, it may be for a shorter deployment. There will be three carriers in the South China Sea today, and then, two weeks from now, there’s only one there, and two of them are in the Indian Ocean,” Secretary Mattis said earlier this year. [source]
U.S. Marines stand up “first of its kind” cyber team
The U.S. Marine Corps held a commissioning ceremony for its first ever internal operations cyber defense team, which is tasked with actively seeking out cyber threats attempting to gain access, exploit, or attack Marine units. The approach “is a big change in how we employ folks at the tactical level to defend those weapon systems and going beyond the reactive approach,” one Marine official said. [source]
U.S. Marines practice high-angle Mk19 fire to take out Russian troops, armor
During training in Bulgaria, U.S. Marines are practicing high-angle fires intended to rain down ammunition to take out Russian soldiers hiding behind walls, tanks, or soft-skinned Russian military vehicles. “We have our combined anti-armor platoon conducting high-angle Mk-19 fire, which is a new thing for us, said one Marine. “It’s not really done in the Marine Corps that much anymore.” [source] Analyst Comment: The Mark-19 is an automatic grenade launcher, and resembles mortar fire when fired at a high angle. The Marine Corps is essentially turning direct fire into indirect fire, like artillery or mortars, capable of ‘raining down’ grenades instead of shooting them at a more direct trajectory. This is one of several ways the Army and Marine Corps are adapting existing weapon systems to fight future conflicts. Another recent development shows Marine mortar batteries ‘hanging’ flashbangs to explode in mid-air just above enemy soldiers. One mortar will send 14 stun grenades, and the method was successful tested during this year’s Rim of the Pacific military exercise. Another adaptation from recent memory is using precision-fire Howitzer artillery guns as anti-aircraft weapons.
Investment in Baltics making Air Force more lethal
The U.S. Air Force proposed budget increases that would fund pre-positioned equipment and construction of new military sites in the Baltic region of Europe. Air Force funding for training and infrastructure for the European Deterrence Initiative has tripled since last year, signaling a sprint to make the Air Force more lethal and more capable in a future fight against Russia, and to provide faster responses to developments across Europe. [source]
Russia, China, U.S. building centers for AI
Russia, China, and the U.S. are building or currently operate military centers for artificial intelligence. China opened its center in 2017, and the U.S. and Russia are in the process of building centers. “What’s interesting is the extent to which the Russian government and especially the Ministry of Defense is marshaling resources for the development of AI for its military,” said one American think tank official. China is also directing civilian and military cooperation for weaponizing AI, and wants to be the global leader in AI by 2030. [source] Analyst Comment: Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin infamously predicted that, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Weaponized AI is likely to cause systems disruption. I think of it this way: high frequency trading in the stock market has been responsible for flash crashes, because one algorithm will interpret data that signals it to sell, which then triggers automatic selling by other algorithms until you have a flash crash that has previously halted trading. Now imagine artificial intelligence making decisions for military or cyber actions because it incorrectly interprets signals. That’s likely the early future of weaponized AI, but applied to cyber attacks, early warning alerts, and potentially other military actions. [source]
PIR3: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four? (North Korea, China, Russia, Iran/Israel/Middle East)
Following last week’s summit, NATO member nations have agreed to adopt several new policies pertinent to this PIR. The first: a “Four Thirties” defense readiness policy which includes having 30 mechanized infantry battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 naval combat vessels all ready to deploy within 30 days or less. Second, NATO agreed to allow Macedonia (now referred to as the Republic of North Macedonia) to begin the ascension process to join NATO. Third, NATO will adopt the use of Counter Hybrid Support Teams as a response to Russia’s hybrid warfare. Lastly, NATO will stand up three new centers: 1) a Cyber Operations Center in Belgium, 2) a Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia, and 3) a European logistic center in Germany. [source]
Putin this week pledged to ‘act proportionally’ to NATO expansion. “The key to providing security and safety in Europe is in expanding cooperation and restoring trust, and not in deploying new NATO bases and military infrastructure near Russia’s borders, which is what is taking place now.” [source]
The Russian Caspian Flotilla has been ordered to re-base itself to the central western part of the Caspian Sea; a move intended to consolidate dominance of the Caspian Sea and move military assets closer to the Middle East. [source]
Putin and Russia increasingly are convinced that NATO wants to replace the Putin regime and re-align Russia with the West. In response, we’ve seen Russian hacking and information operations against European nations, to include direct support for nationalist, anti-globalist political parties in France and Austria (probably others), which would be Russian allies in the heart of globalist Europe. That’s the correct lens to view Russia’s military developments and deployments, as well: nuclear-capable Kalibr missiles deployed to Kaliningrad, deployments of S-400 air defense systems, nuclear submarines being added to the Pacific Fleet, expansion into the Arctic, increased activity in the Atlantic Ocean, the re-basing of naval units on the Caspian Sea, and a laundry list of other military activities are intended to deter NATO aggression against Russia.
We’re no closer this week to being at war with Russia, and President Trump’s desire to communicate with Putin is a good thing. War starts when communication breaks down. In the meantime, while President Trump and Putin find ways to cooperate, we should expect more of the same military posturing by both NATO and Russia. NATO expansion is likely to accelerate the prospect of war, however.
The Israeli Defense Forces are expected to hold a military exercise “simulating a ground operation” on the coast, which may is intended to simulate operations in Gaza. Israeli has been the target of hundreds of mortar attacks from Gaza in recent weeks. [source]
According to Iran’s deputy defense minister, the military will build or upgrade 700 to 800 battle tanks. “Annually, there are 50 to 60 tanks manufactured and a sufficient budget has been allocated because the army and Revolutionary Guards have a great need,” he said. [source]
There was much speculation surrounding the Trump-Putin summit, which included the possibility that the U.S. would make some concession — perhaps recognizing Russian Crimea or lifting of some sanctions — in return for Putin pressuring Iran to leave Syria. For the past year, Iran has consolidated its presence in Syria, going so far as to build permanent military bases there; at least one of which is on the southwest border with Israel. In terms of reshaping the Middle East, cooperation between the U.S. and Russia to exclude Iranian presence in Syria would make U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia quite pleased. So far (as of early Thursday afternoon), there are only rumors and vague information concerning an agreement on Syria.
Regardless of any agreement, it’s not going to stop Iranian hardliners from pursuing conflict with Israel. For weeks, Israel has been targeted by Iranian-supplied rockets and mortars, and a newer type of arson attack where terrorists release kites and balloons with burning rope to start fires in Israel. So far, those attacks have caused hundreds of fires and burned over 7,000 acres. [source] Iran has typically pursued asymmetric means of attacking Israel, largely through its proxy terror groups, but with the addition of permanent military bases in Syria, it appears to be improving its conventional military, as well.
According to Chinese data, China’s imports from North Korea dropped by 96.2 percent in June, year over year, and their exports to North Korea dropped 40.6 percent over the same period. According to one Chinese official, imports from and exports to North Korea have fallen every month for nearly a year. [source]
Casino magnate and GOP-backer Sheldon Adelson is interested in opening up casinos in North Korea. The Korean War veteran said in a speech last week that he hoped to “open up business” there. [source]
President Trump tweeted this week that, “Russia has agreed to help with North Korea, where relationships with us are very good and the process is moving along. There is no rush, the sanctions remain! Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!” [source]
Is war becoming more or less likely? It probably hinges on what Kim Jon-un has planned for his nuclear weapons. President Trump is adamant that he and Kim agreed to denuclearize North Korea, yet that’s not how official statements from the Kim regime read. In fact, Kim was scheduled to meet with Secretary Pompeo earlier this month, and Kim failed to show up because, according to a statement, North Korea was not going to denuclearize.
China decreasing trade with North Korea, if the information is accurate, is a positive sign. President Trump’s apparent deal to enlist Russian cooperation to denuclearize North Korea is a positive sign. Sheldon Adelson wanting to open multi-million dollar casinos in North Korea is a positive sign. The only positive sign missing is the Kim regime signalling that they’re actually going to denuclearize. It does appear that the risk of war has decreased, and despite the fever pitch of imminent nuclear war we experienced during and after the campaign, President Trump has actually de-escalated the situation. I’m still not convinced that North Korea will get rid of their nuclear weapons, but I don’t believe that war is imminent given these recent developments.
China began a six-day military exercise on Wednesday in an area of the East China Sea. Reported by Global Times, the headline reads: “PLA drill in East China Sea ‘tailored for Taiwan separatists'”. The exercise, which lasts until Monday, is “in an area that is similar in size to the island of Taiwan, a move analysts believe will send a strong warning to Taiwan separatists… The East China Sea will be a main battlefield if war takes place in the future, as it is key to solving the Taiwan question and other disputed island issues, [said] a military expert, who asked not to be named.” [source]
Late last month, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018 kicked off and runs to 02 August. The annual U.S. military exercise invites dozens of foreign navies to participate. In May, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was disinvited, but a Chinese spy ship was spotted last week off the coast of Hawaii to keep eyes and ears on the exercise. “Obviously, we are aware that it is there, and we’ve taken all precautions necessary to protect our critical information. Its presence has not affected the conduct of the exercise,” according to a U.S. Pacific Fleet statement. [source]
Former chief strategic for the Trump administration Steve Bannon appeared in an interview with Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald where he warned that, “[President Trump] understands that the central geopolitical issue of the century is China versus the West. He will not let the South China Sea go uncontested. He’s been consistent on China for 30 years. He understands China is the main event. He’s not going to back off.” [source]
Steve Bannon, a former naval warfare officer, hasn’t shied away from his predictions of war with China. In 2017, he predicted that the U.S. and the West would be at war with China within ten years. He elaborated on that topic while in Australia last week: “If we continue on this path we’re down, China will control all of the countries of South East Asia and they will control Australia.” On the topic of Trump’s tariffs on China, Bannon said, “We just started a war on Friday night… I can’t emphasize Friday night enough – it was the day that President Trump stood up for the American worker.”
Bannon was critical of Australia’s allowance of China to play such a large role in their economy. In late June, fearing political manipulation, the Australian parliament passed bills aimed at curbing foreign influence — specifically Chinese influence — in domestic politics. [source] This is some context for Bannon’s next statement: the Chinese have been investing in Australian “natural resources, tech, then you have overseas Chinese putting money into politics and now you finally wake up. And you wake up and you say, ‘hold on – who controls our economic base?’, because doesn’t politics ultimately come off who controls the economic base?”
According to Bannon, Australia is “the San Andreas fault between China and the West. These are the two great systems that have built up over 2000 years. You are the representative of Athens and the democratic Western tradition, and China is a Confucian totalitarian system. The South China Sea is very quickly going to become the front line. The South China Sea will be the focus of an intense global crisis.” [source]
There’s no reason to doubt Bannon’s sincerity over his claim that the West will be at war within China “within five or ten years”, and it’s a plausible prediction. China wants to avoid war with the U.S. and her allies, but if Bannon’s interpretation of President Trump is accurate, then we do run the risk of war with China. We fight a war with China to prevent control over the South China Sea, we use diplomatic, economic, and financial pressure to persuade China to abandon its goals there, or we cede it to the Chinese and allow them to re-write the rules for the $5 trillion of goods that transits the area; those are the three options.
// END REPORT