Strategic Intelligence Summary for 22 March 2018

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

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (4,317 words)

  • Maryland National Guard cannot account for hundreds of rounds of ammo distributed during riots
  • U.S. could finish ISIS if Turkey would stop fighting the Kurds: Pentagon
  • Venezuelan town issues its own currency as country-wide economic collapse continues 
  • Canada sending peacekeepers, helicopters to Mali 
  • Pakistan navy test-fires new land-based anti-ship missile 
  • Russia to begin serial production of combat robots this year 
  • U.S Army wants THAAD, Patriot to interface within two years 
  • Japan looking to add carrier-based fighter capability 
  • China tests remote-controlled tanks that could be powered by AI
  • NATO-Russia
  • Middle East
  • North Korea
  • South China Sea
  • U.S. Coast Guard seized nearly 1 ton of cocaine per day last year in record 
  • Cartel gunman kill four, shoot it out with Mexican police near U.S. border

In Focus: We’ve made some additional changes this week, based on reader/subscriber feedback. The biggest being to the four PIR 3 regional conflict zones. I’m going to start including more “tactical” information in these segments — geopolitical developments, troop movements, key battles, warning signs, etc., that will make these segments much more relevant and useful. Please let us know in the coming weeks if we’re hitting the mark or we’ll still wide of the target. And as always, welcome to this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary and thank you for subscribing We welcome your feedback. — JD

Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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

PIR4: What is the current security situation along the U.S.-Mexico border and south of the border?

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

Maryland National Guard cannot account for hundreds of rounds of ammo distributed during riots

Officials with the Maryland National Guard have officially acknowledged that they cannot account for “hundreds” of rounds of ammo (on paper, anyway) that were distributed to troops that were deployed during recent race-related unrest in Baltimore. In an interview with local media, Guard spokesman Col. Charles Kohler said that officials aren’t sure whether 1,500 missing M4 rounds are actually gone or if units have simply lost track of them. He said it could be just an “accounting error.” He added that so far the Guard hasn’t found “anybody liable” for a “broken chain of custody” for the ammo. [source] Analysis: This is a huge deal and you can bet there are some Maryland Guard units’ logistics NCOs who are sweating over this one. It’s hard to imagine how rounds could go missing in the first place, having been in the Guard myself, but I can say with confidence that finding them is a high-priority issue for the Maryland Guard.

U.S. could finish ISIS if Turkey would stop fighting the Kurds: Pentagon

U.S. commanders in Syria are upset at Turkey for launching its offensive against the Kurds in Syria’s northwest border region because the fight there has drawn at least 1,000 Kurdish fighters away from U.S. forces, which has slowed the pace of finishing off ISIS. Now, not much ground at all is changing hands and that is confounding and angering U.S. military commanders on the ground. “It has slowed the pace of our advance,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon recently. “I would not say that ISIS is gaining momentum, but I would instead say the inevitable conclusion of this has been slowed by the fact that not so much rank and file, but some leadership has moved back up north.” Meanwhile, the U.S. has tried unsuccessfully to get its NATO ally to agree to a form of joint U.S.-Turkish/international forces patrols in order to guarantee security along its southern border, but Ankara is having none of it. Turkey insists that all Kurds in the north be moved to a place east of the Euphrates River, and that they are ejected specifically from Manbij, where they are co-located with U.S. forces. [source]

Venezuelan town issues its own currency as country-wide economic collapse continues

Local officials in the town of Elorza in western Venezuela have begun issuing their own currency to make it easier for residents and visitor to take during festivities. Rampant hyper-inflation and a severe shortage of the country’s official currency, bolivars, have severely damaged the town economically, making the issue of local currency necessary. Officials say that the new money can be purchased at the mayor’s office via a bank wire transfer. People don’t have bolivares to spend, that’s why we have created bills of two denominations… and we’ve already sold 2bn bolivares worth,” mayor Solfreddy Solórzano, from the governing PSUV party, said. Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rate at 6,000 percent, per an estimate by the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Citizens of the once-prosperous South American country are limited to the amount of cash they can spend each day to 10,000 bolivars, which are worth less than five cents on the black market. [source] Meanwhile, President Trump has banned Americans from investing in Venezuelan cryptocurrency, via executive order, a day before Caracas launched its new cryptocurrency called the “petro.” The order prohibits “all transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018.” The order characterized the administration of President Nicolas Maduro of attempted to circumvent U.S. sanctions with cryptocurrency. [source]

Canada sending peacekeepers, helicopters to Mali

The Canadian military will be sending a contingent of peacekeepers backed by helicopters to the western African nation of Mali by this fall. The deployment comes as Jihadist militants have ramped up activities in central Mali, targeting both Malian and foreign forces as violence has spread from the country’s north. Extremists linked to al Qaeda took control of Mali’s desert north in 2012 but were driven out by a French-led operation that began in January 2013. Mali’s government signed a peace accord with some armed militants in June 105 but jihadist militants remain active in parts of the country. Last fall Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to boost Canada’s support for UN peacekeeping missions by establishing a rapid mobilization force of 200 soldiers. This “quick reaction force” is also backed by tactical helicopters and air transport. It isn’t clear if the Canadian troops have a mandate to take part in any offensive operations against militants or if they’re just there to defend local nationals. [sources]

Indian army warns citizens about Chinese hackers using WhatsApp

The Indian army has produced a video warning Indian citizens that Chinese hackers are using the social media app WhatsApp to extract their personal information. The video, posted on Twitter by the Additional Directorate General of Public Interface — Indian army’s official handle — warns the WhatsApp breach is just the latest platform that the Chinese are using to spy on Indian citizens. “Chinese numbers starting with +86 (China’s country code) barge into your groups and start extracting all the data,” the Indian army said, while urging people to regularly “audit” their WhatsApp groups for any unknown numbers. “Destroy the SIM card if you change your number, and delete your WhatsApp on that number,” the army said in the video, which was retweeted by India’s Defense Ministry. Last year, during a sometimes tense standoff with Chinese troops in a remote border region, the Indian army warned troops stationed there against using WhatsApp and other social media platforms deemed vulnerable to Chinese hackers. [source]

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

Pakistan navy test-fires new land-based anti-ship missile

The Pakistani navy has announced via newswire that it test-fired a land-based anti-ship missile as part of a training exercise. While the navy didn’t disclose many details, including the type of weapon fired or its specifications, it is likely the missile has been in service for some time. [source] Other open-source Pakistani media confirmed the missile: A Zarb, which was designed to counter threats from the Arabian Sea. “The missile was fired from a strategic point located at a coastal area which successfully hit its target in the Arabian sea,” a spokesman for the Pakistan Navy Commodore Nadeem Bokhari said in a statement issued from naval headquarters in Islamabad. [source] Analysis: In theory, the Zarb could be a land-based version of the Babur Version 2 land-attack cruise missile. After procuring a land-based anti-ship missile, some analysts say it will be worth seeing if Pakistan matches it with a land-based over-the-horizon radar for long-range targeting. 

Russia to begin serial production of combat robots this year

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says the country may begin serial production of combat robots for the armed forces this year. Speaking at a nationalist forum, Shoigu was asked by a participant of the event if future Russian soldiers’ roles would change in the near future as more combat operations were undertaken by unmanned, remotely-controlled weapons systems. “Why in the near future? This is being implemented today and is being implemented quite energetically,” the defense minister answered.

U.S Army wants THAAD, Patriot to interface within two years

The Army wants to link its two most crucial air and missile defense systems together by 2020, which the service says is vital to establish a much more effective, layered approach to AMD. The effort could eventually lead to the enhanced development of the Army’s future AMD command-and-control system, the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS. Specifically, the Army seeks to link its Terminal High Altitude System, or THAAD, to the Patriot medium-range air/missile defense system. Getting both systems operating jointly is vital to building a better operational anti-air, missile defense capability, say Army officials heading up the effort. [source]

Japan looking to add carrier-based fighter capability

The Japan Self Defense Force is solidifying plans to by U.S.-made F-35B stealth fighters and modify its Izumo-class helicopter carriers to accommodate the vertical takeoff/landing version of the plane. The objective is to give Japan’s maritime forces better capability against North Korea or China. The country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will submit a proposal for the plan by May, with revised guidelines due later this year. [source] Though the capability would come in handy against North Korea, the Japanese are much more concerned about China and the dispute with Beijing over control of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims but which Japan currently administers. Giving the Japanese navy a sea-based air capability would go along way towards deterring China, which is building true aircraft carriers.

China tests remote-controlled tanks that could be powered by AI

The Chinese military is testing remote-controlled tanks that someday could be powered and driven using artificial intelligence. State television portrayed images of an older Type 59 tank that was being driven remotely by a soldier sitting at a console. The Type 59 is a 1950s-era Soviet design that China copied and mass-produced. Liu Qingshan, the editor of a Chinese military publication, said, “A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence.” Unmanned tanks and other vehicles could be integrated with data links fed from satellites, aircraft, or naval vessels. [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)


As a reflection of the country’s shrinking GDP and prioritization of domestic plans, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said that defense spending will be cut. Ostensibly, the aide told Russian media, the cuts are no big deal because the Russian government has “passed the peak of saturating our defense forces with new types of armaments and military equipment.” Further, according to Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, no additional spending increases are being planned. Now, Russia manages to get a little more out of its defense spending than does the United States, because weapons systems are not nearly as expensive. But the reduced expenditures often come at the price of reduced technological advancement, so when you combine that with overall reductions in spending, it seems clear that the Kremlin’s military won’t surpass the U.S. and NATO militaries anytime soon. That doesn’t mean Russia isn’t still prepared to field a capable fighting force, however.

Meanwhile, the Caspian Sea fleet held anti-drone exercises and live-fire drills as crews from more than 10 naval ships and other vessels operating in the Southern Military District. Missile ships Tatarstan and Dagestan took part in the drills as did the smaller missile boats Grad Sviyazhsk and Veliky Ustyug. The drills involved tracking imaginary enemy drones heading back towards a home station using tracking and visual surveillance technologies. The fleet’s flagship, the Tartarstan, reportedly held successful live-fire exercises against air, sea, and shore targets using missiles, deck guns, and the Palash air defense artillery system.

The Russian navy has also deployed two frigates to the Mediterranean Sea, with one of them equipped with long-range Kalibr missiles. Another frigate armed with Kalibrs was deployed to the Red Sea. Russia appears to be building up its naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean region at a time when the U.S. is making threats to intervene militarily against the Syrian government forces attacking a rebel enclave east of Damascus.

Also, Russia is preparing to test the country’s newest ICBM, according to the Russian chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. “The first launch of this missile took place at the end of December last year,” he told Russian media. “At the moment preparations are in full swing at the [cosmodrome] for another pop-up test.” The Russian military says that the ICBM, the Sarmat, has a shorter active flight phase and is better able to penetrate existing missile defenses. Plus, at 200 tons, it’s a behemoth that can carry more and larger warheads. Two major Russian naval vessels – the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Admiral Essen and the Krivak II-class anti-submarine frigate Pytivyy – have been photographed passing southwards through the Bosphorus by independent ship observers on 12–13 March. Admiral Essen is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 km (about 1,550 miles). The Russian government announced the move. The Russian naval buildup comes off the coast of Syria as tensions grow with the U.S. over the East Ghouta enclave that has been under sustained attack by government forces since February, despite the UN Security Council passing a resolution calling for a ceasefire. [source]

Russia’s new, advanced Avangard hypersonic missile system is slated to enter service in 2019, according to the Kremlin. This is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile system that is equipped, supposedly, with a hypersonic glide vehicle; if it’s deployed as stated, it will become the first such operational system in the world, but so far not even Russian media has been able to confirm whether or not such a system is fully developed and ready to deploy. Recall this is the weapon system President Putin unveiled during his recent State of the Nation speech before the Federal Assembly on 1 March. Russia, like the U.S. and China, has an active hypersonic glide vehicle program. There are doubts among many in the U.S. intelligence community whether this system is really ready to deploy or if it is still in the developmental stages, however.

Finally, President Putin easily won another six-year term, which was expected, and one of his first orders of business was to order more Americans added to a “blacklist” in response to U.S. sanctions. This will do nothing to ramp down the tensions between Moscow and Washington, which continue to rise in the Trump era. [source] In case you missed it, I published an analysis on the Watchfloor earlier this week in which I discussed what I believe is an effort by a sort of “never Trump” faction in Washington to keep our president from being able to improve relations with Russia, which I think Trump really wants to do. None of this is to say that Putin’s a good guy or anything, but I think Trump believes he can at least achieve some level of understanding between both men that would be helpful in ramping down tensions. He can’t, however, as long as this “Russian collusion” narrative emanating from the 2016 election continues to cast a pall over his presidency. If Trump is hemmed in by this narrative, which I don’t think is real, he’ll never be able to improve relations and the U.S. will remain on a collision course with Russia, a revisionist power.

Middle East: 

Reports surfaced last month that hundreds of Russian mercenaries likely financed by Moscow joined other Syrian-based fighters in a Feb. 7 attack against a base held, in part, by American troops. When the fight was over, U.S. air power and on-the-ground artillery decimated the attacking force, estimated to be about 500 fighters. Among the dead wounded: Some 200-300 Russian mercenaries. As reports began to surface in Russia of the battle, Moscow downplayed it, electing to brush the route under the rug by claiming that it was a “rogue force” not under the Kremlin’s control. Anybody who understands the situation in Syria, Russia’s presence there, and Moscow’s objectives believes that. I’ve read some open source reporting suggesting that Putin would ‘test’ Trump’s resolve in Syria by staging just such an attack. Well, he got his answer; American forces stood firm and gave much better than they got. The results speak for themselves. However, Putin may not be done yet. The one-star U.S. Army general in charge of American forces in Syria, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, said he is concerned that Russian mercs will return. As such, he has ordered his troops (about 2,000) to fortify embankments and prepare for future confrontations. The attacking force remains close by; within three miles. [source]

Meanwhile, Turkey has vowed to expand its military offensive in Syria’s Afrin region to additional Kurdish-held areas further east, towards the Manbij region where U.S. troops are stationed with Kurdish militia allies. The expansion of military operations was announced by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan one day after Turkish forces entered Afrin virtually unopposed. “We will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Tal Abyad, Was al-Ayn, and Qamishli,” he said. [source] U.S. officials repeated their criticism of NATO ally Turkey’s continued operations, saying they are pulling Kurdish allies away from the fight against the remaining elements of ISIS.

Speaking of ISIS, its fighters retook an area near the Syrian capital of Damascus after government forces pulled out and redeployed to a neighboring area that rebels had abandoned a week earlier. Reports noted that fighting lasted a full 24 hours, in which 36 Syrian soldiers were killed. The ISIS-controlled area, the al-Qadam district, is located in the Damascus suburbs; it wasn’t part of a month-long offensive that has been waged by the Syrian army against rebel forces in eastern Ghouta. ISIS now only controls a small pocket in Qadam, a sliver of territory in southwest Syria near the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and two small patches of desert on either side of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. [source]

North Korea:

In order to take full advantage of the potential for peace talks, the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to cut short by a month the annual Foal Eagle exercises, which are set to begin in April. “The Foal Eagle exercises will be held for a month in April due to a delay caused by the Olympics and as each military has its own schedule,” a South Korean defense ministry spokesman said. Last year the drills lasted two months — March and April. [source] The exercises have always been a source of tension with the North, which regularly claims that they are a prelude to war. It’s unclear how much or whether the one-month reduction in joint annual training will affect the readiness and interoperability of both militaries, though I suspect it won’t be much, if at all. That said, it’s good that there will at least be some joint training this year, as North Korea remains unpredictable.

That said, South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has committed already to eventual denuclearization ahead of talks with President Trump, which could happen by May. “The significance of his word is quite weighty in the sense that this is the first time that the words came directly from the North Korean supreme leader himself, and that has never been done before,” Kang told a U.S. TV network, adding that Kim has “given his word” on the issue. [source]

Still, South Korea isn’t taking any chances with its security. The country plans to deploy a North Korean “artillery killer” — a new, short-range, surface-to-surface ballistic missile as part of a newly-formed counter-artillery brigade that is expected to be ready by October. The objective of the new unit is to counter the North Korean army’s sizable mass of conventional artillery, which has thousands of tubes pointed at the South Korean capital of Seoul. North Korean artillery is deployed at hardened sites; the new missile is reportedly capable of destroying hardened sites and bunkers. “The brigade’s mission is fairly focused on destroying North Korea’s long-range guns more rapidly and effectively, should conflict arise,” according to a defense ministry statement. The weapon is GPS-guided, and four missiles can be launched nearly simultaneously from a fixed launch pad. According to the 2016 Defense White Paper, North Korea has some 8,600 towed and self-propelled artillery, as well as 5,500 multiple-launch rockets. Seventy percent of them were deployed near the border. [source]

But are we witnessing the official end of the Korean War, as well as denuclearization of the North? Unofficial talks held in Finland in recent days involving delegates from both Koreas and the United States went well, Finnish officials said, so there’s always a chance that this conflict zone goes away. We’re not there yet, though, and there’s plenty of skepticism. [source]

South China Sea:

A senior Chinese advisor on Taiwanese affairs said he believes that Beijing is altering and refining diplomatic and military tactics with an eye towards retaking the island nation by force. Li Yihu, the dean of Peking University’s Taiwan Studies Institute, said that China is reinforcing its “carrot and stick” strategy of dealing with forces in Taiwan that want Taipei to declare independence. Li said that Beijing’s “carrots” consist of offers of better-paying jobs, equal treatment, and the promise of access to a far larger market in order to lure Taiwan into China’s sphere. At the same time, “analysts have cautioned that if the sweeteners fail to work, the mainland could bring down its ‘stick’ — moving to forcibly seize the wayward island,” said a Chinese media report.“Cross-strait unification is more urgent when the mainland’s economic power is rising,” Li said. Solving the “Taiwan problem” is a major objective of Xi’s “national rejuvenation” goal, along with growing Chinese military, economic, cultural, and geopolitical power. [source] That assessment comes as President Xi gave a very nationalistic-sounding speech to the Chinese parliament in which he claimed any attempts to divide China were “doomed to fail.” He also reaffirmed his objective of “achieving total unity” with Taiwan — one way or the other. [source]

At the same time, the U.S. is making it more difficult for China to freely operate in the region. The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, left port in Okinawa this week with a contingent of F-35Bs are aboard the ship and will flying their first patrols in the South China Sea and beyond (the “Indo-Pacific region as well). This is the vertical takeoff/landing version of the stealthy plane. [source]

As for the Taiwanese, the island nation isn’t just lying down. Sensing a renewed commitment from the U.S. by the Trump White House, Taiwan is becoming a bit more aggressive in its own defense. After the Liaoning aircraft carrier group entered the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese navy sent warships and aircraft to shadow the group. [source] China has ramped up sea and air patrols near Taiwan over the past couple of years as it flexes its superior military might.

Regionally, there have been some diplomatic developments that are noteworthy. China and the Philippines, once rivals, are courting closer economic ties in the form of joint oil exploration in disputed regions of the South China Sea. No deals are done yet, but the fact that both nations are talking about it leads me to believe that eventually a deal will get done and that will put Manila one step closer to Beijing and one foot farther away from Washington. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government, which has also been a long-time rival of the Chinese, is forging closer bonds with the Australian government strictly as a means of countering Beijing. The two countries signed a strategic partnership on 15 March to increase high-level dialogue and diplomacy. It’s a win-win; Vietnam gets a security agreement and Australia gets more access to Southeast Asia where it has business and security interests — both with an eye towards ensuring freedom of navigation and denying China absolute control over the entire body of water.

PIR4: What is the current security situation along the U.S.-Mexico border and south of the border?

U.S. Coast Guard seized nearly 1 ton of cocaine per day last year in record

The U.S. Coast Guard was intercepting upwards of a ton of cocaine a day last year, setting a new record for seizures, according to the service’s commander. Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told Congress this week that his service was interdicting 10 times more cocaine that was sized on land last year. He went onto note that the USCG seized more than 450,000 pounds of cocaine worth (wholesale) $6 billion in recent months. “The U.S. will never get in front of this problem by itself, which is why we need allies… and as many ships as we put out there, what we soon run out of is surveillance aircraft, which is why we’re looking and experimenting with land-based UAS,” Zukunft noted further. [source]

Cartel gunman kill four, shoot it out with Mexican police near U.S. border

A four-man team of cartel gunmen broke into a house in the border town of Peidras Negras, Coahuila, killing two people while wounding two more before engaging in a firefight with local police. The attack occurred in Lazaro Cardenas next to a herb processing plant. Police said the assassins fired multiple times into a residence. The town is located immediately south of Eagle Pass, Texas. The area is one of the most trafficked routes for human- drug smugglers. [source]

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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