Strategic Intelligence Summary for 22 December 2017 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 22 December 2017

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 22 December 2017

ADMIN NOTE: Jon and I certainly hope that you have a very Merry Christmas on Monday. Both Strategic Intelligence and Low Intensity Conflict will be published the week of Christmas (25-29 December), although both reports will be a Year in Review, identifying the top trends of 2017 and a look ahead at 2018. After the new year, Strategic Intelligence will be published regularly on Thursdays, and Low Intensity Conflict on Fridays. Thank you for the support, and we hope that you have a wonderful rest of the year with us.

In next week’s report, we’ll also be detailing some permanent changes to Strategic Intelligence. These changes will make this a more robust intelligence product and result in better awareness for our subscribers.

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

PIR1: What are the new indicators of political or governmental instability that could lead to collapse or failure?

PIR2: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four flashpoints?

PIR3: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the economic or financial industry that could lead to instability?

PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the critical infrastructure that could lead to instability?

PIR1: What are the new indicators of political or governmental instability that could lead to collapse or failure?

Illegal border crossings surge again

President Trump made shoring up border security and enforcing immigration laws a top campaign promise and, after taking office, his immigration policies reflected those promises. As such, illegal border crossings fell dramatically as security was ramped up and internal enforcement of immigration laws resulted in more illegals being rounded up from the country’s interior. But those early gains have nearly been wiped away. Illegal crossings surged in the last month. “Denials of entry for people at official crossings and border arrests reached 39,006 in November, up 12 percent from 34,855 in October and more than double the 15,766 who were stopped or arrested in April.” That said, the higher November figure is still about half of the 63,361 from November 2016, the month Trump was elected. The uptick, which began in April,“ underscores that Congress must act immediately to close immigration loopholes, fund the border wall, terminate outdated visa programs and provide the necessary tools for DHS officials to carry out their mission,” said Tyler Houlton, a Homeland Security Department spokesman. [source] (Analyst Comment: Border Patrol and Immigration officials say that current levels, though raised, are still well below those during the same period a year ago, when ICE was operating under Obama-era policies. Still, this increase is concerning because not everyone who comes across the border is well-intentioned.)


Dozens of positions are still vacant at DHS

Dozens of positions are still vacant in the Department of Homeland Security, nearly a year after President Trump’s inauguration. According to news outlets, DHS employees say that Elaine Duke, previously acting secretary for the DHS, had attempted to fill the positions, however her recommendations have either been ignored or rebuffed by the White House. The following is a partial list of positions that still need to be filled in the department:

  • Chief of Staff
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Head of the National Protection & Programs Directorate
  • Head of the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans
  • Deputy Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Authority
  • Head of the Office of Partnership and Engagement
  • Leadership positions in the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office

[Analyst Comment: Many are calling this a “national security nightmare” but consider that although these positions are unfilled, there are still acting leadership positions in all but the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was just created in the past two weeks. And below that acting leadership, there are still employees doing their work. The only position at all concerning to me is the head of the National Protection & Programs Directorate (NPPD). The NPPD is supposed to be the center of DHS cybersecurity efforts, and according to its website, the NPPD “leads the national effort to protect and enhance the resilience of the nation’s physical and cyber infrastructure. There are continual reports about miscommunication between DHS, NPPD, and private and public sector critical infrastructure organizations, and it’s a puzzle that DHS and the NPPD are still trying to put together. This does not bode well for Trump’s America First platform, if DHS is intended to be a part of the solution. – MS]


Pew Research finds growing number of Americans distrust government

According to a new national poll from the Pew Research Center, an increasing number of Americans are losing faith, or growing distrustful or angry at government. Just 18 percent of Americans “trust the federal government to do the right thing ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time'” — but that’s a number that’s remained near constant for over a decade. Meanwhile, 55 percent of those polled expressed frustration with government and 24 percent expressed anger. As Pew points out, these numbers are largely driven by Democrat partisanship, although Pew specifically points out growing anger on the Left. We’ve previously covered that partisan divides have also increased over the pat 20 years. One last point: the number of Americans who believe that government should play a “major role” in addressing poverty has grown from 55 percent two years ago to 67 percent in 2017. [source]


Oversight Committee chairman asks President for plan to downsize the federal workforce

First signed in an executive order in January, President Trump called on federal agencies to submit downsizing plans to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Those drafts were first due in April, and final drafts were submitted in September. Now Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is calling on the OMB to release plans for the downsizing of the federal workforce, warning that Congress should be providing oversight. “The Trump administration is now in the midst of one of the largest reorganizations in decades with virtually no oversight by Congress. As members of this committee, we believe it is our job to analyze the administration’s plans to determine if, and to what extent, these massive reductions in staffing will impact the services the American people rely on every single day.”

PIR2: What is the current situation report and risk of war in each of the four flashpoints?

South China Sea SITREP

Tensions have eased, but China’s South China Sea strategy isn’t changing

Despite some potential cooperation between Beijing and Washington on North Korea, China’s long-term objective of achieving hegemony and dominance in the South China Sea and throughout Asia has not changed. In fact, there are many indicators proving that Beijing is doubling down on its quest for dominance.

Though there haven’t been many news stories of late chronicling confrontations or near-confrontations between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, Beijing has continued to quietly fortify its manmade islands. The most recent satellite imagery shows that China has also bolstered its infrastructure covering some 72 acres in the Spratly and Parcel islands during the past year as it transforms those holdings into naval and air bases.

So while tensions have ratcheted down of the disputed claims, clearly Chinese activity has not eased at all.

The Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative closely tracks developments in the South China Sea, where China and several Asian governments have conflicting territorial claims. It said Thursday there has been construction of hangars, underground storage, missile shelters, radar arrays and other facilities.

The activity comes as China joins what are likely to be protracted negotiations with Southeast Asian nations on a ‘code of conduct’ for South China Sea. Tensions with the U.S. on the issue have also eased, despite Washington’s criticism of Beijing’s conduct.

Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei all have claims to portions of the Spratlys, where there is believed to be an abundance of natural resources, as well as serving a strategic purpose.

The only change in construction appears to be that China has halted efforts to build up smaller manmade structures, preferring for the time being to continue bolstering its main outposts.

“It’s gotten off the front pages, but we shouldn’t confuse that with a softening in China’s pursuit of its goals. They are continuing all the construction they want,” said Greg Poling, the initiative’s director. [source]

Outlook: First things first: The ‘code of conduct’ is a sham. Like Beijing ignored the ruling of an international court in The Hague regarding the Philippines’ South China Sea claims in July 2016, any ‘agreement’ that obstructs Beijing’s objectives in the region will also be summarily ignored. So China’s participation in these discussions shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The larger point to be made is that while war isn’t yet on the horizon, someday it will be. At some point China will have built up its presence to the point it will begin enforcing it’s own ‘code of conduct’ that all others who want to pass through one of the world’s business and most profitable shipping lanes must conform to, or else.

That code will also apply to the United States, which of course, will resist. So, too, will Japan, South Korea, Australia, and most ASEAN members — so long as they’re certain the U.S. resistance is real and enduring.


Putin may be about to seriously challenge the U.S. in Syria, of all places

This week Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin exchanged pleasantries on two separate phone calls. In the first, Trump thanked Putin for “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance,” according to the White House. The second call involved Putin telephoning Trump to thank him for allowing the CIA to provide intelligence to the Kremlin regarding a planned bombing campaign in St. Petersburg that included targeting the 19th-century Kazan Cathedral. So, relations between two great, nuclear-armed powers is improving?

One analyst recently took the decidedly pessimistic view that relations between the U.S. and Russia are about to get a whole lot worse after Russian forces intentionally bomb U.S. troops in Syria. Yes, he said intentionally. Russia has repeatedly threatened to attack U.S. ground and air forces in Syria. What’s more, Russian fighters and fighter/bombers are increasingly violating U.S.-controlled “deconfliction zones” east of the Euphrates River. During encounters with U.S. fighters, Russian pilots are not responding to U.S. pilots’ radio warnings, which suggests they’ve been ordered to ignore them.

Further, Putin wants the United States out of Syria so he can advance Russian interests and those of his partners in Syria (that would include the Syrian regime itself, Iran and Iranian proxies). As long as U.S. forces remain in Syria, that won’t allow Russia, Turkey, Syria and the Iranians to establish a base of sectarian terrorism in what’s left of the Syrian nation.

Finally, Putin may be about to test Trump himself. If he believes he can take this kind of overt, radical, aggressive action against American forces without any substantial pushback from Trump, he won’t hesitate to push that boundary. [source]

Outlook: There are a number of things to consider here, the first being the distinct possibility that Putin’s gamble works and Trump pulls U.S. forces out of the region completely.

But that honestly doesn’t seem likely; for one, it would completely negate all progress the U.S. has recently made in expelling ISIS from Iraq. For another, Trump’s stated objective in Iraq and the Middle East more generally is crushing ISIS; if he pulls out, he creates the same kind of power vacuum Obama created when he pulled U.S. forces out of Iraq before they should have been. And a U.S. withdrawal exposes Israel even further — after Trump just declared he would move the U.S embassy to Jerusalem.

Also, there is the NATO aspect: Under the NATO charter, if Russia picks a fight with the U.S., he picks a fight with the entire NATO alliance.

And yet, would NATO respond? The whole of Europe is risk-averse when it comes to conflict. Trump has had to goad NATO members into spending their required amount of GDP on their respective militaries. Members prefer diplomacy over armed force in nearly all instances, North Korea included. Many fear Russian military might. And though NATO has made recent moves to strengthen its eastern boundary with Russia, it did so only after the U.S. recommitted forces to the continent that have been absent since the end of the Cold War. So if Putin hits U.S. forces, he very well calculated beforehand NATO’s European members would sit out any ensuing fight.

It’s also not clear how the American public would respond: Would most back the president, as we did following the 9/11 attacks, or would most Americans implore Trump to back out and avoid a potential nuclear conflict? That leaves the Trump dynamic. Putin will have to decide that he can pull off his staged attack without repercussions. Frankly, we’re not at all convinced he’s willing to take the risk.

Middle East SITREP

Israel pledges to the Saudis it will thwart Iran in Lebanon

We believe the proxy war between Israel, the Saudis and Iran could become a direct conflict in the coming weeks and months after seeing comments by a top Israeli intelligence official.

Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz has told Saudi media that his country would act to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence in Lebanon, while also inviting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to actually visit the Jewish state.

Katz confirmed to Israeli media that the invitation had been made, though Saudi media chose to edit it out because Riyadh does not have official diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

That said, Katz further noted that Israel is well aware that Iran is building weapons plants in Lebanon. “We have information that Iran is building advanced missile plants” in the country, he said, “and I want to emphasize that we have drawn a new red line, and we will not allow them to do this at any cost.”

He was asked if the visit by an Iraqi militia leader to southern Lebanon was a message to Israel from Iran, Katz said Tehran doesn’t have to send any messages because Israel is very much aware of Iranian strategy, tactics, and operations in the region.

When asked if Israel would consider attacking the Iranian missile plants, Katz did not hesitate in his response: “Yes. We will also act militarily and prevent them, as is happening in Syria.” [source]

Outlook: His latter comment was in reference to a previous Israeli attack on an Iranian military base in Syria, which took place earlier this month.

But the pledge to strike both Iranian facilities and installations as well as those belonging to Iranian proxy Hezbollah should not be taken with a grain of salt because, as stated, Israel has already acted militarily against Iran because it has no choice.

“The more accurate that Hezbollah’s missiles get, the stronger and wider Israel’s strike will be. This time, all of Lebanon will be a target,” he added.

But he also warned that should another war break out between Israel and Hezbollah, as happened in 2006, things would be completely different this time around. “What happened in 2006 will be a picnic compared to what we can do. I remember a Saudi minister saying they will send Hezbollah back to their caves in south Lebanon. I am telling you that we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age.”

North Korea SITREP

Trump wants refined military strategy for North Korea

As Pyongyang continues to develop its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, with a possible above-ground nuclear test in the near future, President Trump has asked his national security team to refine attack plans for North Korea.

“I don’t want to get into the specifics of military plans and estimates but I will tell you that the President has asked us to continue to refine our military option should we have to use it,” said National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

“Of course, we are working on that very closely with our very close ally South Korea, who is the closest to this danger, and with Japan. But what we have to do is everything we can now to resolve this sort of war,” McMaster added in an interview with a U.S. media outlet last week. “The grave danger is not just the direct threat that North Korea poses to any nation but also the threat that’s posed by the breakdown of that non-proliferation regime. And we should point out that this regime has never made a weapon that it didn’t try to sell.”

McMaster had other things to say, but the crux of the president’s message was and continues to be: ‘I want to know what military options are doable should I decide the threat from Pyongyang has become intolerable.’ [source]

Outlook: On The Watchfloor this week, I reported that at a conference in D.C., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson let it slip (intentionally?) that the United States had actually held talks with China over what to do about North Korea’s nuclear weapons [source]. He said the two governments “have had conversations about in the event that something happened — it could happen internal to North Korea; it might be nothing that we from the outside initiate — that if that unleashed some kind of instability, the most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they — that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.”

Tillerson added that the administration’s team has “had conversations [with China] that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th parallel” when conditions allowed.

That such never-before-now conversations involving formerly taboo subjects took place is in and of itself remarkable, but in the context of Trump once again seeking “refined” attack plans, they they indicate that the Trump administration is looking to cover all its bases before launching an attack that it may see as inevitable.

Defense in Brief:

Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman, House Armed Services Committee, statement on President Trump’s new National Security Strategy: “I commend the Administration on producing a responsible national security strategy that is based in America’s national interest and grounded in common sense. The strategy depends on the US military maintaining its edge over our adversaries; remaining agile and deployable, and retaining the ability to reassure our allies and deter our enemies. To achieve that goal, Congress has to stop asking our military to do more with less and pass adequate and reliable funding for our troops. This strategy is a good start, but only sufficient funding for our military can make it real.”

Air Force

Pentagon will spend money to upgrade European airbases flanking Russia

The Pentagon is planning to spend more than $200 million to repair and build U.S. military facilities and installations on air bases throughout eastern Europe as part of an ongoing effort to address and deter Russian aggression. The money is contained in the FY2018 defense bill that President Trump signed recently. In addition to improving capabilities in eastern Europe, the Pentagon will also build facilities in Iceland and Norway as part of the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI). The program was implemented several months after Russia ‘annexed’ the Crimea in Ukraine. The buildup is already reminding some of the Cold War. The Air Force expects to send F-22s and F-35s, along with reconnaissance assets to hunt Russian subs. [source]


CNO wants more training time with foreign navies

The Trump administration and the Pentagon have set upon a 355-ship navy in order to be able to meet global threats and demands on the fleet to protect and serve vital American interests. However, the reality is, the U.S. Navy won’t get to a 355-ship fleet anytime soon, and the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, is well aware of that. As such, he is pursuing a policy of what is essentially force multiplication: He wants the Navy to conduct more training with foreign fleets, levering a lack of U.S. ships in exchange for American presence and mutual security. “What I want to do, particularly in 2018, is more time in these exercises working toward the high-end of naval warfare,” Richardson told about 1,000 sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in Yokosuka, Japan. He stressed that cooperation with foreign, allied navies (especially in the Asian theater) will be vital going forward in order to ensure security for all. [source] (Analyst comment: The U.S. simply does not have the shipbuilding capacity, nor is there enough money in the Navy’s budget, to reach the 355-ship fleet in the near-term, so the only way to achieve the same security outcome is by engaging with allied fleets and sharing the workload.)


Soldiers in South Korea train with new gear designed for North Korean tunnels

Elements of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment based in Texas air-assaulted from Blackhawks into South Korea’s Camp Stanley, linked up with South Korean troops and entered a bunker during an exercise dubbed Warrior Strike. The troops were using high-tech communications and night-vision gear specifically designed to operate in underground bunkers — just like those they’d find throughout North Korea, where Pyongyang has stored weapons, missiles, and quite probably weapons of mass destruction. There are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 underground facilities in North Korea, which has been building them for decades in order to shield weapons and systems from U.S. and South Korean bombs and artillery. U.S. and South Korean forces, should they be sent into North Korea to find WMD, would have to clear miles and miles of tunnels, and so hence, the need for the new gear. It includes “a new radio device — the Mobile Ad Hoc Networking Unit, or MPU5 — which acts as a WiFi-like node and creates a peer-to-peer radio relay, allowing the transmission of text and imagery between troops in the tunnel and to a commander on the surface” and “AN/PSQ-20 night-vision goggles that use thermal detection when ambient light wanes.” [source]

Marine Corps

Corps wants more small boats — LOTS of them — for coastal ops

The USMC envisions having to fight in shallow, coastal waters while being dispersed across large stretches of land and water in future conflicts, and for that reason it wants hundreds of fast, small assault boats. Maj. Gen. David Coffman, who directs the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division, said the Corps is looking for new ways to put conventional forces on small watercraft for ops ranging from insertions and riverine operations to raids. “If we were to claim any moniker, we want to be the father of the 1,000-boat Navy,” Coffman said at a Navy League event near Washington, D.C., in late November. Currently the service has about 800 small boats including combatant craft, Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats, and other various smaller craft. But Coffman believes the force needs about 1,000 altogether. “The Marine Corps largely got out of what we call itty bitty boats … the commandant wants us to get back in the boat business,” Coffman said. “He’s recognizing he needs to distribute his force and be able to move in smaller discrete elements and different ways.” Strategy for employing these craft is still being worked out. [source]

PIR3: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the economic or financial industry that could lead to instability? 

Democrats quite perturbed by the tax bill

While Republicans and much of middle America celebrated the 2018 tax cuts, Democrats expressed their displeasure — and rightly so. For one, Democrats are set up to do ‘more’ through government with less funding. That clearly puts tax raises on the table for Democrats running in 2018 and beyond. But by far the greatest impact to domestic instability is the bill’s provision that limits state and local property and income tax write-offs to just $10,000. Previously, taxpayers could deduct those costs. And why does this matter and to whom? Primarily blue states because that’s where state income and property taxes are the highest. So if you’re a high earner living in California (13.3% top tax rate), Oregon (9.9%), Minnesota (9.85%), New Jersey (8.97%) New York (8.82%), or D.C. (8.95%), then you’re going to be paying a lot more in federal income taxes. That could also lead to economic drain in these states, especially if business owners continue moving to neighboring states to avoid paying higher taxes.

PIR4: What are the new indicators of systems disruption to the critical infrastructure that could lead to instability?

GridEx IV participants open up about EMP threat

In November, DHS and hundreds of local and state organizations and thousands of personnel participated in GridEx IV, an biennial exercise that throws scenarios of grid damage, failure, and collapse at participants. Although GridEx IV did not specifically address the threat of electromagnetic pulse (EMP), officials are saying that there’s no real plan to address the threat. But that’s not stopping independent organizations from making their own determinations and plans. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) published a study this week which recognized that an EMP could result in large scale damage to electrical lines and facilities. And other officials, like one from ISO New England, which oversees the transmission of electrical power in New England, says that the energy sector doesn’t have a plan for an EMP attack or coronal mass ejection (CME) event. [source]


There are flaws in emergency responder apps

The Department of Homeland Security has discovered cyber vulnerabilities or privacy threats in 32 of 33 mobile apps used by emergency first responders (fire, EMS) in a pilot test. Worse, more than half of the issues discovered were designated as “critical flaws,” like basic failures to keep users’ information secure, said DHS’ science and technology division, which conducted the pilot. And in some cases at least, apps unnecessarily accessed a smart phone’s camera, contacts and text messages, causing major privacy concerns. As more apps are adopted for public-safety missions, it is critical that a formal, ongoing app-evaluation process with incentives for developer participation be adopted,” John Merrill, Director of the Science and Technology Division’s First Responder Group Next Generation First Responder Apex program, said in a statement. [source] (Analyst comment: Companies with vulnerable apps were able to patch them in about an hour, this report noted.)

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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