Strategic Intelligence Summary for 23 August 2018 – Forward Observer Shop

Strategic Intelligence Summary for 23 August 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: (3,060 words)

  • InFocus: The U.S. military is slow but is changing rapidly
  • Bolton: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea may interfere in U.S. elections
  • China’s economic, financial woes could have large scale impacts
  • Adversaries could have ‘fiddled’ with U.S. satellites
  • TRADOC: Platoon-level cyber and information operations
  • Army Cyber Command may get a new name to reflect changing mission
  • Shoigu: Vostok-18 will be largest exercise since Cold War
  • Belgium and Germany to take over Baltic air policing
  • China proposes military cooperation with ASEAN
  • Duterte again warns of war with China
  • Bolton: U.S. will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons
  • Kim complains of his nation’s healthcare sector
  • President Trump: ‘Most likely’ I will visit with North Korea again
  • And more…

In Focus: This week’s TechNet Augusta symposium was very enlightening. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend in person, but I did follow along online. Augusta, Georgia is the home of Fort Gordon (where my military intelligence brigade was based) and the U.S. Army Cyber Command. Every event like this in the past couple years generally tells the same story: the U.S. military is changing fast but our adversaries are moving faster, and we’re all racing to either take or keep the lead.

If adversaries aren’t ahead of the U.S. in areas like cyber, space, electronic, and information warfare, then they’re already on their way. Generals routinely comment at these types of events that in many ways the U.S. military is playing catch up. While the Budget Control Act of 2011 certainly didn’t help, the military is still reeling from the consequences of spending 15+ years developing tools for fighting low-tech insurgents in the desert while Russia and China (and others) were focused on developing their own high tech information operations capabilities and integrating cyber operations with other forms of warfare. This is the “multi” in “multi-domain” warfare. As I mention in an analyst comment in PIR2, the U.S. military is transitioning from combined arms (air, land, sea) to multi-domain battle as they employ cyber, space, electronic, and information warfare alongside the traditional shoot, move, and communicate. The military that best employs shoot, move, communicate, jam, disrupt, and deceive will have an edge in the next major conflict. The U.S. is playing catch up in jam, disrupt, and deceive.

U.S. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) chief Lt. Gen. Theodore Martin said that adversaries like Russia and China “are moving by leaps and bounds to try to gain a position advantage to us in what has emerged as two additional domains, [space and cyber], that now eclipse air-land battle,” which “is driving change in the Army like I have never seen in my 35-year career.”

We really ought to appreciate what we’re being told here. It’s not just that militaries are adapting to next generation weapons and tactics, but it’s also that we need to adapt to a world where cyber attacks are more prevalent, more costly and damaging, and have more immediate effects than traditional attacks. The cyber, space, and information weapons in use today and tomorrow aren’t confined to specific battlefields; they can be used to attack entire countries with a higher level of cost-effectiveness than any other method. In 2018 and beyond, the battlefield could be everywhere.

This is the nature of asymmetric warfare. Perhaps the Chinese military would lose to the United States in a war over the South China Sea, but China can use their cyber teams to attack domestic targets that would help them achieve some strategic parity despite operational losses. That’s a reality going forward: a war in Europe against Russia or in Asia against China could very well have effects here at home. And we should also not count out attacks from Iran (who’ve already been behind an attempted hacking of a dam in upstate New York), North Korea, or nationalist hacking groups operating outside the authority of their own governments, but who use cyber attacks in a similar manner as state-sponsored cyber teams.

My closing thoughts are that the U.S. military is playing catch up to a threat they’ve struggled to comprehend and, in may ways, are still trying to identify the implications of new technologies and methods of employment. Experts have warned before about the eventuality of a “cyber 9/11”, and I don’t think the risk is overblown. In a geopolitical world where the U.S. may end up fighting a war to maintain is hegemony, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that we see massive systems disruption to due a conflict, even if ships, tanks, and planes aren’t involved. – S.C.


Priority Intelligence Requirements:

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

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

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

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

Bolton: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea may interfere in U.S. elections

On a Sunday show last weekend, national security advisor John Bolton said that U.S. officials are examining the possibility that adversaries will undermine U.S. elections. “Well, I can say definitively that it’s a sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling and North Korean meddling that we’re taking steps to try and prevent it.” Bolton is also concerned that adversaries target other critical infrastructure, as he described the U.S. has having a “whole range of vulnerable systems”. [source]

China’s economic, financial woes could have large scale impacts

Despite the near-constant messaging of the inevitable rise of China and their fast-growing economy, China does have economic cracks. One particular concern is the devaluation of the Chinese yuan and its effects on emerging markets. Smaller nations who hold large amounts of the yuan in reserve could become financially distressed if the yuan’s value continues to drop. Since the financial crisis of 2008, China’s response to any economic weakness or instability has been to print, and as of last year, China’s total debt was 256 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP; China’s corporate debt in mid-2017 was 163 percent of its GDP, according to the Bank of International Settlements). There are also numerous reports that point to trillions in off-the-books debt that fuel concerns over a credit bubble, similar to the one in the United States circa 2007-2008. This is something I’m watching, and we should be open to the possibility that a financial crisis in China — the world’s second-largest economy — pushes a global economic slowdown and perhaps another global recession.

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

Adversaries could have ‘fiddled’ with U.S. satellites

The Pentagon’s Inspector General released a report on 16 August critical of the Air Force Space Command’s failure to safeguard its supply chain. According to the report, this failure means “an adversary has opportunity to infiltrate the Air Force Space Command supply chain and sabotage, maliciously introduce an unwanted function, or otherwise compromise the design or integrity of the critical hardware, software, and firmware.” [source] Analyst Comment: These vulnerabilities could compromise some of America’s most critical satellite systems, including the missile launch detection satellites known as SBIRS. These satellites are relied upon to detect missile launches and queue our missile defense systems. Proponents of a new, independent military service, sometimes referred to as Space Force, will likely point to the report as further proof that such a service is necessary.

TRADOC: Platoon-level cyber and information operations

At a TechNet Augusta, an annual symposium focused on cyber electromagnetic activities, Lt. Gen. Theodore Martin, head of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, said that conventional Army units were “years away” from employing cyber, electronic, and information warfare in combined armed operations, but that units will need to use both in future conflicts. “The fielded force right now has got an inkling of what their capabilities are, but they don’t know, and they don’t trust. You need to build the trust, and you need to educate.” Lt. Gen. Martin also described a future where traditionally higher-echelon activities, like cyber and information attacks, will need to be pushed lower. He used an example of an infantry platoon employing cyber attacks during an assault on an objective. [source] Analyst Comment: Just as we’ve seen with the advancement of the internet and all the technology that decentralized communication has done for the economy, so to are we seeing rapid development in multi-domain operations. Beyond just air, land, and sea (planes, tanks, and boats); multi-domain operations now include cyber, information, electronic, and maybe even space warfare — a much more complex system of systems designed to overwhelm an enemy on multiple fronts, and provide the U.S. military with a greater advantage. Just like the invention of the bow and arrow, then rifles, artillery and missiles, changed the execution of warfare, so will the employment of these developing tactics referred to as multi-domain battle.

Army Cyber Command may get a new name to reflect changing mission

Also speaking at TechNet Austin, Lt. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, commander of U.S. Army Cyber Command, suggested that his command’s name reflects a previous generation of warfare. (U.S. Army Cyber Command was established in 2010.)  “I think we’re well past that now. We’re at the point where, in the future, it’s going to change to something like this: Army Information Warfare Operations Command or Army Information Warfare Dominance Command.” Lt. Gen. Fogarty said that cyber, electronic warfare, intelligence and signals capabilities are starting to overlap, so making changes will be required to integrate them all into a combined part of multi-domain battle. “That’s the next stage of this is actually bringing all of this together. Yes, it is to integrate these capabilities, integrate the [cyber] domain and the information environment. What I believe is that our adversaries are doing exactly that.” [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:

Shoigu: Vostok-18 will be largest exercise since Cold War

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the international military exercise Vostock-18 will be “the largest since Zapad-81 [1981]”. He went on to say that the exercise “will be unprecedented in terms of geographic scope and the strength of command and control centers and forces due to participate.” In addition to Russian forces, Chinese and Mongolian military elements will be participating. The exercise is scheduled to take place in September. [source] Analyst Comment: Russian president Vladimir Putin wants to prove to the world that the Russian military is a growing and capable force. It’s the centerpiece of his strategy to re-establish Russian prominence globally.

Belgium and Germany to take over Baltic air policing

Starting in September, Belgium will take lead of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission—a mission that has existed since 2004 when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the NATO military alliance—with Germany filling the supporting role. Belgian F-16 fighters will be based in Lithuania and German Eurofighter Typhoons will be based in Estonia. [source] Analyst Comment: The Baltics are a point of contention for Russian and NATO aircraft, as they routinely intercept each other in the surrounding airspace. The militaries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — the area referred to as the Baltics — are too small to provide adequate defense of their airspace against Russia. The Baltics have also started to implement military and civil defense plans in the event they are overrun by Russian ground forces.




Significant Developments:

China proposes military cooperation with ASEAN

According to a Japanese news outlet, China has proposed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that regular joint military exercises be held in the disputed South China Sea. The source of this reporting is an ASEAN diplomatic official. The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise, which was originally proposed by China, was held in a tabletop exercise form at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base on August 2-3.  Actual drills in the waters near China will be held in October. [source] Analyst Comment: Beijing reportedly submitted the proposal as a possible means of avoiding conflict in the disputed waters. But a part of the agreement outlines that no joint military exercises with countries from outside the region be held without prior notice or agreement. The would preclude joint exercises with the United States without potential approval, another sign that China is actively attempting to displace a U.S. presence in the region.


Duterte again warns of war with China

Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte is brash. Between offering rewards for killing communist rebels and wanting to hunt down and execute drug dealers, he often speaks his mind and follows through. (According to one estimate, 12,000 drug users and drug dealers have been killed since Duterte assumed power.) We should probably be aware that, in a recent interview, Duterte said that China activities risks war with the Philippines. Speaking of China, he said, “If you monopolize [the oil in the South China Sea], there will be trouble. That’s where we’re going to have differences. That’s where you’ll see [Interior Secretary Eduardo] Año bring a machete there and cut down the Chinese.” The Filipino government lays sovereign claim to areas where the Chinese are building artificial islands. [source] Analyst Comment: For some perspective, the Filipino leader has been pretty erratic during his time in office. He called former president Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then cozied up to China despite their aggression and President Trump’s calls for cooperation with the U.S. Last year, I said Duterte’s behavior looked like a man who was playing both sides to see who could give him the better deal. While Duterte has been friendly with China, he’s also developed better relations with the U.S. under President Trump. More recently, Duterte has resumed his rhetoric against Chinese expansion in the area. Reading Duterte may end up being a lot like reading President Trump: take him seriously, but not literally. Still, the Philippines are a strategic partner in the U.S. fight against Chinese hegemony in the region. Duterte wants to play his cards right, which means balancing the belief in continued U.S. support and presence in the region versus the expectation that China will one day physically control the South China Sea, despite the claims to the region by other nations.


Middle East

Significant Developments:

Bolton: U.S. will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons

During his first trip to Israel since taking office in April, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that it was “of the highest importance to the United States” that Iran be precluded from getting nuclear weapons. Bolton said this was the purpose of the U.S. withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and working with its European allies to strengthen their stances against Iranian nuclear ambitions. Bolton also expressed U.S. concerns over Iranian sponsorship of international terrorism and its belligerent military activity in Iran, in the Levant, and in Yemen. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the U.S.-Israel alliance as stronger than ever, praising the Trump administration’s actions vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of Iranian sanctions. [source] Analyst Comment: Bolton appeared in a more recent interview where he said that sanctions against Iran were working. “Let me be clear, the reimposition of the sanctions, we think, is already having a significant effect on Iran’s economy and on, really, popular opinion inside Iran.” Speaking on a trip to Israel, Bolton also said, “Just to be clear, regime change in Iran is not American policy. But what we want is massive change in the regime’s behavior.” The two statements may mean that the Trump administration doesn’t want to topple the Iranian government, but rather wants to the Iranian people to topple it.


North Korea

Significant Developments:

Kim complains of his nation’s healthcare sector

In apparent reaction to U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited various industrial sites and factories in his country, often criticizing the performance of those entities. In one such recent visit to a medical appliances factory, Kim criticized the lack of modernization at the factory, according to state media outlet KCNA. [source] Analyst Comment: Perhaps emboldened by President Trump’s vision for North Korea, Kim has embarked on a plan to improve economic development. These visits are seen as part of that effort, with a likely goal of easing U.S. and U.N. sanctions through improving the living conditions of North Koreans.

President Trump: ‘Most likely’ I will visit with North Korea again

In a Reuters interview with President Trump, when asked whether another meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the horizon, Trump said, “It’s most likely we will, but I just don’t want to comment.”  No details regarding timing or location were given. Since the Singapore meeting with Kim, Trump says he believes that North Korea has taken steps toward denuclearization. South Korea’s leadership has responded positively, saying through a spokesman, “We think it is part of a process for achieving the two leaders’ resolve for the denuclearisation and peace of the Korean peninsula.” During the interview, Trump complained that progress in the matter has been impeded by China because of its current trade disputes with the U.S. [source] Analyst Comment: Just how committed Kim Jong-un is to denuclearization is up for debate. President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have to balance the appearance of optimism to encourage further talks, with their realism that while positive steps have been taken, there have been no guarantees. As reported above, Kim appears serious about North Korea’s economic development, and Secretary Pompeo likely stressed to Kim that he could be remembered as the leader who rewrote the future of his country and brought peace and prosperity to North Koreans. That’s the carrot. Secretary Pompeo’s stick is to convince Kim that nuclear weapons are more dangerous to the North Korean regime than to it’s neighbors — that is, President Trump is serious about using military options if diplomacy fails.
The commander of U.S. Forces Korea, Gen. Vincent Brooks, recently provided commentary on the situation, saying, “Distrust [between North Korean and U.S. officials] is still a dominant factor in the situation…Misperception is yet another—the actions taken by one party are not understood the way they were intended to be by the actor.” Gen. Brooks described the cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korean drills as a good faith effort to promote diplomacy, but recently warned that South Korea could be going too far in their efforts to court favor with North Korea. The South Korean government recently announced plans to downsize its military and remove its troops from the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Gen. Brooks said, “I have some concerns about what that means militarily for the ability to defend along the Military Demarcation Line. I believe there is a reasonable amount of risk involved in this, not an excessive amount.” The risk, of course, is that it leaves South Korea vulnerable to an invasion by North Korea, whose leaders want reunification at any cost, including war.


– 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *