Strategic Intelligence Summary for 8 February 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: (4,589 words)

  • Libyan forces engage suspected IS fighters
  • FARC members killed by ELN rebels in Colombia
  • South Sudan pledge ‘guerilla war’ if peace talks fail
  • Poland gets a better deal on Patriot missile systems
  • Half of U.S. F-35s are not operational
  • U.S. Air Force pursuing upgrades to F-22 with eye towards 2060
  • Second Zumwalt-class destroyer passes sea test
  • U.S., China competing for high-tech data advantage
  • NATO-Russia: Russia permanently deploys Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad
  • Middle East: U.S. will soon have to make a hard choice regarding Turkey, Kurds in Syria
  • North Korea: New signs of potential conflict on the Korean peninsula are emerging
  • South China Sea: China may be looking to ‘pull the trigger’ on confrontation in the South China Sea
  • Hundreds of illegal aliens found in just three raids in January
  • Arrests of illegal aliens in Arizona include one deported for multiple felonies

In Focus: As the Winter Olympics are set to kick off tomorrow (Friday) and North Korea stages another military parade showcasing new ballistic missiles, reports from Asian media claim China is continuing to build up its forces along the countries’ common border. The latter suggests that Beijing is convinced that war on the peninsula is a foregone conclusion, and that it must prepare to deal with a number of contingencies including a flood of North Korean refugees and the potential of having to warn off approaching U.S. and South Korean forces. Meanwhile, Washington’s ongoing Syrian operations are putting it closer to conflict with NATO ‘ally’ Turkey, as neither Ankara nor Washington appear willing to abandon their positions, which have put them dangerously at odds. The Chinese may be willing to provoke an incident to “bloody the nose” of the U.S. in order to make the case that Beijing, not Washington, is now making the rules in the South China Sea. And all three great powers — Russia, China, and the U.S. — are vying for control of the Arctic, with Moscow enjoying the early advantage.

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?

Libyan forces engage suspected IS fighters

The Libyan military killed three suspected Islamic State fighters near an oilfield in the country’s southeast, according to local reports. In addition to the IS fighters, two Libyan troops were killed and an additional five were wounded in clashes that occurred over two days near the Dhahran oilfield. The field is operated by Waha, a joint venture between the Libyan state National Oil Company and the U.S. companies of Hess, Marathon, and ConocoPhillips. There is an oil protection force guarding the Waha operations and it is allied with Libya’s eastern government, while the UN-recognized and backed government is located in the nation’s capital, Tripoli. Various factions within the country have been warring with one another since long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. The most recent fighting near the Waha facility follows the destruction of a pipeline that pumped crude to Es Sider port in December, which cut national output by about 100,000 barrels per day. [source]

FARC members killed by ELN rebels in Colombia

Three members of FARC, a Colombia-based guerrilla organization-turned political party, were tortured before they were shot to death by Marxist ELN rebels in the southwestern part of the country. The three members were former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); one of their relatives was also murdered last week in a rural area in La Florida. The jungle and mountain regions of Colombia bordering Ecuador remain flush with armed groups like the ELN, or National Liberation Army, all battling for control of illegal drug trafficking routes and mining operations. FARC leaders signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in late 2016, but fighting between armed factions continues to destabilize the country. The ELN and the government agreed to a cease-fire in October, their first ever, but the 2,000-strong Marxist group launched a new offensive after it expired in January. [source]

South Sudan pledge ‘guerilla war’ if peace talks fail

Opposition factions in South Sudan are threatening to resort to “guerilla warfare” if peace talks in Ethiopia do not produce any agreement, as government troops advance on remaining rebel strongholds during what is now the fifth year of fighting. “We will keep fighting from the bush by using insurgencies and tactical strategies,” James Otong, general deputy commander for the armed opposition, told American media. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war that began in 2013 in the African continent’s youngest country. A cease-fire that was implemented Dec. 24 fell apart within hours. [source]


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

Poland gets a better deal on Patriot missile systems

Poland’s new defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, tweeted Jan. 31 that his country has managed to secure a better deal from the U.S. regarding the purchase of four Patriot air-and-missile defense systems for what the country terms its Wisla program. “Good news about the Wisla program. We obtained a lower price and accelerated delivery time. The reduction of costs does not limit the assumed combat capabilities of the system. We are on track to sign a contract with the end of the first quarter of 2018,” he tweeted. The reduced amount was not mentioned, however, additional reporting referenced an earlier notification to Congress by the State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), saying the first phase of the acquisition could cost the country $10.5 billion for four systems — roughly 37 billion zloty in Polish currency. The Poles are not buying an off-the-shelf Patriot capability; they are working with U.S. defense contractors to eventually purchase a unique integrated air and missile defense (AMD) network. This will include the still-in-development command and control system—known as the Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS)—16 missile launchers, four sector radars (that will be replaced with a new radar further down the line), and 208 PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) missiles. [source] (Analyst comment: Poland doesn’t border Russia, per se, but it borders Lithuania, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Poland also has a sizable coastline along the Baltic Sea, where Russian naval activity has substantially increased in recent years.) 

Half of U.S. F-35s are not operational

The availability of new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters has been holding steady at about 50 percent, but a new report from the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester says a growing number of planes are grounded because of a lack of spare parts. In October, the Government Accountability Office said essentially the same thing — a lack of parts reliability — meaning the problem has not yet been addressed. Since October 2014 the overall rate of availability for F-35s has been about 50 percent; the Pentagon is striving for 60 percent availability. “The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below Service expectations and is dependent on workarounds that would not be acceptable in combat situations,” according to the most recent report published Jan. 24 by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. There are a number of factors contributing to the problem: Development and production concurrency; reliability issues for parts; and an early decision in the F-35 production program to fund spare parts procurement at an inadequate level.

U.S. Air Force pursuing upgrades to F-22 with eye towards 2060

The Air Force wants to buy upgraded avionics, targeting systems, cockpit displays, sensors, weapons and artificial intelligence platforms to keep its fifth-generation stealth fighter in the air — and better than its Russian and Chinese counterparts — until 2060. Among the improvements sought for the fighter are the ability to identify targets (and engage them) at greater distances; respond more quickly to sensor data; maintain air-to-air superiority; and develop a new technology platform that will enable the fighter to more quickly integrate upgraded weapons, avionics and other systems as they become available. A big factor in the planned upgrades are advances currently being made in AI; as more and better AI technology becomes available, all the service branches will seek to integrate it into their existing and developing weapons platforms. “The Air Force has made progress with efforts to upgrade sensors on the F-22. The Air Force continuously looks for ways to upgrade and enhance capabilities based on threats around the world, to include the F-22 sensors,” said Capt. Emily Grabowski, a spokeswoman for the service. [source] (Analysis: Improving existing, successful weapons systems is almost always cheaper and less troublesome than developing entirely new ones, as we’ve seen with the problematic F-35, which continues to run into production and deployment delays. The F-22 production run was probably ended too soon, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to quickly — or cost-effectively — restart it. So the Air Force is banking on upgrading the plane as new technologies become available rather than go back to the drawing board with another hugely expensive, mediocre plane.)

Second Zumwalt-class destroyer passes sea test

A U.S. Navy statement this week said the future USS Michael Monsoor, the second Zumwalt-class destroyer, has successfully completed acceptance trials. The service said that onboard navigation, damage control, mechanical, combat, communication and propulsion systems all checked out by meeting or exceeding specifications. The 610-foot long warship began sea trials in December but those were ended early due to equipment failures. The Monsoor is the second of three Zumwalt-class destroyers built at Main’s Bath Iron Works. The ships feature electric-drive propulsion, new radar and sonar, powerful guns and missiles, and a unique shape that gives the ships stealth-like qualities. The ships are also the most expensive destroyers ever built, with all three costing some $22 billion. [source]

U.S., China competing for high-tech data advantage

The U.S. has led the field of data production for decades but is now being seriously challenged by a rising China. In the changing global economic environment, data is king, and whoever controls it will have distinct advantages in knowing all there is to know in terms of consumer tastes to macroeconomic trends. One study suggests that by 2025, there will be 163 trillion gigabytes of data generated globally every year. And since both the U.S. and China are home to massive consumer markets — China’s is potentially far larger — the battle is expected to be waged on many levels for years to come. That’s because experts say that the quest for data dovetails with rise of artificial intelligence, which no doubt will allow for even faster, more precise, and ongoing analysis of data. [source]


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)

NATO-Russia:

Russia permanently deploys Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad

The Russian military has opted to permanently station short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave, according to Lithuanian intelligence officials.

“On Monday, Iskander missiles are being stationed in Kaliningrad for permanent presence as we speak,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė in a news conference with journalists in Rukla, where she is meeting NATO officials to mark the one-year anniversary of the alliance’s stationing of an Enhanced Force Protection battle group. “This is not just a threat to Lithuania, but to half of all European countries.”

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave situated between northeastern Poland and the western Lithuanian border, along the Baltic Sea. The Russian military has deployed Iskanders to the enclave in the past, but they’ve only been there for drills. The decision to station them there permanently is new.

Lithuanian intelligence notes that while the deployment of the Iskander missiles isn’t a new threat to the country per se, since existing Russian conventional capabilities would be sufficient to overrun the small country if it came to war. What is concerning the Lithuanians, however, is that deployment of the nuke-capable Iskanders is designed to prevent NATO from quickly reinforcing Lithuanian forces in a conflict. [source]

Outlook: It’s no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to deploy the Iskander systems on the same day Lithuania was observing the one-year anniversary of the forward-deployed NATO EFP battle group. It’s his way of saying “check” or even “checkmate” if Russia and NATO were to go to war.

After the Baltics joined NATO, the Kaliningrad region became vulnerable as far as Russia was concerned, having been cut off from the rest of the country. But it enclave also became a threat to the Baltics and to other NATO nations. In addition to the Iskanders, Moscow has been deploying other highly lethal weapons systems there, and while intended to defend sovereign Russian soil, they are also threats. Among deployed weapons is the advanced S-400 air defense system, which may have difficulty against stealth aircraft but can certainly handle fourth-generation fighters. The S-400 could also completely interdict commercial air travel throughout the region.

What makes the Iskander particularly lethal is its ability to not only carry nuclear warheads but its ability to maneuver during its terminal phase, which would allow it, potentially, to avoid missile defense systems. Putin just upped the ante in eastern Europe.

Middle East: 

U.S. will soon have to make a hard choice regarding Turkey, Kurds in Syria

In recent days, as Turkey has ramped up its offensive against Kurdish militias in the Syrian town of Afrin, rumblings of discontent with the United States among a second group of Kurds located in Manbij have increased. After the U.S. initially announced plans to form a 30,000-strong “border security force” along an axis inside Syria stretching, in part, to the Turkish border, Ankara made good on its threat to launch a military operation to clear Kurds out of the Afrin enclave.

“How can they stand by and watch?” Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish politician said of an American-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State and clear its fighters from the enclave. “They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against ISIS). We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”

Put simply, the Kurds want self-rule; the Turks, however, are against that at any cost and view any Kurdish independence as a national security threat, in particular viewing the political wing of the Kurds — the PKK — to be a terrorist organization. As such, the Turks are also opposed to the YPG, the primary Kurdish militia, which is also backed by the U.S. military.

There have been threats from Turkey’s President Erdogan to expand his military’s assault from Afrin to Manjbij, which — if he makes good on that threat — will undoubtedly place U.S. and Turkish forces in direct opposition to one another. And since both are NATO allies, that’s not likely to have a positive effect on the alliance itself, let along relations between Washington and Ankara. [source]

Meanwhile, the Turkish army has deployed heavy artillery including 203mm M110 self-propelled howitzers against the Kurds in Afrin. Turkish leaders have estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 Kurdish forces are in the city. The stated objective remains clearing Afrin of Kurds. [source]

Outlook: The U.S. is in an unenviable position, to say the least. Washington’s priority is for the YPG to rule over a large swath of territory taken from the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, which includes the city of Raqqa, as a means of preventing the IS from reestablishing a foothold.

Turkey isn’t likely to agree to this, regardless of any assurances the United States would provide its NATO ally. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pledge its support for the Kurds in Manjib, even as Turkey’s Erdogan promises to wrest the city from the Kurds and hand it back to its “original Arab owners.” [source]

About one-fifth of Turkey’s population is comprised of Kurds, so it is in Erdogan’s best interests in terms of domestic stability to strike a tolerable peace deal with their leaders. That’s not likely to happen before next year’s elections, as reports claim his base of support is dwindling as he becomes more nationalistic and iron-fisted. Afterward, should he win, he’ll be more amenable to sitting down and talking.

But in the meantime, the U.S. needs to convince Erdogan to keep his forces out of Afrin and avoid the kind of destructive, deadly urban combat that will permanently inflame passions and make any future deal impossible.

Trump reportedly has a good rapport with Erdogan. If he doesn’t use it and his dealmaking abilities there is every reason to expect the Turkish leader to continue his assault against Kurdish militias along his border, wherever he finds them.

North Korea:

New signs of potential conflict on the Korean peninsula are emerging

North Korea hasn’t been in the news much these days, especially after leader Kim Jong-un made public overtures to his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, ahead of the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to being tomorrow (9 February) and last through 25 February. No provocative statements or actions like missile tests or nuclear preparations.

However, there are growing signs that a conflict on the peninsula is not only still a very distinct possibility, but that it may even be imminent. Local reporting out of South Korea claimed that late last year, the Chinese military deployed an additional missile defense battery with the armored division based in Helong, west of Longjing in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. In addition, the report noted, “Military units in Yanbian were relocated from Heilongjiang Province, thus adding 300,000 troops along the border.” Further, other Asian media reported this week that China’s 78th Group Army, the first element that would cross into North Korea in the event of war  “has been armed with newest [sic] surface-to-air missiles against South Korean and U.S. aircraft and missiles.” [source]

Chinese media, meanwhile, is reporting that Beijing planned to establish new nuclear monitoring stations around the world but particularly near North Korea so it can more rapidly gather information about a potential airstrike involving Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities. And while the Chinese state-run media said the nuclear monitoring stations are not directed at any particular country, one claimed that they would be “responsible for detecting nuclear activities in neighboring countries, including North Korea.” [source]

These reports come on the heels of additional reporting in December indicating that China was constructing massive refugee camps at various points along its border with North Korea, an indication that Beijing was preparing to interdict hordes of fleeing North Koreans and prevent them from streaming further inland — a long-held fear of the communist regime. Reports hinted that the camps could hold as many as a half-million people. One of the cities were camps were to be built was Jilin, the same one where state media published a citizens’ guid to surviving a North Korean-triggered nuclear war.

Increasingly, Chinese academics — once forbidden to publicly discuss such topics — have been openly critical of North Korea. One, Shi Yinhong, a university professor that advises the Beijing government, said in December, “Conditions on the peninsula now make for the biggest risk of war in decades. North Korea is a time bomb. We can only delay the explosion, hoping that by delaying it, a time will come to remove the detonator.” [source]

Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim has decided to bite the hand that feeds his people. His government is “stirring up anti-China sentiment among ordinary citizens through conferences and lecture sessions as the closed, authoritarian country’s economy bears the brunt of tough new economic sanctions supported by its longtime ally.” [source]

Outlook: There haven’t been any signs indicating that Pyongyang planned to do anything that would disrupt the Olympics, which Kim likely sees as an opportunity for some good public relations after a year of scaring half the planet. But clearly the Chinese, if these reports are accurate, are doing more than just being pragmatic — they’re actively preparing for the day when war breaks out.

Meanwhile, North Korea plans another major military parade (today) ahead of the Games — and of course, parades always signal a degree of readiness for military action. As for the United States and South Korea, a January report in U.S. media [source] reported that the Pentagon had begun quiet preparations for a conflict with North Korea, to include night airborne drops and establishing mobilization centers. The Chinese actions definitely add a sense of urgency.

South China Sea:

China may be looking to ‘pull the trigger’ on confrontation in the South China Sea

A pair of China experts recently offered differing views over whether they believe that China, in the near future, will seek military confrontation in order to solidify its outsized territorial claims to the South China Sea, or whether Beijing will simply try to ‘win without confrontation’ by essentially reinforcing its existing manufactured islands and pushing out all rival claimants.

The United States has no legitimate territorial claims in the South China Sea, but it certainly has vested national security interests in keeping the waterway open and democratic, given that huge amount of annual trade transiting the SCS is in the neighborhood of $5 trillion — much of those products bound for American customers. However, argues Gordon C. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” the Chinese leadership believes the time has come for their country to take its long-lost, but rightful, place as Asia’s hegemonic power. In order to do so, Chang argues, Beijing has to “confront” any nation that stands in the way of that objective. That necessarily includes the U.S.

“China’s geopolitical and geostrategic priority is to revise or change the existing international order that has been based upon a complex system of rules, laws, and customs that govern various global commons including the South China Sea,” said Yu Maochun of the U.S. Naval Academy. “Revisionism brings unavoidable confrontation.”

Anders Corr, editor of the newly-released “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea,” talked about a crucial element of China’s rise. “The key point is that China accepts the risk of escalation to a greater extent than does the U.S., because China uses confrontation to alter the status quo in its favor,” he wrote.

And James Fanell, at one point the top intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, has indicated he is concerned that Beijing desires a confrontation so China can realize their “centennial goal of the great rejuvenation” of the Chinese state. To reach it, that “requires the consolidation of all its perceived territories, to include the maritime territories of the South and East China Sea.”

The analysis also notes that in recent years China has become more confrontational when it comes to dealing with the presence of the U.S. Navy. Not long after George W. Bush became president in April 2001, a U.S. EP-3E Aries II spy plane on a routine surveillance mission was forced to make an emergency landing in China after one of Beijing’s fighters collided with it in midair because the pilot (who was killed) was too close to the American plane. At the time, PACOM commander Adm. Dennis Blair said Chinese fighters had become more aggressive in previous months.

Fast-forward to today. Dangerous intercepts of U.S. Navy planes continue, and the Chinese navy even stole a U.S. Navy drone operated by the survey ship USNS Bowditch in December 2016.

In short, if anything the Chinese are becoming more aggressive in ‘defending’ their claims, not less so. And some believe conflict is not only inevitable, but something China may even seek as its global ambitions grow. That includes increasingly bellicose ranking Chinese military officers who believe the U.S. is in terminal decline. [source]

Outlook: Fanell makes no bones about it; he sees China moving against a U.S. naval vessel passing through the South China Sea. “The confrontation would be designed to bloody the nose of the U.S. and remind the region that it is now China’s navy and air force that rule,” adding that Beijing “will actively seek a near-term military confrontation in the South China Sea.”

Already there are indications Fanell’s prediction could come true. The Chinese have begun shifting the most modern elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy to the South China Sea. Beijing has begun militarizing and fortifying its manmade islands in the region. And Beijing is essentially forcing itself into other portions of the SCS claimed by many of its Asian neighbors who are, individually and even collectively, not powerful enough to resist.

Prof. Yu noted that the issue for the Chinese is not if they decide to “pull the trigger,” but when they choose to do so. That means to sustain peace in the South China Sea, it will require a constant U.S. presence. “The United States is, by default and not by design, the only country capable of exerting meaningful impact to preserve the status quo,” he said.

It should be noted that I believe any attack on a U.S. vessel or military base, or that of an ally, by China will prompt a response from the current administration. So the question Chinese leaders must answer is an age-old one and the same for any great power that is considering challenging another peer great power: Is the reward worth the risk?

If the world’s two biggest economies — both of whom happen to possess nuclear weapons — come to blows, it will wreak economic devastation on the entire planet. Not a single industrial, financial, or technological sector will be spared.

Does China accept that risk as its reward for reasserting itself after a century of perceived humiliation by the West? Would China risk a global conflagration in an attempt to forcefully achieve its objectives of regional hegemony? Some pretty smart people seem to think so.

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

Hundreds of illegal aliens found in just three raids in January

U.S. immigration authorities found nearly 200 people stuffed inside large trucks as they attempted to enter the country illegally during three large smuggling raids in January. Some 77 people, including five children, were found during one raid in southern California near the Mexican border after a U.S. Border Patrol agent noticed a low-riding truck and body odor. People were found sweating inside the truck and standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Meanwhile, border authorities found a similar scene near Laredo, Texas, where 76 illegal immigrants including 13 children from Mexico and Central America were found crouching against the wall of a tractor-trailer. A week earlier, also in Laredo, border authorities found 29 illegal aliens inside another tractor-trailer rig. [source]

Arrests of illegal aliens in Arizona include one deported for multiple felonies

Border Patrol agents working the Tucson sector in Arizona arrested a Mexican national who had previously been deported with a criminal record for multiple felonies, including one for negligent homicide. In addition, three U.S. citizens were arrested for attempting to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country. Agents arrested Manuel Marcial-Lopez, 41, after finding out he was in the country illegally and he had been convicted of negligent homicide in Faulkner County, Arkansas, in 2011. [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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