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May 6, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

ODNI quiet on '36-star' info war memo

By Bill Gertz
Sixteen months after nine combatant commanders asked the director of national intelligence to help them counter Chinese and Russian disinformation, intelligence agencies have done little to respond.

The request was made in an unprecedented “36-star letter” signed by the commanders of the Indo-Pacific Command, European Command, Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Africa Command, Space Command, Transportation Command, and Northern and Southern Commands on Jan. 15, 2020.

The six generals and three admirals, all wearing four stars on their shoulders, said China and Russia are using all instruments of power to wage political warfare and manipulate information to violate national sovereignty, coopt world bodies, weaken international institutions and splinter U.S. alliances.

“Their efforts to reshape the world in their image, proliferate authoritarianism and advance their ambitions are provocative, dangerous and destabilizing,” the commanders said in the letter to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. A copy of the unclassified letter was obtained by Inside the Ring.

The letter urged the DNI to use intelligence to counter enemy coercion and subversion and help the American military “win without fighting” by engaging in similar gray zone warfare against China and Russia.

Specifically, the commanders asked for “ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives” by releasing intelligence that the military can use publicly.

“The main battlespace for this struggle is largely in the public domain,” says the letter, organized by then-Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Philip S. Davidson. “Therefore we request a significantly upgraded effort to routinely inject intelligence derivatives into that arena.”

Past efforts have fallen short, the commanders said, noting missed opportunities to counter distortions, rebut false narratives and influence events “in time to make a difference.”

The commanders asked for the release of information on Chinese and Russian actions faster and with less red tape.

“We need a deeper magazine of fine-grain, persuasive evidence of red behaviors that can be either exposed surgically with key influencers or launched more broadly in public fora as an effective check on pernicious conduct,” the leaders wrote.

One way would be to take raw intelligence in all intelligence disciplines — human, electronic and others — and declassify material on “troubling Chinese and Russian behavior.”

Current procedures for release intelligence were described as “time-consuming and inadequate.” The generals and admirals want to use the information rapidly so they can effectively tailor messaging “with precision, richness and credibility.”

An ODNI spokeswoman said the agency, along with the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, reviewed the memo early last year. Working groups met last year and made recommendations, the spokeswoman said.

However, most of what was disclosed about the response by ODNI did not address the release of intelligence, announcing instead a new training education program and new intelligence requirements on strategic messaging and malign influence.

Procedures for releasing information also were reviewed, and unspecified steps were taken to “maximize the utilization of publicly available information in partnership with the Open Source Enterprise,” the statement said.

In December, ODNI asked intelligence agencies to review procedures and improve support to combatant commands.

“The DNI and undersecretary are reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasize that countering malign influence remains a top priority,” the statement said. The spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the apparent shortcomings in the ODNI response.

The Pentagon provided Congress with a look at military efforts to counter the growing threat posed by Chinese and Russian ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles.

Melissa Dalton, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy plans and capabilities, told a House subcommittee last month that the military had put a priority on several new types of hypersonic missiles. Still, the Pentagon is limiting the development of hypersonics to conventionally armed hypersonics, while Russia and China have armed theirs with both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Ms. Dalton testified April 21 that hypersonic strike systems are central to modernizing the American military.

“For the United States, China and Russia are making concerted efforts to invest heavily in capabilities that are increasingly eroding traditional U.S. war-fighting and military technological advantages, driving the strategic and operational value of U.S. hypersonic capability,” she stated in prepared remarks.

In addition to hypersonic missiles, Moscow and Beijing are fielding or working on large numbers of anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles, high-end integrated air and missile defense systems, anti-satellite weapons and new ballistic missiles.

“Hypersonic strike systems, including those that are nuclear-armed, are top national priority efforts for both states,” she said. “They are aggressively developing and fielding such systems, seeking to utilize the speed, altitude, and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons to further enhance the sophistication and density of their anti-access and area denial networks. Collectively employed, these systems create a highly contested future operating environment.”

Beijing and Moscow plan to use the arms to deny American forces the freedom to maneuver and to threaten U.S. forces, ports and airfields. Building non-nuclear hypersonic missiles is one key way to mitigate the threat, she stated.

“Hypersonic weapon systems offer clear and distinct operational advantages,” Ms. Dalton said. “They travel at speeds near and above Mach 5 (five times faster than the speed of sound), enabling long-range flight at the upper reaches of the atmosphere.”

The combination of speed, maneuverability and altitude “provides us with a rapid, highly survivable, long-range fires capability,” she noted. The missiles can strike high-value, time-sensitive targets and hit distant and heavily defended targets when other forces are unavailable or unable to get close.

“Simply put, hypersonic weapons allow us the ability to destroy critical enemy infrastructure and anti-access systems anywhere in the world within hours, enhancing the U.S. capability to create strategic effects, without crossing the nuclear threshold,” Ms. Dalton said.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are all building hypersonic weapons. The Army’s version is called Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, and the Navy is building what it calls the Conventional Prompt Strike. The Air Force system is the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon. All three missiles are on track for deployment by the early to mid-2020s.

The Air Force also is working on a hypersonic air-launched cruise missile.

“When fielded and operational, these programs will provide the department the ability to deliver hypersonic weapon systems by air, ground, or sea platforms, thus both modernizing and enhancing the credibility of the joint force’s long-range strike portfolio,” Ms. Dalton said.

Ms. Dalton said policymakers are working to minimize the risk that the strikes may be mistaken as a nuclear attack. That will involve declaring who has the weapons release authority and the posture of the missiles.

The deputy commander of the Special Operations Command outlined for Congress the growing threats posed by the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs of adversaries, including China and Russia.

Vice Adm. Timothy Szymanski told a House Armed Services subcommittee on Tuesday that nuclear, chemical and biological threats have continued to evolve over the past year despite the pandemic.

Special Operations Command is responsible for conducting covert operations that would seize, attack or destroy weapons of mass destruction programs.

“We monitor and analyze the progression of existing and over-the-horizon WMD programs closely, with essential support from the Defense Intelligence Agency,” Adm. Szymanski said, noting that news headlines are a good indicator of the complexity and nature of current threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every enemy WMD program, although quantifying the impact is difficult, he said.

“The pandemic caused extensive delays in the shipping industry, which likely degraded global procurement activities,” Adm. Szymanski said.

One particular concern is China‘s integration of nuclear and conventional weapons. The Chinese practice of placing nuclear-capable weapons, such as missiles, within conventional forces “remains a concern,” the admiral said.

Beijing also is testing and deploying several hypersonic glide vehicles, Adm. Szymanski said, vehicles that can carry nuclear or conventional munitions and “are designed for high-speed maneuvers at altitudes where they pose challenges to U.S. missile defenses.”

On the biological weapons front, “China also sustained possible dual-use biological research, some of which raises concerns regarding its compliance with Article I of the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention,” he said.

Article 1 prohibits development or production of germ weapons or agents.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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