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The China/Russia Space Threat: Is Star Wars Far Away or On the Horizon?

Dana Ogle

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In world politics, using force, blatantly offensive force in particular, rarely comes without costs.–Gil Merom

Space – The Final Frontier?

The space race from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually ended in a tie.  Maybe not totally a tie, but the advent of the International Space Station (ISS) and the amount of training performed at Star City just outside of Moscow by both Russians and Americans in preparation for their missions give the appearance that the former rivalry is now a cooperative event.  Over the last few years, space is becoming the focus of many nations from a security perspective.  Merom’s succinct summation of the cost of using offensive force is a driving reason for the new focus on space either from the standpoint of dominance or of countering other nations’ use of it.This time, instead of claiming dominance by planting a flag on the moon, the idea of controlling a domain that is still not truly understood provides a level of security impacting many areas, like the Global Positioning System (GPS), Positioning, Navigating, and Timing (PNT), and Satellite Communication (SATCOM) (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018).  And it is China and Russia that are currently leading the charge of attempting to operationalize and weaponize space to project power.

Power Projection

Countering the threat of the United States is a purpose both China and Russia cite as a reason to develop space and counterspace capabilities, but that is almost the default/de facto motive for any action they take.  Achieving space superiority is not on par with becoming a nuclear power in terms of international recognition, but China and Russia both see gaining the upper hand in space as a way to set their nations apart from the rest of the international community.  China recently declared space as a military domain. That allows China to expand its military doctrine “that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.”( Weeden and Sampson 2018, xi). Based off of this statement, the Chinese view space as another avenue to project military power. And space, like cyberspace, is much harder to counter due to the difficulty in attribution.

Russia’s efforts to regain counterspace capability also provides a method for projecting power and is another area to show that they are back as players on the world stage.  President Putin laid out four ideas for a 21st century Russia, “(1) the strong, functioning state; (2) the state-guided market economy; (3) the welfare state with attendant safety net; and (4) the state-safeguarded foreign and security policy position that provides Russia a Eurasian – and even global – leadership position.” (Willerton 2017, 211) Pursuing a program of space and counterspace options ties directly into the first and fourth idea presented by the President and could tie into the second and third if Russia is able to export technology or intellectual capital to assist other nations.  The Russian perspective sees “modern warfare as a struggle over information dominance and net centric operations that can often take place in domains without clear boundaries and contiguous operating areas.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, xii) Space falls within this definition so, if by leveraging space to conduct cyberspace or space-enabled information operations, then that provides an even larger platform that Russian targets must defend. After all, Russia has “extensive operational experience from decades of spaces operations.” (Harrison et al. 2018, 13) Although some areas of the Russian space program have atrophied since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have maintained a partnership with civil space missions to the ISS. (Harrison et al. 2018, 13)

GPS, PNT, and SATCOM

Most nations widely use GPS and PNT for navigation and the geo-tagging of locations for official and unofficial uses.  For China, GPS is how Japan maintains situational awareness in the East China Sea. (Horowitz et al. 2016, 30) If China were able to achieve control over GPS satellites, the advantage it would have over other nations would be hard to quantify.  Aside from blinding or manipulating what the Japanese see in the East China Sea, commercial and military pilots rely on GPS, as do many other peoples for navigation via ships, cars or phones.  Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, are also dependent on GPS, and many military operations use drones for communication relays.  If China or Russia manipulated or jammed the link between a ground control station and the drone, then the drone could pose a threat to any airplanes or helicopters in the area. If a weaponized drone, then that capability could be used against unauthorized targets (a rogue drone) or cause chaos due to the lack of communications.

A vast majority of communications today are done by SATCOM.  To control or have the ability to deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or manipulate any combination of GPS, PNT, and SATCOM gives a nation a huge benefit and should be cause for concern by all.  Most systems were built and launched into orbit before cybersecurity became an issue.  The distance from Earth to the satellites’ respective orbits provided an inherent level of assumed security, so many measures that are standard on systems today are not on satellites currently in use.  Knowing the exact amount of cyber-attacks on satellites or their ground stations is unlikely as the number is either classified or nations and companies are unwilling to admit they were victims publicly.  What is known is that both China and Russia are capable, competent cyber and signals intelligence(SIGINT) actors and attacks of this nature are not beyond their abilities.

A 2014 Crowd strike report linked the “People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department Third Department 12th Bureau Unit 61486 – that subset of what is ‘generally acknowledged to be China’s premiere SIGINT collection and analysis agency’ dedicated specifically to ‘supporting China’s space surveillance network.’” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) That level of attribution is impressive in such a nebulous environment.  Although not an official attribution by the United States Government, Crowd strike and other commercial threat intelligence providers’ identification and designation of threat actors are generally universally accepted as accurate.

A Russian Criminal syndicate, known as Turla, exploited satellite links to hack other targets according to Kaspersky Labs. (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) The Russian Government can claim Turla was a criminal act and not supported by Russia, but in 1998 Russian hijackers gained “control of a U.S. – German ROSAT deep-space monitoring satellite, then issued commands for it to rotate toward the sun, frying its optics and rendering it useless.”(Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-8) These few examples demonstrate China and Russia maintain both the intent and capability to conduct operations in space.

Weaponization

Both China and Russia are “developing the ability to interdict satellites both from the ground standpoint and from the space standpoint” according to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Tucker 2018) The idea of weaponizing space is enticing and terrorizing.  For those nations that are able to develop and deploy technology to disrupt other satellites, a huge advantage exists. Iran, India, and Israel are among other nations seeking to develop a space or counterspace program.  (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018) None of these nations, however, is at the level of the space/counterspace programs of China, Russia, or the United States. Nor are they likely to refocus the bulk of their economies and militaries to concentrate solely on space. Much like the alliances developed as nuclear powers emerged, nations that desire space superiority or, simply wishing that the United States not be the dominant space power, may put their efforts toward aligning with a power they feel they can benefit from, even if other strategic objectives do not necessarily align.  The threat presented by space does not produce the mass panic that nuclear war does, but when considering that space is the domain where missiles and communications could be jammed or re-directed resulting in an inadvertent nuclear crisis, the legitimacy and severity of threats from space become apparent.

China and Russia launched a 200 million dollar venture in 2015 whose purpose was to innovate technologies. (Harrison et al. 2018, 6) In July 2018, China sent a delegation to Russia to explore potentially building a jointly-run station based on Russian knowledge in an area China is deficient. (Russia, China 2018) Interestingly, in 2013, the European Space Agency considered making China its primary space partner, instead of the United States, “as China’s global ‘rising power’ status now extends to space.” (Johnson-Freese 2015, 91)

China’s messaging that it is serious about becoming a space power resonates with other nations and they appear ready to broker the relationships needed to achieve the goal.  Russia has the technical knowledge and perhaps the upper hand in that it is a key partner on the ISS with several other nations, including the United States.  If Russia and China continue with either joint ventures or Russia supplying China with expertise, it is unknown how the United States will react, since it vehemently opposes China’s inclusion on the ISS. (Johnson-Freese 2015, 95) In February 2018, the United States Director of National Intelligence identified “Russia and China as continuing to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities …some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.” (Tucker 2018) The issue is on the United States radar at a high enough level that the threats presented by China and Russia were included in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community from the Director of National Intelligence. (Coats 2018, 13) To what extent the United States will go to deter either China or Russia in space is still unknown at this time, however.

Space Law

The United Nations maintains an Office for Outer Space Affairs that, among other roles, assists with space law “associated with the rules, principles, and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space, which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.” (United Nations 2018) In addition to the space laws adjudicated by the United Nations, individual states have their own laws regarding the use of space.  China and Russia are among those that develop national space laws.  China’s 2015 National Security Law made China’s defense of interests in space legally binding and a white paper in that same year stated, “threats from such new security domains as outer space and cyberspace will be dealt with to maintain the common security of the world community.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 1-20).  Russian National space laws listed on the United Nations website include areas covering space activity, management structure, licensing space operations, Russian Space Agency regulations, and an agreement between the Russian Federation and Cabinet Ministers of Ukraine about technical safeguards on the use of outer space. (United Nations 2018) The bulk of the Russian laws listed were written in the 1990s, with the exception of the Ukrainian agreement which is dated 2009. So, the possibility exists that these laws do not represent what the Russian Federation follows today as a national space law.

One area under that is a potential loophole for any nation is the dual-use nature of most satellites.  Unless a country scrutinizes a satellite before launching it into orbit, determining the use is strictly for a defensive or offensive purpose is difficult to prove.  Again, the tyranny of distance comes into play trying to establish the true nature of space-related activities.  Intelligence collection methods possibly can gather the required information to identify a weapons system or counter-weapons system on a satellite schematic, but for a communications, GPS, or PNT satellite, proving its ultimate use for something more than just supporting commercial or regular military communications and navigation services is not so easy.

What’s Next?

International and national laws are in place to ensure the freedom and safety of space for all nations. But those laws only help nations that can afford to operate in space to a certain extent.  As China and Russia expand their independent efforts at becoming dominant nations in space, where Chinese-Russian joint ventures go is worth watching. How far these two nations are willing to collaborate and even become true partners in space will have lasting consequences on how other countries will or can react. The space threat is real even if it is difficult to quantify based on it being mostly an amorphous threat today.  That does not mean nations are not trying to exploit seemingly ambiguous space as a domain for their own national advantages.  Thus, there is no excuse for international organizations like the United Nations to be caught unaware if sometime in the near future a major power shows it has successfully turned space into a domain for waging war or projecting power.

Dana Ogle has over 25 years’ experience as a United States Marine, providing mission integration in ground, air, and cyberspace operations. She is currently a doctoral student in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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Tanker Incidents: Who Blinks First?

Ivan Timofeev

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The recent tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman have heightened the potential for a dangerous conflict. Now that the US has accused Iran of being responsible, the likelihood of a military clash is significantly higher. There are several important circumstantial factors which could lead to the beginning of open hostilities.

First of all, the ability of Iran to engage in diplomatic manoeuvring in its relations with the United States and its allies has narrowed considerably. The development of the current crisis began in May 2018, following the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA). The Americans resumed heavy economic sanctions, blocking, among other things, the supply of Iranian oil to foreign markets. In May 2019, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. On the one hand, the Americans further strengthened the sanctions, removing exemptions for eight key nations which are consumers of Iranian oil. After Tehran threatened to refuse to fulfil certain obligations under the JCPOA in the event that the other signatories failed to fulfil their obligations under the JCPOA, Washington enhanced its sanctions. They were extended to include Iran’s metals exports. The EU is extremely cool about the prospect of Iran’s exit from the JCPOA. The position of Brussels began to change from the criticism of US policy and support for Tehran (with respect to observing the JCPOA) to calls for the Iranian leadership to continue to adhere to the deal.

As a result of the actions which were taken, the parties raised the stakes, but seriously exhausted the possibilities for a bargain. The US has already limited its ability to use sanctions as an incentive for obtaining concessions. Tehran seems to be convinced that now sanctions will be applied regardless of the number and depth of concessions Iran makes, and that therefore, any future concessions would be counterproductive. The Iranians, for their part, seem to have left room for manoeuvre: Tehran has so far only advanced an ultimatum and in fact has not yet torpedoed the JCPOA. But the very fact of this ultimatum has caused the US and remaining Western parties to the deal to see red, and ultimately had a negative effect.

The incidents with four tankers in mid-May were the first alarm. There were no great losses, but storm clouds began to form over the region. It became clear that no matter who is behind these provocations, they can have disproportionately serious consequences.

The bombing of two vessels in the Gulf of Oman significantly complicated the situation. First, weapons were used against tankers (torpedoes or mines), which are inaccessible to “ordinary people” (non-state actors). Second, there is a threat to shipping in a strategically important region. The accidents involving the two tankers raised serious concerns among ship owners, leading to a local increase of oil prices. Third, Washington levelled accusations against Iran, effectively placing responsibility for the incidents on Tehran.

An important fact to note is that such incidents have already occurred in the past. In the late 1980s, against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, a tanker war broke out in the Persian Gulf. The parties staged a real hunt for oil-transporting tankers. Foreign ships suffered as well. From 1984 to 1987, 340 tankers were damaged. The development ended with a short but intense and bloody collision between the US Air Force and Navy and Iran. In order to eliminate Iranian mine-setting activity, the Americans conducted Operation Praying Mantis. It called for the seizure of oil platforms that the Iranians used for military purposes. A subsequent skirmish on April 18, 1988 became the largest naval battle since the Second World War. The Iranian fleet lost a frigate, a rocket boat and three high-speed vessels. Another frigate and two oil platforms were damaged. The Americans only lost one helicopter.

Is a similar situation possible today? Yes, it is quite possible. There is a large US naval group in the region. US allies in the region (particularly Saudi Arabia) have formidable military potential. Iran itself may well feel driven into a corner, and feel that raising the stakes a justifiable strategy. Military encounters at sea and in the air, strikes targeting Iran’s coastal infrastructure, and retaliatory strikes from Iran are a likely scenario.

The problem is that the risk of a larger and protracted conflict today may exceed that witnessed in the late 1980s. Objectively, no one is interested in a big war. A major conflict will hurt everyone. It will subject the Iranians to even harsher economic conditions. The humanitarian consequences of the war will be monstrous for the country. The Gulf monarchies will suffer serious damage due to problems with their oil exports. The USA will be drawn into a costly new conflict, which is unnecessary for Donald Trump as election year approaches. Rising oil prices will affect the growth rate of the global economy.

Realising that the war is costly for the opposite side, the parties can go on increasing the stakes, hoping that the opponent will blink first. The problem is that control over this process of brinkmanship can be quite easy to lose.

One of the reasons is the fluctuation of responsibility within the respective decision-making “headquarters”. A struggle between “hawks” and supporters of a more cautionary approach exists on both sides. For the “hawks”, the current situation is objectively more beneficial. During a crisis, it is much easier to look for threats than opportunities. The coming months will see a dangerous and unstable phase of this conflict, characterised by the risk of open hostilities.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club.

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March to Tripoli, or a Third Civil War in Libya: Initial Results

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The military offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal (according to the House of Representatives sitting in Tobruk) Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli that began on April 4, 2019 had finally petered out by mid-May, having achieved none of its goals. On the eve of the offensive, the military leader announced that he planned to install a new Government of National Accord by the middle of April. However, these attempts failed. The LNA was not able to breach the inner areas of the Libyan capital due to the fierce resistance it faced on the approaches the city. The blockade of Tripoli was also a failure, as reinforcements continued to arrive from the east (from Misrata) and the west (from Zawia). The Libyan Army that is loyal to the legitimate transition bodies — the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Presidential Council led by Faiz Sarraj — repelled the attempts of K. Haftar’s militants to enter the city and even carried out successful counter-strikes of its own.

K. Haftar deployed almost all of his combat-ready troops in the offensive to capture Tripoli, including regular units such as the Al-Saiqa brigades (one of the commanders of these brigades is Mahmoud al-Werfalli, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court), and the 106th Brigade led by K. Haftar’s son, Khalid. A number of the LNA’s elite units, which are made up primarily of Salafists, were also deployed in the Libyan capital, including the Tariq Bin-Ziyad Brigade, the 73rd Brigade (formerly the Khalid ibn al-Walid Battalion) and others. However, the only asset that the LNA managed to lay claim to was the intersection of the road connecting Tripoli with the Jabal Nafusah Region controlled by forces loyal to the Government of National Accord and by Tunisia. The LNA blockade also included the strategic port city of Zuwara, which became possible after the LNA established control over Garyan and Sabratah.

Old and New Allies of K. Haftar in Tripolitania: The Only Factor for Success

At the same time, we should bear in mind the fact that almost all of the LNA’s territorial acquisitions in Western Libya were not the result of successful military operations and the defeat of the enemy, but rather the defection to K. Haftar’s side of local forces that had previously been loyal to him. Many of them have long been called “Trojan horses” in Tripoli, meaning that their alliance with the field marshal was a foregone conclusion.

For example, the city of Sabratah to the west of the Libyan capital serves as the base for K.Haftar’s long-term allies, namely, the Salafists from the Anti-ISIS Operations Room and the Al Wadi Brigade. These forces were considered “sleeper cells” of the LNA in Western Libya, and shortly after K. Haftar’s offensive began, they announced that they had severed connections with the Government of National Accord and become part of the LNA.

The town of Bani Walid, which also fell under the control of the LNA, is the main base of the Gaddaffists. The town has always enjoyed independence and was hostile to the Misrata Brigades, the main military force of the Government of National Accord. Shortly after Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli, the Bani Walid sheikhs and the local council declared their neutrality, but allowed the LNA to use its transport infrastructure, including its airfield. The 60th Infantry Brigade, which was established in Bani Walid, joined the LNA.

K. Haftar’s biggest successes in Tripoli were achieved thanks to defection of the former 7th Brigade of the Presidential Guard from the city of Tarhunah. The unit was renamed the 9th Brigade after joining the LNA. These forces led a mutiny against the Government of National Accord in the summer and autumn of 2018 and had some fierce battles with the so-called Big Four brigades in Tripoli for control of the international airport and other suburbs of the Libyan capital. In April, the forces of the 7th/9th Brigade resumed their operations against the Libyan Army from its positions at the international airport, as well as in Ain Zara and Wadi Rabea, but under the flag of the LNA. Reinforcements in the form of K> Haftar’s supporters soon arrived from the east of the country. The conditional front line between the 7th/9th Brigade and the Big Four in Tripoli was transformed into a front line between the LNA and the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord.

K. Haftar’s hopes to enlist the support of the Zintan clans came to nothing, even though the Zintan Brigades were the main allies of the LNA during the Second Libyan Civil War in 2014—2015. While some sheiks in the region declared their support for K. Haftar, their armed units nevertheless refused to participate in the military operations, as other Zintan clans were fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord, and one of its most charismatic leaders — Commander of the Western Military Zone Osama al-Juwaili — is effectively leading the defense of Tripoli. The respect that al-Juwaili commands likely played a large role in the refusal of most of the elders to support K. Haftar.

K. Haftar could not take advantage of the loyalty of the people in Jafara and Aziziya, home to the Warshefana tribal association that has allied ties with Tripoli. Aziziya has been the main base of K. Haftar’s supporters at Tripoli since 2014. However, in late 2017, the 4th and 26th LNA brigades, which are made up of fighters from the Warshefana tribes, were defeated by al-Juwaili’s forces. At the start of the current operation, the LNA managed to enter Aziziya on a number of occasions but was repelled every time. By mid-April, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord had a firm grip on the city, turning it into an operational base. With Aziziya under its control, the government troops are able to exert constant pressure on Tripoli International Airport by covering it from the flanks, while at the same time continually attacking the LNA communications infrastructure that runs through Gharyan. By maintaining a foothold in Aziziya, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord may be able to carry out an operation to encircle the LNA forces operating in the areas of Wadi Rabea and Ain Zara at some point in the future. Therefore, without establishing control over the region, any attempts to advance the LNA into Tripoli along other routes would be extremely risky, as the forces operating there may get trapped. This explains why the fiercest battles (most of which have been won by the pro-government forces) have been for the Aziziya District. During these battles, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord showed that it was able to act within the framework of a general operational plan, and its units demonstrated a high degree of coherence in their actions. The current campaign is likely to further bolster the influence of Major General Osama al-Juwaili, who is heading up Operation “Volcano of Anger” to repel LNA aggression.

“Yes” to an Islamist Militia, “No” to a Military Dictatorship

Even though a few factions that have declared their support for K. Haftar, most people living in Tripolitania would prefer the lesser evil of the “dominance of armed Islamic groups,” which is precisely what K. Haftar is trying to eradicate, to his “hard hand” and military dictatorship. What is more, many Tripolitans rushed to join the militants and fight against the LNA with weapons in their hands. It was precisely this ability to mobilize forces in Western Libya, as well as the willingness of these forces to speak out in support of the extremely unpopular Government of National Accord, that took K. Haftar by surprise.

The military operation contributed to the consolidation of the Misrata forces, which bore the brunt of the fight against the LNA. A maximum of 6000—8000 fighters were located in Misrata and the Misrata District during the relatively peaceful period between the civil wars. Now, they are capable of mobilizing up to 18,000 troops, thereby practically nullifying the numerical superiority of the LNA. Before the start of the campaign, there was no unity among the Misrata clans. For example, some factions from this region and their representatives (for example, the Minister of Interior of the Government of National Accord Fathi Bashagha) called for a dialogue with Field Marshal K. Haftar and were even prepared to consider the possibility of offering him a position in the cabinet. Now they are working together with his staunch opponents from the Bunyan al-Marsous coalition in Misrata. The Misrata groups that had until recently been opponents of Sarraj and were even subject to international sanctions for rallying against him started to provide military support to the Government of National Accord. We are talking here about the “national guard” of the alternative National Salvation Government, which has since sent its troops to protect Tripoli and now acts in lockstep with the government forces.

The Libyan Amazighs (Berbers) who control vast territories in the west of Libya, as well as the port city of Zuwarah also rallied against Haftar’s military operation and supported the actions of the Government of National Accord to repel the onslaught of the LNA.

The Field Marshal’s Last Hope

At the same time, the so-called Tripoli Defence Forces, which included the Big Four factions, adopted a rather ambiguous position. For instance, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Forces did not deploy significant forces to counter the offensive, confining themselves to the formal deployment of a small group at forward positions, while the majority of their units refrained from fighting, remaining at the rear. These factions clearly want to hang on to the possibility of making a deal with either of the opposing camps. However, this position could lead to the Misrata groups, which the Big Four (with the help of Sarraj) tried to eradicate, further strengthening their influence in Tripoli. In this regard, the special position of the Tripoli Defence Forces, which include a number of moderate Salafists (“madhalits”) that also make up a significant part of Haftar’s army give the field marshal hope of steering the events in Tripoli in his favor. This notwithstanding, the chances of the Big Four choosing to support Khalifa Haftar, especially after all his failures, are very slim. On the contrary, it is entirely possible that their involvement in operations against the LNA will increase against the backdrop of increased military assistance from Turkey (including for groups that are part of the Tripoli Defence Forces).

Khalifa Haftar fully, and erroneously, expected that military support from his external allies (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France) would help his forces overcome the enemy’s resistance. While the LNA could count on the direct participation of the Egyptian special forces (as well as on the operational air force of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) during its campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, this type of assistance is untenable in current conditions, given the ambivalent attitude of the global community towards K. Haftar’s actions. That being said, these countries do provide support to the LNA in the form of military supplies, including various types of armored vehicle such as armored personnel carriers and the Mbombe and al-Mared armored cars produced in Jordan. Many point to the fact that the LNA uses Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones equipped with Blue Arrow 7 missiles provided or even operated by military personnel from the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, we should not underestimate the role of Saudi Arabia, which has assumed most of the financial costs of the military campaign. Indeed, without proper funding, the LNA, which claims to be a regular army, will split into factions and groups with different ideologies.

Faultline: The Salafists Versus the Muslim Brotherhood

At the same time, the advantage that the LNA had thanks to the deliveries of weapons and military equipment from its allies could be negated by the fact that Turkey started supplying similar products to the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord in May of this year. On May 18, the Amazon Giurgiulesti ship arrived in Tripoli from the port of Samsun in Turkey under the flag of Moldova. The ship was loaded with all kinds of military equipment, including a battalion set of modern Kirpi II and Vuran armored vehicles made in Turkey, as well as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air-defense systems and light weapons. Also, according to the Chairman of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord now has drones as well, which were also probably delivered via Turkey.

Libya has thus turned into a battlefield and Faultline between two antagonistic camps of the Islamic world. Heading up the first of these camps are Turkey and Qatar, which continue to rely on forces that adhere to the ideology of political Islam, are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and support the Government of National Accord. The second camp, led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (the “troika”), has practically elevated the fight with the Muslim Brotherhood to an ideology. The “troika” is prepared to rely on any forces in order to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, be it secular generals or radical Salafists. It is this ideological “duet” of secular military and Salafists that is most pronounced in the framework of the LNA.

The deeper K. Haftar is drawn into the armed confrontation, the more he will fall under the influence of radical Salafi activists in his own surroundings who issue fatwas, refuse to consider opponents of the LNA Muslims, and prove that the truce in Ramadan does not extend to the fighting in Libya. If the hostilities continue, then the influence of the religious radicals inside the Haftar camp will likely continue to grow, since the offensive on Tripoli has effectively petered out and now the LNA command will need to motivate its supporters (it should be noted here that there are a number of Salafists among them), and attract further concessions regarding the dissemination of their ideology. At the same time, many experts consider the Salafists the most reliable and combat-ready element of the LNA. Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that the countries which are backing K. Haftar as a secular leader will eventually become witnesses to the creeping “Salafization” of Libya with the active help of Saudi clerics. And this will not stop K. Haftar from further positioning himself as a champion of secularism, while at the same time dictating a completely different agenda on the home front.

Ceasefire as Salvation

Against the background of K. Haftar’s failures, the structures that are affiliated with him in Eastern Libya are looking for opportunities to achieve a ceasefire so that they can maintain their positions near Tripoli and perhaps even prevent the complete destruction of the LNA, which is a distinct possibility at the moment. For example, Abdullah al-Thinni, the prime minister of the provisional government in the east of the country, who is affiliated with K. Haftar, said in an interview with the Alhurra television station that the LNA would be willing to accept a ceasefire without withdrawing from the outskirts of Tripoli, a condition that Sarraj has rejected.

Haftar’s visits to Italy and France, which took place shortly after Sarraj visited these countries, were also devoted primarily to finding ways to establish a ceasefire.

Thus, despite the menacing rhetoric that remains (“I am prepared to hold talks, but there is no one to hold talks with”), the terms of a possible ceasefire were apparently the only topic raised at K. Haftar’s talks with E. Macron in Paris on May 22, 2019. A week earlier, the same issue was discussed at a meeting between K. Haftar and the Prime Minister of Italy. It is, of course, possible that K. Haftar is looking for opportunities to call a ceasefire while at the same time-saving face with all his military bravado. At the same time, in the context of the LNA’s failures, Paris (a long-term partner of K. Haftar) has started to “curtsey” with increasing frequency before the Government of National Accord. The approach of France to the events in Libya is starting to align with the general course adopted by the European Union, which suggests that France may need to abandon its unequivocal support for K. Haftar.

The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that Sarraj is no longer willing to make any kind of deal with K. Haftar, as he considers him to be a rebel and a criminal. And the only acceptable condition for a ceasefire, as far as the head of the Government of National Accord is concerned, is for the LNA to return to the positions they occupied before the start of the campaign. In this situation, K. Haftar cannot directly declare his consent to external mediation when he cannot be sure that Sarraj will accept the terms of the ceasefire. On the other hand, continuing the operation is fraught with unclear prospects and is extremely risky, and in certain circumstances may lead to the complete defeat of the LNA. This is why some of Haftar’s allies see the creation of conditions for a ceasefire as a vital task and a way for the field marshal to hold onto his role as a key player.

Another option is also possible and is connected to the fact that a rift has appeared among Haftar’s allies, with France differing in its assessments of what is going on with the “troika” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We cannot rule out the possibility that K. Haftar is willing to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire with the mediation of France and Italy (if this was not the case, his visits to these countries would make no sense) and that the “troika” is pushing him, by offering increased military aid, for example, to toe the line that the only possible solution to the crisis is through military force.

Hidden Resources

Just how the situation in Libya continues to unfold will likely depend on the degree of engagement of the two great powers, whose positions at present are rather contradictory and unclear. We are talking, of course, about Russia and the United States, which have not yet had their say.

The United States has voiced two opinions to the current Libyan Crisis. One was expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who condemned the actions of K. Haftar and called for an end to the offensive. The second opinion is that of President Donald Trump himself, who had a telephone conversation with the field marshal and expressed his support for the fight against terrorism, which many observers took as an endorsement of Haftar’s military campaign. While Trump will certainly have the last word, it is unclear which of these approaches to the events in Libya will eventually prevail in Washington. Another position that should not be ignored is that of the Pentagon, which has developed relations with the Misrata brigades against the background of the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Libya — and it was Haftar’s military operation that opened the door for their increased activity. While the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) may have withdrawn its personnel from Tripoli and Misrata, it is entirely possible that they will return to Libya and resume interaction with their former partners.

Russia continues to maintain relations with both sides in the Libyan conflict. Despite the increasingly pro-Haftar bias in the Russian approach, Moscow, unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has not crossed the red line and continues to be regarded as a partner by the Government of National Accord. The problem lies in the fact that the three Russian structures that are currently working on the Libya track the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Russian Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement — assess Russia’s priorities and interests in Libya differently, and on some issues have opposite positions. On top of this, the signals coming from the Kremlin itself about which line to take in regard to Libya are not clear enough. The Russian approach to events in the country is likely determined by the current situation. Russia has demonstrated a certain amount of support for K. Haftar against the background of his military operation and the success he is expected to achieve. However, as the operation proceeds, Russian will have to either return to a more balanced line and pay more attention to the interests of Tripoli or, on the contrary, start increasing aid to K. Haftar, including military assistance.

The latter scenario is the riskiest. Even if the gamble on K. Haftar pays off and he somehow manages to emerge victorious, then the main beneficiaries will be the “troika” of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have invested far more money into him than Russia. At the same time, Russia would benefit from maintaining a certain balance in Libya. To this end, Moscow could make better use of the ties that it has managed to maintain with all the sides in the Syrian conflict — something that Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, which have “put all their eggs in one basket,” cannot say. Russia has the opportunity to play the role of mediator in the conflict, joining France and Italy in these efforts. Russia should also pay attention to those figures in Libya whose influence continues to grow against the background of the events taking place in Tripoli and who have the opportunity to play a consolidating role in the future. Major General Osama al-Juwaili is one of these figures.

From our partner RIAC

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Intelligence

Nuclear weapons are vulnerable to cyber threats

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According to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Cyber Nuclear Weapons Study Group, US nuclear weapons can’t be effectively protected against cyberattacks with technical means alone. 

“Any system containing a digital component, including nuclear weapons, is vulnerable to cyber threats,” Page Stoutland, NTI’s vice president for scientific and technical affairs, said. 

In a report about cyber threats to nuclear weapons security, just presented in Moscow and titled “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era,” NTI analysts warn that with the development and spread of digital technology, attacks in the information space are getting increasingly dangerous, making even the US defense systems vulnerable to cyberattacks. According to the report, which is based on the results of a 2013 survey conducted by the US Defense Department, the military command may face false warnings about an attack or lose confidence in their ability to control US forces and assets.

Losing control over power grids as a result of cyberattacks is a serious danger to nuclear weapons (Page Stoutland)

The most dangerous consequences of a cyberattack on a country’s system of nuclear deterrence are as follows: first, it can target the early warning system (EWS) and simulate a nuclear attack, which could prompt a very real retaliatory strike. Secondly, experts do not rule out the possibility of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons as a result of cyber and physical attacks disabling security measures. The authors of the report consider the possibility of a false order for the release of nuclear weapons resulting from a hacked control system less likely though. Thirdly, a cyberattack can disrupt the chain of command transmission and international communication channels. And last, but not least, this damage could be caused already during the production stage, if errors or malware are introduced into the software.

 “Protection requires not only technical excellence, but also a new strategy that takes into account cyber threats that did not exist at the time when nuclear weapons were being developed.” (Page Stoutland)

The four worst post-cyberattack scenarios being considered by experts include attacks on early-warning systems (radar and satellites), security systems, communications, and production chains. According to the authors of the “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era” report, false information about a nuclear attack, as well as a disruption channels of communication as a result of cyberattacks could lead to a “retaliatory” or a preventive nuclear strike. Security and physical protection system hacks could result in the theft of nuclear weapons. Insertion of malware into manufactured parts   undermines confidence in the predictability of nuclear deterrence. The authors warn that a loss of confidence in one’s ability to prevent an enemy nuclear attack with nuclear deterrence tools could have serious negative consequences for strategic stability.

 “In 1980, the failure of a NORAD computer chip resulted in a false warning about an incoming nuclear attack.” (Page Stoutland)

Experts are convinced that because no improvements in cyber security will be enough to completely eliminate the threat, increasing the decision time would be the right way to go. This requires efficient systems and processes to either confirm or discard data from DSS and other sources. To increase decision-making time after information about a nuclear missile launch against the US has been received, the authors propose the following scenario: if the warning has been confirmed as accurate, and the source of the missile launch has been duly determined, the president orders a deferred retaliatory strike. The drawbacks of this approach, the report warns however, is delayed response, less headroom for maneuvering and overdependence of automation, as well as the risk of information about the order for a retaliatory strike leaking out, which itself could provoke a nuclear attack by the adversary.

 “In 2010, US launch-control officers lost communication with a squadron of 50 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles for 45 minutes.” (report) 

Another way of reducing the cyber threat would be to limit the use of cyber-attacks against nuclear weapons.

The authors advise the military and political leadership, as well as officials at a lower level, to realize full well that cyberattacks against nuclear systems are fraught with an unintentional catastrophe. Therefore, to avoid a disaster, they need to work out clear-cut rules of the game. Difficult as the verification of these rules may be, the experts still believe that the mere presence of such norms would prevent an escalation, as, according to them, suspicious would initially fall on non-state players, who never signed the agreement.

Obviously, these decisions are possible only in cooperation with other countries and with a great deal of mutual trust and concerted steps. Aware of this, the authors propose starting a discussion on cyber security, between Russia and the US, and between China and the US, against threats posed by such non-state players and third parties, who might initiate any of the abovementioned scenarios and be interested in their negative consequences.

From our partner International Affairs

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