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The CIA’s Strategic Thinking in Afghanistan: 1979 to 2021

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Afghanistan has been a priority area for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since the 1950s as a result of the growing influence of the two adversaries, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China, which share borders with the country. This is evidenced by the declassified document NIE 53-54, which identifies Afghanistan as “highly vulnerable to Soviet pressures” territory, thus important to monitor.

The interest of the U.S. intelligence community was reinforced in 1973, when the Republic of Afghanistan was proclaimed after Mohammed Daoud Khan deposed his cousin, King Mohammad Zahir Shah, in a non-violent coup. Daoud’s endeavors to modernize the country came with the assistance of the Soviet Union and the United States, both trying to gain influence in this part of the world—respectively, to increase the influence of Communism and to create an American outpost on the USSR’s Central Asian border.

The situation deteriorated rapidly in the late 1970s, and the Kremlin organized a military intervention in the country, considering its technological supremacy sufficient to ensure a quick victory. This war, which lasted for almost ten years, had consequences for the modern world insofar as it led Islamic radicals to establish ties with the neighboring Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons, and to accentuate arms trafficking between Afghanistan and China via the Wakhan Corridor, giving rise to international terrorism, the most striking example of which is Al Qaeda and the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York City.

For all these reasons, Afghanistan has been a priority area for the United States, as evidenced by no less than 12,864 declassified CIA FOIA documents mentioning the territory. This article attempts to synthesize the CIA’s reasoning from the declassified documents from 1979 to the most recent ones, in order to understand this region of the world at a time when American troops are withdrawing and China is strengthening its military presence in the Wakhan corridor and beginning negotiations with the Taliban.

The Soviet presence in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and its consequences for regional powers and U.S. diplomacy

Far from confining itself to the Sino-Afghan relations, the CIA integrates its reasoning by taking into account all the neighboring countries, notably India, Pakistan[1] and Iran[2].In this respect, if the Agency gathers information on Soviet equipment and strategies, its attention seems to be focused on the possible domino effect on other nations in the region, and tries to determine what the consequences might be on bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan, its strongest partner in the region.


As such, the CIA targeted Iran in its 1980 report “Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis”. The report suggests that Teheran supplied military equipment to Afghanistan, seeking the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Iran also welcomed more than 100,000 Afghan refugees on its territory, which led to tensions between Moscow and Teheran at that time, with the Soviets going to the extent of characterizing some Iranian diplomats, including Sadegh Ghotzadeh, as “agents of the United States and China”[3]

Iran’s diplomatic position was therefore as follows:

  • All Soviet troops must withdraw;
  • The rebels must take part in the political life of the country;
  • The government in power cannot be recognized as legitimate.

However, Iran does not wish to see its relations with the USSR deteriorate because of Afghanistan and confirms its support for the Soviet anti-American and anti-Western European policy.[4]There were also tensions between China and the USSR on the Afghan issue, and, as such, Iran approached Huang Hua, China’s Foreign Minister, on the issue of Afghanistan during the Oslo conference on 12 June 1980. From this point on, it is clear that China has a stake in Afghanistan because Beijing has been pro-active in Pakistan and Iran to prevent the USSR from expanding into Afghanistan, as stated in another CIA report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” issued five years later, stating “the Afghan issue has become more significant because of the growing Chinese role in aiding the Mujahedin.”


Another regional player, Pakistan, has interests in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to Balochistan[5]. This territory, divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants greater autonomy and has been in direct confrontation with Islamabad for several decades. As such, a strengthening of Afghan Balochistan leads to increased support for Pakistani Baluchistan, which in turn leads Islamabad to seek greater influence in Afghanistan to avoid Baloch separatism.

As mentioned in the U.S. intelligence reports, ensuring a Soviet presence in Afghanistan means being able to exert pressure on Pakistan, a country close to the United States, thus challenging the American presence in this part of the world. Moreover, control of Afghanistan provides support for Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan from Afghan Baluchistan, which means that Moscow would have an ally with direct access to the Arabian Sea if a pro-Soviet Baluchistan state were to be created. Although Pashtunistan is also to be taken into account, it does not seem to attract as much attention from the CIA because of the less pronounced autonomist claims as compared to Balochistan. In the end, the Afghan issue is interconnected with that of Balochistan and Pakistan, which explains its importance in the eyes of the great powers, then the USSR, China and the United States.

This also explains why India is concerned about Afghanistan. Apart from the desire to strengthen its regional presence as China does, a conflict on Pakistan’s doorstep destabilizes the region since it strengthens the U.S.-Pakistan relations, being, therefore, detrimental to India’s relationship with the USSR.

All these reasons explain why Afghanistan is a neuralgic point as a zone which allows to ensure international ambitions, as in the case of the USSR it allows to destabilize Pakistan, ally of the United States, and hinder Chinese ambitions and the emergence of a communist power able to compete with the USSR[6].

The Soviet Union’s approach

In the eyes of the CIA, Moscow had the knowledge of insurgency and counter-insurgency practices, but was unable to implement it:

The Soviet have written extensively about problems that other nations have encountered in counterinsurgency efforts, but in Afghanistan have found themselves facing weaknesses and vulnerabilities”[7]

Attempts to adapt were observed on the ground, and the USSR substituted the use of Spetznaz and helicopters instead of tanks, which were not particularly efficient against insurgents. The CIA did not fail to add that “An effective military force for counterinsurgency operation should be light, specialized, and highly mobile: this does not describe the Soviet forces in general not the army which the Soviets have deployed in Afghanistan. [8]”

These shortcomings in adaptability are highlighted in several reports, in addition to overly heavy equipment and inappropriate training that leaves the specificity of the Afghan land out of account. In addition, the training of the Afghans who support the Soviets was insufficient.

In the end, the CIA observes that Afghanistan is, in Moscow’s eyes, an outpost towards other countries, including those of the Gulf, Pakistan and India. It is therefore the country’s position between Central Asia (the USSR) and South East Asia that interests Moscow, and the reason why China and the United States are not ready to accept the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A recurring fear has been of the construction of a Soviet airport in southern Afghanistan[9], but this was dismissed by the CIA, which mentioned that it would take at least three years to complete, requiring a battalion to constantly defend the site and the construction of a railway or infrastructure to connect it, which makes this an unlikely option.

Nevertheless, Moscow sees Afghanistan as a laboratory for its new military strategies and equipment. As such, the SU-25 Frogfoot, Vasilek mortar, several types of mines, and modifications of the MI-24 were being tested on the ground[10].

Despite efforts to adapt, the Agency stated in its 1985 report “Soviet Problems, Prospects, and Options in Afghanistan in the Next Year” that as long as anti-Soviet support existed in Iran and Pakistan, a resurgence of violence should be expected. Therefore, the Soviet military presence will have to be continuous over several decades, and a withdrawal will inevitably lead to the immediate return of combatants residing abroad.

The departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 left the country divided between socialists and religious fundamentalists who wanted to take over the country, but also led to a competition between the two countries wishing to take the place of the USSR to reinforce their regional and global influence: China and the United States.

Since the Afghans were equipped by Iran, the U.S., the USSR, and at least trained by China from Pakistan,[11] the country collapsed when the Soviet troops left, something that resulted in the increasing power of Islamists with connections abroad, as evidenced by the presence of Afghan Mujahideen in Nagorno-Karabakh (South Caucasus) at the beginning of the 1990s.[12]

Despite the withdrawal of Moscow, countries that could have replaced Russia, notably China, did not involve themselves in Afghanistan.

A chaotic and overlooked period of 1990 to 2001

The withdrawal of the Soviet troops led to a chaotic period in the region as a whole, particularly because of the absence of a Chinese involvement. Indeed, according to the CIA’s numerous reports, it seemed consistent to expect that Moscow’s withdrawal would lead to a substantial Chinese involvement.[13] However, Beijing did not wish to intervene militarily, nor did Pakistan or Iran, which resulted in a political vacuum in Afghanistan—hence the rise of radicals, notably the Taliban.

The post-Soviet Russia no longer shares a border with Afghanistan, which makes military intervention unlikely, despite the relationship between Afghan religious extremists and those in the North Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan), while the Central Asian countries are reluctant to interfere in Afghan politics by sending soldiers.

This lack of initiative led to the emergence of a new radical Islamic state. The Taliban emerged in September 1994 as a movement and militia of students (talib) from Islamic madrassas (schools) in Pakistan, who soon enjoyed military support from Pakistan.

Taking control of the city of Kandahar that year, they went on to conquer more territories until finally driving out the government of Rabbani from Kabul in 1996, where they established an emirate that gained international recognition from only three countries.

Unlike some other movements, the Taliban had international ambitions and no military opponents at that time. The first countries to suffer were China with growing separatism in Xinjiang, Russia with rising terrorism activities and separatism in Chechnya supported by the Taliban, and Pakistan with the Balochistan separatists.

In the late 1990s, the United States had to intervene on the ground with its NATO allies following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. For the CIA, such involvement was necessary to ensure the security of American citizens—but also of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was becoming more active (Osama bin Laden himself took refuge in Pakistan, underlining the growing influence of Al Qaeda in the country).

Some 400,000 Afghans died in internal conflicts between 1990 and 2001. In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power after they refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect of the 9/11 attacks.

The majority of Afghans supported the American invasion of their country. For the CIA, this intervention was necessary and could serve the American interests by providing an outpost on the doorstep of China and Iran, while strengthening the relationship with Pakistan. However, Washington will have to face the same problems as those faced by the USSR before it, i.e. entering into a fight knowing that it cannot lead to a total victory, as hardliners may take refuge in Iran and Pakistan using their Balochistan connections.

American intervention and the covetousness of Russia and China: 2001 to 2021

The American intervention in Afghanistan can be interpreted in several ways. For the American and Western public at the time, it was about protecting democracy and liberating the Afghan people. For the American intelligence, the presence on the ground was an opportunity to curb Chinese ambitions and ensure a presence close to Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Washington did not want to make the same mistakes, and the CIA’s analyses allowed for a more appropriate approach, particularly with regard to the equipment on site. However, given the return of the Taliban in 2021, it is quite possible to deduce that Washington was wrong in some aspects.

Light and fast vehicles, advanced technology, especially in all-source intelligence, inclusion of Western partners in the framework of NATO, the American approach still led to casualties: 2,312 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan have died and 20,066 have been wounded since 2001, but this is a very significant difference from the 15,000 Soviet soldiers who died in less than 10 years. However, like the USSR, the United States will not succeed in effective training of the Afghan troops, nor in developing a strategy of soft power in rural areas, which will help stabilize the country but not achieve total victory.

While the situation in Afghanistan has stabilized with the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, it is more the international context and geopolitical changes that the CIA has been concerned about in a post-2021 Afghanistan.

During the 2001–2021 period, Russia has regained its great power status and, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is now in a position to provide protection to Central Asian countries, notably Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now more active in far-flung countries such as Syria, suggesting that Moscow may once again be interested in Afghanistan 30 years after the Soviet withdrawal, especially given the links between the Taliban and Chechen separatists.

The second element to take into account is the rise of China, which is developing a more active anti-terrorist policy in Xinjiang and seems now able to take a firmer stance in the conflict in Afghanistan. Beijing has already enhanced its military presence in the Wakhan corridor with a military base in Tajikistan and may be interested in direct involvement in Afghanistan to secure the Xinjiang. In this context, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian announced at a press conference in 2021 that senior diplomat Yue Xiaoyong will replace Liu Jian as special envoy for Afghan affairs. Therefore, it seems plausible that China will actively interfere in Afghanistan in the coming years.

All of this suggests that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had to be an option not because the terrorist threat had been defeated but rather because the surrounding countries are now in a position to replace the U.S.

Towards a post-2021 Afghanistan or the strengthening of China

The CIA mentions the importance of Afghanistan since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China.[14]Since China and Afghanistan share a border in the Wakhan Corridor, every internal disturbance has repercussions on national affairs, including Islamic terrorism in the Xinjiang. As such, the relationship is a two-way street—if the threat of religious extremism spills over into China, Beijing is also able to destabilize foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In its 28 January 1982 report “China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection”, the CIA mentions the presence of Chinese military equipment in Afghanistan that originated not in the Wakhan Corridor but in Pakistan (e.g. 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns) and adds that several Afghan rebels are receiving military medical training in China. As such, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a threat by Beijing, which wants Moscow to withdraw and not engage in expansionism.

Although it has refused to interfere directly in Afghanistan, China wants to control the country to ensure the security of Chinese citizens in the Xinjiang. However, it was impossible for Beijing to take an active stance during the Cold War, as Moscow considered itself the sole legitimate representative of Communism the region. In the 1990s, China was not ready to take an active position in a changing space with unpredictable new countries in its periphery (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). In the 2000s, it was the United States and NATO that took an active position in the region, leaving China in the background once again.

The election of Joe Biden marked a change in the American military posture with the announcement of the withdrawal of troops with a final date of September 11, 2021. At the time of writing, Afghanistan seems to be returning to religious tensions and the comeback of the Taliban leaderships in national politics, which suggests that the situation going forward will be similar to that before the 2001 U.S. intervention. Beijing will then be in a position to decide whether to interfere militarily or to continue to control only the Wakhan Corridor from its base in Tajikistan.

The CIA has not yet declassified any recent documents on China’s activities in Afghanistan, but the CIA World Factbook (the CIA news aggregator) seems to be paying considerable attention to the return of the Taliban. Moreover, a U.S. Department of Defense report issued in 2020 mentions the Chinese presence in the region via Tajikistan.

There are parallels between the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan and that of the United States. In this respect, both tended to underestimate the importance of transmitting knowledge to local troops and police forces, who remain dependent on Moscow and Washington to ensure the country’s security, which results in a return of extremism as soon as the foreign troops withdrew. In contrast to Moscow, the U.S. deployed more light vehicles, including the Humvee, M1117 and International MaxxPro, which shows a break with the Soviet approach but remains a strategy of containment more than anything else.

Will Afghanistan’s future be Chinese? This is the legitimate question asked by specialists and inhabitants of the country itself, many of whom fear the return of the Taliban. Without a doubt, the presence of the USSR and then NATO has been a success insofar as these two groups have made it possible to stem the progression of terrorism for more than two decades, to the benefit of China (Xinjiang) and the other neighboring countries (Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran).

The intensification of religious extremism in the country will have repercussions on the neighboring countries. If Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can count on Russia to provide a response in case of a major crisis (the CSTO), the fear is more consequential for Pakistan, a nuclear power, which for its part could be influenced by religious extremism and lead to an even more consequential conflict with India.

In the end, China now seems the most likely actor to take a position in the conflict in 2021. It remains to be seen whether Beijing wishes to engage in a conflict that the USSR and NATO had difficulty in controlling before it, or whether it wishes to confine itself to controlling the Wakhan Corridor and economic influence with the New Silk Road.

  1. Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1985), Pakistani Attitudes Toward Afghanistan
  2. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  3. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  4. Central in Central Intelligence Agency (1980), Afghanistan: Iran’s Role in the Crisis
  5. Central Baluchistan is an arid desert and mountainous region in South and Western Asia. It comprises the Pakistani province of Balochistan, the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the southern areas of Afghanistan, including Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Balochistan borders the Pashtunistan region to the north, Sindh and Punjab to the east, and Persian regions to the west. South of its southern coastline, including the Makran Coast, are the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.
  6. Central In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s China experienced a rapid economic resurgence and began to become a plausible alternative to the Soviet communist model.
  7. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  8. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  9. Central Central Intelligence Agency (1983), Afghanistan: Potential for Soviet Airfield Construction
  10. Central CIA (1985), Soviet Counterintelligence Capabilities, Studies in Intelligence
  11. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection
  12. Central Michael Taarnby (2008), The Mujahedin in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Case Study in the Evolution of Global Jihad, Real Instituto Elcano
  13. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of intelligence (1985), The Soviet Presence in Afghanistan: Implications for the Regional Powers and the United States. National Intelligence Estimate NIE 11/37-85
  14. Central Central Intelligence Agency – Directorate of Intelligence (1982), China’s Afghanistan Policy: The Pakistani Connection

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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It’s high time to step up the protection of Europe’s critical maritime infrastructure



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After the truth about the Nord Stream pipeline explosion came to light, the whole world knows that the United States was behind the destruction of critical infrastructure. In fact, the destruction of infrastructure is not a new method to achieve America’s purpose. Since the last century U.S. has recognized the important strategic value of critical infrastructure and has accumulated relevant experience in combating it. The Nord Stream pipeline is not the first target of attack by the United States, nor will it be the last. We should be wary of the U.S. using various means to gather information on critical infrastructure, strengthen protection of underwater infrastructure in order to prevent recurrences of similar incidents.

The U.S. has “extensive experience” in destroying critical infrastructure

In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorship of the close U.S. ally Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Since then, the United States has tried to destabilize the political situation in Nicaragua by various means. The U.S. intelligence agency formed a special detachment, directed it several times to destroy oil storage facilities and pipelines of Nicaragua and deployed mines in many ports to blow up oil tankers. The two most destructive attacks were on the fuel reserves in Corinto and Benjamin Zeledon ports. Approximately 4 million gallons of gasoline, diesel oil and other fuels were destroyed, equivalent to about a week’s worth of the country’s consumption. The means of sabotage by the United States in Nicaragua was exactly the same as that of the Nord Stream pipeline explosion. In addition, in the 1970s the U.S. directed terrorists to destroy Chile’s infrastructure including power plants and electrical substations, violently overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende’s regime, and plunged Chile into a long-term military dictatorship.

In recent years, the United States has turned its attention to the oil-producing country, Venezuela. In 2020, the United States ordered agents to launch terrorist attacks on Venezuela’s Amuay refinery (one of the world’s largest and is capable of processing up to 630,000 barrels per day of crude oil) and the 146,000-bpd El Palito refinery, in an attempt to cut off economic lifeline and eliminate the anti-American regime.

Past events have shown that the United States is accustomed to eliminating anti-American forces by destroying infrastructure. U.S. sabotage has caused irreparable damage to the target country, regardless of whether the ultimate goal can be achieved. And the United States usually “does not have to” pay for its actions.

The undersea warfare launched by the United States is still going on

Behind the US’s wanton destruction of critical infrastructure is the support of high-level combat capabilities. In fact, the U.S. has a long history of research on undersea warfare, focusing on training professional military personnel, developing sophisticated underwater weapons and continuously upgrading combat systems. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is seeking to “build the Eisenhower highway network on the seabeds in the seven oceans”. Mathias Winter, head of the office, said the ultimate goal is to “have large-scale deployments of Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and build service stations underwater”. The U.S. military is gradually implementing this vision. The UUV mentioned above is the “highlight” of the arms competition between the major powers in recent years. It can perform multiple tasks such as anti-submarine, seabed mapping, and frontier reconnaissance. It should be pointed out that few countries in the world have the ability to develop UUV, while the U.S. started earlier in this field and its technology is relatively mature. In January 2023 the U.S. Navy announced that it will soon begin the underwater testing of the first Orca XLUUV. The Orca is just one of several unmanned underwater vehicle projects underway by the Navy, other projects in development include the large submarine-launched UUV Snakehead, medium submarine-launched UUVs Razorback and Viperfish. The realization of the United States’ vision will boost its penetration into the marine environment of various countries. In January 2023, Namibia announced that it had discovered in its waters a US saildrone used to gather data underwater. At the same time, the U.S. military places a high priority on the training of combat divers. In addition to the famous Navy SEALs, there is a very small Army community, mostly made up of special operators, that goes through the Combat Diver Qualification Course to become combat divers. Business Insider reported in detail on the training process in February 2022.

International oil economist and author John Foster said the pipeline sabotage has opened a Pandora’s box of troubles and has endangered pipelines worldwide. It is clear who benefits. In the face of a complex and volatile international situation, critical infrastructure protection is more vital than ever. Underwater infrastructure is particularly attractive to attackers due to the difficulty of regulation and protection. The seabed internet cable between Henningsvær and Svolvær in Lofoten, Norway was broken on October 4, 2022, and the cause of the damage is still unknown. In this regard, the Spanish “Abésai” published an article saying that the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines seemed a powerful symbolic action that exposed the vulnerabilities of the West, while the 475 undersea cables currently in existence that are carrying more than 95% of the world’s internet traffic are the overlooked Achilles’ heel. Among them, the Euro-Atlantic area is the oldest undersea cable route and carries traffic between Europe and America with dozens of cables. Since a majority of the data is stored in data centers located in the United States, it can be said that the US is the main “owner” of transatlantic communications and has the ability to control submarine cables.

The connecting undersea cables []

The Nord Stream pipeline explosion was a “wake-up call” for Europe, which led many countries to scramble to improve security of highly vulnerable undersea pipelines and communications cables. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on 15 February 2023 the creation of a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell at NATO Headquarters to protect critical underwater infrastructure, noting that further measures will be finalized at the next scheduled summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July 2023. The purpose of the United States to promote the collection of information on the underwater infrastructure of other countries in the name of infrastructure protection in multilateral frameworks such as NATO is extremely obvious.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously stated: ”To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.” After the war was dragged into endless combat mode by the U.S., no place or asset in the world is safe anymore. Chaos will ensue.

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High-Altitude Espionage (Spy Balloon) and India’s National Security

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Throughout the nineteenth century, balloons were a vital tool for obtaining intelligence. Since then, their value has drastically decreased. In order to spy on the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the United States utilised high-altitude balloons (that the Soviets complained about and subsequently shot them down). The U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane, (which was also shot down) and the Corona reconnaissance satellites, (the first of many generations of spy satellites) that many nations utilise today, succeeded in replacing balloons. Now that a Chinese balloon has flown above the United States, serious worries are being expressed.

During the first two weeks of February, the Chinese spy balloon saga that concerned the United States, Canada, and rest of the world seemed to have come to an end. The four balloons, or “high-altitude objects,” as they were officially referred to, were shot down by American fighter aircraft.

Similar to airships, surveillance balloons are equipped with sensors, cameras, or communication equipment to track and gather information. The spy balloons can either be anchored to the ground or can float at a great height, giving them the ability to take extensive pictures of their surroundings. Safety and monitoring, process sensing, climatology, and disaster response are all possible uses for the collected data.

Among the many uses of balloon surveillance equipment by spies are the following: ‍

SIGINT: The intelligence community can use communication signals, such as voice and data transmissions, to intercept and analyse signals intelligence (SIGINT), which enables the collection of information on foreign governments, military forces, and other organisations. SIGINT is typically collected using balloons fitted with specialised sensors and equipment.

GEOINT: Spy Balloons collect geospatial information (GEOINT) in order to create detailed maps and photographs of the ground and track changes over time.

HUMINT: Balloons can be used to acquire human intelligence (HUMINT) to keep an eye on people, groups, and activities on the ground.

ELINT: Balloons enable the intelligence community to intercept and analyse signals from foreign military and other electronic equipment to learn more about their capabilities and intentions. This is known as electronic intelligence (ELINT).

Balloons were employed during the Cold War for psychological operations, or PSYOP, to drop pamphlets or books. In the 1950s, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) deployed millions of hot air balloons off West Germany’s coast to drift through the Iron Wall with their prized cargo, George Orwell’s book Animal Farm (1945).

The usage of balloons for espionage operations and surveillance is not hidden from the world. Today, China adopted the earlier existing technology of balloons in its advanced version to fulfil its own intelligence needs. According to sources, US intelligence authorities think the recently discovered Chinese spy balloon is part of a vast surveillance operation managed by the Chinese military.

Such practices of China and the balloon system leaves an important question on India’s national security. A similar balloon like the one in America was sighted in January 2022 over the Andaman Nicobar tri-service command by the Indian forces last year. “But soon it flew off. These advances sparked conversations about some rethinking of the tactics to counter emerging dangers like spy balloons, ” said by former DG of DRDO. Even if such a balloon isn’t armed, it can gather private information about vital infrastructure, such as the activities of the armed troops near the border, in the islands, or anywhere else on the mainland, and test India’s capacity to recognise aerial surveillance gadgets.

China’s stance on the balloons were that it was a weather balloons, however the high resolution cameras could serve for the purpose of stationary Surveillance. Spy balloons, however, are difficult to shoot down. Elevated targets are inaccessible to anti-aircraft guns that are mounted on the ground. The fired bullets from the ground may cause casualties or injuries. Only a small number of fighter jets have the ability to launch an air-to-air missile from a height of 20 km which could quite expensive. Spy Balloons might make it easier for China’s military to collect electromagnetic emissions that reveal a weapon system’s capabilities when compared to using sophisticated satellite systems positioned at higher altitudes.

India has to improve its intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities in light of the latest incident. Sino-Indian ties are already fraught with uncertainty, so failing to recognise and address new dangers, especially those in the grey area, would have serious consequences. New Delhi needs to improve its technological proficiency and work with nations that share its interests.

Data collection today has become a very important part of a state’s strategies. Being unaware of such actions in its own backyard would have negative effects on India, given the tensions between the two countries. Although, advancement of the technology has led to blurring of the geographical border lines India needs to be rigorously vigilant to such espionage attempts especially near its borders and critical infrastructure.

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Maritime Cybersecurity: A Potential Threat to India’s National Security

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India has a huge coastline of 7516.6km comprising 13 major ports (including one private port) and more than 200 minor ports across the coastline. It is a very known fact that the maritime sector is very crucial for India’s security, stability, economy, and sustainable development. India conducts around 70 percent of its total trade by value through the sea. India is strategically placed in the Indian Ocean, which gives it greater access to trade with the world’s major shipping routes. India’s seaborne trade has grown at a rate that is twice the 3.3% rate experienced globally. India is now focusing on strengthening its maritime sector through the upgradation of safety and security standards at the ports, enhancing port capacity and operations, and automation. It is placing emphasis on automation and technology upgradation through projects like SAGAR and Sagarmala. With digitalization in place in almost all the port operations and in the surveillance of the maritime waters, as shown in figure 1, the maritime domain is vulnerable to cyber threats ashore and afloat. 

Figure.1 Technology in the Maritime Sector 

With Information and Communication Technology (ICT) coming into use, increasing reliance on seaways, and the growing importance of the data as a weapon in the hands of the state, all these pave the need for better cybersecurity management systems in the maritime sector. 

The maritime business, its ships, and its cyber environment are all protected by a variety of tools, policies, security concepts, safeguards, guidelines, risk management techniques, actions, training, best practices, assurance, and technologies. 

Maritime cyber risk can be referred to as the extent to which the technology in use could be attacked, that could result in the loss or compromise of information.

Pirates and opposing nations have been a menace to the maritime transportation business for thousands of years, but as the sector has developed and technology has been more thoroughly integrated for enhanced efficiency, so too has the magnitude of possible cyber threats. Now, even using something as simple as a USB flash drive, or even an unsecured Wi-Fi, the hacker can get access to the critical systems of the vessel, thereby obstructing the entire port operations. For example, a suspected ransomware attack on the Management Information System (MIS) crippled the operations of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, Mumbai, in 2017 and again in 2022. 

Though the primary motive behind cyber threats is profiteering, there are several aspects that motivate a cybercriminal to conduct a cyberattack on the port or vessel operations. This includes espionage, activism, terrorism, warfare, and others. 

The various kinds of cyberattacks on the maritime sector involves malware, trojans, botnets, advanced persistent threats, ghost shipping attack, cryptocurrency hijacking, and other. In addition to these cyber threats, the maritime domain is vulnerable to cyber terrorism as well. The awareness in the maritime sector over cyber terrorism is very minimal or negligible, with very little emphasis given to it. Chinese cyber activity is a major security threat to India. China is also using cyber technology in its South China Sea AntiAccess/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. The A2/AD strategy denies freedom of movement and navigation to rival powers by increasing defense systems that threaten their ships/submarines. 

The technologies like the Automatic Identification System (AIS), ECDIS, GPS, information systems, Industrial Control Systems, and other operational technologies have played a crucial role in enhancing the efficiency of port and vessel operations. Nevertheless, these technologies are of no exemption to cyberattacks as every technology comes up with its own loopholes. For example, the adoption of AIS is compulsory for any vessel to ensure its safe navigation, but as it is unencrypted and unauthenticated, the maritime sector is vulnerable to spoofing, water holing, social engineering, and other cyberattacks. It is also important to identify the human role in operating such technologies, as it is noted that human error and equipment flaws are primary reasons behind the success of these cyberattacks. 

Maintaining the integrity of supporting systems, protecting ship systems from physical assault, and making the maritime sector resilient to both internal and external threats are all critical. Protection from various cyberattacks is necessary to prevent a breach of the network and its systems. Proper countermeasures and in-depth defense strategies must be deployed for each attack to prevent an attack from taking advantage of a flaw or vulnerability in the technology. 

Primarily, it is important to promote awareness among the staff or the crew to identify cyber threats and on responding to such threats and, for example, alerting the officials if any malicious or unusual mail or notification is identified in the system. 

Block chain technology can be an efficient solution as it allows for a continuous monitoring system and provides real-time status on the ship’s security. It also enables secure communication and storage of data in the control centers. It helps in avoiding loss of data and data modifications by unauthorized users. 

The AIS and GNSS systems must adopt encryption and authentication measures which are given zero attention to this date.

With the vast coastline, it is not possible for India to secure the coastline through manpower. Israel based startups, in order to effortlessly secure the maritime IoT ecosystem, Cydome Security offers a cyber solution to handle this precise problem. The company’s solution is intended for systems with links to coastal infrastructure as well as guidance, sensors, control, and command. 

Fighting fire with fire is one way that organizations can aid in stopping such intrusions: AI-driven security systems can successfully foresee and thwart AI-driven threats in real-time with appropriate data.

It is crucial to note right away that there is no magic solution for marine cybersecurity. An interconnected era has been retrofitted with a history of outdated shipboard equipment, leading to a shattered and vulnerable maritime environment. 

It is in India’s interest to take a leading role in negotiations and developments with global countries, given its crucial position in the Indian Ocean Region and the need to protect itself against China’s growing threat in that region. In order to take shipping on to the next level of connectedness, strong cybersecurity is imperative. 

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