Strategic Intelligence Summary for 29 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: (4,716 words)

  • Sudanese army building up forces at border of South Sudan
  • Violence in Mexico may be about to get worse 
  • Far-right German activist arrested in Hungary for selling guns aimed at killing migrants 
  • U.S. Army conducts successful tests of laser system on Stryker platform 
  • China’s new stealthy J-20 fighter using ‘metamaterials’ not found in nature 
  • Russian vows to build entire new fleet of long-range strategic bombers 
  • Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force gets major organization shakeup to be more combat-ready 
  • Poland officially signs deal to buy U.S. Patriot systems 
  • U.S. Army forging ahead with railgun concept 
  • NATO-Russia SITREP
  • Middle East SITREP
  • North Korea SITREP
  • South China Sea SITREP
  • Trump expels 60 Russian ‘spies’ from U.S. over Putin’s assassination attempt in Britain

In Focus: This week, we continue to refine our reporting in the Strategic Intelligence Summary and are attempting to make it a seamless transition from blog reporting we do on the Forward Observer website through the week for subscribers, for added value. Meantime, we are expanding our foreign OSINT sourcing because it helps us fill in information and intelligence gaps, thus making it easier to provide subscribers with a much better picture of emerging threats and trends. We’ve also added a new PIR4: “What activities are foreign intelligence services directing against the United States our allies?” In the weeks and months ahead, our PIR 3 reporting, especially, will become much more mission-specific, so to speak, and provide you with an invaluable source of weekly intel to aid in understanding the scope of future conflict.

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 activities are foreign intelligence services directing against the United States our allies?


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

 

Violence in Mexico may be about to get worse

Violence — murders mostly — associated with Mexico’s powerful cartels is already at an excessive level for a largely developed country, but it may be about to get even worse. Because of internal divisions, the country’s most powerful crime organization, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel may be fragmenting. On 25 March, a splinter faction of the cartel got into a deadly firefight with Mexican Marines; this comes as the Northwest Cartel is battling the JNGC for control of a major drug trafficking route in Tamaulipas, a strategically important region for groups smuggling drugs and other contraband into the U.S. The shootout with marines came after the JNGC may have murdered a former member of the group, who may have been a member of another breakaway faction known as El 2. Similar fragmentations of the once-dominant Sinaloa Cartel led to increased violence among splintered rivals; the same thing is likely to happen as the JNGC fragments as well. [source]

Far-right German activist arrested in Hungary for selling guns aimed at killing migrants

Hungarian authorities have arrested Mario Rönsch, a far-right German activist, on charges he was illegally selling guns over the Internet and marketing them as “migrant deterrents.” He’s accused of operating a website called Migrant Deterrent, which sold more than €100,000 ($123,000) worth of unlicensed weapons to customers in countries across Europe under the slogan: “Simple, fast and discreet: that’s the mantra of Migrant Deterrent.” Most weapons were gas-powered, so they were legal in Germany. But authorities say they were sold without Rönsch obtaining proper licensing. As more migrants from the unstable Middle East continue to flow into Europe, resistance to that inflow is growing — along with migrant-related crime. I expect this kind of resistance to grow. [source]


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

U.S. Army conducts successful tests of laser system on Stryker platform

The Army has successfully demonstrated a laser weapon that was integrated onto a Stryker combat vehicle in Europe recently, though officials note there are range limitations holding back the system’s full capabilities. The 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment supported by the 7th Army Training Command and the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, conducted a live-fire engagement of the 5-kilowatt Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser (MEHEL) demonstrator at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany. Troops successfully engaged a dozen off-the-shelf commercial drones during the live-fire event. But in this particular testing scenario, all drone targets had to be engaged below the horizon; engaging above the horizon was not done in order to ensure that there was no impact to aviation corridors, not because the system lacked power or range. Army officials believe that the demonstration showed enough promise that NATO and other partner nations will quickly build better training ranges that can accommodate direct-energy weapons testing. [source]

China’s new stealthy J-20 fighter using ‘metamaterials’ not found in nature

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) fifth-generation J-20 fighter combines stealth and datelines in order to compete with the world’s best planes. But state media has announced that China is mass-producing metamaterials for use on the aircraft, which may transform it into an electromagnetic force to be reckoned with. The metamaterials are comprised of “composite metals and plastics that use artificial geometry to influence the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation,” in addition to elastic sounds and waves. Some metamaterials “built using can also be used as super strength materials.” Some optical metamaterials have already been used to induce invisibility through the redirection of visible light around itself in order to avoid reflection (think “cloaking” as in Star Trek and Harry Potter; though no real cloaking shields have yet to be demonstrated). The metamaterials on the J-20 most likely will be used as antennas and absorbers, thus increasing radiated power that results in longer-range, more precise radar. These materials can also be engineered to absorb radars used by enemy fighters and missiles. “The next generation of Chinese aviation metamaterials could further increase stealth, improve communications, sensors and jamming, and even lighten airframe weight.” A sixth-gen J-20 is also being planned. [source] Analyst comment: “[T]he USAF’s envisioned futuristic Penetrating Counter Air platform, too, will likely include much more metamaterials.”

Russian vows to build entire new fleet of long-range strategic bombers

The Russian air force is slated to receive an entirely new fleet of upgraded long-range, nuclear-capable bombers by 2030. The planes — Tu-160M2s — have extended ranges and will dramatically upgrade Russia’s strategic capabilities. In particular, the upgrades will include new engines, avionics, radar and other technologies, according to Russian officials. The planes are also slated to receive a new outside coating to reduce the plane’s radar signature. It wasn’t clear whether they were referring to the air force’s existing fleet of 16 Tu-160s or the 50 Tu-160M2s slated for manufacturing at a rate of three per year beginning in 2023. As for weapons, the new bombers will be armed with long-range standoff cruise missiles, including the Kh-101/Kh-102 (nuclear variant) air-launched cruise missile and the Kh-55 subsonic air-launched cruise missile, in addition to others. [source]

Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force gets major organization shakeup to be more combat-ready

The Japan GSDF has undergone its biggest organizational changes resulting in a streamlined chain of command giving leaders more flexibility for nationwide operations, as well as the creation of new amphibious forces that will be tasked with defending Japanese-claimed or managed islands. The military launched the Ground Component Command which provides a unified command structure for the GSFD’s regional armies as well as the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, whose role will match that of the U.S. Marine Corps’ amphibious operations. The changes are linked to rising threats and regional aggression posed by China, as well as North Korea. “We are expecting more situations in which the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces have to work together to rapidly respond at a nationwide level against ballistic missile launches, attacks on islands and major disasters,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a news conference.” [source] Analyst comment: North Korea may not be much of a threat in the near future — see more below — but China’s certainly going to be. This is a big deal for the Japanese military; it’s preparing not only to fight but to take back/defend its territories as Beijing’s ambitions for regional dominance ahead of global power status grow.

Poland officially signs deal to buy U.S. Patriot systems

Poland has finally agreed to buy U.S. Patriot air-defense missile systems after haggling with the United States over the price for the past few years. Poland signed a letter of offer and acceptance 28 March to buy the Raytheon-built systems currently in use with the U.S. Army. Poland agreed to buy two Patriot Configuration 3+ batteries, which is the latest version of the system; there are two fire units per battery, so a total of four systems will be delivered. The first systems are expected to have a system by Northrop Grumman that is still in development — the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, as well as the Lockheed Martin-built Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Missile Segment Enhancements. But delivery is not expected until 2022. [source]

U.S. Army forging ahead with railgun concept

While there have been some reports that the U.S. Navy is wavering on its railgun, the Army is quietly moving forward to turn the technology into a viable, deployable weapon system (this comes as China recently revealed it, too, is working on a naval version of the railgun). Defense contractor General Atomics — the company that makes the Predator and Reaper drones and the Navy’s still-unready Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System — has been awarded a contract to further develop and test an Army version of the railgun. The contract lasts for three years, which will pay for several prototypes that will be fitted to various Army vehicles and fighting doctrine. The technology is promising and will add an unmatched capability to frontline Army combat units, but getting the technology to work reliably is another matter at this point. [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)

NATO-Russia:

This week, the biggest news is Russia’s cage-rattling and how it is shaping reactions by NATO and the United States. The war of words between the U.S. and NATO countries and Moscow over the Putin administration’s likely involvement in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England has been accompanied by the expulsion of Russian “spies” from nearly 30 Western-allied countries. Look for Russia to respond in kind, which will only increase the tensions and the likelihood of war.

There has been an upside to Russian aggression, however. Consider what one non-NATO nation is doing: Historically-neutral Sweden. The Scandinavian country is making substantial efforts and dedicating no small amount of resources to building up its defensive capabilities. Throughout the Cold War, Sweden continually upgraded plans to mobilize its entire civilian population to defend against a great power invasion. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, those plans were pushed aside. Now Sweden is reinvigorating its readiness and upgrading its defense plans. And while Russia isn’t the advertised reason, most observers see no other reason for Sweden to reimplement its ‘whole-of-country’ mobilization and readiness preparations. This will including spending roughly $49 million to upgrade depots, shelters and other infrastructure between 2018-2020, culminating in a major whole of country military exercise the last year. Then the investment will ramp up to about $515 million annually through 2025, a major defense spending spree for Sweden.

Russian aggression and its buildup of forces in its Western Military District have led to calls from some quarters for an enhanced U.S. naval forward presence in the Black and Baltic seas. Strategically, this would shorten the distance U.S. naval forces would have to travel in order to engage Russian forces in the event of war. Forward-deploying such forces now, though, could serve as a deterrent and would certainly reassure NATO countries, many of which have leet their navies deteriorate since the end of the first Cold War. As noted in previous STRATINTELSUMs, Russia has moved additional warships into the Baltic and Black seas, so any additional U.S. and NATO deployments would serve as a counterweight.

There is a reason for NATO concern. Moscow has announced that the first regiment armed with the new Sarmat RS-28 ICBM — a silo-based weapon — should be operational by 2021 in the Uzhur region. The missile’s serial production is scheduled to begin in 2020; eventually, Russia plans to field missiles in six silos. This is a liquid-fueled missile with a payload of about 10 tons. The first snap test of the missile occurred in December.

We have to remember that Russia is one of a few rising revisionist powers seeking to reassert itself on the global stage. Everything that Putin does is based on that premise. Historically, warfare has broken out about 70 percent of the time when revisionist powers rise to challenge the global order. The Kremlin is positioning its forces in the country’s West to fight and win a quick war with an underpowered, understrength NATO force. That, and Putin’s revisionist tendencies, continue to make war far more likely.

Middle East: 

Increasingly, countries in the Middle East are turning to Russian weapons platforms, systems, and armaments, including Iraq. After the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, subsequent Iraqi leaders opted for more U.S.-built weapons, from small arms to M-1 Abrams tanks. But In recent months Baghdad has been turning to Moscow for its weapons. In February, Iraqi chief of the General Staff, Osman Ganimi, said the Ministry of Defense had received its first batch of 36 contracted T-90S tanks, with another 37 scheduled for delivery by late April. These weapons, in addition to others manufactured by Russian firms, are the culmination of about $4.2 billion in weapons deals Iraq and Russia signed beginning in 2012. In addition to the tanks, Iraq may seek to procure Russia’s capable S-400 air defense system next, which would surpass in capability an upgraded S-300 system delivered to Iran last month. In addition to these two countries, Syria is resupplying its forces with Russian weaponry, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have also either expressed an interest in Russian weapons or have already ordered them.

As Russia deepens its involvement in the Middle East, Israel is quietly pushing back against rising threats in the region. Reports from Israeli and Arabic media say that IDF jets struck Hezbollah positions along the Syria-Lebanon border in recent days, though the initial reports were not confirmed by the IDF or by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. The attacks were reported to have occurred near the eastern Lebanese town of Baalbek, which is close to Syria’s border. Normally, Israel’s military doesn’t discuss airstrikes in foreign countries. That said, the Israeli high command and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have promised to thwart attempts by Hezbollah and Iran to acquire advanced weaponry that threatens Israeli territory.

Syrian government forces and their allies are making their way to the Nassib border crossing and the Golan Heights, stepping up pressure on Israel and Jordan as they further weaken their armed opposition along the southern front. There are now frequent violations of a ceasefire agreement negotiated by the U.S. and Russia, as noted by an air campaign launched by the Syrian air force in the Daraa province nearly two weeks ago. As civilians flee the area, Russian military forces are said to be using “scare tactics,” warning that after the capital of Damascus is secure they will eliminate terrorist forces in the south. As Russia expands its territorial gains, Jordanian and Israeli officials have been largely silent, leading some to believe that Moscow has assured both countries that their interests are not in jeopardy. Israel did send a request to the UN’s Disengagement Observer Force to redeploy its peacekeeping force along the cease-fire line as Syrian government forces reached the area of separation near the occupied Golan Heights, but the UN agency refused.

As Israel feels the additional threat pressure, its defense forces conducted an exercise in recent days that simulated a multi-front war in which Russia intervened to prevent Israel from going into Syria. At the same time, Tel Aviv confirmed publicly that it launched an airstrike against a Syrian nuclear facility under construction in the Deir Ez-Zor region in 2007. Both of these measures were seen as a not-so-subtle message to Moscow.

ISIS forces appear to be regrouping in Iraqi and Kurdish disputed territories, in an effort to take advantage of the continuing rivalry between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. As it regroups, the Islamic State has launched increasingly deadly attacks in disputed territories across northern Iraq. These come after Baghdad declared victory over ISIS in December, claiming to have driven the final remnants of the group out of Iraq completely. ISIS fighters have reverted to guerrilla tactics, especially in Kirkuk. The region is rich in natural resources and has been a source of tension and conflict between Kurds and the central government for years.

In other Mideast rumblings, there is some OSINT claiming that the Trump administration is considering what would be seismic diplomatic and strategic shifts — quitting airbases in Qatar and Turkey. Defense Department officials have strenuously pushed back against those reports, calling them “baseless.” But such reports can’t be dismissed out of hand. It’s no secret that tensions have been rising between the U.S. and Turkey, especially in Syria, and that Ankara has been moving away from NATO and towards Moscow. And credible American media have reported that the U.S. has curbed combat flights out of the Incirlik base in Turkey — a cutback which could be permanent. As for the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the reports suggested the U.S. would move operations to Saudi Arabia, though Qatari officials said recently that they hoped to expand the base, not shrink it. Either way, the Middle East continues to present dangers to the U.S. and its allies and remains a volatile hot spot where a new war could break out at any time, and due to any number of causes. We continue to watch the region closely.

North Korea:

The biggest news this week regarding this PIR 3 region is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un finally made his first foreign visit since taking the helm in 2011, and it was to China. Initially shrouded in secrecy, the visit most likely had a singular objective: Upcoming denuclearization talks during meetings with South Korean President Moon-Jae-in in April and President Trump in May. The meeting comes following a year of rising tensions between Pyongyang and its sole major power ally. While news media are reporting that the talks appear aimed at shoring up North Korea’s relationship with a powerful ally, there is likely much more to it than that.

Several experts believe that Trump’s constant pressure on Kim since taking office, as well as his demand for nothing less than North Korea’s denuclearization — and never taking the “military option” off the table — is what drove the North Korean leader to visit China now. They believe that Kim may be panicking somewhat and have turned to Beijing to help get Kim out of his situation. “Because we have to remember — what do the North Koreans get out of the negotiations with the United States? Nothing,” said Asia expert Harry Kazianis. Others believe that it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who either prompted the meeting or set its tone. They include China expert Gordon Chang, who said he believes that “what’s going on is that [Xi] is trying to pull the strings on the North Koreans.” He added: “You know, Kim Jong-un — the first foreign leader he wanted to meet was South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. The second one was President Trump. Xi Jinping says, ‘No, the optics look really bad. I’m going to force the North Korean to come to Beijing,’ because Kim Jong-un in Xi Jinping’s mind is a vassal.” Trump’s sacking of H. R. McMaster as his national security advisor and replacing him with veteran diplomat John Bolton, who has advocated a preemptive military strike on North Korea, may have also triggered the meeting. “I think that really, right now, what we are seeing is the Chinese telling the North Koreans, ‘You’ve got to do what we, the Chinese, say,’” said Chang. [source]

More indications that the Chinese may have set North Korea’s meeting agenda with South Korea and the U.S.: After Kim returned home Beijing announced it had secured a promise from him to denuclearize while pledging in return to solidify and uphold its long-standing friendship and relationship with Pyongyang. In other words, it appears as though Kim agreed to give up his nukes in exchange for a solid pledge of support — and mutual defense — from Beijing. The thing to remember is that what Kim feared most is losing power. But by playing ‘chicken’ with Trump, he backed himself into a corner he realized he could not fight his way out of. And if continued to antagonize China, he might not be able to count on Beijing to bail him out. But China wasn’t real keen on the North’s nuclear program either, mostly because it was drawing the wrong kind of interest in China’s backyard from a very powerful adversary — the United States. Continuing down the path of nuclear weapons development — which Kim believed would deter aggression and keep him alive — was actually setting up to be a no-win proposition. He had to have understood there was no way his military could withstand an assault from South Korea and the United States. China knows that, too. And Xi certainly does not want the U.S. or a U.S. ally on its border. So this deal was done to ensure that didn’t happen.

I continue to think that war is certainly possible on the Korean peninsula, but it could be that Trump’s gamesmanship is leading to a de-escalation of tensions and the distinct possibility that war has been avoided. The million-dollar question here is whether Kim will everyone and continue his nuclear weapons development in secrecy.

South China Sea:

Despite relative calm between the mainland and Taiwan, the island nation’s spy chief says a storm is coming now that China has named President Xi Jinping chief of state for life. “Expect more sharp-elbow rhetoric and tactics from China,” said National Security Bureau chief Peng Sheng-chu recently at the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament). Some analysts believe that Taiwan will face its most critical security challenge — which will come from China — in the next five years now that “Emperor Xi” has secured the presidency for life. Others in Taiwan say they believe that Xi’s universal lock on power will be better for Taiwan but Peng isn’t buying it. He said his agency thinks Xi will become more belligerent now that he has the freedom to pursue a primary foreign policy objective — reunification of a “renegade province.” I agree. Another reason for Xi’s urgency will be the Taiwan Travel Act President Trump recently signed into law, liberalizing travel between both countries for officials of both nations.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, dispatched another U.S. Navy ship on a “freedom of navigation” operation a week ago, the second one this year, near disputed islands in the region. The USS Mustin sailed within 12 nautical miles (nearly 14 statute miles) of Mischief Reef, which is 150 miles west of Palawan in the Philippines. The operation drew another rebuke from China, which calls the operations “provocations.” “U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, said.

China staged its own show-of-force in the region as well, conducting a series of exercises in the South China Sea and Western Pacific with fighters and bombers through Okinawa’s Miyako Strait. Beijing called the exercises “rehearsals for future wars.” The planes involved were H-6K long-range strategic bombers, Su-30 and Su-35 fighters in addition to other planes for separate combat-related missions in unspecified areas of the SCS and near the island of Okinawa. Japan scrambled its fighters after four H-6K bombers, two fighters, and two electronic surveillance planes flew through the strait. “Air force exercises are rehearsals for future wars and the most direct preparation for combat,” the People’s Liberation Army Air Force said in a statement, adding that the more China conducts operations farther from its shores, it will be better positioned as “an important force for managing and controlling crises, containing war and winning battles.”

All of this comes as the Chinese military was given control over the country’s Coast Guard, Asia’s biggest, raising new concerns about the risks of miscalculation in the region. Transferring the Coast Guard from the civilian-run State Oceanic Administration to the Central Military Commission is part of a sweeping all-government overhaul that was announced last week in Beijing. The shift gives President (for life) Xi Jinping, also China’s commander-in-chief, full control over the vast Coast Guard fleet. While the shift streamlines the Coast Guard’s chain of command, it nevertheless muddies the waters between civilian and military vessels patrolling the region’s hot spots, to include the SCS, which will no doubt raise tensions with countries that have competing claims and their own Coast Guard forces. The force’s patrol vessels are generally lightly armed but they have nevertheless been involved in a number of tense standoffs.

The show of force — part of annual exercises, according to Chinese media — along with the recalibration of the country’s large Coast Guard makes me think that Beijing’s ambitions in the SCS have not tempered a bit nor has Xi’s objectives changed. But neither have those of the United States, which means both powers are still on a collision course.


PIR4: What activities are foreign intelligence services directing against the United States our allies?

Trump expels 60 Russian ‘spies’ from U.S. over Putin’s assassination attempt in Britain

Following suit with other European powers, President Trump earlier this week expelled 60 Russia diplomatic officials and ordered the closure of a Russian consulate in Seattle over Moscow’s attempted assassination of a former spy and his daughter in Britain. NATO followed suit as well, expelling Russian diplomats. In all, north of 20 countries have kicked out more than 130 of Moscow’s diplomatic corps over Moscow’s rather blatant, arrogant assassination attempt. [source]

More on this: The U.S. kicked out the most — 60 — members of Russia’s diplomatic corps operating inside the country, accusing them all of being spies. U.S. officials acknowledge that the number had been in excess of 100. Why would the U.S. allow so many foreign spies to operate in the country? Because we do the same thing. Much of a country’s diplomatic corps is an intelligence-gathering operation. If we kick out every suspected Russian spy, Moscow will kick ours out of Russia, leaving us blind to important developments. Plus, mutually permissible spying also serves as a check on aggression.

Also, the U.S. decision to expel 60 suspected Russian spies likely won’t curb Russian espionage activities much because others have infiltrated American society. That has made them much harder to track; at least if they were working in embassies, U.S. intelligence could keep a better eye on them.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent as always. I look forward to reading all three reports each week. I also love the idea of changing the Early Warning emails around.

    Thanks for all you do guys!

    1. Hey Joseph – Thank you for the feedback. We’re glad to do what we do, and appreciate your support. Be well.

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