Strategic Intelligence Summary for 20 September 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 20 September 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 Intelligence subscribers.

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (3,699 words)

  • Extremism Advances in the largest Muslim country
  • Cuban leader says US relations “in decline” under Trump
  • How secure is the global financial system a decade after the crisis? 
  • The new Air Force vision
  • The Army’s laser-powered drone project
  • Army leadership talks up new Futures Command on Capitol Hill
  • SpaceX: We’ll consider launching space weapons if asked
  • Military pilots can control three jets at once via neural plant
  • DIA Director to discuss NATSEC issues 
  • Russia is advancing on Ukraine again — and Ukraine isn’t going quietly
  • Will China one day dominate the seas?
  • Aging Japan: Military recruiters struggle as applicant pool dries up 
  • Syria shoots down Russian plane
  • Russia gives Turkey one last month for solution in Syria
  • UN confirms 33 Syrian Chemical attacks since 2013
  • North Koreas says it sill dismantle nuclear test sites, allow inspectors
  • And more…

 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)


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

Extremism advances in the largest Muslim country 
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country and has long been considered by some as a role model for religious pluralism. While that has been changing in society at large, those changes may also come to Indonesia’s government with President Joko Widodo’s choice of Ma’ruf Amin, a 75-year-old cleric, as his running mate in next year’s election. The president’s supporters say that the appointment of Amin will contain him and possibly neutralize the religion factor. Opponents of Amin’s nomination say he has a history of religious intolerance and has been behind repressive measures, including restrictions on the construction of places of worship, proposals to criminalize homosexuality, and support for female genital mutilation and local Shariah laws. [source]
Cuban leader says US relations “in decline” under Trump 
Cuba’s first non-Castro leader since 1959, Miguel Diaz-Canel, told a Telesur network audience that relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been in decline since the election of President Donald Trump.  He said that Cuba is open to dialogue, “but it must be between equals.” Diaz-Canal characterized the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba as “the main obstacle to the development of the country.” Diaz-Canal also denied Cuban involvement in “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, which have reportedly resulted in symptoms consistent with mild brain damage, including disorientation and hearing loss. [source] (Analyst Comment: We reported on these attacks last year. In summation, numerous Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Department of State personnel began complaining of symptoms like headcahes, nausea, dizziness, and hearing loss. The symptoms initially affected 22 Americans and eight Canadians, although that number may have grown. A physician who checked out the American patients said that the symptoms reflected those similar to a traumatic brain injury. U.S. officials, so far, haven’t publicly announced who’s to blame for the attacks — it’s difficult to imagine that they occurred under the noses of Cuban intelligence — which lends some credence to the theory that Cuban intelligence listening devices posted in U.S. facilities may have inadvertently caused the “sonic attack”.)
How secure is the global financial system a decade after the crisis? 
During a recent McKinsey Podcast episode, a McKinsey Global Institute partner (Lund) explained the causes of the 2008 crisis, which centered on a real estate bubble and risky banking innovations that moved faster than the banks’ abilities to manage those risks. Banks had “built trillions and trillions of dollars of financial instruments whose value was riding on those mortgages being repaid“. Exacerbating the problem was a banking system that did not have enough capital to sustain that system. When asked if this could happen again, Lund explained that a number of steps have been taken to prevent a similar crisis. Although global debt has increased significantly over the past ten years, households that had borrowed too much prior to the crisis—like households in the US, Ireland, Spain, and the UK—have reduced debt significantly. Banks are also more stable and secure because they now hold much more capital and have been subject to many new regulations.
Lund’s remaining concerns are:
1.     Corporate debt, especially in emerging markets.
2.     Real estate bubbles and mortgage risk in countries that were not seriously impacted last time such as Canada, Australia, South Korea, and Thailand, and China, which have continued to increase mortgage borrowing.
3.     China’s rapid growth and debt; China’s debt has quadrupled in size over the past 10 years to $21 trillion.
Lund does not see any of these problems as having the global impact of the 2008 crisis. [source] (Analyst Comment: We’ve spent a fair amount of time looking into China’s debt situation, and there’s reason to be concerned. China’s economy is showing signs of slowing down at a time when public and corporate debt has expanded significantly. We assess that China does run the risk of a financial crisis (especially in bond defaults), but whether it will have the same regional and global effects as the U.S. 2008 crisis is unknown at this time.)


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

The new Air Force vision is one of great power conflict

The Air Force plans to grow its main force structure by 25 percent, according to a new plan developed using the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy that prioritizes preparation for “great-power war”. It’s a significant deviation from the two-regional-war construct that has dominated post-Cold War defense policy. The plan will place primary emphasis on assets such as bombers, tankers, and command and control, communications, and intelligence systems, which have received some of the least prioritization in recent decades. [source] (Analyst Comment: We’ve reported quite a bit about changes in the U.S. Navy and Army to adapt to a new strategy of great power conflict — things like the Navy’s “Distributed Lethality” strategy, and the Army’s creation a new heavy armored brigade combat team, and re-focusing on communications defense and electronic and cyber warfare, among others — but the most recent plan by the Air Force to again focus on command and control is a great indicator that Air Force leaders take seriously the potential that they’ll be fighting an adversary that challenges its air superiority. The U.S., Russia, and Chinese militaries have been accused of entering into another arms race, especially regarding high-tech areas like artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. But don’t overlook how the U.S. military is being restructured — especially regarding the Army’s new Futures Command — to deal with the likelihood of conflict with peer and/or near-peer adversaries like Russia and China, both of which have some military elements more advanced that what the U.S. currently fields.)

The Army’s laser-powered drone project 
The Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is working on a new means of powering drones which is described as being similar to how a solar panel collects energy from the sun. According to one CERDEC spokesman, the goal is not to replace batteries, but to provide an alternative power source for small rotary drones to stay aloft longer. The batteries will still be required because the laser-beaming technology is dependent on favorable weather and line-of-sight positioning. The concept being tested involves using a power source to power multiple lasers that will be shot through mirrors to create a single, larger beam that targets a photovoltaic cell on the drone. There are plans to carry out a series of demonstrations of the technology early next year. [source]
Army leadership talks up new Futures Command on Capitol Hill 
The new Army Futures Command headquarters was announced in Austin, Texas at the end of August with the goal of having a fully operational command of about 500 personnel by next summer. The purpose of the command is to modernize the Army’s acquisition processes. Futures Commander Gen. John Murray said his goal is to provide centralized oversight and the streamlining of several bureaucracies, synchronize “efforts across the entire modernization enterprise” and ensure those efforts are in accordance with Army priorities. During hearings last week, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness expressed doubts that a new command was the answer to Army acquisition challenges, citing, among other things, the lack of a clearly defined command relationship and organizational plan. When asked by one lawmaker what he could expect from the command in two years, Murray said, “I can’t do miracles, so I’m not going to deliver you a new tank in two years, but what I do think you will see is some of the capabilities the cross-functional teams are working on will be in production and being delivered in the hands of soldiers within the next two years. Not all of them, but the couple key pieces of it.” [source] (Analyst Comment: One large effort of the U.S. Army is to field, potentially down to the platoon level, cyber and electronic warfare teams. That’s a marked change from previous conflicts and, for the first time ever, company commanders may be required to direct cyber and electronic fires at the same time as directing fire from his rifle platoons. This is part of the Army’s “multi-domain battle” strategy that’s intended to overwhelm an adversary’s ability to manage and defend against an array of different warfighting capabilities. The Army has long been criticized of “preparing to fight the last war,” so the Army Futures Command is being tasked with understanding the future of warfare and overseeing the acquisition of weaponry and equipment that will be needed in a fast-developing future conflict.)
SpaceX: We’ll consider launching space weapons if asked 
SpaceX’s president and COO, Gwynne Shotwell, when asked at the Air Force Association’s annual conference if her company would consider launching weapons into orbit for the U.S. government said, “If it’s for the defense of this country, yes, I think we would.” The Defense Department is currently considering the use of orbiting directed-energy weapons to intercept incoming missiles. The U.S. Defense undersecretary for research and engineering wants a space-based sensor layer to counter Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles by 2023. Such missiles can move at five times the speed of sound, and the only way to effectively find and defeat them is from space. [source]
Military pilots can control three jets at once via neural plant 
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently unveiled a project that enables one person the ability to pilot multiple planes and drones using only his mind. “As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control … not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. One current obstacle for the project is the requirement that electrodes be implanted in the subject pilot’s brain, limiting the agency’s ability to experiment with the technology. Current test subjects are volunteers with varying degrees of paralysis who already had reasons to undergo surgery. In order to overcome this problem, DARPA has launched the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program.  This program’s goal is to fabricate an EEG-type cap that the pilot could remove at the end of a mission. [source]
DIA Director discusses NATSEC issues 
On September 17, Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley, Jr., the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), sat down for a 90-minute interview with moderators from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Ashley provided a brief history of his agency and its mission, describing the “seven perennial things that we focus on” at DIA:
1) Targeting Database
2) Intelligence Mission Data
2) Acquisition
3) Strategic Warning
4) Collection Management
5) Science and Technology
6) Foundational Intelligence on Foreign Militaries and the Operational Environment (the core function)
Ashley reflected on his first year as DIA Director and answered questions from moderators and the audience on a broad range of topics. Some of the topics covered and a summary of Ashley’s comments on those topics follow.
  • Regarding “great power competition”, Russia’s goals “qualitatively” are not much different today than they were during the Cold War.
  • Russia works to influence other countries to pull away from the U.S.
  • Putin wants to sit at “the great power table” so that he can be a global decision maker.
  •  One tool Russia uses to increase its influence is “reflexive control,” defined as influencing a competitor to unwittingly make a decision that is to the competitor’s disadvantage; this has become much easier with today’s technology.
  • Autocracy in Russia allows a faster pace of decision making than our democratic system, which drives the pace of competition.
  • Russia’s approach is very asymmetric due to a struggling economy. This asymmetric approach includes nuclear, hypersonic missiles, and anti-satellite technology.
  • The strength of Russian alliances is much weaker than those of the U.S. because ours alliances are built on trust while Russian alliances are built on coercion.
  • The Chinese, who haven’t fought a war since 1979, have watched us and learned from us and have worked to build like-capabilities.
  • Ashley is personally digesting opinions about Chinese intentions. Whether those intentions include regional hegemony in the Pacific, more global interests, or simply taking care of the Chinese people, he’s not sure.
  • China is not necessarily a competitor transitioning to enemy.
  • We need to make allies aware of the potential dangers of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could have strings attached to the detriment of allies.
  • China may not be trying to break the world order but to “bend it to their advantage,” thereby avoiding conflict.
  • Iran’s nefarious activities are of concern in the region.
  • Iran has historically sought hegemony in the region, but their status as a religious minority is to their disadvantage. To counter this disadvantage, the Iranians have used asymmetric forces like Lebanese Hezbollah and the Quds Force in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Salafi Jihadist Landscape:
  • These groups are in transition and a “generations challenge” that will not go away, requiring constant pressure in Iraq, Syria, Africa and elsewhere.
Ashley’s Legacy:
  • Ashley wants to transition DIA’s modern integrated database into the Machine Assisted Analytic Rapid Repository System (MAARRS) to be handed off to the next DIA director for improvement.  This will benefit the entire DoD. [source]

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


Significant Developments:

Russia is advancing on Ukraine again — and Ukraine isn’t going quietly 

During a rare interview with The Washington Post, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for further sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine and particularly for its activities in the Azov Sea. According to Poroshenko, Russia is interfering with Ukraine’s commercial activities with the goal of occupying the Azov, “the same way it did with Crimea.” Poroshenko called for U.N. peacekeepers in the east of his country and said Ukraine was happy with the support of the Trump administration, including the sale of weapons. He also said that Ukraine was considering a constitutional amendment calling for full membership of the country in the European Union and NATO. Poroshenko, who is running for reelection next spring, went on to defend anti-corruption efforts he has undertaken during his presidency. [source]


Analyst Comment: This week’s reporting includes four major events: (1) The wrap up of the Russian military exercise Vostock-18, (2) the apparent Turkish/Russian agreement to delay military operations in Idlib, (3) the mistaken downing of a Russian military aircraft in Syria, and (4) the comments by the Director of DIA relevant to the first two events.

First, the expansive Russian military exercise that also included the participation of some 3,200 Chinese military personnel wrapped up this week. During his recent comments, DIA Director LTG Ashley talked briefly about the exercise noting the Chinese participation. He said that the analysis of this exercise by DIA would be useful to the efforts of the intelligence community in better understanding how the forces involved are likely to be used in any future conflict.

Second, there has been an apparent reprieve for Turkey and the residents of Idlib in Syria following a meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin resulting in the declaration of a demilitarized zone effective October 15.  One line of analysis predicts this will result in a longer, less kinetic effort in Idlib. Interestingly, LTG Ashley postulated during his CSIS interview that the Erdogan/Putin talks could result in a less kinetic effort in Idlib.  He did not comment on the significance of a NATO ally negotiating directly with the Russians.

Finally, the mistaken Syrian downing of a Russian reconnaissance aircraft that was initially blamed on Israel now appears to be the possible result of an antiquated Syrian air defense system, poor operator training, or both.  Russian President Putin’s quick withdrawal of allegations against Israel possibly point to an unwillingness to escalate the event.


Significant Developments:

Will China one day dominate the seas? 

With the launching of its second aircraft carrier, the militarization of its artificial islands in the South China Sea, its fielding of ballistic missiles that can reach Guam, and its new naval base in Djibouti, China appears poised to develop a significant blue-water navy that will compete with the U.S. Navy for global sea power dominance. This would not be the first time that China was a dominant seafaring nation. In the 15th century China had around 3,500 ships at sea, the largest fleet in the world. By 1525, the Chinese fleet fell into disrepair due to an indifferent government. While Europe turned outward, China turned inward and the Europeans gained dominance in the 19th century.  This legacy was passed on to the U.S. in the 20th century.  China appears prepared to reverse course and regain its dominance. [source]
Aging Japan: Military recruiters struggle as applicant pool dries up 
As Japan faces challenges to contain China’s maritime expansion and deal with volatility on the Korean peninsula, it faces serious problems meeting recruitment goals for its Self-Defense Forces (SDF). These challenges are brought about by a very low birth rate, unemployment at a 25-year low, and a higher number of high school graduates going on to college. Although, according to surveys, about 90 percent of the public has a positive view of the SDF, it has not been able to meet recruitment goals since 2014. Current efforts to boost recruitment have included pitching military service to more female candidates and advertising campaigns to project a “softer image” of the SDF. [source]

Middle East 

Significant Developments:

UN confirms 33 Syrian Chemical attacks since 2013 

According to a Jerusalem Post report, Syria has carried out three chlorine gas attacks on a rebel-held Damascus suburb and on Idlib province this year. This brings the total number of chemical attacks registered by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria since 2013 to 39, thirty-three (33) of which were conclusively attributed to Syria. Two of the attacks in a residential suburb of Damascus took place on January 22 and February 1. “The Commission concludes that, on these two occasions, government forces and or affiliated militias committed the war crimes of using prohibited weapons and launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian-populated areas in eastern Ghouta,” U.N.officials added. The attacks in Idlib—a Syrian province on the Turkish border where Syrian and Russian forces are preparing for an all-out assault on the last rebel stronghold—reportedly occurred on February 4 when two Syrian helicopters dropped at least two barrels of chlorine. “In Idlib, we’re watching very closely what the Assad regime, aided and abetted by the Iranians and the Russians are up to there,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters last Tuesday. [source]

Syria shoots down Russian plane 

Fifteen Russian military personnel were killed when the Syrian military mistakenly shot down a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft. The Russian military initially blamed the aircraft downing on the Israeli Defense Forces, which were carrying out air strikes on a Syrian military facility near Latakia. According to an initial statement by Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, the Israeli planes “used the Russian airplane as a cover,” putting it “in the line of fire coming from Syrian air defense systems.” Hours later, Russian President Putin walked back this accusation telling reporters in Moscow, “It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But without any doubt, we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened.” In its denial of involvement an Israeli military statement said, “During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation.” [source] (Analyst Comment: This appears to be a case of Syrian air defense units shooting first and asking questions later. Undoubtedly alarmed to the presence of Israeli and/or foreign aircraft in Syrian airspace, Syrian units likely mistook the Russian aircraft for an Israeli one. U.S. and Russian officials expressed concern over the past couple of years about the risk of this happening to their aircraft, which is why the two countries prioritized the deconfliction of operations and airspace in the Syrian civil war and fight against the Islamic State.)
Russia gives Turkey one last month for solution in Syria 
Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin met for five hours on September 17 in Sochi to discuss the path forward in the Syrian province of Idlib. After the meeting, Putin announced that a demilitarized buffer zone 12-15 miles wide will be activated there, effective October 15. The buffer zone delays what appeared to be an imminent attack by Syrian and Russian forces on what remains of opposition forces in Idlib. There were concerns over the effects on the civilian population of such an offensive, and Turkey was also concerned about the impact on rebel groups that have cooperated with Ankara. All opposition groups are expected to withdraw their heavy weapons as part of the agreement. It is now expected that the solution to the Idlib problem will take eight to 10 months of low level operations and negotiations rather than a short-term, highly kinetic operation. This fact increases the risks to the security of Turkish forces in the area and raises the possibility of terror attacks against Turkey by groups that resent Ankara’s mediation efforts. [source]

North Korea

Significant Developments:

North Koreas says it sill dismantle nuclear test sites, allow inspectors 

Following a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, they announced in a joint press conference that North Korea has agreed to “permanently” dismantle its key missile facilities in the presence of foreign observers and close its main nuclear complex if the U.S. takes reciprocal action. Moon aimed to link the North’s denuclearization to a joint declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War. [source] (Analyst comment: Although the “reciprocal action” by the U.S. is not specified in the article, it likely involves the easing of sanctions against North Korea.)


– S.C.


Mike Shelby 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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