Strategic Intelligence Summary for 25 January 2018

ADMIN NOTE: We’ve added a fourth PIR to this report, which includes activities along and below the U.S.-Mexico border.

In this Strategic Intelligence Summary: (4,550 words)

  • Britain, Italy to bolster troop presence in Africa’s Sahel
  • China, France to increase counterterrorism efforts in horn of Africa
  • Tokyo responds to increased missile threats
  • Russian militarization of the Arctic drives U.S. Coast Guard cruise missile decision
  • New Israeli navy missile defense system now operational
  • Russian military switches from Windows to Linux
  • New U.S. National Security Strategy moves away from small-state terror war
  • German Foreign Minister: ‘We are seeing what happens with the U.S. pulls back’
  • NATO allies increasingly at odds in Syria
  • CIA’s Pompeo hints that Trump may consider a preemptive strike on North Korea
  • Trump administration’s strategy to counter rising China being advances
  • Pentagon has more issues with the expensive F-35
  • Mexico continues to be awash in blood


In Focus: If I had to pick one word — well, one acronym — as this week’s most important, I would pick “NATO.” The alliance appears to be undergoing some tectonic geopolitical shifts which will impact its long-term effectiveness and readiness. As the Trump administration has moved to shore up the alliance, which was a surprise given the president’s campaign rhetoric about its ‘irrelevance’ in today’s ‘America first’ world, the alliance members don’t appear to be equally concerned about its inequities when compared to a rising Russia. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, alliance members Turkey and the United States are dangerously close to direct conflict, should Ankara press its ground assault against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias there. All this, of course, is against the backdrop of Trump’s Asia strategy being put in place and options for North Korea being given to President Trump.

Thank you for subscribing and enjoy this week’s Strategic Intelligence Summary. — 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?

Britain, Italy to bolster troop presence in Africa’s Sahel

The British and Italian governments plan to increase their military presence in Mali in the coming weeks. The UK will send helicopters to bolster a key French counter-terrorism operation there. The decision was agreed to at a summit near London last week. Meantime, Italy’s parliament approved increased an increased military presence in Niger by sending 120 troops initially, to follow on with an additional 350 in the coming weeks. The reason for the Italian deployment is to stem human trafficking of African migrants as a means of cutting down the potential number of Islamic terrorists flowing to Europe from the continent. [source]

China, France to increase counterterrorism efforts in horn of Africa

China has agreed to assist French counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, but through financing, not troops. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for a 10,000-strong force comprised of the G5 Sahel — comprised of five Western African countries, which launched anti-terrorism operations in December with French assistance — but so far it is short of financing. It could be that China may put up the money. [source]

(Analyst Comment: Economic development is part of the long-term global counterterrorism strategy, and this is an area where China excels in Africa. Providing economic opportunity, whether that’s investing in mines or manufacturing or other support industries — and then local creating jobs — is key to defeating much of the terror that exists in Africa today. China understands this and it’s why they’re so focused on exercising soft power through economic development. As far as their deal with France is concerned: Chinese financing comes cheap, but by helping the French promote stability in the region, China will reap its own economic payback. – MS)

Tokyo responds to increased missile threats

In another sign that Japan is bolstering its security stance — regarding both North Korea and China — Tokyo staged its first missile attack drill since World War II. And while the Japanese are used to emergency warnings related to natural occurrences like earthquakes, having to respond to an incoming missile is something quite different. Most Japanese interviewed appeared to understand the need for the drill and even appreciate the government’s efforts in staging it, but they are clearly not comfortable with the fact that someday soon they could hear a missile warning for real. [source]

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

Russian militarization of the Arctic drives U.S. Coast Guard cruise missile decision

Because Russia continues to militarize the Arctic much like China is militarizing the South China Sea, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard has quietly proposed that the service’s coming class of heavy icebreakers be equipped for the first time with heavy weapons; cruise missiles, specifically. It’s not an off-the-cuff recommendation: Russia, which is capitalizing on the West’s neglect of the Arctic, is quickly beefing up its military presence there. In addition, Russia is beefing up its own, much larger fleet of icebreakers. Supporters say it’s the right move for another reason: The Coast Guard’s icebreakers are the only heavy American ships able to ply the frozen waters of the Arctic. [source] (Analyst comment: Critics are pooh-poohing this idea as an unnecessary provocation, but every time I hear someone complain about the United States defending itself, I remember the Reagan doctrine of “Peace through Strength,” which basically says, ‘Arm for all-out war in order to ensure you never have to go.’)

New Israeli navy missile defense system now operational

The Israeli Defense Force navy has introduced an upgraded missile defense system for its warships that will reportedly deal with all manner of threats — new ones and future threats as well, including sophisticated high-end systems most likely to be used by Middle East nemeses. The system launches chaff rockets to confuse and mislead incoming missile threats. It identifies the incoming threat and then, on the fly, designs a unique diversion plan. Chaff missiles then create a “wall” of metallic wires that causes the incoming missile to believe it is actually the Israeli ship. The first ship to receive the upgraded system is the INS Sufa. The system joins a naval version of Israel’s highly successful Iron Dome anti-missile system. [source]

Russian military switches from Windows to Linux

The Russian military will be moving away from Microsoft Windows-based operating systems on all of its computers and will instead switch to a version of Astra Linux, while LibreOffice will be used as the office suite. The version the military will use is produced domestically and has a special focus on cybersecurity. The system is already being utilized in military servers and automated systems, but it’s not yet being used on workstations. The first installations of Astra Linux will begin this year and, after the military is satisfied that it’s working correctly, will roll it out to all of its computers. [source]

Pentagon has more issues with the expensive F-35

The Defense Department has always had high hopes for the fifth-generation F-35 strike fighter, the DoD’s most expensive weapons program ever. But exceptions have always fallen short and continue to do so. Though some have begun to be deployed around the world, the jets remain far from what you’d consider to be “combat-ready.” In fact, they’re not even ready for full-scale production yet because problems persist involving technical and reliability issues. The plane’s complex software has been through 31 iterations but cannot be deployed yet because of ongoing “key remaining deficiencies,” according to a new report. Efforts to improve reliability are “stagnant,” and are being undercut by problems like aircraft being grounded for the past year while waiting for spare parts. Tires on the Marine Corps version are not reliable. In all, there remain about 1,000 unresolved deficiencies with the aircraft, the latest software version, and primary its flight-maintenance system known as ALIS, crucial to keep the jet flying. Aerial refueling will be restricted to the Marines’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C model, meaning the Air Force version can’t be refueled mid-air, cutting its range. The pilot’s helmet display depicting critical flight and targeting data is flawed. And there are “key technical deficiencies” that affect firing of the AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, along with “system-related deficiencies” that affect dropping ordnance in support of ground forces. [source] (Analyst comment: So why doesn’t the Pentagon just drop this lemon and move onto something else? Because it’s already got too much invested in the program. More than 600 of a planned 2,456 jets have already been built, though only 50 percent of them are available. Some 265 have been delivered. So the fix is in: The Pentagon has to make this system work, somehow someway. Otherwise, they will become $406 billion worth of enemy targets.)

New U.S. National Security Strategy moves away from small-state terror war

The new national security strategy is shifting the U.S. military’s focus away from fighting small-scale, low-intensity conflicts with militant groups, and towards fighting major conflicts with peer- or near-peer competitors. In particular, Defense Secretary James Mattis wants to bolster American nuclear and conventional forces so that they’re superior to anything fielded by Russia or China.

“Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” an unclassified summary of the new strategy noted. “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the department, and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future.”

In a speech releasing the strategy, Mattis said the new approach was “fit for our time,” adding that much of the strategy remained classified to better assist U.S. forces in carrying it out.

The new strategy is geared toward “providing the American people [with] the military required to protect our way of life, stand with our allies, and live up to our responsibility to pass intact to the next generation those freedoms that all of us enjoy here today,” he told a gathering at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He added that U.S. forces are coming out of a period of “atrophy” resulting from the primary focus on fighting terrorists and small-scale insurgent forces.

“China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea,” the strategy report said. Russia, meanwhile, has used force to expand its borders and influence while it coerces neighbors. [source] (Analyst comment: We’ve been tracking the U.S. military’s tactical shift away from insurgent warfare to great power conflict; it has been occurring throughout Mattis’ one-year tenure. The creation of a Heavy Armored Brigade Combat Team at 3rd Infantry Division was one of the first significant indicators. But the shift will take time and not a small amount of help from a bickering Congress which continues to pass short-term continuing resolutions that have, over the course of a decade, made it nearly impossible for the service branches to devise and fund long-term development projects.)

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)


German Foreign Minister: ‘We are seeing what happens with the U.S. pulls back’

In an interview with German media, the country’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, used the occasion to essentially bash President Trump’s “America first” foreign and domestic policies, but what he had to say carries significance because after all, he is the FM of Europe’s biggest economic power.

Discussing the “core issues” of what European foreign policy should be, Gabriel answered: “It is clear that we need a foreign policy in which we jointly define European interests. Thus far, we have often defined European values, but we have been much too weak in defining mutual interests. To preempt any possible misunderstandings: We cannot give short shrift to our values of freedom, democracy and human rights.”

From there, the discussion turned to German’s trend towards a less aggressive stance when it came to foreign and continental policies. He noted that throughout the Cold War and beyond, Germany could “rely on the French, the British and, especially, the Americans, to assert our interests in the world,” adding: “We have always criticized the U.S. for being the global police, and it was often appropriate to do so. But we are now seeing what happens when the U.S. pulls back. There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics. If the U.S. leaves the room, other powers immediately walk in. In Syria, it’s Russia and Iran. In trade policy, it’s China. These examples show that, ultimately, we are no longer achieving either — neither the dissemination of our European values nor the advancement of our interests.”

As for the U.S. commitment to NATO in the Trump age: “We are pleased that Donald Trump and the U.S. have affirmed Article 5, but we should not test that trust too much. At the same time, Europe could not defend itself without the U.S., even if European structures were strengthened.” [source]

Outlook: To be sure, Trump’s “us first” foreign policy is a major shift away from what world leaders are used to seeing from the United States. For decades we seem to have lurched from one trouble spot to another, but — while countries have complained about that involvement as well (‘America is becoming the world’s policeman!)’ — in free-world diplomatic circles, everyone always turns to Washington first.

But Trump’s campaign rhetoric questioning the “need” for NATO was maybe just that — campaign rhetoric. Since taking office he’s cajoled NATO nations into living up to their agreement by spending at least two percent of their GDP on their respective militaries which is precisely the right thing to do; the United States cannot singly defend Europe without Europe’s commitment.

And that’s the thing. While European countries openly question America’s commitment to a Cold War alliance, it is they who show lack of commitment by failing to honor their financial agreements and enhance the alliance’s military readiness — at a time of a resurgent Russia.

Gabriel and other European leaders are obviously well aware of the threat that Russia poses. What a shame, then, that they seem too willing to blame the U.S. for creating an imagined power vacuum while at the same time failing to understand the hypocrisy of remaining too weak to defend themselves.

Middle East: 

NATO allies increasingly at odds in Syria

Turkey ignored U.S. warnings against launching an assault against Pentagon-backed Kurdish militias operating inside Syria earlier this week, pitting two NATO allies against each other in a very volatile part of the world.

On Jan. 21, Turkish ground forces — backed by tanks, artillery and aircraft — assaulted Kurdish-held areas around the Syrian city of Afrin. The assault was successful; Turkish forces captured high ground and three villages in the area. [source]

The assault — and the growing division between Washington and Ankara — further complicates things in an area of the world that, frankly, is full of complications already.

While the U.S. and Turkey were battling ISIS, Washington’s alliance with the Kurds — which the Turkish government considers a terrorist group with designs on Turkish soil — was far less troubling to Ankara. But now that ISIS is in retreat, it has become impossible for the U.S. to maintain its relationship with the Kurds and a strategic NATO ally.

Two things appear certain: The Turks aren’t going to accept any Kurdish militias operating near its borders; and the Trump administration is going to have to reevaluate its reliance on Turkey as a NATO partner.

That reevaluation is likely already occurring. Not only is Turkey a NATO ally, but the country “hosts” U.S. nuclear weapons (along with Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands) at its Incirlik Air Base. Throw into that mix the fact that Ankara has been moving closer to Moscow’s orbit, even buying sophisticated Russian-built S-400 air defense systems which don’t integrate with NATO’s weapons, and you can see that the time is rapidly approaching for a U.S. and NATO evaluation of Turkey remaining an alliance member.

Outlook: On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Trump had discussed Syria via a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warning against a growing risk of conflict between Turkish and American forces in Syria. Trump “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” the White House said in a description of the call. “He reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS.” [source]

For his part, Erdogan said in a speech to his people earlier this week that Ankara sees no difference between ISIS and the Kurds. The threat of direct conflict cannot be overstated. Earlier this week in Syria, a Turkish warplane launched ordnance that detonated near the northern city of Manbij, where U.S. forces are training and equipping Kurdish forces holding that strategic enclave. U.S. officials are worried that a Turkish assault on the city would bring American and Turkish forces into direct conflict. Erdogan sees the Kurds here as an issue of national security.

Meantime, Kurdish forces are providing logistical support for the nearly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, without which the American forces could not operate in any effective role. U.S.-Turkish relations have been souring for years. This could be the final straw that pushed two NATO allies apart.

North Korea:

CIA’s Pompeo hints that Trump may consider a preemptive strike on North Korea

As the Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea, approach, North Korea has done very little in the way of being openly provocative. But that doesn’t mean behind the scenes the tension between Pyongyang on one side and Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo on the other has gone away.

In recent weeks the CIA has regularly briefed President Trump on the risks and opportunities associated with a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and conventional weapons in what would be a limited attack. During an event sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, CIA Director Mike Pompeo would not talk about the “wisdom of a preemptive strike” against the North Korea regime.

However, in rare public language, Pompeo nevertheless relayed the urgency North Korea poses for his agency while talking about some of the ways in which the agency attempted to set back Pyongyang’s nuclear program during his first year as director.

The CIA, Pompeo said, has assessed that Kim Jong-un is rational, but analysts are far less clear about whether he is taking the prospect of a U.S. strike seriously. That matters because it could trigger a nuclear exchange (which North Korea would lose but which no one really wants to see — especially if it took place in a country that borders Russia and China). Pompeo wouldn’t say whether there were options for Trump to order an attack against North Korea short of a nuclear exchange. Rather, he hinted that the administration was working on a host of options ranging from diplomacy to war.

“We’re working to prepare a series of options to make sure that we can deliver a range of things so the president will have a full suite of possibilities,” he said. “The president is intent on delivering this solution through diplomatic means.”

However, “We are equally at the same time ensuring that if we conclude that is not possible, that we present the president a range of options to achieve what is his stated intention,” Pompeo continued, which he later described as to “denuclearize permanently” North Korea, “that we’re gonna foreclose this risk.” [source]

Outlook: A former North Korea spy, Kim Hyon-hui, told American media recently that there is simply no way Kim will abandon its nuclear weapons. “They’re its lifeline,” he said.

In an interview with a U.S. media outlet this week, Pompeo declared that North Korea was a “handful of months” away from being able to reliably deliver a nuclear-tipped ICBM to the United States. And while he told the outlet he “hoped to be able to say that a year from now as well,” Pompeo expressed to those at AEI that he was not at all certain his agency could forestall the North’s advanced missile program for much longer. “It’s still a secondary mission to ensure that we keep them from that capability,” he said.

But a few things come to mind: First, Trump has never backed away from his original statement that he would not allow Kim to develop a nuclear capability that could threaten the U.S. And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said repeatedly Trump has told him as much and that there are “military options” for North Korea.

Also, Pompeo said the CIA believes that Kim doesn’t just see his nuclear arsenal as a ‘bargaining chip’ or something to deter a U.S. attack. “We do believe that Kim Jong-un, given these toolsets, would use them for things besides simply regime protections — that is, to put pressure on what is his ultimate goal, which is the reunification of the peninsula under his authority. This is the threat to the whole world.”

South China Sea:

Trump administration’s strategy to counter rising China being advances

During the final years of President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Pentagon announced a much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia,” a strategy meant to counter a rising strategic and economic competitor, China. The pivot continues under the Trump administration, and in fact, the Pentagon’s most recent national security strategy names China specifically as a rising competitor.

As such, the administration has been working at shoring up existing alliances throughout Asia — think Australia, Japan, South Korean and Taiwan. But the Pentagon is also working on developing new relationships with other regional powers — relationships that will become more vital in the coming years as China’s rise continues:

— Next month, a U.S. aircraft carrier is likely to visit Vietnam for the first time since the Vietnam War, if Hanoi’s top leaders agree. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis discussed it with his Vietnamese counterpart this week after the idea was floated last summer when Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met Mattis at the Pentagon. They both met again this week when Mattis noted specifically that Vietnam’s proximity to the South China Sea makes it a key country in ongoing disputes with China over claims to islets, shoals and other small land formations in the region. [source]

— Before stopping over in Vietnam, Mattis visited Indonesia, where he pushed stronger ties in an effort to strengthen countries against Chinese intimidation. He described the archipelago nation of 250 million people, which straddles both the Indian and Pacific oceans, as the “maritime fulcrum” of the region. He added that both countries will work to bolster security in the Natuna Sea, where Indonesia has seen increased Chinese maritime activity (Indonesia drew the ire of China last year when it named the southern fringes of the South China Sea after the Natunas island chain, following by a push to build airstrips and a fishing industry, along with increased security patrols to consolidate its claims). [source]

— In response to the renewed U.S. commitment to the region, Japan is changing policies to enhance its military’s ability to project power in the region. While he’s not pushing (yet) to rewrite the country’s pacifist constitution, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has a good relationship with Trump, has managed to convince Japan’s national Diet to enact controversial security laws in September 2015 that permit Japanese forces to defend close allies if under attack. The legislation went into effect in March 2016 despite opposition from most Japanese citizens. In addition, Japan is, for the first time, set to mass-produce new supersonic air-launched anti-ship missiles and ground-launched versions [source] designated the XASM-3, and will purchase Aegis Ashore missile defense systems. [source] Japanese media reported that the anti-ship missiles are specifically “aimed at keeping the Chinese Navy — which has been taking high-handed action in the East China Sea and other places —  in check.”

Outlook: Ostensibly because the U.S. and her allies in the region are moving to counter China’s aggressive, outsized territorial claims to practically the entire South China Sea, Beijing is hinting that it may ‘officially’ militarize its manmade island bases after a recent Freedom of Navigation Operation by a U.S. warship. [source] I say ‘officially’ in parentheses because China has already deployed short-range missiles and point-defense weapons on some of its islands. Fighter planes have also been deployed to Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, the seat of the Sansha city government that covers several island groups and undersea atolls in China’s southern Hainan province. [source]

The U.S. is expected to continue its FONOPs throughout the South China Sea. China is expected to continue to both oppose them and then use them as ‘the reason’ for militarizing their islands with longer-range stand-off weapons. But it was always going to come to that anyway; the fact is, the U.S. cannot afford to simply accede control of any entire body of water, through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes, to an aggressor. If the Pentagon ended FONOPs, that would be like telling the Chinese, ‘You win.’ And the consequences for other regional powers would be economically catastrophic, because Beijing would be left to make all the rules.

The United States cannot face down the Chinese in their own backyard alone. We don’t have the ships, the subs, the planes or the manpower to do so. But through force multiplication — getting other regional powers on board and leveraging their military assets with our own — that task will be made easier. Plus, it provides those countries with a nuclear umbrella.

But with every U.S. success, China is only liable to push back harder, thus the risk of war with the world’s second-biggest economy won’t soon dissipate.

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

Mexico continues to be awash in blood

The security situation south of the border in Mexico continues to worsen as the drug and human-smuggling cartels continue to battle each other and federal law enforcement and the military. To illustrate this point, the country has posted its highest homicide rate in decades, reporting last week that there were 29,168 murders in 2017. That’s 27 percent higher than 2016.

That figure is also higher than the 2011 figure, which reached a high — at that time — of 27,213 murders. The homicide rate in 2017 climbed to 20.5 per 100,000 people, compared to 19.4 per 100,000 in 2011.

As bad as those figures are, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said the rate is likely much higher than Interior Department statistics show. That’s because the department bases its figure on the number of murder investigations, not the actual number of murder victims. Killings, he said, often involve more than one victim.

This year is already starting out badly. Nine people were killed and their bodies dismembered in the state of Veracruz, along the Gulf Coast. Earlier in January, five severed heads were discovered arranged on the hood of a taxi in the tourist town of Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, while four others were discovered in another city in the same state. [source] (Analyst Comment: Officials in Mexico say much of the violence is tied to drug cartels and bloody turf battles as the Jalisco New Generation cartel expands its territory. But violence in Mexico is the norm, not the exception. Not all of it is tied to the cartels. “There are social triggers, institutional ones, historical ones, issues of land rights, it is complex,” Hope said. Whatever it is, it’s along our border and it’s not going to improve anytime soon. The biggest danger remains the cartels; they smuggle drugs and humans into America and are flush with cash to buy weapons, politicians, police officials, and other forms of access.)

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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