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Aug 3, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

Cyber, nuclear strikes target U.S. infrastructure

By Bill Gertz
America’s adversaries are preparing to conduct cyberattacks against critical U.S. infrastructure and could strike with nuclear missiles, the general tapped to be the next commander of the U.S. Northern Command is warning.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Gregory M. Guillot discussed the infrastructure threats in written answers to policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee. The general warned that the threats to infrastructure are “the most complex and dynamic our homeland has ever faced.”

“Cyber actors operating under the direction of our near-peer adversaries routinely surveil North American critical infrastructure for intelligence purposes and could quickly transition to cyberattacks in the event of conflict,” the three-star general said.

Russia in particular has deployed air and naval forces capable of attacking critical infrastructure in North America with conventionally armed cruise missiles, he said.

Northern Command officials have warned since 2015 that Moscow’s long-range, air-launched KH-101 cruise missile poses a threat to critical infrastructure in the United States, including electric grids.

Russian Tu-95 bombers that can carry KH-101 missiles regularly conduct flights along the western U.S. air defense zone near Alaska, in missions the North American Aerospace Defense Command surprisingly has played down as nonthreatening maneuvers.

Regarding nuclear threats, Gen. Guillot said: “The strategic forces of Russia, China, and North Korea are modernizing and advancing their ability to target our critical infrastructure with nuclear weapons, primarily to deter a U.S. attack, but also to impose costs and compel an acceptable resolution in the event of a strategic conflict.”

One danger is the use of high-altitude nuclear detonations that can cause an electronics-killing “electromagnetic pulse” — EMP — that can damage or destroy all electronics over areas stretching hundreds of miles.

Another major worry for the Northern Command is China’s 2021 test of a hypersonic missile capable of conducting a nuclear strike from space called a fractional orbital bombardment system. That test involved launching a missile that orbited in space before reentering the atmosphere and striking a simulated ground target.

Current Northcom head Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck recently testified to Congress that the Chinese threat to the U.S. homeland involves “multiple domains” that would disrupt military leaders’ decision-making and delay forces from moving in a crisis. The overall goal is “destroy our will in conflict,” he said.

The Chinese long-range hypersonic missile, when deployed, will be capable of evading current ground- and space-based early warning systems because of its low-altitude strike path and its ability to maneuver at ultra-high speeds, Gen. VanHerck said.

That weapon increases problems for sensors used in detecting and warning about threats from Russia’s Avangard hypersonic missile and other advanced cruise missiles, Gen. VanHerck said.

In addition to the KH-101, Russia has deployed the Kaliber cruise missile that can be fired from submarines or from the deck of a commercial freighter by a missile launcher disguised as a shipping container.

In a related development, U.S. security officials are reportedly searching for malicious Chinese computer software that is believed to be hidden in the networks that control power grids, The New York Times reported this week.

Discovery of the malware in Guam first raised suspicions that China’s People’s Liberation Army has put in place cyber tools that could be used to disrupt U.S. military operations, such as an American defense of Taiwan from Chinese attack.

The malware was detected in late May on telecommunications systems in Guam, a major military hub in the western Pacific.

Rob Joyce, director of cybersecurity at the National Security Agency, told a recent security conference that Chinese hackers have pre-positioned malware in critical U.S. infrastructure systems, including military bases that would be needed in a conflict with China over Taiwan. He called the Chinese practice “really disturbing.”

Report highlights China’s ambition for expanded naval power
China’s network of shipping ports around the world will provide Beijing with a blueprint for future military bases that could be used in times of peace or war, according to a new university think tank report.

The report, based on official Chinese seaport data from 2000 to 2023, found that China has spent $29.9 billion on 123 civilian seaports in the developing world, including 78 ports in 46 low-income and middle-income nations, as its global economic reach expands.

“As China‘s military capabilities grow, the establishment of overseas naval bases is a priority for Beijing to project power on the global stage,” according to the report, “Harboring Global Ambitions: China’s Ports Footprint and Implications for Future Overseas Naval Bases.”

The study, published last week by AidData, a research laboratory at William and Mary University, was written by Alexander Wooley, Sheng Zhang, Rory Fedorochko and Sarina Patterson.

According to the report, China is using its global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative to finance and construct port facilities that could ultimately serve as future military bases. The ports allow naval forces of the People’s Liberation Army to use the facilities “in times of peace or war,” the report said.

“The establishment of overseas naval bases is a logical next step in China‘s expanding global interests, exemplified by initiatives like the BRI,” the report said. “Naval bases are also key to safeguarding shipping routes and promoting trade and diplomacy.”

China’s sole overseas military naval base is in the East African nation of Djibouti and is next to a commercial port funded, built and operated by China.

Another civilian port identified as a potential naval base is in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. The report said Hambantota is China‘s largest port investment and is strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

Other potential naval bases could be converted from Chinese ports in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, on Africa’s Atlantic coast; Gwadar, Pakistan; Kribi, Cameroon; and Ream, Cambodia. Vanuatu, in the south-central Pacific; Nacala, Mozambique; and Nouakchott, Mauritania, are also potential Chinese navy bases.

China’s backing for the Russian invasion of Ukraine increased U.S. government scrutiny of the potential conversion of ports to Chinese naval bases, the report said.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy “has evolved from a coastal force to a blue-water navy signifying its ambition for global power projection,” the report said. “The PLAN’s growth has also included the construction of aircraft carriers, indicating long-term ambitions for sustained overseas maritime operations.”

China is now viewed as a dominant maritime nation with strong commercial and military influence throughout the world’s oceans. Most shoreside commercial infrastructure is built and controlled by Chinese interests. China is now one of the three largest merchant shipbuilders and boasts the world’s second-largest merchant ship fleet.

In a conflict, China’s merchant fleet likely would be mustered for military purposes, the report said.

Minister: Japan would help Taiwan in Chinese attack
Japanese Defense Minister Toshiro Ino recently said Japan’s military would join allies in the defense of Taiwan against Chinese attack.

“If people all over the world have the will to support Taiwan, similar to the way they supported Ukraine when we witnessed Russia’s aggression, then, yes, it would be very possible that we will provide some kind of support to Taiwan,” Mr. Ino told London’s Telegraph newspaper.

Mr. Ino, however, did not spell out in detail what kind of support Japan would provide.

Japan’s government remains coy in detailing how it would respond to a Chinese attack on the island democracy. The government has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity toward the matter.

The Biden administration, however, has been pressing Tokyo for a greater commitment and more clarity on Japan’s role in a Taiwan war, as part of its policy of seeking stronger alliances in deterring China.

U.S. and Japanese defense and military officials have held internal discussions designed to spell out in more detail how Japanese military forces would take part in a Taiwan conflict. The Pentagon wants Japan to commit to using its fleet of attack submarines and anti-submarine warfare surface ships to hunt down Chinese submarines during a Taiwan war.

Japan’s constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, states that Japan will maintain military forces solely for self-defense. A law passed in 2015, however, permits Japanese military forces to take action if a close ally is attacked nearby and if the survival of the nation is at stake.

Mr. Ino said Japan could provide defense equipment or logistics support to U.S. forces but that any support would need to be backed by a consensus of the Japanese people.

The defense minister spoke days before Japan released a major strategy report that identified China as the most significant threat to Japan. Japan’s Self Defense Forces are investing heavily in new arms, including long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, that can strike targets deep inside China.

Mr. Ino said Japan needs to bolster its forces to prevent China from trying to take Taiwan militarily, as Russia has tried to do in its invasion of Ukraine.

“We think it is important to demonstrate that it will be difficult to invade Taiwan or make an aggressive move against Taiwan through military means,” he said.

Japanese islands lie about 70 miles from Taiwan’s coast and a U.S. military response to a Chinese attack is expected to come from Okinawa, where U.S. forces are based, including some 54,000 troops.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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