Strategic Intelligence Summary for 21 March 2019 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 21 March 2019

Strategic Intelligence

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


In this Strategic Intelligence Summary…

  • China to build ‘strategic service and logistics base’ in South China Sea 
  • Australia sanctions seven Russians over Kerch Strait incident 
  • ‘Code of conduct’ sought in ‘submarine arms race’ in Indo-Pacific 
  • Russian defense official sees increased NATO, U.S. activity as threat 
  • North Korea official: Pyongyang rethinking continuation of denuclearization talks with U.S.
  • European navies will increase presence patrols with U.S. in South China Sea 
  • Russian jets ‘chase away’ U.S. B-52 from Russian border as encounters escalate
  • Flashpoint SITREPs (NATO-Russia, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, North Korea, India-Pakistan, Venezuela)


Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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


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

China to build ‘strategic service and logistics base’ in South China Sea
China will build what it is calling a “strategic service and logistics base” on Woody Island in the South China Sea, a decision that follows increased U.S. criticism of Beijing’s “illegal island-building in international waterways.” According to Zhang Jun, the Communist Party secretary of Sansha, which is China’s southernmost territory, a new “island city” will house the base. In a statement, Zhang said the project follows a directive from President Xi Jinping in a 2018 speech as well as one from the ruling Chinese Communist Party that marked Hainan Island’s 30th anniversary. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: Last week, Vice President Mike Pence criticized Beijing’s “illegal island building” in international waters, even as the U.S. steps up military activity in the region as a means of denying China complete freedom of movement. Some believe the CCP had Sansha’s provincial leader make the announcement rather than President Xi or a top party official in Beijing in order to keep it low-key. The Trump administration has often criticized these activities, but obviously, the criticism has had no effect as China continues to expand its island holdings in the SCS, which will only increase tensions and the potential for a military miscalculation.
‘Code of conduct’ sought in ‘submarine arms race’ in Indo-Pacific
There are increasing fears that a mistake or miscalculation among U.S. and Chinese submarines  in the South China Sea region could set off a major conflict. One estimate claims there are about 228 “full-sized” subs operating in the East and South China Seas, with that figure is expected to rise to 300 within 10 years. And because they are harder to detect, accidental collisions or even a false alarm could trigger a war. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: There are many countries in the region with various claims to portions of the South China Sea, nearly all of which are problematic for Beijing because it claims nearly the entire body of water. Japan, Malaysia, both Koreas, India, and Vietnam also have subs operating in the region, relatively close in proximity. At present, there are no rules governing undersea vessels, though there is an agreement called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CEUS), signed by 21 countries including the U.S. and China in 2014. But even with a new agreement, it’s just a matter of time before an undersea mishap occurs. Keep in mind the U.S. Navy had two of its ships damaged in that region months apart in 2017, and warships are much easier to see and detect. 


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

Russian defense official sees increased NATO, U.S. activity as threat
Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Mikhail Popov believes a buildup by U.S. and NATO forces along Russia’s western flank presents a mounting threat. “The U.S. and NATO’s anti-Russian activity resulted in the tendency of ‘military dangers’ transforming into ‘military threats,'” he said. He made his point by noting that NATO membership has doubled in 20 years — roughly since the end of the Cold War, the USSR, and its Warsaw Pact — and the growth of NATO’S Response Force from 25,000 to 40,000 personnel. He also warned: “The current international climate is very dynamic and is getting more and more complicated and unstable. We can observe that conflict potential is mounting in the zones that Russia has traditionally had interests in.”[ SOURCE] (Analyst Comment: Russia is responsible, in part, for NATO’s more aggressive posture, as well as the Trump administration’s pressuring of alliance members to spend their required 2 percent of GDP on their militaries. Moscow has been building and deploying missiles in defiance of the INF treaty long before Trump decided to leave the agreement; Russia invaded Georgia in 2008; Russia ‘annexed’ Crimea in 2014; and Russia has been assisting pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine. Popov’s warning, however, likely reflects President Putin’s thinking and that of the Russian high command, viewing NATO and the U.S. more as potential enemies than partners. That, in turn, will guide the Kremlin’s actions in the future when it comes to weapons development, strategy, and influence operations, especially in the Balkans. 
European navies will increase presence patrols with U.S. in South China Sea
European counties plan to increase naval presence patrols in the South China Sea in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, while still attempting to strike a balance with China in terms of trade and areas. The increased Euro presence is in response to China’s stepped-up military activities throughout the Indo-Pacific. Plans are for France to send a carrier group to the SCS, while Denmark is planning to send a frigate. Britain has already committed to deploying one of its two new carriers to the area and is considering the construction of new bases throughout the region. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: There is growing sentiment throughout the EU that Chinese belligerence and militarism in one of the world’s busiest, most profitable waterways is a threat to European economic and continental security. The stepped-up naval activity will serve to remind China that the EU can be assertive of its rights when need be, and that despite a desire to work out diplomatic solutions, there are some things worth defending. Having Britain take the lead coupled with a stepped-up U.S. presence doesn’t hurt EU confidence, either. 
Russian jets ‘chase away’ U.S. B-52 from Russian border as encounters escalate
A pair of Russian air force fighters reportedly “chased” an American B-52 bomber away from the country’s borders recently, though the bomber was flying in international waters over the Baltic Sea. U.S. military officials followed up that initial report with a claim that Russian fighters did not chase the B-52 away and that it completed its mission. [SOURCE] Analyst Comment: As the U.S. and USSR did during the Cold War, American and Russian ships and warplanes continue to play cat-and-mouse near each other’s borders. The difference this time, however, is in perception. The U.S. is recognized as the much more powerful country today, which tends to make Moscow more uneasy, perhaps, than in the past. Plus, as we note below, Russian President Vladimir Putin is suffering from a popularity problem at home that some think he may resolve in the future by starting a limited war. For there to be a conflict between NATO and Russia, Putin would have to start it, but desperation can cause once-rational leaders to do desperate things. Close encounters between militaries can lead to miscalculations or, worse, intentional acts aimed at one side testing the resolve of the other.


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


Russia has become a country in perpetual economic decline with a dispirited, divided population who hold little confidence about the future. Russia’s primary source of income — oil and gas — has sustained the country to a degree, but economic growth has been stagnant and the people are beginning to grow weary of the lack of progress. And they are growing weary of Putin, whose approval rating has fallen to a new low of 32 percent, per polling firm VTsIOM. About 46 percent see Russia as heading in the wrong direction as Putin plows increasingly scarce resources into upgrading his military, including “wonder missiles” that are still behind schedule. Domestic policies like raising the retirement age (to save money) also have not been popular. Putin has also  propped up Crimea with new infrastructure, though the return on investment has been poor. Notably, the public’s perception that a major war is in the offing has risen dramatically in recent months, fed mostly by non-stop, pro-military propaganda campaigns. But Putin has also implemented a new program aimed at instilling a pro-military attitude among Russian youth as young as seven with a military-patriotic movement called Yunarmiya, run by the Defense Ministry. It certainly appears as though Putin’s initial approval and the national pride following the Crimea annexation have both vanished. There are even questions as to why he took the enclave in the first place, with some Russian pundits opining that NATO would have never placed troops and naval assets in a historically Russian region. But that’s done and Crimea now appears to be permanently in Russian hands, no matter the costs. Here’s the real fear, though: The combination of factors — a poor economy, a national leader reportedly losing popularity, a rebuilding of military might, and an increased interest in stoking patriotism through militarism — all indicate that the major war many Russians increasingly fear could become a reality if Putin believes it’s the only way to retain power.



As China becomes more powerful economically and militarily, eventually Taiwan will simply be unable to resist unification with the mainland, according to Zhang Zhijun, who leads the “semi-official” Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s resistance to the “historic trend” towards reunification is futile, he told the press during China’s annual legislative session in Beijing recently, because the mainland is simply becoming too strong. “The Taiwan issue happened because of the degeneration of the Chinese nation,” Zhang said. “The problem will be resolved as our country rejuvenates.” He also said: “We now have greater influence across the Taiwan Strait and we are more capable than ever of leading cross-strait relations in the right direction … and achieving the peaceful reunification of China.” [SOURCE] Of course, China split in 1949 as a result of civil war; the Communists took over the mainland when the ruling Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan. In recent decades, reunification has become a mainland obsession and it is one of President Xi Jinping’s primary policy objectives. Via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the U.S. recognizes “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, [is] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area,” but it doesn’t expressly require U.S. military intervention if China should try to retake Taiwan by force. Politically, there is a small faction within Taiwan that favors reunification but overall most consider themselves either “Taiwanese” or “Taiwanese and Chinese,” and favor the continuation of the status quo. So it appears, at least for now, the only way reunification happens is by force. And how the U.S. reacts will depend in large part on who is in the White House at the time, congressional sentiment, and the mood of our own country.


Middle East:  

Hosted by Syrian President Bashar Assad, a meeting between top Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi military and defense officials took place in Damascus earlier this week. Iranian Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Baqeri held talks with an Iraqi counterpart and Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. The “tripartite” meeting was held primarily to talk about mutual opposition to the United States’ continuing role in Syria. For now, the U.S. will keep as many as 1,000 troops in Syria, according to a report earlier this week, to continue the fight against ISIS and to serve as buffers between Kurdish fighters and Turkey. During the tripartite meeting, Baqeri reportedly stated that uninvited “foreign forces” — a reference to American troops — must leave Syria at once. The three countries also pledged to work together to “defeat terrorists,” which was also taken to mean Syrian Democratic Forces, who are the United States’ primary allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Iran, which has gained an economic and political foothold in Iraq, is expanding its influence in Syria as well. By spreading instability in eastern Syria, Tehran hopes to force a U.S. withdrawal sooner rather than later. In addition, Iran’s goal of building a “land bridge” from its borders to the Mediterranean Sea in order threaten Israel is still a priority. Israeli officials have said that a complete U.S. withdrawal will feed into Iran’s land bridge plan and endanger the Jewish state, which is likely one reason why Trump backpedaled after announcing late last year that he would withdraw all 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria. The region may be free (mostly) of the ISIS threat, but a new one is building, mostly for Israel but also for the Saudis, Jordanians, and other U.S.-allied countries opposed to Iran’s spreading influence.

North Korea:  

North Korea may be considering ‘rethinking’ — as in, suspending or ending — denuclearization talks with the U.S. following the second summit between President Trump and leader Kim Jong-un earlier this month. The meeting was abruptly ended by Trump without an agreement on denuclearization or U.S. sanctions after the president determined that Kim was asking too much. “We have no intention to yield to the U.S. demands (at the Hanoi summit) in any form, nor are we willing to engage in negotiations of this kind,” Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui announced, citing the American “attitude.”  The big question is where do the U.S. and North Korea go after the “failed” talks in Hanoi? While some North Korean officials have grumbled (as we reported above), no one seems certain yet, though it’s not at all clear that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump have given up on seeking resolution of differences and issues. Denuclearizing the Korean continent remains a priority for Trump, and getting crippling sanctions lifted on his country remains a priority for Kim. Without dialogue, neither leader will reach his objective. Still, in at least some U.S. diplomatic circles some see the Hanoi talks not as a complete failure but as worthwhile because it was at least another opportunity for Trump and Kim to meet. The hope is that diplomats from both countries learn from what took place (and didn’t take place) in Hanoi and agree to make whatever adjustments are necessary in order to move forward.


While tensions between India and Pakistan have cooled in recent weeks following a flare-up earlier this month, the situation between the two nuclear-armed countries remains volatile. In mid-week, President Trump warned Pakistan about initiating new aggression against India. One senior White House official reportedly said, “The terrorist attack on February 14th on India was a demonstration that Pakistan’s continuing provision of sanctuary for any terrorist group is not acceptable.” The official noted that additional attacks on India by Pakistani terror groups would be “extremely problematic,” the diplomatic equivalent of a threat, perhaps. Trump’s animosity toward Pakistan did not just begin. In a 01 Jan. 2018 tweet, he complained about the amount of money (he said $33 billion over 15 years) the U.S. has spent on Pakistan as the war in Afghanistan dragged on. The U.S. also has issues with Pakistan’s reported use of American-made F-16s to shoot down Indian fighters, which may violate defense sales agreements. Beyond that, the Trump administration sees India as a long-term ally, a bulwark against a rising China (who backs Pakistan), and a partner in Chinese trade talks.


Embattled President Nicolas Maduro has survived another week in power but that doesn’t mean the situation in his country has improved or even stabilized. Maduro forced raided and detained the chief of staff for Juan Guaido, recognized by the U.S. as well as many Central and South American countries as the real president. Guaido confirmed the raid via Twitter. Chief of staff Roberto Marrero was detained by people described as Venezuelan intelligence officials during an overnight raid on his home after also detaining scores of journalists and two state utility workers. Some see this as a huge escalation in the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton both warning that the middle-of-the-night arrest of Marrero will draw a U.S. response. The Trump administration has already warned that any move to detain Guaido would most likely necessitate a U.S. response. Still, one of Maduro’s big fears was that his military and security forces would turn on him and side with Guaido. That hasn’t happened yet, however, which could be why he now feels more emboldened to act.


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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